Hi reader! A quick note before you read this story: I initially wrote this story in 2018, but never thought it was good enough to publish. I remembered it when I got back in touch with Aunty few weeks ago. I would like to give a special thanks to Rachel Mwale, who edited it and assured me it was good enough to publish. If the story sucks, please blame Rachel for giving me the confidence! Happy reading.
I woke up exhausted that morning. But I already knew the plan for the day: go to the rice mill (chigayo cha mpunga), come back home, cook, and continue job hunting. After I had my breakfast, I felt exhausted. Porridge makes me sleepy, I easily fall asleep again. Today was no different. I quickly came back to bed and fell asleep. The maid at home – we call her Aunty – woke me up when she had the bags of rice ready.
“Aunty Vicky, it’s time to go,” she called out from my bedroom door.
“I’m tired, Aunty. Buy more time,” I said, pulling my covers over my head. It was a chilly morning in Zomba, even though the sun was shining.
“Aunty Fai, we don’t have time! I have chores I need to get to afterwards,” she calls out again.
I get up lazily and dress up. I grab a head wrap to cover my messy natural hair. I haven’t tended to it in three days. Soon, we were carrying bags of rice into the boot of mum’s car and we were on our way to the rice mill in Songani, some 20 kms away from Zomba town, where we live.
“I have a bad headache,” I tell Aunty. She stares at me and says something about us being tired the last couple of days. My maternal grandmother is hospitalised, and mum is busy taking care of her. I nod. I am not in the mood to talk. I just want to get the day over with. I drive quietly, while rubbing my forehead to ease the headache. We get to a market called Chinamwali and I slow the car down, and park it when I see a drug store.
“What’s wrong?” Aunty asks
“I want to get a painkiller,” I say, as I close the car door, “I’ll be right back!”
We drive to Songani in silence. Aunty starts a conversation here and there, but I am not really in the mood. Aunty knows me so well because we usually work together. She’s been working at home for over a year now. I still remember the first day I saw her. It was on a Sunday afternoon, when I came home after church, as usual, before making my way back to my off-campus hostel where I was in my final year of university at Chancellor College in Zomba. I remember thinking, “oh great, here’s another maid that will work for a month, and go back to her home.”
Our family doesn’t have a good record when it comes to keeping maids. There’s always something wrong. “She is a thief.” “She is lazy.” “She quit to get married back home,” and my personal favourite: “she was a foodie”. My mother is somewhat a perfectionist and doesn’t seem to mind the changes until she finds someone that meets her requirements.
But this Aunty has been with us for so long. She’s breaking records. Aunty is a hard worker. She gets up early in the morning and does the chores that no one likes and is eager to learn, especially when it comes to cooking and baking. After I graduated from university, I naturally took charge of the household and let my mother rest. She has been spending more time taking care of grandma. I watched Aunty as she slowly turned into a professional in everything I taught her. She does any and every kind of work, and rarely complains. When she takes a day off, I find it hard to walk in her shoes. The house has too many tasks, but she knows exactly what to do and when. And we have never had any issues with her thieving which is one of the reasons Mum keeps her.
At the university, we called all the female employees who did manual work “Aunty”: The guard, the cleaner. They are all “Aunty.” When I asked her what her name was, she said we could give her any name, so I started calling her “Aunty” and the name stuck in the home.
Although Aunty knows me well, she is very secretive about her life. She doesn’t like to talk about her home, nor does she talk much about her kids or their fathers. All we do is talk about work, laugh at the silliest jokes and sing made up tunes in the kitchen. The little I know, from so much probing, is that she has two kids – a teenage girl called Agatha*, and a boy, named Godson*. They have different fathers and currently live with her sister in the village. Anything else apart from that, she hushes me by changing the subject or throwing in a joke. I patiently wait for the day she will finally open up.
We get to Songani market, and I get lost trying to locate the exact rice mill mum recommended. There are so many of them and I am confused.
“The rice comes out already winnowed! A friend told me,” mum said, “Don’t go anywhere else.”
I parked the car along the side of the road and called her.
“Mum, I’m lost,” I say. She describes the rice mill again. I reverse the car and find my way to the mill. We had driven past it. There are bags of rice lined up along the narrow road leading to the mill. A young man in black jeans runs to the car window.
“Are you here for the rice mill?” He asks.
“Yes,” I reply, “I want to park the car first.”
“Reverse on this space here,” he motions with his hands.
He began to signal me to reverse on what was left of the road from the bags lined up by the rice sellers. They stare at me as I make what seems to be a 20-point turn.
There’s loud music coming from the shop close to where we park. It’s so loud we can hardly hear each other. It’s one of those shops that copies music into peoples’ phones. I lock the car and walk towards the mill with Aunty. Some women, standing behind their bags of rice along the path to the entrance shout out prices for their rice so we can buy from them.
“No, we are not here to buy, we want the rice mill,” I say, as I walk towards the entrance.
A man covered in rice chaff meets us by the door. He is wearing shorts, and is so dusty that his unconnected beard looks like cobwebs. He is chewing some uncooked rice and is talking with his mouth full, revealing half chewed rice and a milky fluid. The two men discuss, then the dusty man signals us to take the bags in front of the queue.
The rice mill is packed. There are rice chaffs covering about half of the room, like a little hill. More chaff is being thrown on the hill. The mill is located at the back of the room, and there are bags of rice everywhere. At the centre of the room is a queue, where we are last. The man at the mill is the one covered in chaff. He signals us to go in front. Aunty and Black Jeans carry the bags to the front of the queue. I notice that there is an argument at the front between an elderly lady, a younger lady and two men. There’s so much noise, and I don’t know what is happening, but I rely on Aunty to be in control. The man at the mill says something to the people in front. The argument intensifies. They point at bags, at each other and at the mill. The man points at me and they all turn to look at me. I quickly look at the car keys in my hand and play with them to avoid their stares. I adjust the green chitenje around my waist and then stare straight ahead. Aunty comes and joins me at the back of the queue.
“What’s happening?” I say out loud to her, hoping she can hear me above the noise of the mill.
“Those ladies say they came here last night and they want to go first,” she said.
“I’m going to stand outside. You’ll let me know when it’s our turn,” I said.
I walk outside. Songani is popular for its market days. I usually come here with mum to buy food in bulk, usually fish. But today isn’t a market day. The place looked bare and empty – a sight I wasn’t used to. I walk around for a while until I get bored.
I walk back inside the mill. Aunty ushers me to one of our sacks.
“He’s started our bags. Hold this.” She says, before making her way to the front.
The man in black jeans rushes towards me with a yellow bucket. I quickly hold the sack upright as he pours in the rice. I grab some of the rice and examine it, but I’m not sure what I am looking for. He goes back to the mill. He makes more trips as we fill the bags. Then he transfers the bags outside. The bag fills up. Then another. A few people come and grab a handful of the rice from the bag I’m holding. They pour it back into the bag slowly, while examining it. I’m not sure what they are doing, but they look like rice experts. I learn they are sellers of rice from the market.
“Is it Kidney?” one man asks.
“I don’t know,” I reply flatly.
Another lady grabs a handful and slowly pours it back, examining it. I try to act like I didn’t notice her.
“It’s Kilombero,” she announces. The others nod their head as they stare at it.
Aunty joins me outside as we tie the bags. Black Jeans helps us with the bags into the car and leads us to the cashier. I give him a tip, pay our dues and head towards the car.
“Why did the man at the mill let us go first? Did we cut the queue? I’m feeling guilty,” I say to Aunty, once we set off.
“You know what happens? Those people on the queue are rice sellers. They get their rice milled on credit. The rice millers write down their names and when they sell the rice, they come back and pay. The owners of the mill prefer people who are paying cash, like us. Those other people were arguing about a whole other issue. By the looks of it, they started arguing before we came in.”
“Oooh. I understand,” I say to her. I remember her telling me she’s been in the rice business before. Aunty knows a lot about mills. I am always confident when I go to the mill with her.
“But do they make profits?” I ask.
“They do. They know what they are doing. They do it almost every day,” she says.
We drive silently towards Zomba, and I remember a place where we can grab a drink and also has a great view of Zomba Mountain.
“Do you need a drink?” I ask her.
“Aunty, just take me wherever,” she laughs, while sticking her tongue out from the corner of her mouth.
“Okay, I know a spot,” I say.
I take a turn to a lodge along the road and park the car inside. We walk towards the pool, which has a beautiful view of Zomba Mountain – a sight I never tire of.
A waiter comes, and we order some drinks and sit on a metal sun lounger.
“Let’s stay here as long as we can. The dirty dishes at home can wait,” I say, then we burst into laughter.
We talk about the work that awaits at home. Home has been busy because we’ve been busy sorting out the rice and maize from the harvest. We also have guests – ever since my grandmother became seriously ill, my aunt’s have been living at home, taking turns to take care of Anganga at the central hospital. Lately, Aunty and I have worked together a lot. We reminisce about the past days and talk about how hard we have been working. Soon, we have our cold drinks in hand.
Aunty sips on her Coco Pina then says, “this reminds me so much of the beach.”
“You’ve been to the beach?”
“Yes. Several times. At my very first job,” she says.
She starts to explain what she went through at her first job. She was only twenty-one when she got a job as a nanny for a family of three kids, and she would go on holidays with them to the lake. She worked there for three years.
“My daughter was young when I got the job,” she said, as she stared into the distance, “I left her at home with my mother when she was only two years old.”
“Why did you quit?” I ask.
“Someone set me up. Madam’s cousin put fried chicken in the drawer where I kept my clothes so they would think I am a thief. But the madam didn’t believe it. She knew I was set up. I almost beat madam’s cousin up but the gardener intervened and begged me to let it go,” she recalled.
We laugh. I can’t imagine Aunty being in a physical fight. Of course, I don’t underestimate her strength. She carries heavy things at home all the time. But she doesn’t seem the type to have a temper. She is calm, and relaxed; never raising her voice at anyone.
“I quit few weeks after that. I knew someday they would set me up for something bigger. I quit while I was ahead,” she said.
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“I went back home, and after some time, I got married.”
She looked at me sideways and we laugh.
“Was that Godson’s dad?”
“Yes,” she said. She played with her bottle, shifting it between her hands.
“He wanted to take advantage of me though. He thought I was a fool!”
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“He wanted to take a second wife,” she said, then she laughs, “so I told him to go away! I told him I hate nonsense!”
I felt sad for her. Aunty usually mentions how she doesn’t like the idea of marrying ever again, but she would never explain further. I just deduced that she must have been badly hurt. Now it made sense. There was silence.
“Did you live by his home?” I break the silence.
“No,” she said, “he came to live with me – you know our culture. But he left. He took in another wife after we separated. He left me with my little boy.”
She took a sip of her drink.
“Aunty, I hate silly games,” she continues. There’s a pause, then she laughs. Aunty usually laughs when we are having an uncomfortable conversation.
There’s silence around us, heavy with sadness from this revelation.
“So, who is Agatha’s father?” I ask. I might as well ask while she is this open.
“Some guy from ‘round about’ the area,” she says, then pauses.
“He was in Standard 8, I was in Standard 5 then.”
“How is that old?” I gasp.
“Aaah! Aunty, nineteen is old.”
“So why didn’t you marry him?” I ask.
“My mother said she didn’t want him.” She was silent, “but at that point, I had already tasted the lollipop,” she laughed.
“I didn’t even know I was pregnant. I didn’t have the knowledge. But my family knew because I started to hate fish. It made me puke!”
We burst into laughter. We laugh for a while.
“Aunty, I hated fish so much! I just wanted vegetables. My baby girl was refusing matemba!”
We laugh again.
“You’ll see when you get pregnant,” she jokes, “I wonder what food you will dislike.”
“Did the boyfriend know you were pregnant?” I ask, careful not to let her change the subject like she always does.
“No, he didn’t. At that point, we had stopped meeting. I had dropped out of school too. I guess he just wondered what happened to me. I didn’t have the chance to tell him that the lollipop we ate had crushed inside my mouth,” she says, and lets out a little laugh.
“I hear his uncle took him to Tanzania where he works. I’m sure he has a wife and kids now,” she continues.
“I think you should have told him,” I say.
“It would have been of no use,” she says.
There was another heavy silence as she played with her bottle.
“It’s fine, though,” she manages to say, almost whispering.
There was silence for a long while. Then we quickly finish our drinks and get back into the car.
The drive home is quiet again. We finally arrive at the gate at home. Aunty pauses before opening the car door.
“Aunty, I know you’re already getting pressure to get married. I know you’re good in the kitchen and people are already thinking of you finding a man. Just wait. Wait for a man who won’t take a second wife and bring her into your house.”
Before I have a chance to reply, she is already out of the car, opening the gate.
I slowly drive inside, park the car, and we begin to carry the bags of rice from the car into the storeroom. As I watched Aunty walk away, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe and admiration for her. Despite the hardships she faced, she still manages to carry herself with grace and dignity. It was then that I realised that Aunty’s resilience is not just a product of her circumstances, but a fundamental part of who she is. She is a survivor, and she will continue to survive, no matter what life throws at her.
*Names have been changed to conceal identity.
Three days later, my grandmother passed away. Aunty quit her job working for our home three months later. She had been with us for roughly two years. Home was never the same. The day she left shattered my heart, but I understood she had to go back home. Her sister remarried and could no longer take care of her kids. We stayed in touch for some time, but l lost her number for years. I only reconnected with her few weeks ago. She is still living at her village, but was badly affected by Cyclone Freddy. Her house, which she was building with her wages from working at home, is still standing, but she lost all her crops. Her daughter dropped out of school and is now married with two kids. Her son is still in school. She has never remarried. She survives by doing piece work.