PoliticsElectionsPetina Gappah: The shoes on her feet


Posted on Monday, 26 January 2009 15:14

Petina Gappah: The shoes on her feet

By Petina Gappah


Petina GappahI spent three weeks in Zimbabwe recently and saw at first hand what the imploding economy has done to the lives of the very poor. The stories are heartbreaking: the Glen View man who lost all four children to cholera, the Kambuzuma widow who died from the stress of burying four close relatives in succeeding weeks, but it was the story of how an old woman from Marondera came to lose her shoes that said more than any other about what my country has become.?


In Dombotombo, a high-density township in Marondera, some 70km from Harare, was an old woman who was a walking, talking, living cliché: poor, old, the only carer of the orphaned grandchildren for whom she worked hard, too hard. On this particular day, she rose at dawn as she did on every day of her life, except Sunday, when she got up a little later to go to church. She got dressed to go to work in her field. The shoes she put on were not the good pair she wore to church, but an old pair, an everyday pair for field work. These shoes were once bright red with small white stars, but the red had faded, the stars were brown and the eyelets to thread the shoelaces had long since fallen off.


??She picked up her hoe and headed for the huge plot of land beyond Rudhaka Stadium. She and her neighbours had turned this empty land into abundant fields of crops. Such fields are an increasingly common feature of Zimbabwe’s townships; where there is an empty piece of land, people ignore the by-laws and plant crops. As she turned into a little copse of bushes, she collapsed and did not get up again. Her hoe fell to the ground. Maybe it was a heart attack, maybe a stroke, no one will ever know, because there will be no autopsy.?


Two hours later, two men, also on their way to the fields, spotted her huddled body. Inhibited by a profound respect for dead bodies, and by the fear that is an ingrained part of Shona culture, they avoided going too close to her. Back in the township, they made a report at the police station. The police did nothing beyond taking down the men’s addresses.??


Her grandchildren, meanwhile, had risen and cleaned the house. They did not go to school; there are no teachers. There is no electricity, either, so the oldest grandchild cooked on a three-stone fire outside the house. They waited for their grandmother to return. Hungry – eating only twice a day, this midday meal was their first – they finally ate. They set aside their grandmother’s share in a covered plate. Two o’clock came but not their grandmother. The eldest child went to the fields but did not see her. Four o’clock came with no grandmother. In the early evening, the children went to the police. A policeman who was on duty earlier that day decided to follow up on the earlier report, went to the address provided by one of the men and was led to the old woman’s body. ?


They found her in the same place, ten hours after she fell, only, there were two changes to the scene. The hoe that earlier fell to her side was now missing. And the hands of an unknown stranger had removed her old, worn shoes from her feet.

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