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James Roth

Jacob: A Greendale Garden Boy

Portrait of a Young African Man by Théophile Lybaert

During the dry season of 2022, my wife and I lived in the Greendale neighborhood of Harare, Zimbabwe. I had, prior to this, been an English Language Fellow (ELF) in the State Department’s English Language Program, assigned to Africa University, a pan-African institution in Mutare, Zimbabwe. My fellowship, however, came to an abrupt end in March of 2020, when the COVID pandemic struck. The State Department gave ELFs the choice of returning to the U.S. or staying in their country of assignment. At that time, Zimbabwe had few cases of COVID. I was enjoying my life in Mutare. It was both affordable and pleasurable. I could live well on five hundred dollars a month, the people were friendly, violent crime was rare, and the climate, because of Mutare’s elevation and Zimbabwe’s proximity to the equator, was almost ideal. During the dry season’s coldest months, July and August—winter in the Southern Hemisphere—I warmed myself by a wood fire crackling in a fireplace at night, and the next day wore sandals, shorts, and a short-sleeved shirt. Whenever I wanted to—which was often—I rode an off-road motorcycle up into the surrounding mountains, where the air was alpine fresh and the views extended to the horizon of the arid plain below, or I played golf at a club dating back to the turn of the century, The Hillside Sports Club, which also offered lawn bowling. The city government, back when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia, a British colony, had even built an Olympic-size swimming pool in the fifties that has remained in operation.

Soon after the pandemic took hold in neighboring South Africa, the Zimbabwean government locked down its borders. I couldn’t have left even if I had wanted to. People who had gotten stuck in Zimbabwe had their visas extended. One of those was me. And then the borders opened in December of 2020, and I had to leave, much to my regret. My wife and I went to Cape Town, South Africa, and returned about a year later. We found a cottage in Greendale. We chose to live in Harare rather than Mutare because it offered big city anonymity—the population of the city and surrounding suburbs is around two million—and I wanted to be near the U.S. Embassy, to remain in touch with those in the Public Affairs Section, which ran the ELF program. I also needed to be in the same city as the Zimbabwe Immigration Department, which extended thirty-day tourist visas for up to six months, one month at a time. Living in Mutare and going to Harare once a month to have my visa extended would be both expensive and exhausting, whether I went by motorcycle or public bus. The distance between the two cities is about 250 kilometers.

Our cottage had two bedrooms, a large living room with a spacious window facing east, two bathrooms—one with a large tub—a modern kitchen, and, most important of all—we thought when we saw the place—a reliable supply of water. A five thousand-liter tank was on a stand before the front door. When there is city water in Harare, it only flows on weekends, and no one dares to drink the brown sludge. Mutare’s water is sweet and reliable, as are so many small town water supplies in the country. The house also had what the British call a solar geyser—pronounced geezer—and Americans call a hot water heater. While waiting for my fellowship to start up again, I had the romantic idea that I could use my free time in this cottage to write fiction and nonfiction in a peaceful setting. The cottage seemed ideal for that.

Greendale is one of Harare’s oldest and most affluent neighborhoods. Ambassadors from the U.K., the Netherlands, and Indonesia live there. The Italian and U.A.E. embassies are there. To enter Greendale is to feel that one has returned to Rhodesian colonial days, before 1980, when a civil war came to an end, elections were held, and the infamous Robert Gabriel Mugabe came to power as the country’s first African prime minister—then president—promising to return Zimbabwe to Zimbabweans. It, therefore, struck me as very odd that in Greendale there are streets, and even areas, named after Cecil Rhodes, the man responsible for colonizing the country and subjugating the two main tribes, the Shona and Ndebele, as the company he founded, De Beers, exploited the country’s gold and diamond reserves. There is a Cecil Rhodes Avenue, a Rhodesville, a Cecil Street, and probably many other homages to him, as reminders of British Imperialism. I had thought that Mugabe would have expunged his name not only from Zimbabwe’s history books but also from anything that had his name on it. But then, that is one aspect of Zimbabwe that makes it so fascinating: its politicians often blame colonialism for its economic decline, while others are thankful that the colonizers—whites—left behind a good highway network between the major cities, one of the best education systems in Africa, and what was, in Harare, a functioning city water supply, and in the country, a reliable national power grid. Much of this infrastructure began to fall apart in the late nineteen nineties when the economy began to collapse. Potholes the size of moon craters are now a plague on many of the highways, and residential streets may have no asphalt at all, having turned into gully washes.

Most of the homes in Greendale have expansive gardens, either totally or partially hidden behind massive brick or stone security walls that are often topped by an electric fence. This is because, like South Africa, crime, particularly burglary, has become an everyday occurrence. One night, a man around the corner from us on Cunningham Road woke to find burglars in his living room, but he  chased them off. Violent crime remains rare in Zimbabwe. Those Zimbabweans who do engage in theft call it “smart work.” There are few honest jobs that pay enough to live on. Civil servants receive a salary of only a few hundred U.S. dollars a month.

The streets and lanes in Greendale meander past these security walls under canopies of mahoganies, eucalyptus, lilacs, and firs. They are a spider’s web network of connections. Few of the streets are laid out in a pragmatic American grid pattern. The result is that it is virtually impossible to give directions to someone who asks how to get to a specific street, the web of streets is so complicated. (Few use Google Maps or even an app that does not require data.) But this confusing web of streets does add to the neighborhood’s quaintness, as those colonizers who laid out the neighborhood more than a hundred years ago had probably intended, to give them a feeling of being back home in England.

To maintain Greendale’s large properties “garden boys”—that really is what they are called—trim lawns, rake leaves, pick up bottles and scraps of litter, prune hedges, and water trees—avocado, lemon, banana, and several varieties of palms. They also take care of the plentiful flowers: bougainvillea, geraniums, roses, morning glories, and a particularly lovely flower, resembling the tail feathers of an exotic tropical bird, the eponymous bird of paradise flower. Then there are the producing gardens in which spring onions (scallions), cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, kovo (African kale), tsunga (mustard greens), and the most important crop, from which the staple food, sadza, is made, maize, thrive in the rich, ocher soil of southern Africa.

Landowners furnish garden boys with a place to live, usually just a room, but if the garden boy has a family, they might provide him and his wife and children with a small cottage on the property. These garden boys, whose social status is marked by their blue uniforms, range in age from twenty to sixty. On Sundays, their day off, they may go to church, but mostly they congregate on grassy corners at intersections, in the shade of a mahogany or fir, drinking African Chibuku beer, their beer of choice. It is brewed from sorghum, costs less than a dollar a liter, and comes in brown plastic bottles. These bottles litter the shoulders of about every street and highway in the country.

Our landlady went by the name Gogo, or Granny. She was a stocky woman, around sixty, who walked with some effort and always wore a few layers of loosely fitting diaphanous clothing, a headscarf, and prescription eyeglasses that became tinted in the sunshine. She had hired a garden boy named Jacob, who was in his early twenties. He was just under six feet, had broad shoulders and a muscular chest. His face was wide, his eyes kind. A scruff of whiskers showed under his chin. Jacob was mainly responsible for Gogo’s gardens, both the decorative and producing ones, but also a patch of grass and a few rose bushes that we had in our garden.

Jacob was from Nyanga, what is called a “rural area.” Nyanga is high in the mountains of eastern Zimbabwe. It is famous as a resort area and vacation spot and is near a national park of the same name, Nyanga National Park. The park offers visitors nature walks, horseback rides, fly fishing, camping, and swimming in the Nyangombe River, which is free of the parasite bilharzia. (Though not deadly, the parasite, common in Africa, can make life rather uncomfortable for those with it, mostly children. It affects the urinary tract and intestines.) In the park’s lodges, visitors can dine on trout and grilled impala and drink South African wines before retiring to their rooms to sleep with someone other than their husband or wife, not having to fear that their neighbors back home will spread gossip about them.

Jacob’s reason for coming to Harare for work, he told my wife and I, was to save up enough money—five hundred dollars—to start a potato farm back home. Nyanga is famous for its potatoes. Most of the potato farms are run by whites, who use tractors to plow the furrows and Africans to harvest the potatoes. This may seem to be a throwback to the era of white exploitation of Africans during the Rhodesian colonial days, but in modern Zimbabwe I have never met a Shona who did not value working for a white. They know that whites are likely to pay them regularly. They know that whites are likely to cover their children’s school fees. They know that whites are likely to take care of their family’s medical needs. All of this is exceedingly rare in the Zimbabwe that Mugabe and his supporters pillaged. (Most Shona and Ndebele—Mugabe was a Shona—know how he wrecked the country, and they have, because I am a non-threatening, politically neutral white, confided in me their belief that one man turned a country that was once known as Africa’s breadbasket into an economic basket case.) Well-paying jobs are so scarce—most are with foreign NGOs—that university graduates often end up on the streets, hustling as black market money changers. Others, including whites, have had enough of economic depravity and electrical load shedding. Many, as they near retirement age, go to live with relatives in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Australia, or the U.K. The Africans go to these countries to find work. They send remittances back home to their family members.

Another job Gogo had Jacob do was to slaughter, about every six weeks, chickens that she had bought as chicks and he had raised—feeding them, ensuring that they had water, and keeping them warm at night by lighting a charcoal fire when the power failed, which was often. The sale of these chickens supplemented her rental income. She had another place in Chitungwiza. Chitungwiza, what South Africans refer to as a township and Zimbabweans as a high density location, is near the Robert Mugabe International Airport, under the flight path of approaching airliners. Raw sewage runs along some of the gutters that line the streets, and the houses are packed in side by side. Gogo sold the frozen birds—in violation of a city ordinance against raising chickens—for seven U.S. dollars apiece, which works out to be a little over a thousand dollars gross every six weeks, a lot of money in Zimbabwe. Another daughter of hers, a nurse in Phoenix, also sent her money, she told us, which must have helped her to buy a late model Lexus SUV.

To assist Jacob in the slaughtering of the chickens—it was too much work for one person—Gogo hired a woman to help him pluck, gut, and quarter them. Jacob started the assembly line processing of the birds by cutting their heads off and bleeding them. Then he put the headless birds into a pot of hot water to make it easier for him and the woman to pluck them. The gutting and quartering took place behind Jacob’s room, just over the wall that separated our cottage from Gogo’s home. The chicken entrails attracted swarms of black flies. Because we needed fresh air from time to time, we had to open a few windows. The swatting of flies with one of those electric bug bats became our daily entertainment. There are no screen windows or doors in Zimbabwe, where malaria is endemic, but, to our joy, we rarely encountered a mosquito. Just flies. Plenty.

Out of the 150 chickens that Gogo had Jacob and the woman pluck and quarter, she didn’t give Jacob—or the woman she had hired—one. For his gardening—and the processing of the chickens—she paid Jacob eighty U.S. dollars a month, barely enough to make ends meet. He had to buy his own maize meal, meats, eggs, sugar, soap, toothbrush and paste, and even his tea bags and matches. (He cooked over a wood fire.) It was certainly not enough for him to save up any money to put toward the five hundred dollars he needed to start up a Nyanga potato farm. When he asked Gogo for matches, she would give them to him, but only after she had lectured him on how wasteful he was with them. She had told us once that she had had difficulty keeping garden boys, that after receiving their eighty dollars they ran off, a genuine surprise to her, but, of course, not to us, considering he worked up to fourteen hours a day. And so when Jacob came to us one evening, asking for a box of matches—a box went for maybe ten cents—we gave them to him. And that was the beginning of our troubles.

It had to be his pay that led Jacob to ask me one day if I would loan him ten dollars. I wasn’t about to turn him down. In the evenings my wife and I often heard him chopping the firewood he needed to cook with in the dark behind the tool shed where he slept and slaughtered the chickens, fearing that the ax blade might slip and he would suffer a grievous injury. Nearby was Gogo’s junk pile, a treasure trove of PVC, copper, and iron pipes, brass plumbing fixtures, angle iron, rusty bed springs, an antique iron bathtub with feet, more than a dozen used tires, roof tiles, bricks, a metal door frame, car batteries, and a porcelain toilet bowl and tank. All of it could be sold to junk dealers who roamed Greendale’s streets, pushing along carts that rested on two car tires.

I also loaned Jacob the ten dollars to spite Gogo. She had been stingy with our water supply. Water reached us through a tank that was filled by an electric pump. She paid for the electricity that ran the pump. To save electricity, she didn’t always turn the pump on, even though electricity, on those rare occasions when it was available, was relatively inexpensive. We got by on five dollars of electricity a month. (Electricity in Zimbabwe is prepaid; otherwise few people would pay their monthly bill. A person buys so many kilowatts.)  After loaning Jacob the ten dollars, I got him to turn the water pump on. The switch for the pump was outside Gogo’s house, under the window of her dining room window. She wasn’t going to upset us by telling him to not turn the pump on, considering we paid our rent on time, rare for most tenants. I think he liked to irritate her by going over there to turn the pump on. Gogo lived in a sprawling ranch-style house that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Atlanta suburb. It only had one small window that faced the junk pile.

To keep Jacob from running off, Gogo’s strategy was to prevent him from speaking with other garden boys, so that he wouldn’t find out how she was treating him. Of course, this was a rather foolish strategy. He wasn’t a prisoner, and even prisoners devise methods to communicate with people outside the prison’s walls. All he had to do was look over a wall and talk to one of his colleagues who was raking up leaves. Gogo also unlocked her front gate for him now and then so that he could go shopping, to church, or to see his girlfriend, a maid. Then, later, when Gogo left Zimbabwe to visit her daughter, the nurse in Phoenix, she turned over the management of her property, and Jacob, to a daughter who lived with her and went by the name Auntie. She was a single mother in her late thirties. Auntie, too, was a large woman—and the way she dressed, in black Lycra tights and a frilly top—didn’t play down her size. She had graduated from a university in Poland and wore retro Ray Bans, which gave her an intellectual look. She earned money by teaching English online and helping other Zimbabweans apply for work visas as nurses’ aides or caregivers in Canada and the U.K. She had little interest in the butchering of chickens or keeping Jacob on a leash. She never ventured out behind the tool shed, where the chickens were butchered and the junk pile was.

She, like Jacob, must have celebrated Gogo’s departure. She had two lovers, and between her English teaching and consultancy work, was often juggling her trysts with them. One was married, the other younger than her and single. To judge her interest in managing him, I believe, Jacob had once deliberately interrupted one of her trysts by knocking on a door in the garage that opened into the house. She came to the door. He asked her what job he should do that day. She shouted back at him, “You know what to do, just do it!” Jacob told us this story, and others, as a way, I am sure, of seeking some kind of revenge on Gogo and Auntie; and we, bored, and I, a writer, were all too willing to listen to his stories.

Soon after Gogo’s departure, Jacob started to come to the front door of our cottage, which was out of sight from Auntie, to ask us if we would let him out of the property through our gate. Neither Gogo nor Auntie had given him a key to the front gate on their side of the property. We did as he asked and opened the gate for him and locked it after he had left. He was a rural young man from Nyanga, looking to start a potato farm. What harm would it do, allowing him some freedom? It turned out, plenty.

We didn’t know at first where he went and weren’t interested in knowing, and then over the course of a few weeks it became apparent. He began to come back when we were asleep and rattled the gate to wake us. We had to go outside to unlock the gate and let him in. He was unable to walk a straight line from our gate to his room without bumping into the corner of our cottage, he was so drunk. At first we thought his drunkenness was humorous. He was a rural young man in the big city, eager to explore it. Then one day we decided to just loan him our key, so that he would no longer wake us. When we saw him the next morning, he told us he had lost the key. This is no minor thing in a country where burglary is a constant threat.

Zimbabwean burglars leave little behind. One of my wife’s friends, who lived in Greendale before moving to Oman to be with her husband, who works as an accountant for PricewaterhouseCoopers, was victimized by burglars. They took everything they could haul off, including leftovers from the refrigerator, toothbrushes, and used bars of soap. I am sure they would have taken the refrigerator if they had had a truck to load it into. They did take the television. To avoid becoming a victim of a burglary, a locksmith had to change the lock in our gate, which meant we had to admit to Auntie that we had been letting Jacob out in the evenings. It turned out that she wasn’t bothered by this. She docked Jacob’s pay twenty dollars, the cost of changing the lock, and later on gave him a key to her gate. He kept the key on a lanyard that he put around his neck. He had become a twenty-something-year-old latch key man. Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Jacob—his pay getting docked—but less than I had when he was cutting the heads off chickens and was walking around Gogo’s yard picking up the dog shit of her three mongrels. (That was another job of his.)

Then Jacob turned to stealing, and my wife and I realized our sympathies for him had been misplaced. Gogo had been right about garden boys. They were all thieves, she had warned us. At first, Jacob used the wall in front of our cottage to pass over it what he had stolen from Gogo’s junk pile. Auntie couldn’t see him, because our cottage blocked her view of the wall. My wife is the one who caught on to his stealing and using our cottage to conceal what he was doing. One afternoon, he asked my wife to help him install a Facebook app on his beat-up Chinese smartphone. As she was trying to do so, he disappeared for a few minutes and returned with a plastic shopping bag, which he handed to someone on the other side of the wall, under a wire of the electric fence. In it, my wife knew, was a frozen chicken. She had been a security guard and knew how thieves worked, but she said nothing. Then a few days later he passed over the wall a couple of buckets of maize. Again she said nothing. And then Jacob became overly confident. One morning he pushed open our gate, which we left unlocked during the day, and rolled a wheelbarrow through it onto Duff Close, the street on which we lived, and continued on to Alfred Road. My wife, sensing that something wasn’t quite right, rushed out onto Duff Close to see what was going on. She saw Jacob hand over a car battery from Gogo’s junk pile to a man with a cart. When Jacob returned to our gate, my wife told him that she knew he was stealing. He began to shake. Then she told him that she was not going to tell Auntie. We just didn’t want him involving us in his larceny. She also told him that he could not use our gate unless we were there to watch over him. I had, a few weeks before, received an email, stating that my fellowship would continue, but not in Zimbabwe. It would continue, to my surprise, at the Jordan Media Institute in Amman. I had wanted to remain in southern Africa. If not Zimbabwe, then perhaps Botswana, Namibia, even South Africa. Our time in Zimbabwe was coming to an end, and we didn’t want any legal troubles before we left.

Jacob, apparently fearing that my wife would tell Auntie about his thieving, began to pay us hush money in the form of fresh tomatoes, spring onions, kovo, and tsunga, all taken from Gogo’s garden. We felt no guilt in taking any of this. It was all slowly rotting away and would go to waste. But we had lost trust in him. I had been keeping tools and a pair of prescription sunglasses in the boot of my motorcycle, which I parked under the eave of the roof outside the kitchen window, but I started to take all that in at night. The only thing we trusted Jacob to do was to empty our garbage in a dry well next to a fowl run, where layers and roosters were kept. Harare does not have a garbage collection schedule. The truck comes along, the driver honks a horn, and people bring out their garbage. Most people, as their property fills up with garbage, have no patience for this, and so they find other means to dispose of it, in dry wells or along the shoulders of remote streets. Gogo had taken to filling a twenty-five-meter deep dry well in her front yard with plastic shopping bags full of kitchen rubbish, bottles, cans, and used cooking oil.

A few weeks after my wife caught Jacob stealing, he was back at it, but he didn’t use our gate, which we now kept locked. He bravely used Gogo’s front gate. My wife was at the kitchen window one morning when she called to me, “Look!” I came to the window and saw Jacob and the garden boy from across the street lug off a rusty iron work table with an electric motor attached to it from Gogo’s junk pile. They passed by a Rhodesian era swimming pool, now dry, a green sludge at the deeper end, and hurried on to the front gate. This would have all been in full view of Auntie, had she been home, but Jacob must have done some surveillance and knew that she wasn’t. Perhaps her Honda Fit wasn’t in the driveway or maybe she was “sleeping in.” Before taking the table out onto Alfred Road, where Jacob and his accomplice would certainly attract attention if someone came along, he peeked around the corner of the gate, to see if all was clear, and, when it seemed so, the two of them carted off the table.

Even if we did know that Jacob was a thief and he knew that we knew, he made no attempt to avoid us. He would all too often come over to the front door of our cottage to borrow some salt, sugar, matches, cooking oil, or to ask for some cold water when he was weeding Gogo’s vegetable garden under an unrepentant Zimbabwean sun. Now and then he would entertain us with his adventures into Mbare, an infamous area near central Harare, best known as a flea market where sellers of used clothing congregate on the streets to display, illegally, their stock during the day and, at night, fences deal in stolen phones. Then there are the Mbare women who are eager to relieve thieves of their profits. This is Zimbabwe’s functioning economy, how capital circulates. My wife made the joke that Jacob had to steal to afford the women, that they had raised their rate to keep up with the cost of living. Inflation was running at well over two hundred percent. She also issued Jacob a warning about his trips to Mbare, that he might get mixed up with the wrong people, perhaps contract an STD—Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV rates in the world—but he didn’t heed her advice and continued to go there, returning, if at all, early the next morning.

When Jacob came to our cottage one afternoon to ask us to buy him air time, so that he could call his diabetic mother, whom he said was in the hospital because of a high blood sugar count, we refused. We had never heard him say anything about his mother before this. We had to ask ourselves, Can’t he save a few dollars from all his stealing? Maybe lay off the women for a couple of weeks so that he can buy the airtime he needs to call his diabetic mother? But he was hooked on drinking, easy women, and stealing. One morning he let into Gogo’s yard, through her gate, a man with dreadlocks whom we had never seen before. We watched the two of them go back behind the tool shed to the junk pile and make several trips back to the front gate, each time with a bucket full of PVC pipe and other plumbing fixtures. Then Auntie called Jacob’s name from a kitchen window. (We witnessed all this from our kitchen window, looking across a wall that separated the two properties.) The man with the dreadlocks sought cover, dashing into Jacob’s tool shed room. He had to wait there for more than thirty minutes until Jacob gave him an all-clear thumb up signal, and then he and Jacob went right back to it, grabbing the buckets of pipes and fixtures and sprinting across the front yard to the gate and out onto Alfred Road. Apparently, Auntie was busy at her computer or having a tryst.

The water supply to our cottage, both hot and cold, turned out to be intermittent at best, even when Jacob had turned on the pump. After a while I became fed up with waking up on a cold winter morning and wondering if there was hot water to bathe with. My wife often had to heat water in a kettle. I had complained to both Gogo and Auntie about the lack of water, but they had done nothing to remedy the problem. I became so annoyed over this that if Jacob had hauled off all of Gogo’s junk, I would have gained some satisfaction from it. If, in addition to her pile of junk, he had emptied her house of all the chairs and sofas, the TV, the bar and liquors, the refrigerator containing leftovers, the beds, mattresses, and wardrobes, the toothbrushes and used bars of soap, and, particularly, that freezer packed full of chicken carcasses and entrails, I would have stood on the side of Alfred Road and applauded him as he drove by in her Lexus SUV, pulling a flatbed trailer piled up high with all those things, as he tossed from the window plastic one-liter bottles of Chibuku beer onto the well-watered green lawns that other garden boys maintained. Expecting water is not too much to ask when renting a place, I thought. Jacob had unknowingly become my agent in retribution.

And then there was, like a scripted Hollywood movie, a plot reversal that made me change the way I thought of him, Auntie, and Gogo. When I was returning from golf on my motorcycle one afternoon—that is another oddity of Zimbabwe, one of the most impoverished countries in the world, golf—Jacob was sitting on the corner of Cunningham and Alfred in the shade of a mahogany tree with several other garden boys. They were all drinking Chibuku beer and cane spirits mixed with Coca-Cola, lemon juice, or a sports drink. Jacob waved to me. I waved back. Soon after I had entered our cottage and locked the gate, he showed up. He peeked over it and asked me to let him in. “You have a key to the main gate,” I said and pointed in the direction of Gogo’s house. I left him there on the street side of the gate and went inside our cottage. I had assumed, wrongly, that he had wanted me to let him in because it was a shorter distance to his room than walking around the corner to the Gogo’s gate.

After I had gone inside I sat on a chair to take off my motorcycle boots, and, as I was doing so, saw Jacob hop up on top of the security wall and breach the wires of the electric fence in less than thirty seconds. So much for security, I thought. I told my wife what I had seen, and she texted Auntie, who rightfully wondered why he had done this, considering she had provided him with a key to her mother’s gate that he kept on a lanyard around his neck. As it turned out, he had lost that key as well. Or had he lost it? We had to wonder. Maybe he had sold it to some Mbare crime boss whose gang cleaned out the homes of the vulnerable, taking, along with their computers and televisions, leftovers from the refrigerator, used bars of soap, and toothbrushes. Losing two keys in less than a month. That was too suspicious.

After hearing that Jacob had lost a second key, we removed our computers and telephones from a desk near a window that was barred before going to sleep. All the windows in the cottage had bars welded to the interior frames, but a burglar who is adept with a stiff wire could open a window latch and, using a specialized, long, forceps-for-burglar device, take what was on the desk. My wife’s niece had had her phone stolen from under her pillow as she slept. The burglar had got to it through a window, using forceps, she guessed. But, being a kindhearted Zimbabwe thief, he had taken the SIM card from the phone and left it on a mat outside her front door. Burglars, some who have sympathy for their victims, that is Zimbabwe, too.

Soon after Jacob lost the second key, my wife told Auntie that we were leaving Zimbabwe. She was sorry to see us go. We had been good tenants. We paid the rent on time. Few tenants did. Auntie and my wife had a long talk, first about men, then about life in Zimbabwe. Auntie told my wife that she had dropped her married lover and wasn’t too keen on the younger one, who seemed a bit immature. Then she said her mother had no reason to keep such a big house. It was a magnet for burglars, especially on those nights when there was no power. Gogo did, however, have a solar power backup system, as did many people living in Greendale, who have given up on ZESA, the national utility company, that did offer some lighting. Auntie went on to speak of the broken down plumbing system, which needed to be upgraded and put in properly. The plumber who had installed the system was a conman who had glued pipes together, having no apparent idea where they led, and left after Gogo paid him. Gogo had called him and told him the plumbing system wasn’t functioning properly and asked him to return and set things straight, but he never did. That, too, is Zimbabwe.

A few weeks later my wife and I left our cottage one morning on my motorcycle to go to a nearby golf club. My wife had my golf bag over her shoulder. When I turned the corner from Duff Close onto Alfred Road, we saw the man with the dreadlocks with another man waiting in the shade of a majestic mahogany. They were leaning up against a cart used to haul off junk. We were immediately suspicious. We had been, until this day, sympathetic toward Jacob. He’d only wanted to return to Nyanga with five hundred dollars to start a potato farm. But then, when his pilfering became rampant stealing, we felt both a moral obligation to tell Auntie and the need to protect ourselves from him and the possibility that Auntie might accuse us of being complicit in his thieving, no matter how absurd that seemed. That, we couldn’t countenance. We couldn’t take the chance that, with us away, Jacob and the two other men might use our gate to haul off more of Gogo’s junk. Perhaps Jacob had a way of opening it? We were certain that Jacob and these two men on Alfred Road were working together to profit from that pile of junk, and so my wife called Auntie from the back of my motorcycle and told her about them. Auntie thanked her. I continued to drive off and even nodded to the two men to assure them that neither my wife nor I were suspicious of them.

While I was playing golf, my wife kept in touch with Auntie and learned that she had nabbed Jacob and the other two men. She filled us in on the details of the apprehension after we had returned. She had been preparing to take a shower when my wife called her. She let the shower water run, to provide herself with a cover. She lay in wait by a living room window. When Jacob rushed past the window, pushing a wheelbarrow, she sprang from her lair and dashed out into the front yard, confronting him. Jacob dropped the handles of the wheelbarrow and began to tremble. In the wheelbarrow lay two old, corroded sewing machines, both beyond repair. Auntie took a photo of them. Then she asked what he was doing with them? He didn’t have an answer. Auntie, because my wife had clued her in about the other men on Alfred Road, suspected that they might be Jacob’s partners. She demanded that Jacob call one of them and tell him that she wasn’t home. He did. Then, using a remote control device, she opened the gate. The man with the dreadlocks and his friend entered the property. She then closed the gate behind them, and they were all locked in, as if in a prison yard. She then had them all get into her Honda Fit and drove them to the Rhodesville Police Station. You can explain what you were doing to the police, she told them.

I had heard similar stories of a thief—or thieves—getting into their victim’s car after being caught and allowing their victim to drive them to the nearest police station. Zimbabwean police don’t have patrol cars, the economy is so broken. Often, if a person goes to a police station to file a complaint, that person has to pay for the transportation back to the scene of the crime. Police, in their ironed blue and gray uniforms, hitchhike to their duty stations. This, too, is Zimbabwe, where some thieves peacefully submit to their fate. In neighboring South Africa, the thief, most likely, would have buried a knife into the victim’s neck or shot the person—or persons—in the head. Auntie also knew Jacob’s sister, who worked as a maid in Greendale. The police could, if they made an effort—and used Auntie’s Honda Fit— track Jacob down by questioning her.

At the police station, Jacob, understandably, considering he was facing jail or maybe even prison time, at first played the role of the tough guy, denying that he had stolen anything. But when Auntie showed the police the photos she had taken of the purloined sewing machines, the police proceeded to beat a confession out of him when he complained that he had been forced to steal because of his low monthly salary. They weren’t too sympathetic. Their salaries weren’t much more than eighty dollars a month, and they had children, whose school fees they had to pay and uniforms they had to buy. Beatings—mothers beating misbehaving children, teachers beating disobedient students, police beating suspects, and, most horrifying of all, drunken men beating girlfriends and wives—are, contrary to what seems to be a rather peaceful country, Zimbabwe as well.

The next morning I happened to come across Auntie when she was outside, beside a sink used to wash clothes. I spoke with her over the wall that separated Gogo’s house from our cottage. I asked her where Jacob was. My wife and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him—eighty dollars isn’t much to live on—but we didn’t feel guilty about tipping Auntie off. My wife had caught Jacob stealing a month or so before, warned him, and yet he had continued on that career path, as we counted down our remaining days in Zimbabwe.

Auntie told me that Jacob was in jail and that he would have a hearing the next morning. She had taken an inventory of her mother’s property, which had also included a functioning arc welder that he sold for forty dollars. It was worth maybe five hundred or so. Auntie and I shook our heads over that, that if he was going to steal and risk having a criminal record, he should make it worth his while. She said she would have looked the other way if he had stolen the rusting fencing and angle iron on top of the fowl run’s roof or had sold some kovo and tsunga. It turned out that Jacob had earned less than a hundred dollars for his efforts. The iron bathtub with the feet? He sold it for five dollars. He was, in my wife’s words, “an amateur thief.” His “smart work” hadn’t been so smart.

My wife and I visited the nearby Mukuvisi Woodlands Game Park on the day Auntie had to go to court to testify against Jacob and his gang. She spent all day at the court. As my wife and I were sitting in a shaded observation deck, looking out over a field of brown grass and a nearby pond, where giraffes were feeding on the leaves of an acacia tree, and, farther off, zebras, wildebeest, and impalas were roaming around in the bush, usually a white egret at their feet, my wife got a text from Auntie. She asked us if we would mind watering the chickens; the hearing was taking longer than she had expected. My wife said we would do that. When we returned home at dusk, we filled the chickens’ water tanks and put grain in the feeders as the soles of our shoes slipped around in chicken shit. (Auntie didn’t reward us for our efforts or the tip-off that Jacob was stealing her mother’s junk, not even with one frozen chicken.)

What she did do was come by and tell us a story of a woman who had had a hearing before Jacob’s. She had bitten the finger off of a tenant of hers over an argument that had something to do with an electrical adapter. These people are so stupid, she sighed. Then she told us that Jacob had gotten off with a six-month suspended sentence, community service, a restraining order stating that he would not go anywhere near Gogo’s property, and a fine of two million RTGS, the electronic currency that no one much cares for because of the five percent fee imposed on each purchase. (RTGS—Real Time Gross Settlement—is the currency people load onto their smartphones.)

Zimbabwe has pretty much converted to the U.S. dollar in the form of cash or debit or credit cards from foreign banks. Some of the U.S. notes are so old and worn that they are as limp as wet paper, they have been through so many people’s hands; corners are often missing. The only thing the local currency—called the bond, because it is printed on cheap bond paper—is good for is bus transportation and purchasing bananas, tomatoes, and sweets for children from street vendors. Two million RTGS worked out, at the official bank rate, which no one uses, to be four thousand U.S. dollars. At the black market rate, which everyone uses, it was closer to 2,300 and would be even less a month later, as inflation eats away at the value of the Zimbabwe currency. But two thousand dollars is still a fortune in a country where many people live on two dollars a day.

The judge sentenced Jacob to community service, because he was fortunate enough to have a relative who lived in Greendale to serve as a guardian. If the relative had refused to take him in, Jacob would have gone to jail. It was likely that the relative and Gogo would negotiate a lower settlement. The man with the dreadlocks wasn’t so lucky. This was his second offense. The judge sentenced him to two years in prison. The other man, who had no record, was released. He said he was just hanging out with his friend.

After the hearing, Auntie asked Jacob why he had stolen. He said he had been possessed by evil spirits. The following day, she hired John, a garden boy from a rural area near Kwekwe in central Zimbabwe, known for its gold deposits and illegal gold miners. When I spoke with him, he was all smiles, excited to have found work in Harare.


About the writer:
James Roth is a fellow in the U.S. State Department’s EFL Program. He has taught in Japan, China, Jordan, and Zimbabwe. His novel, The Opium Addict, is forthcoming. He has been published in several journals and magazines. His essay “Black Lives Don’t Matter in Zimbabwe” was a finalist in the Missouri Review’s Jefferey E. Smith Editors’ Prize for 2020.

Image: Portrait of a Young African Man by Théophile Lybaert (1848-1927). Oil on panel. 10.6 x 8.4 inches. 1883. Public domain.

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