Mrs. Smith


Mrs. Smith


‘Mrs. Smith!’ I called.

Silence. Emptiness.

My first interview for an article on poverty of the old in Zimbabwe. Topic - Family structures have broken down, youngsters have emigrated. The old are abandoned.

I heard there was an old woman living in the bush outside Harare. A dry area called Waterfalls. I would start there. A rank vlei, a hut in the distance and the skeleton of a cow shed.

A rustle.

Then,  a woman, slight, too thin, a shawl over her head, multicoloured wool faded to a wash of pink.

Her face was lined, brown-patched from the sun. Her hair, what I could see of it, was white, hints of old blonde.

She smoothed her hands over her skirt.

Made of black plastic bin-liners, neatly stitched together with a pocket. An old Gloria Flour cotton bag hung from her shoulder. She wiped her hands again, took mine.

Fierce, grasping life.

‘I have now only one cow,’ she said.

I looked. No cow.

We walked to a shed.

‘Come in.”  Her voice was cracked, knife edged. “ Close the door.’

I accustomed my eyes to the gloom. The only source of light came from a hole in the asbestos roof.

‘Do not talk too loudly,’ she said. ‘They will hear.’

At one end of the room was a stall, with freshly cut grass and a makeshift trough. ‘This is my house,’ she said.

Her home was this cowshed.

Part of it was a bedroom, with an open fire, and a stall at the other end for the cow. ‘She eating outside.’ She said.’ I take her in here for night. Because of them ...’

The stall looked like no animal had ever been near it.

 I listened to her accent. It was not British.

‘No,’ she cackled. ‘I am. But I am not.’ She motioned me to sit on the box near the bare springs of her bed; she perched on the metal frame and stared at me, a caricature from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. Blue eyes in a weathered face. She appraised me. I looked around. One cracked cup. One empty pot waiting near the fire. The rest of the utensils were old tin cans and plastic bottles we usually throw away.

She was so thin; I thought her legs might crack under the weight of her body.

 ‘My husband. He British. But I not. And then he die.’  What was that accent? Russian? Croatian?

‘I am born in Poland,’ she chuckled. ‘But it was not good there. That Hitler. He was not good man. I walk long way. Over mountains. To France. It was very long way. But I was young.’ 

Brief pause, as if forgetting.

 ‘I survive.’

Stories of pogroms, hatred of Jews, Catholics, anyone who was not of the chosen race spilled out of her memory.

‘But then I meet husband. He was soldier with Britain. In Southern Rhodesia. And we come here. Away from troubles.’ She patted her hair, reliving romance.

‘It was very wonderful. We had many cows.’ She smiled, a wound in the wrinkles. ‘He was good with hands. He was good man. Anything he could do.’

‘Did you have children?’

‘Look at hole!’ she suddenly exclaimed. In the asbestos roof, there was a gash, as if a brick had come through it. The only source of light.

 ‘It was them! It was him!’

Who was ‘them’? Who was ‘him’?

She was silent for a while.

Blackened walls, the smell of damp. The place was sinister. But it was clean. Not even a smell of her cow.

‘I am still strong.’ She said. ‘God. He look after me ...’

She had no blankets. No sheets. Just a sack mattress.

 ‘You see hole? So small. Yet they come in my house!’

‘Have you no money?’

Frail shrug. Bony shoulders. ‘They come. One night. They try steal my cow. That is why she with me. It is safe’.

I started, “You could be entitled to a British pension”, but I was cut off.

“You want tea?”

She handed me a tin cup and poured tea from a kettle.

“I keep tea on boil.” We drank in silence. I wondered how long it had been stewing.

‘I must find cow.’ She rasped. ‘Must find cow.’ She bustled into the glare. Outside seemed safer.

‘There!’ She whispered. ‘There they are!’

She glared across the vlei.

‘See?’ She spat. I turned to look.

‘No! Don’t you let him see you!’  She said desperately. ‘He then think you bringing money to me. He will come to rob at night!

‘Danger! Shh! He climb through that hole. He jump on me. Last time he tried …’ She smoothed her plastic skirt. ‘But I a good woman. I belong to God. He make me strong.’

A group of young kids ran around the hut and stared at us. Among them was an older boy of about fifteen. Tall, and slim, he looked like a runner. And a little girl with large eyes.

‘He evil boy,’ she said. ‘But he know no better!’.

She sniffed, (scenting her cow?) and headed towards the grass.

‘I have to find cow. First, they want to eat her. Then he want my house.’

The teenage boy stood up, dressed in filthy rags, and watched. He did not look threatening. The other kids were half naked.

‘He beg. That all he do. No parents. They die from sin of sex,’ said Mrs. Smith. ‘ He who look after children. I pray for him.’

The youngest of the kids must have been about three. A lovely little girl, naked, banging a tin spoon on a stone.  ‘This my land.” The girl watched with sad eyes. “They just come and live here without me asking.” The older boy stared.

‘He hungry. Like all boys. People not give him sex. They say he poisoned like parents.’

‘Do they pay you rent?’

Her laugh was a cackle. ‘If I ask money, they kill me. People not listening to Lord anymore.’

I pressed the auto-switch to open my car. Flashing lights on my new Pajero. She scurried to my window, ‘I say prayer for you.” I opened the automatic windows. “I know God loves you!’ The old woman leaned into the car and grabbed my hands. She began to pray, quietly ...

Thanking God for saving her for His service.

Her voice got louder.

Thanking Him for her children’s happiness in Heaven.


Thanking Him for a Pope from her country.


Thanking him for saving Zimbabwe from Sin.

“I will bring you what I have written,” I said.

Then she grasped my hands tighter, beseeching.

She said the Lord’s Prayer. “Ojcze nasz, któryś jest w niebie, święć się Imię Twoje…”

While she prayed in Polish, the young man watched from the other side of the vlei.

‘Tell them! Pray God must look after my cow.”

As I drove off, she picked up her scythe. I would come back in a couple of weeks. Tell her she was due a military pension from her British husband.

But I saw no cow.


Next stop, Bulawayo. A gracious city in Matabeleland. A city very different from Harare The roads don’t have potholes, even grass is cut on the verges. The old Grand Hotel boasts a past in front, with a new shopping mall behind wide streets shimmering in the heat.

My next interview was with a very secretive man, who said he wanted to tell me another version of the old people in Zimbabwe. I wandered into a gloomy building, and out of the shadows approached a massive man. He was very black, years in the sun, with a lined face.

 ‘No names. Just a quiet talk.’ He muttered and led me to a wooden shack at the back of the building. He had a limp.

‘I was in the Military. A Commissioned Officer. Through four governments. The Federation. Then Rhodesia. Then UDI Rhodesia. Then Zimbabwe.’

He voice was tough, like a warrior. He must have been about seventy.

‘Where were you born?’ I asked.

‘Here. In Matabeleland. But I served all over the country. Even fought in Malaya. Then they made me retire.’

“Who is they?”

He ignored my question. He put a large hand on my shoulder. “I am a Matabele. The chefs, the ones in charge are Shona. Does that give you an answer?”

‘Are you on a pension?’

He took one of my cigarettes.

‘You could say that.’

I lit his smoke.

 ‘A soldier? A tough job?’ I said.

‘Yes. But what else could we do? We were black. I was too clever to be a house boy. I wanted to have an important job.’

‘Did you have to kill? I mean. … in the fighting? ‘

‘Of course, we had to kill.’ He scoffed. ‘That is what a soldier does. In any army. That was our job.’ He paused. ‘Anyway, my friend, death comes sooner or later.’

He took another one of my cigarettes and slid it into his shirt pocket.

‘But they never forgave us for that.’

 ‘They?’ He was beginning to sound paranoid. Like Mrs. Smith with her cow.

I was hoping that this conversation wasn’t going to end with him asking me for money. 

‘So, you worked for the British Government as a soldier?’

‘Yes. But ... no pension from them. You see, we joined another government, then another ... and each one was supposed to look after us.’ The ash on his cigarette glowed red.

‘What about a disability allowance?’

He stretched out his leg. ‘Not one cent.’ He rubbed his knee. ‘Broken in three places. A landmine. This leg is two inches shorter.’ Then he chuckled. ‘But it’s who you know...’ His laugh was bitter. “One of our vice presidents got disability. 1996 I think it was. Nearly four hundred thousand dollars! When a dollar was worth a dollar!” He flicked the cigarette away. “A lot of money!  She said the war made her lose her appetite!’

‘Why did you want to meet me?’ I asked.

‘Because no one knows.’ He said. He lit another cigarette. ‘You know … those ones who came into the army from Mashonaland, with a lower rank than me … those kids who now say they’re War Vets ... they get fat pensions. The people from Matabeleland did not.’

‘And you?’

He shook his head. ‘I had to sell my house. My pension pays for food for two weeks. Imagine! That’s what I get as a Major. The others? Them? With no War experience? They get thousands of US$!’

He was angry, but also hurt. That he had been overlooked, forgotten.

I drove back to Harare. I may not be able to help the major, but perhaps there might be hope for a pension for Mrs. Smith.


‘It’s our fault,’ he said. We were sitting in a glorious garden in Highlands, Harare, the swimming pool shaded by willows, water splashing over rocks, sprinklers swishing through sun rays onto the lawn. He was an economist. Craggy face and a weary voice.

‘Imagine, you were a people who believed in one thing, like the power of the ancestors. Then these white people arrive, beat you into a pulp, and say you’re wrong. Ancestors are witchcraft. They fool old Chief Lobengula, parade him like a clown at the Royal Court in England and tell his people their society is up the spout.’

 A pause.

‘Earl Grey?’ He offered.

I sipped my tea in silence. The water swished backwards and forwards over the lawn, dressing the old colonial house in faint shadows. Backwards and forwards.

‘Your God, your Mwari is a Devil, our White Man’s God is the only one! Then they ship in the God Squad.’ He paused. ‘But the people found something very strange. The real White Man’s God is money not the white Jesus’

He poured another cup of tea. ‘That stuffed up their society. Young people went to the towns. Old people were lost. Family support vanished.”

I wondered whether he had any solution. He smiled, “Oscar Wilde was right. Missionaries are the ordained food for cannibals.’.

‘But the churches do a good job, like…with education?’ I said.

“Really?’ he asked. “‘For whom?”

I lit a cigarette.

“ ‘A’ levels and academic subjects don’t get you work.” The sun was setting. “Want a drink?” he said. I shook my head.

‘Do you see any hope?’

‘It’s too late,’ he said. ‘The harm’s been done. Like everything in Africa, we just have to wait.’’

I finished off my tea. It tasted a little sour.



Weeks flew by as I interviewed old black men sleeping in a rusted bus, a coloured woman living in a tent and  spending hours negotiating with the British embassy for Mrs. Smith’s pension approval. It was good news for her.

I was going out to Waterfalls again.

It still had not rained. The bush crackled in the heat. I pulled in under traces of shade. The air under the Acacia was dry, stung my throat.

‘Mrs. Smith?’ I called.

Everything seemed the same. The hut on the other side of the vlei was still there.

I could not see her anywhere.

‘Mrs. Smith?’ No rustle in the grass. No sign of the cow. 



I knocked on the door of her house.

‘Mrs. Smith?’ .


Where was she?

Heat waves on the asbestos roof.

‘Hello?’ I shouted and banged at the door.

A noise.

‘Is that you, Mrs. Smith?’ There was a smell of cooking from inside.

Maybe she was ill. Maybe she could not get to the door. I punched at the lock.

‘Mrs. Smith!’ I yelled.

The door opened, and the young boy I had seen in the village peered out at me.

‘Why are you in her house?’

‘She has gone.’ He said.

‘Where?’ I shouted.

‘She has gone!’ He repeated. His brother and sister gathered around him in the gloom. The young girl had a blouse that looked like a flour bag.

I pushed my way past and stalked around the hovel. Everything looked the same. At first.

Except, there were sleeping mats where the cow stall was. And the hole in the roof was blocked by a piece of black plastic. On the fire was a pot bubbling a meat stew.

‘Where is she?’ I yelled. ‘What have you done with her?’

The boy’s large eyes stared. Just stared at me. What the fuck was going on? He had watched the woman for years. He must know.

I marched into the bush. She must be around. Look for the cow. Wherever the cow was, I’ll find Mrs. Smith.

Nothing. No prints. No scythe.


I ran back to the boy, grabbed his shirt. ‘What have you done with her? Where is she?’

He threw off my hands, strong, ran inside and locked me out.


I stalked around. Looking for something, something to let me know what had happened to her.

This was supposed to be  a good day for her.

I sat down under the old tree. She had said the Lord’s prayer to me in Polish. She had said that God would look after her.

What had happened to her?

God was supposed to look after her.


I felt a soft hand on my shoulder.

It was the young girl with a flour bag blouse and large eyes.

She handed me a tin mug of sweet milky tea.


Rory Kilalea


Rory Kilalea was born in Zimbabwe but lives in the UK and spends loving time in Zimbabwe. His novel HuKaMa has just been long listed for the Bridport prize. 

His short stories have been twice nominated for the Caine Prize and he is currently working on a comic memoir of his time servicing film production companies in Zimbabwe. He writes about issues of unfairness and survival.

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