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‘You look at me, and you judge me’ – An excerpt from Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi (Part 2 of 3)

Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi

As promised, here is another excerpt from Sweet Medicine, the debut novel by Panashe Chigumadzi.

Sweet Medicine is a thorough and evocative attempt to grapple with a variety of important issues in the postcolonial context: tradition and modernity; feminism and patriarchy; spiritual and political freedoms and responsibilities; poverty and desperation; and wealth and abundance.

Set in Harare at the height of Zimbabwe’s economic woes in 2008, Sweet Medicine is the story of a young woman raised by a devout Catholic mother who finds she has to compromise on her Christian values in order to get by.

This excerpt picks up where we left off in the first, with Chiedza having a rather uncomfortable conversation with Tsitsi:

* * * * * * * *


Panashe ChigumadziSweet Medicine

A burly man in a safari suit at the adjacent table spoke in nasal tones, “Look, Montreaux, the $300 000 US-made solar-powered irrigation system is rusting in a shed because they can’t maintain the damn thing and because they have that ‘Look East’ policy. So you can judge for yourself.”
Said the man next to him, “I’m a bit more optimistic. Though they’re playing an underhand game, I think this election will be a breakthrough. I can’t go into the specifics but there are encouraging signs. The cracks are beginning to show.’’
The two were addressing a taller colleague who was jotting down parts of their conversation on a dog-eared notepad. A mop of black hair, wet and greying at the edges, nose sunburnt and flaking, chest hairs peeking out of his white shirt. The archetypal Brit, born and bred, who had discovered this bit of Empire relatively late in life but nonetheless embodied a familiar colonial entitlement to the now independent territory, for it held a sense of romance and adventure ripe for mid-life crises. Romance held in the stubborn remnants of Rhodesia memorialised in a good number of British street names (Rotten Row included) that had managed to dodge the indignity of new native names while the natives themselves remained “extremely friendly and cheerful, which is remarkable under the circumstances”, “always joking”, “very hardworking, more so than the blacks from South Africa and Zambia I’ve encountered” and, like the noble savages so deigned by the British, “so well educated”. Adventure held in the TIA-ness of ‘The Decay of Africa’ and in the danger of imminent deportation for reporting the kind of things they were discussing now as the territory continued on its about- turn from the settlement secured by old Lord Soames.
Tsitsi decided she would report this to Zvobgo, and then turned back to Chiedza.
Chiedza took a long drag of her cigarette.
“Or …’’ Chiedza raised her finger, and her eyes grew bigger. “I’ve studied this before, I’ve got it!” She clapped her hands, startling the tables around them. “It’s necrophilia! He must be necrophillic. Where do you think all those missing people go to if they can’t be found at Mbudzi cemetery?” she said excitedly before dropping her voice to a whisper. “Fulfilling a fetish? Perhaps your living flesh can never satisfy him.’’
Hot tears pushed their way to Tsitsi’s eye sockets as she felt a surge of anger. Before she could string the words to tell Chiedza off for her insensitivity, her head began to pound even harder, paralysing her into resignation. She closed her eyes until the surge slowed, and found enough strength to stand up from her seat.
“Chiedza, you don’t need to act so happy at my situation.” Tsitsi’s eyes shone. She surprised herself with her words. She had never voiced that there was a ‘situation’. She couldn’t say it to Chiedza. By giving it a name, she felt she would give it the power to manifest itself and flourish in reality. If, instead, it remained in the limbo of unspoken words, it could surely be contained and eventually disappear of its own.
She felt the sensation she often felt when she drank, as if someone was pouring cement into her head. With these thoughts, it felt heavier and heavier.
“I’m not some little girl, a child, or someone’s whore. I’m a woman. A respectable one, Chiedza, so these things can’t concern me.”
Chiedza glanced at the adjacent table, checking to see if anyone had heard and then laughed.
“You know, Tsitsi, you are so quick to point out that you are not a prostitute. I just want to laugh because you are just falling into rank. You all should spare us your ‘morality’ that lauds ‘women’ over the supposedly lesser ‘whores’ and ‘girls’. That’s how society sees us. That’s how you see us. You want it to be that we are like coal, only to be loved in the dark and tossed like ashes come morning.”
She looked again at the table alongside, her hands fidgeting in her lap, manicured nails scraping at the buckle of her purse. Tsitsi could see tears well up in her friend’s eyes.
“You look at me, and you judge me. And I just want to ask, for what? I am fully in control. No one has a gun to my head. Why can’t this be my profession, one I have chosen for myself? I tell you, prostitutes are professional in their skills and practise it like the vocation of true apostles – and why shouldn’t they? What’s so different from the accountant or the doctor selling his time? I ended up in this profession in the same way someone might end up being a lawyer because they couldn’t get into engineering or dentistry, or because they couldn’t get into medicine, or even a banker who grew up telling everyone they want to be a soccer player. They do those things because that was what was available for their talents and their circumstances at the time. But do we pity them? No, because that’s lif—”
“Chiedza, I didn’t me—”
“No, Tsitsi, chimboterera. You of all people know the dreams that I had. The dreams that you had. Remember? I was going to be a businesswoman. I was going to be the chairwoman of Dairiboard, of African Sun, of all those ZSE companies. You wanted to be at the Reserve Bank, working on monetary policy and foreign exchange controls. But when we left UZ, things changed – the only spaces open were the NGO and the Ministry. And even that didn’t work. We had responsibilities to take care of, and this is where we are. Ndohupenyu hwacho, Tsitsi.”


* * * * * * * *


Watch this space for the third and final excerpt in this three-part series!

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