Melody threw her handbag into the back seat and sighed. This was the last day of her day duty and she had a full week of rest before she went on night duty. Ever since the hospital had resorted to cutting down the number of days nurses reported to work in order to cut on transport and lunch costs, life had become better for most of the nursing folk. She worked two days a week from seven in the morning to seven in the evening. On the days that she was off duty she would help her husband change money illegally on the streets. Dumo -- her husband -- was a National University of Science and Technology (NUST) graduate who had never used his engineering degree to earn a living. Soon after graduation his mother had introduced him to money changing.
His mother, Mrs. Hadebe was a well-known money changer who 'owned' the whole of Herbert Chitepo street. She was still a beauty whose looks were slow to succumb to the ravages of time. She always spotted fancy bright coloured hairpieces. Her face was a perfect exhibition of art: painted eye lids, rouge cheeks, darkened eyebrows, bright red lips and glistening earrings. Her fingers also had numerous rings. At one time in the past before the year 2016 her head was always covered in a white doek but she had since renounced that faith. She was the queen of the territory and every illegal money changer reported to her at the close of business. The word 'illegal' there is debatable but, well, that's a topic for another day.
Mrs. Hadebe had only two goals in mind: to own the entirety of Bulawayo streets and to pass down the trade to her son. She was battling diabetes and was in and out of hospital. Her territory was the envy of many and she knew that in the event that she passed on, then her competitors would quickly move in to monopolise the territory. She detested failure. Having grown up in rural Nkayi, she still had nightmares of the hot days she laboured in the vast fields to save a few plants from wilting so that they could not endure a full year of hunger and starvation. An opportunity to escape that difficult life presented itself in the form of the primary school teacher bachelor who saw a natural beauty and in no time whisked her to Bulawayo.
Hadebe had thus taken his wife to night school where she wrote and passed five ordinary level subjects. She began cross-border trading and through the influence of one of her acquaintances in the trade, abandoned it to pursue money changing. She would sit on an upturned bucket on the city centre pavements calling, "Lisiphatheleni makhiwa." The introduction of the multi-currency in the country in 2009 ensured the availability of foreign currency, and illegal money changing took a slide and like everyone else in her trade, she felt the pinch. The introduction of the bond note in 2016 though reawakened the trade. The demand for foreign currency rekindled dead flames and soon the streets proliferated with the money changers. The game changed.
Dumo was in his last year at university and his father's salary was too meagre to meet all his financial needs. His mother persuaded him to find a spot on the corner of Herbert Chitepo and Leopold Takawira in front of a large retail store. He was fearful at first but once he 'tasted' the profits, he grew bold and enigmatic. A big fat man from Harare, Mr. Bigger, approached a big fat man from Bulawayo, Mr Big. The big fat man from Bulawayo who always harboured lustful feelings for Mrs. Hadebe then approached her so she could manage the funds for them. Thus Mrs. Hadebe came to manage that long stretch.
She introduced her son to the managerial aspect of the trade. They acquired a large number of money changers who worked on their behalf. Subsequently, every morning mother and son would drive to town, distribute wads of the United States dollar, South African rand, Botswana pula and the Zimbabwe dollar. The money changers would spend the day exchanging the money for their clients. If they ran out of cash of which ever currency in the business, they would rush to the parked cars of mother and son; replenish their 'bank' and then go back to the clients. At the close of business, (the hours were not put in black and white), the money changers would filter to the parked cars and hand back all the day's proceedings. The rule of law was strictly that they should have more foreign currency than local currency by the end of the day. The mantra had changed from "lisiphatheleni makhiwa" to "asintshinsthe" both of which meant "which currency do you want?" Dumo was an educated money changer. He had the finesse of a university graduate. He lived his life to make money. Money was an addiction to him. He wanted more of it. The more he made. the more he doubled his efforts to make even extra. He had his sights on the trucking business. He wanted to make enough money to buy his first two trucks. His mother though, the greatest influence in his life, had other plans.
"Dumo, Mr. Big is right where I want him to be. I got him here." She said cupping her hand as if Mr. Big could be seen in the hollow of her palm. "I want you to get close to him. He has to tell you who Mr. Bigger is. I want to eliminate Big and work directly with Bigger."
"But Mother, all is well here. Big is generous and our returns are high. Besides I've almost raised my capital. It's only a matter of time and then I leave this and concentrate on my trucking business. "
"Sometimes I wonder what went wrong with you. You are slow to think, one would swear I went to NUST and you went to night school."
"Mother, men like Mr. Big are dangerous. They won't take lightly to double crossing. Let's tread carefully. At least I've got a degree. If things don't turn out, well then I have something to lean on."
"Something to lean on you say. What is there to lean on? So you want to engineer a plastic collection company or a freezit making business. Seriously, what else pays in this city except exchanging money? You are content being looked down on by your father-in-law who thinks because he is the prestigious town clerk then you are nothing. I suspect he is the one who alerts the police of our cash flows and they pounce on our agents on such days. I don't trust your wife, too. She pretends to be happy with this business whilst she spies for her father."
"Don't bring Melody into this, Mother. She is not like that. Didn't you tell me that other day that one of the police officers is working for Mr. Big now and will pass any information so we stay clear of raids? We can limit the cash we disburse. They will feed from the cars."
"Dumo, on a serious note, I'm considering visiting Igwe Victor for protection. Musasa has already pinched three of our trusted money changers. That former teacher had a good way with clients. He had a wide client base, because most of his former colleagues and students he had taught in his fourteen years of service were keen to be served by him. Now he operates from Fort Street and that good for nothing is benefiting."
"You know very well, Mother, that I don't believe in medicine and worst of all, medicine from Nigeria. I've watched enough movies and read a lot of literature to know the effects of their medicine."
"Sometimes I wonder why you are so much like your father. He was the best I could find in Nkayi, but over the years I wonder what has kept me in this marriage this long. You are a coward and are easily satisfied with mediocrity. I'm seeing Igwe Victor. Didn't he just do wonders for Sisi Pretty? She would have gone to jail for murdering that woman who stole her husband. But look at her now. She only did community service."
"Listen, Mother, I have to rush and pick Jayden from school. The maid is off sick. I will see you later."
He had quietly got off his mother's car and made to his own. Dumo was the only son of the Hadebes. He was a kind man who loved his wife and adored his son. He had girlfriends. Well, they naturally gravitate towards fat wallets. None of his affairs had ever made it to his wife's ears. The cell phone with more than hundred nudes was safely hidden in the car. Not even the Central Intelligence System could find it. He philandered in broad daylight and fulfilled his conjugal rights at night with similar enthusiasm. His tall muscular body was well endowed and could withstand any form of physical activity. Melody, a petite woman who seemed to have been born with any remedy to make a good wife, valued her marriage so much she knew how to turn her body to whichever angle it would join her husband's. She had the agility of a cat and the litheness of a water nymph. She only took a break from the vigorous marital duty when she was on night duty at the hospital. No night was wasted in their marriage.
Two weeks after Mrs. Hadebe Senior had hinted that she would visit Igwe Victor, she met her son in town as usual in the morning. They went over their company's books and disbursed the cash to their money changers. She then invited Dumo to her car. She had cooked umxhanxa which her son loved with a passion. He eagerly ate the delicacy and passed a comment that the maize grains were rather undercooked and would break his teeth. His mother urged him to eat while calling out his totems.
"Sorry about that, my Hadebe. I asked your father to boil the maize grains but you know how forgetful he has become, especially now that he has retired. Next time I will use the pressure cooker. I know your wife doesn't have time to cook such delicacies. Anyway, Mr. Bigger is coming next week, so Mr. Big wants us to collect the US dollars. They are needed in Harare. Mr. Big told me something disturbing. A busload of people came overnight from the capital. Mr. Biggest, Mr. Bigger's greatest rival, and his cartel want to collect as much foreign currency as they can. See how packed the streets are. These men have lowered the rates and are luring a majority of our clients. We have to be vigilant or we will be left with no money at all."
Dumo, meanwhile munched on the lot in his mouth and nodded his head to show that he was listening to his mother's rant. His mind was elsewhere. He had to see Mbusi, an agent of Motor Solutions. He had a down deposit for the Freightliner Argosy. He had to move fast.
"Eat up and finish. I want you to go and check the money changers on 9th Avenue. Someone tipped me that they are serving two bosses. Cecilia, that woman from Fries For You, has developed an ego as big as her greasy fries and is using my people. I want you to snoop around. I won't be paying whilst she fishes in my pond."
Dumo continued eating while Mrs. Hadebe watched him with a satisfied smile. She had found the perfect meal to disguise the yellow-coloured concoction that Igwe Victor had given her. His son would become feared and money would fly to his hands. Even Mr. Bigger would look at him and shiver. From today onwards things would change for the better.
After he was done eating, he pulled off the parking lot and made his way to 9th Avenue. He never made it that far. His stomach started growling and he was overcome by the need to puke, pee, and poo at the same time. He pulled over at the parking bay opposite the Bulawayo Centre with the intention of rushing to the pay toilets. The first drop of poo, as soft as a baby's, slid down his thigh as he stepped from the car. He quickly got back in and decided to drive home. His hands were shaking and his knees were wobbly. He pulled on the side of the road five times before he got home. By then his pair of khaki pants were soaked yellow and his front shirt was covered with vomit: bits and pieces of maize grain; pieces of ijodo and probably the gum he loved chewing and swallowing. He walked into the house and only made it as far as the bedroom closet. In his mind, he wanted to grab a fresh set of clothes and bath.
Meanwhile, after two hours, Mrs. Hadebe tried her son's phone but it rang nonstop. She said out aloud. "Will he ever stop taking these cheap girls to these cheap lodges?"
Mrs. Hadebe Junior tried her husband's phone but again it rang nonstop. She said out aloud. "Business must be good today. He is too busy to respond. "
She then got busy clearing the last patients. Jayden was sleeping over in Mahatshula. He preferred playing with his grandfather who by virtue of being a primary school teacher knew very well how to play with Jayden. He didn't mind playing student while Jayden taught him how to chant a e i o u. Melody was grateful for her father-in-law. She wished her mother-in- law could have been as kind as her husband and not so greedy for money and so critical of her grandson. As she rounded the corner she heaved a sigh of relief. She would be free for some days and intended making as much profit as she could exchanging money. As she parked besides her husband's car she wondered why he was home early. He rarely came home before nine in the evening and it was only half past seven.
She walked into the house carrying a paper bag of fresh groundnuts. She dropped it on the kitchen countertop. She removed her heels and threw her handbag on the couch. He must be sleeping by now, she thought. She called out 'honey' as she strutted to the bedroom. The bedroom door was ajar. She walked in, eager to be out of her uniform. She felt her hair stand and tighten in knots of fear. Her profession allowed her a certain sense of fearlessness but as she stood on the doorway, she felt drawn by a supernatural power. She became numb and her heart beat rapidly. A rustling sound came from the closet. She got hold of the door handle and thought her eyes were deceiving her. She moved two steps backwards, rubbing her eyes. As she was trying to comprehend the whole scene, she saw a fat tail slither and flicker from the inside of the closet. She squinted her eyes to get a closer look and indeed it was the tail that thrust the closet door wide open and then the snake thudded to the floor. She screamed in a wave of panic, death tapping her consciousness. As she sprinted for the door the snake hissed, "Melo, help me."
She will never give a detailed description of what the snake really looked like. The glimpse she caught was of a scary black and yellow-coloured gigantic reptile with red scared eyes. She ran out of the house screaming, down the potholed road, from one turn off to the other. She shot past intersections, raced through houses, ducked cars and when she finally walked into her parents' house, her stockings were tattered and ragged. The town clerk was livid.
"My daughter, what has mkhwenyana done to you?"
Melody could not respond. She cried as tears and snot formed a plaster on her face. She passed out. The town clerk and his wife poured a bucket of water to wake her up. She showed signs of life. Her father called out, "What did Hadebe do to you, MaDewa? Did he beat you?"
(As tradition would have it, prior to marriage, Mrs. Melody Hadebe was known as Melody Moyo. She came from the Moyos, whose totem surname or family identity is Dewa, hence the reference -- MaDewa.)
Her mother was beside herself with worry. "Talk, my child. Who did this to you?"
Her parents begged her but she screamed in fear. She felt as if the snake was crawling over her.
"Duuuummo, he -- he is a snake!"
"What has a snake done? What has Jayden's father done?" Mr. Moyo asked.
"He is a snake." Melody said, crying anew.
"You are delusional, my daughter. None of what you are saying makes sense." The town clerk was even more confused now. "MaMhlanga give me my ... my phone, let me call him." (In SiNdebele it is common to use and maintain a woman's maiden surname in a conversation, even if that lady is married. For instance, Mrs. Moyo's father's surname was Mhlanga, hence "MaMhlanga" means one came from the Mhlangas.)
Mrs. Moyo handed him the phone and he dialled Dumo's phone. The phone went unanswered. He tried several times until he called Mrs. Hadebe. She hadn't heard from Dumo and was also worried. Moyo then informed him of what had just transpired. She was shocked. Dumo had never beaten Melody. She didn't know what Melody meant if she was supposedly talking about a snake. She was driving over to their house immediately. She promised to call as soon as she saw him.
"Melody, my daughter. I have never liked your money changer mother-in- law. I wonder why you turned down your brother's offer to find you a job in the UK. Your husband and his fat father were served tea made from water that your mother-in-law had used for washing her panties overnight. They are too soft for men. I knew nothing good would come from that family. Now you are getting mad and seeing non-existent snakes."
Meanwhile the offices at Umthunywa were buzzing. Residents wanted to report the story of a nurse who was seen flying through the city as if she was being chased by unseen objects.
The editor smiled, rubbing his stomach. Some of their informants had taken pictures and videos of the nurse as she cried, "Snake, snake, snake!" He could envision the headline: "Umongikazi ugijinyiswa yizituhwane."
Lisiphatheleni makhiwa -- What have you brought us white people? (figuratively used to mean folk with money or wealth)
asintshinsthe -- let us change ( money)
umxhanxa -- a sweet soup made from a mixture of melon and maize kernels
ijodo -- melon
mkhwenyana -- son-in-law
Umthunywa -- a Ndebele news publication
Umongikazi ugijinyiswa yizituhwane -- the nurse was chased by subhuman creature
Image by Kudakwashe Engels Chingono
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