The Keeper of Family Peace by Rufaro Gwarada

The hooter was too shrill for my throbbing head, and I didn’t like that the car lights were behind me. I didn’t want Tsverukai looking at my silhouette. But I wasn’t about to sit in the car with him, waiting for Mzaya, our gardener-cum-gateman-cum-handyman to come and open the gate. I wished Tsverukai would just turn around and leave. I heard the padlock come loose as Mzaya opened the gate for me.

‘Good evening Mzaya, mazvita,’ I said, keeping eye cont act at a bare minimum.

‘You’re welcome. How was your day?’ he returned my greeting, with that always astonishingly white, warm smile of his. Ordinarily, I would stop and bask in it, but not tonight.

‘It was good,‘ I lied. ‘I hope yours was too.’ As I responded, it was obvious that I was distracted, lowering my head and squinting in the diminished light of dusk to see if my father’s old Morris Minor was parked at the end of the driveway. Mzaya answered my unspoken question and added valuable information.

‘Mai naBaba are not here, but he’s here.’

He, Sekuru, whose name Mzaya and I never uttered in each other’s presence, was home.

So then I ran. I didn’t want Mzaya to ask where I was coming from in such a state, or what I’d been doing. Plus, I wasn’t sure I could keep it together. I ran down the driveway as fast as I could. I imagined him standing there baffled by my strange, rather disrespectful behavior because we’d always had time for a chat from the time I was a young girl.

Sekuru, the younger brother of Mainini, my stepmother, had first come to live with us when I was 12 and he was about 25. He didn’t go to work or school, and never helped Mzaya with his work in the garden, even though they were probably around the same age. He was just there, at our house, a useless fixture in our lives. But he made me nervous. I knew he watched me whenever he thought I couldn’t see him, but each time I glanced his way, he’d quickly avert his gaze and start to finger the once white, but now blackened lighter he’d always kept in his trouser pocket for as long as I could remember, like a talisman. Once I hit puberty, he stopped bothering to avert his gaze. Baba and Mainini not being home was a good thing. But being home alone with Sekuru filled me with dread. He was probably in his room watching something or other. I walked through the front door and shutting it as noiselessly as I could, I stole into the kitchen. I tried to make it to my bedroom undetected and as quickly as possible. But he was standing in wait by the counter, facing me. His right hand was awkwardly placed around the kettle in a ridiculous charade that he was getting ready to make a cup of tea. I knew he’d heard the hooter, and that in his annoying nosiness, and misguided sense of authority over me, which increased the older I got, he’d rushed to the kitchen, wanting to show me he knew I was home after dark. I had no choice but to stop.

‘Manheru Sekuru,’ I said.

‘Eh adzimai, good evening, you’re back.’ Leaning against the counter, left hand in his trouser pocket, and likely curled around his lighter, he smiled and bit his lower lip, looking me up and down as though appraising goods.

‘I am,’ I said, looking away.

I could hardly bear the sight of his lecherous smile and swallowed down the saliva that I knew meant I was about to be sick. He would never do this in front of other people. Just as he’d made sure, all those years ago that no one was around when he smacked my filling out 12-year-old bottom as I walked in front of him in the corridor that led outside. I closed my eyes and touched my forehead. I had to get out of there. ‘Adzimai?’ Really?! He of all people was calling me his wife at a time when I felt like men were filth incarnate, and only goodness knew what I was capable of in my fury and disgust. Starting to feel dizzy and as though a dark fog was shrouding the inside of my head, and really not wanting to deal with Sekuru’s leering yet questioning gaze, I mumbled something about a headache and went to my room.

As I made my way to the bedroom, I flashed back to the time a few days after the bottom-smacking incident when Sekuru had cornered me at the back of the house, and tried to force me into hugging him, in a physical closeness with a man that even Baba and I no longer shared at the time. The moment my budding breasts had started to strain against my tee shirts, Mainini had declared that such intimacy between father and daughter was improper. As I squirmed and tried to break free from Sekuru’s grasp, Mzaya had rounded the corner, and coughed loudly when he saw us.

‘Is everything all right?’

Sekuru, shockingly unashamed had laughed. ‘We were just hugging, you know like the young people do these days, pa chiAmerican ka.’

In the silence that followed, I stood frozen in place, wanting to scream, ‘No, I was not hugging you!’ and willing the powers that be to magically disappear me for that place. Sekuru sauntered off, roughly brushing past Mzaya. Not wanting to go back into the house, I sat down and looked at my feet, embarrassed as tears started to well up in my eyes. Mzaya came and sat next to me.

‘Mimi,’ Mzaya said my name.

I looked up, surprised; he never called me by name and let alone use the nickname that only Baba and my late mother had used.

‘Mimi, are you ok?’

I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak. ‘I’m sorry for what just happened.’

‘It’s not your fault,’ I whispered.

‘I’m going to tell baba,’ Mzaya firmly declared with a hint of anger in his voice

I so wanted him to tell, but shook my head no again.

‘Mzaya if you tell Baba he’ll send Sekuru away, and Mainini will have another reason to call me a troublemaker, blaming me, as she always does for everything. Things will be bad. Please don’t tell.’

Mzaya looked at me and sighed wearily. ‘Mimi, if you don’t want me to tell, I won’t.’

I knew Mzaya felt the need to look after me for my mother’s sake. He’d always said that she had a good heart, offering him a job and a home after Mzaya had been orphaned, forced to leave school, and left homeless when none of his family would take him in. I started to cry softly for this good-hearted woman, the mother I had been robbed of.

‘No Mimi, don’t cry. Just promise that if that man ever tries to do anything to you again you’ll tell me. Promise.’

‘I promise.’

‘Good.’

The next day Sekuru up and left, only coming back for short visits over the next few years until his return to our house a year ago.

I shut my bedroom door, drew the curtains and stumbled to the bathroom. I stood motionless, not quite sure what to do. The wave of nausea had left but started to come back again as I remembered Tsverukai’s slobbery attack on my neck and mouth. I had to wash my face. I went to the sink and held on. My knees felt like they would give. But I needed to get Tsverukai off me. I washed my face in the hottest water I could withstand. Then I remembered the clothes I was wearing. They needed to come off me as quickly as possible; he’d touched them with his revolting hands—it was urgent that I get them as far from my body as I could. Looking down at the pile around me, I desperately wanted to leave it on the floor, not have to touch it again, but I knew Mainini would inspect my bedroom and bathroom for neatness no matter what time she came home. I kicked the clothes back to the bedroom and into the laundry basket. Then, overcome by an almost paralyzing fatigue, I slowly climbed into my bed and burrowing as low as I could, covered my head. Then the tears came. First just one sob, then another, and another. And as I gave in to the sobs and the hot tears of anger, shame, guilt, and sadness, I allowed myself to lose control. I felt the beginnings of a howl that threatened to tear my chest apart starting to bubble up. But I knew that Baba and his wife would probably be home soon and then of course there was nosy, perverted Sekuru. Control was once again necessary. Howling was not an option. Using every ounce of my will to push the howl back down and holding myself tight, I squeezed my eyes shut and silently let the tears flow until no more tears came. I was spent. I slept.

I met Tsverukai at my cousin, Mukoma Farai’s house. They were best friends. We were all at Mukoma and his fiancée, Lorraine’s house, practicing steps for their upcoming wedding. I was paired with Tsverukai because we were the vertically challenged ones of the bunch. He seemed nice enough, was always cracking jokes, the center of attraction. As far as I was concerned, he was another big brother to me, just like my Mukoma Farai. It was fun to be at Mukoma Farai and Lorraine’s house hanging out with their friends. At 18, I was the youngest of the group but never really felt it. As the wedding drew closer and closer, I started to feel a bit dejected. I was enjoying my Saturday routine of steps practice and getting home after 5pm, with no questions asked. I couldn’t help thinking about this delicious freedom that would soon be revoked. I would be back to Saturday afternoons at home or trailing Baba and Mainini in their errands and mostly dull visits with friends and family.

Each practice session pretty much always ended the same way. Most of the group would head to town to catch kombis and then we’d part ways until the following week. Kombis to my neighborhood didn’t run very often on Saturday evenings so I usually got a ride home from Mukoma Farai, or if my parents were out and about I’d try to coordinate with them. On the penultimate weekend practice, we finished early, because coach was satisfied that we could reproduce the steps in our sleep and Mukoma and Lorraine had to go to a family meeting to iron out the last few wedding details. Tsverukai offered to take me home and not wanting to deal with the hassle of kombis I said yes. As we took off, he said he needed to take a quick detour to pick something up from his house. I was getting a free ride, and the longer it took to get home the better. It was only mid-afternoon; I wasn’t about to give up my freedom so quickly.

 

We drove along, mostly in a somewhat stiff silence. Not having the others around either left Tsverukai without enough of an audience, or perhaps I wasn’t giving him anything to work with by being quiet. He drove up a driveway that was lined by a burst of fuchsia bougainvillea taking us toward a large house, but he didn’t stop in front of the house. Instead, he drove toward the back, heading for the cottage, where he lived. Parking, Tsverukai reached across me to open the passenger car door. My bewilderment must’ve shown, because he quickly explained that the door lever sometimes jammed. I didn’t believe him and felt a shiver of foreboding as his hand brushed my lap slightly as he leaned back to his own side and stepped out of the car.

He led the way into the cottage. I stood at the door for a second, taking in the living room. It was well furnished and I could see a woman’s touch in the decor. I made a beeline for the only one-person sofa in sight. I felt a bit silly doing it but I was following my instinct. Tsverukai kept going. I didn’t follow. Calling to me from the kitchen he asked what I was drinking.

‘I have Pilsner, Hunters and water. What would you like? And don’t say water, you’re a big girl.’

Well, I was hanging out with my big brother, and I’d liked Hunters the first and only time I’d had it. ‘I’ll have Hunters please.’ It was alcohol but being a cider, it didn’t have the burning, rather unpalatable yeasty taste of beer.

Tsverukai sat across from me, on the love seat, and lazily drank his Pilsner, watching me. Novice that I was, not knowing the potency of the cider, and because my nerves were getting the better of me, I gulped down the Hunters. Before I could get up to take the can to the kitchen Tsverukai handed me another one. Sipping slowly, I started to wonder what on earth I was doing in this man’s house, unaccompanied. Plus, no one knew I’d gone to his house. As far as Mukoma Farai was concerned, I should’ve been home safe and sound. Willing myself to remain calm, I finished the can and asked for directions to the bathroom. I locked the door behind me and looked in the mirror. The girl who looked back at me had bloodshot, tired looking eyes. The Hunters was doing something to me. I relieved my close-to-bursting bladder, washed my hands and splashed my face with cold water. Straightening my back I looked at the girl in the mirror and spoke to her.

‘Right, back you go. You’ll be just fine.’

As I sat down there was a third can of Hunters. I was feeling something that I was sure was tipsiness. I really shouldn’t have another. The resident psychic Tsverukai broke into my thoughts: ‘It’s just Hunters, if you’re worried about getting drunk, you won’t, I promise.’

I started to sip very slowly, letting very little of the sweet cider into my mouth. At least this was something I could control. I was in Tsverukai’s house, but I didn’t have to drink.

The couch was uncomfortable and I fidgeted, trying to arrange myself into a different position.

‘Why are you sitting so far away from me? Anyway, there’s more space over here.’ Tsverukai was staring right at me. I could hear the challenge in his voice. He thought I was afraid of him.

‘I wanted to sit here, so I did,’ I retorted, staring him down.

‘What? Are you afraid of me?’

There it was, so obvious! I got up wordlessly and sat next to him, on the edge of the couch.

‘No I’m not, do I have reason to be?’

He smiled and put his Pilsner on the ground. I inhaled quickly, heart pounding.

‘You still look uncomfortable to me. Why don’t you relax and sit back.’

‘No thank you, I’m ok.’ I was determined to stay perched on the edge as a chilling shiver shot down my back. It was time to go, but the driver seemed to have other ideas. I crossed my hands across my chest and before I could ask Tsverukai to take me home he draped his arm around my shoulders and pulled me onto my back. I laughed nervously. ‘What are you doing?’ I didn’t get an answer.

He lay on top of me, breathing hard while trying to clamp down his open mouth on mine. My mouth, I kept firmly shut, trying hard not to inhale his noxious, beer-laced breath. He was heavier than I could ever have imagined. You see, he wasn’t that much taller than my 5’2 frame, and he was somewhere in between slim and stocky. But as the pressure of his body bore down on me, I was certain he could hear my pounding heart. I started to struggle, trying to throw this seemingly small man off me. Teeth gritted and every muscle tense and ready for release, I tried to lift myself up from under him. I hoped that in his not completely sober state I could perhaps throw him off balance. But each unintended groan of exertion and upward motion pressed me closer to him, exciting him. I felt the wetness of his tongue as he tried to breach my clenched teeth. With the hand that wasn’t keeping my hands pinned against my body, he started to fumble with my belt buckle. I could hardly breathe. My mind raced. What would I tell Baba? What of Mainini? Mainini, the self-appointed judge and jury for her god here on earth. I could imagine her telling Baba and anyone else who would listen how I surely brought this upon myself and could not be redeemed. Then she’d go hurtling down to the hell she so often spoke about to personally fan the inferno that would engulf me in eternal damnation. And what would I say to Mukoma Farai? I couldn’t accept that my first time with someone was being forced on me. In a brief moment of quiet in my mind, I willed it all to be a dream. It couldn’t possibly be real. I felt like I was a spectator in a show that was going horribly wrong. But I couldn’t get swept up into the false lull of my fantasy. As my thoughts started to race again, and I remembered my struggle to free myself, a calm came over me. I stopped and lay very still then spoke in the firmest tone and steadiest voice I could muster.

‘Please get off me.’ Pulled back from whatever plane he had gone off to, Tsverukai stopped, asking me what was the matter.

‘Please take me home. Now.’

I knew he wasn’t in a condition to drive, but I didn’t have a driver’s license and I had to go home.

He drove, sometimes in the lane for on-coming traffic, and in other instances almost sending us into trees with whitewash painted trunks that lined the roadsides. By some miracle he got me home. I scrambled out of the car and stood at the gate, readying my sore head for the torture of me calling for Mzaya to come open the gate for me. I tried once but my voice didn’t carry. Reluctantly, I turned back to Tsverukai and signaled for him to use the hooter.

I didn’t know how long I’d slept but was startled awake by the bedroom door being flung open and the light being flicked on. Sekuru couldn’t possibly be that bold, could he? I lay still, not daring to uncover my head as my breath started to catch in my throat.

‘Why are you sleeping so early? Are you sick? Why isn’t there dinner on the stove?’

Oh thank goodness. I’d rather be subjected to Mainini’s rapid-fire questions and judgment than to unwanted attention from her brother. I must not have heard Baba’s car when they got back home.

I sat up quickly and greeted her. ‘Manheru Mainini.’

She scrutinized me and of course noticed that my eyes were puffy and bloodshot, evidence of my tears from earlier.

‘What happened? Why were you crying?’

Before I could respond she continued, pitch raised, ‘Heh? You’re so spoilt. You have everything you need because your father won’t ever say no to you and yet once again you’ve been crying for no reason.’

‘Ai, aiwa, no, Mainini,’ I stammered, ‘I’m not feeling well. I have a headache.’

‘Headache, headache all the time, I’m not foolish.’

And then talking to herself as if I wasn’t there, she really got into her stride. ‘This is the problem with people giving their children names that bring misfortune.’ Her lips curling down in distaste, she slowly said my name, syllable by syllable, ‘Mi-so-dzi.’ Mainini was still going, ‘I know her father and mother had suffered loss before this one came, but see, now all this girl does she is cry, cry all the time. Rivers and rivers of tears, all day. Some of us were not blessed with children, but do we cry all day? No.’ Then looking back at me, narrowing her eyes as if to see me more clearly, she took her tirade in a now familiar direction and asked me for the second time that month, ‘But iwe Misodzi and your never-ending crying, are you pregnant. Heh? Don’t lie to me.’

‘Aiwa, Mainini.’ The recurring pregnancy accusation veiled as a question had become quite tiresome, plus I didn’t know where it came from. My turning 18 had unleashed Mainini’s fixation on my womb.

‘You better not be! With my brother here I don’t need people gossiping and making up stories about ungodly nonsense involving you.’ Then she stormed off slamming the door behind her.

That certainly woke me up. I got dressed so I could go and greet Baba. He was in the living room tinkering with the watch he had inherited from his father, and which seemed to have now stopped for good.

‘Manheru Baba.’

‘Manheru miss Mimi. Tell me, what’s this I hear from Mainini about you having a headache again? Or was it that you were crying?’

‘I’m ok Baba, was just really tired, that’s all.’

Mainini predictably snorted at my answer and chimed in, ‘Well, I don’t see how she can say she’s ok, when something is clearly wrong, even Sekuru commented on her demeanor when she got home. If something is wrong she needs to tell us.’

Baba looked at his wife. ‘Leave her be. She said she’s ok.’ Then turning to me, he said, ‘Anyway, the steps probably tired you out, right? It was quite hot today and I’m sure you were dancing in the sun since Mukoma has that large yard. And how are he and Muroora Lorraine?’

In my heart I thanked Baba for saving me from whatever yarn Mainini was trying to ensnare me in.

‘They’re well Baba, and said to give you their best.’

Nodding, Baba kept our conversation going, ‘Horaiti, very good. And how many more practices do you have before the wedding?’

‘One more to go, Baba.’

‘Oh, so the big day is in two weeks. I’m sure you’ll be the best dancer of them all.’

I smiled, but immediately felt like a lead weight had been dropped in my stomach.

 

As the last practice and wedding drew closer, I knew I couldn’t be near Tsverukai ever again. Explaining why, even to Baba was out of the question. Telling Baba would mean disappointing him and shaming myself all in one go. After all, instead of taking a calling him, I’d gone off alone, and been drinking with a man I didn’t even know that well… not that knowing him would make much of a difference anyway. And how can I forget Mainini? By not mentioning the Tsverukai incident, I could stay out of her bad books and not give her more sins and moral shortcomings to judge me for. As for telling Mukoma Farai, that wasn’t an option. I couldn’t bear the thought of being responsible for destroying a decades-long relationship, not just between Mukoma and Tsverukai, but between their parents as well. And if I was being totally honest with myself, there was always the possibility that I would be scorned for causing problems in the family when in fact nothing had happened; my virtue was still intact. But I had to do something, however small, to make sure I‘d never have to cross paths with Tsverukai again, or at least in the near future.

On the day before that last steps practice I set my plan in motion. During dinner I barely ate, and every now and then rested my forehead in the palm of my left hand while massaging my temples with my thumb and middle finger.

‘Mimi, what’s the matter?’ Baba asked, his brow furrowing.

I started to tear up. I hated doing this to Baba, yet I had to. I couldn’t bear to look up but did.

‘It’s your head again, isn’t it?’

I nodded and wiped away the now familiar tears of pain and sorrow for lying to my father, but also tears of exasperation for feeling forced to be the keeper of a shameful secret and of family peace at a cost to me.

Baba continued, ‘It’s too late now to make an appointment to see Dr. Munatsi tomorrow, but on Monday you have to go to see her. Or maybe we should just take you to a specialist.’

Mainini had stopped eating and was watching me with an expression I couldn’t make out. But she didn’t speak, just nodded in agreement with my father. Sekuru stopped stuffing his face for a moment, locked eyes with me, cocked his right eyebrow slightly, and then went back to eating.

‘Since your head is bothering you, maybe you shouldn’t go for practice tomorrow, so you can rest.’ That was Mainini. ‘I’ll call Muroora Lorraine and tell her.’

Again, I nodded silently, thankful that I hadn’t had to suggest missing practice.

The following day I stayed in bed with the curtains in my room closed. I really had a headache then; probably from the stress of knowing I had to keep this up for the next week. Also, the visit to the specialist was really quite a serious step and would likely cost a lot of money. Baba would have to pay for my lie.

On Monday morning Baba, Mainini, and I got up and headed to town. Baba reached forward to switch on the radio, but Mainini touched his hand stopping him.

‘Let’s not, it will be loud, you know that doesn’t help with a headache.’

I was a bit surprised, but appreciated that Mainini seemed to be thinking about my well-being.

We pulled up at Dr. Munatsi’s office and Baba preempted my question, ‘Mainini made the good suggestion that we get a referral from Dr. Munatsi. Anyway, I think that’s how our medical aid plan works.’

 

I felt a little ridiculous sitting in Dr. Munatsi’s office between Baba and Mainini, as if I were a child, but I had committed to being done with Tsverukai. We exchanged pleasantries with the doctor and then got to discussing the history of my headaches.

Addressing all three of us, Dr. Munatsi shared, ‘Well, since Misodzi started getting headaches more frequently from the time she turned 12 onwards, my guess is hormonal changes may be one of the causes.’

‘What about stress, Doctor? Like stress from keeping secrets?’ Mainini interjected.

Dr. Munatsi directed her gaze just at me, ‘My dear, Mum is right. You have to speak up otherwise headaches will always keep you company.’

‘Yes Doctor,’ was all I said. Of course I had secret, but not Mainini’s fantastical pregnancy one.

The doctor prescribed some painkillers and said to rest and avoid loud places for the next few days. Thankfully, Dr. Munatsi also said she didn’t see the need for me to visit a specialist. We rose to leave and the doctor escorted us to the door. As I turned to follow Baba and Mainini, Dr. Munatsi tapped me on the shoulder.

Smiling kindly, she said, ‘You know, if you feel like you have no-one to talk to, or are afraid to talk to someone, you can always write down what you feel, it helps. Now take care and let’s keep these headaches away. Yes?’

‘Yes Dr. Munatsi.’

As we got to the car Baba looked at me, ‘Mmm, maybe no wedding for you Mimi. I know it’s disappointing after all that practice, and Farai and Muroora won’t be happy, but let’s listen to Dr. Munatsi.’

I’d be ok.

 

About the Author 

RG2014Rufaro Gwarada is a US-born Zimbabwean who spent the formative years of her life in Zimbabwe before moving back to the United States for college in 1999. She earned a bachelor’s degree from University of the Pacific and a master’s in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies at University of Sussex. Through her past work and in her current role at Mobilize the Immigrant Vote Rufaro uses storytelling to mobilize resources and help amplify marginalized voices. She was previously interim coordinator for the Sub-Saharan Africa program at the Global Fund for Women, and a consulting content developer and advisor at AfricaSpeaks4Africa, an e-zine showcasing African voices. She is also interested in neo-Diasporan African women’s movements and African philanthropy.

 

  7 comments for “The Keeper of Family Peace by Rufaro Gwarada

  1. July 23, 2014 at 9:58 pm

    Great story. You wrote it very well and I especially enjoyed the way you opened it up and the suspense. It’s sad that this kind of story can be told by many girls. What a world we live in right, right. Let’s hope this story will encourage young girls to speak up when something is wrong. Very exciting. Keep writing.

    • Rufaro
      July 24, 2014 at 12:47 am

      Thank you Miriam. I really appreciate the encouragement. What a world indeed! You speak to my own hope – that girls can and do speak up, are heard, and society acts.

  2. Grace
    July 24, 2014 at 8:02 am

    It’s amazing how suddenly I’m back at 18 re-living those feelings.

  3. Caroline
    July 30, 2014 at 1:22 am

    I thoroughly enjoyed the story! Very well written to tackle an issue that most can identify with. I look forward to reading more from you Rufaro.

  4. October 29, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    This is a well written story Rufaro and I enjoyed reading it. It opens up secrets that happen in the home. Continue writing.

  5. September 3, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    Rufaro, congratulations on the publication of this piece! It was a joy to read, and your shining face at the end brought back many fond memories for me. I am SO happy you have found such a powerful voice and significant path.

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