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Mwila Agatha Zaza



Mwila Agatha Zaza

Zaza lives and works in Zambia. as a mainstreaming specialist. She has published a collection of short stories entitled “Loving Africa”, her stories have appeared in magazines in Ireland and she participated in the British Council’s “Crossing Borders” project.


 The Chosen Child

 Finally I have a little girl. She has plump arms and legs and a protruding bellybutton, her skin is light brown and her eyes round and inquisitive. She looks nothing like me. I walked into a room and watched thirty children at play. From her second-hand clothing and uninspiring prospects for the future, I chose this little girl and named her Ella.

I’ve named her Ella, because I’d like her to sing. Perhaps one day she will be a great musician or another type of artist. She might be a dancer or a writer and people will say “What a lovely name” and she will reply “My mother named me after a great musician because she knew that one day I would be famous too” My mother was upset that I didn’t give her “a good Bemba name” and proceeded to list a number of relations whose names needed to be passed on. Maybe one day I’ll give her a middle name, but I don’t have that in my plans.

What her name was before is irrelevant. They told me at the orphanage and gave me a piece of paper that I filed for future reference. I had decided long ago that she would be called Ella when I knew I would adopt a child. I visualised her, her age, her colour, her weight, as if I were shopping for gift for a very special person.

With luck, fate decided she would be at the first home for abandoned children that I visited. How she came to be in an orphanage, with her first words those of Christian anthems and her first steps watched over by a three metre high wooden cross, was of little interest to me. I don’t consider myself sentimental, but I know one day she will ask. The director of the home recounted a typical story about a teenage mother but I paid little attention, observing Ella play and asking myself where she would go and not thinking about where she had been.

I am 40 and single. Some of my friends say they envy me, the rest would never openly declare it. At our age, their romances, their princes, their knights in armour have all come to dust. Some of these friends know that they are part of the 14.2 per cent and others don’t and refuse to know. But I’m sure they lie in bed at night wondering if their husbands have not only cheated on and used them but given them the virus as well. Their husbands wink at me covertly, while their wives – my friends - are turned away. I know that if a man of a certain age will try to sleep with me, he probably already has someone else besides his wife.

None of these friends invite me for a drink to tell me how wonderful their life is. They will rarely tell me how awful things are either. What I receive are snippets of the narrative of their lives.

“He came home so drunk he could not stand”

I wonder if this is her husband or son.

“I was in such a panic. We walked up and down the streets calling his name like mad people.”

It’s her son – a teen discovering the world, urged by alcohol and insalubrious friends.

“When we found him, there was nothing I could do. I was so happy he wasn’t dead. I cried all night”
Others deny the mediocrity of their lives by avoiding me. When we do stop it is for them to give a superficial account of their latest success lived vicariously through their offspring.
“My daughter passed with 6 points. She was the top of her class!”
“My son has been accepted at UCT!”
I don’t care. However, most of these friends regard my opinion as something important, I assume because I have chosen to remain on my own. Such an option was abhorrent to them when we were young and fertile. In our naivety we believed that our men would be the good ones, that we would be strong women, travel the world and be endlessly youthful. As I appear to have achieved more of that dream than they, I am a measure to which to compare waistlines, incomes and adventures. No wonder I have noticed a distinct arrogance growing in me recently, how can I help it?
My city is not kind to single women. When you are on your own dirt, dust and poverty matter much more. You have to work so much harder to secure your present and future, because there is no one to lean against.
I’ve built my house in a new neighbourhood that promises to be haven for the middle class, with its unpaved roads on which every passing vehicle whips up a cloud of dust or spits out a stream of mud depending on the season. I’ve learned the workings of a septic tank, how to change tyres and refill my own oil just so that every plumber, mechanic and station attendant doesn’t fleece me – though they still try. But this of course, does little to appease my family who every time they meet me remind me that I am not married and do not have children.
“What will happen if you’re in an accident” Who will take care of you when you are old?” they lament ceaselessly. “What about us, we want to be grandparents?” Even after I explain that these are not valid reasons to take the path of marriage and parenthood, that with few exceptions, nearly everyone I know has tried and too many have failed for me to want to imitate them.  
Their constant nagging is a reason to avoid my family’s company. It is also a perfect excuse to avoid the birthday parties, weddings, Amatebeto and whatever else people do in the name of family. Saturday afternoons surrounded by increasing numbers of nieces and nephews are only fun if you can leave at any time you choose. Not if you must first negotiate with a merry partner, then pry children loose from climbing frames and drag them off jumping castles.
Every year I am left with fewer friends with whom I would spend my Friday nights. As I approached forty, many of my friends left their husbands. There are also other women I know who have never married. However, this doesn’t make them good company. I make it a point to avoid those women, who have never married, not for want of trying, who hold God, the Devil, fate, their first boyfriend, their mothers and any other being with power, liable for their being single. Those kinds of women, who are desperately unhappy every moment of their lives, do not interest me. I can’t add to these women whose husbands have left them but who cannot see that they have a new opportunity to be happy; that they have been released from years of alcohol and infidelity and that if they would move forward they would be happy.
My closest friend Celine has left her husband and started afresh. I love to be in a bar or restaurant sipping a cocktail while recounting our latest adventures with men or money. We have spent our Christmas bonuses on trips to Mauritius; we are on first-name terms with the overweight, sad-eyed owners of bars and clubs from which we have been ejected by muscled bouncers who have made the availability of their sexual services evident.
We know that our peers laugh at us. Some even dare to scold us, saying it is indecent for us to be carrying on like teenagers “at our age” We tell them, but they don’t understand that at this age what other people think no longer matters.
Celine found it hilarious when I told her that I wanted to adopt. “You?” she choked on her Cosmopolitan.
“You don’t like children” Celine mirrored my own words back at me.
Celine is one of my closest friends. She knows I keep secrets; that is why she has confided in me over the years. She does not know that I have had Ella, fair skinned and wide eyed, written down in the little notebook that I’ve kept for five years. It’s a cheap Sobi notebook, with murky green brown cover, crooked lines and uneven grey paper. I started to write in it when, at 35, I woke up to the realisation that I would not find a man and have children. Though I had never pursued marriage, I had always assumed that it might happen. To remain single was my choice - but only through inaction. Then one morning, I realised that marriage was no longer an option.
“Aren’t you the one who is determined to grow old gracefully and single?”
“I am graceful and single” I reminded her.
She shrugged. “You can have my kids if you like?” She slouched into her seat until her head was level with the table. “After everything I’ve gone through, the work to keep that man, keeping food on the table. I always, stupidly, thought my children will appreciate me for it.”
I didn’t reply, watching her double D cup bosom heaving theatrically.
The people you’ve known over a lifetime accumulate, and Lusaka is a small city. These women; married, single, divorced, happy, unhappy, I’ve watched them widen, wrinkle, die, usually with someone at their side. I’ve seen them expertly balance babies on their shoulder – babies who then start to talk, go to school, fall in love. I’ve even held their hand as we buried little ones, or even as they move to the third generation.
I don’t envy them at all.
But, I do not want to be alone for the rest of my life.
“Do you want me to go with you to the orphanage” Celine asked, knowing that I would decline.  
It was soon after that I found Ella, who now takes up much my time. I now have something to do on a Sunday afternoon instead of sunning myself while drinking gin and tonic, while my neighbour’s teenage sons peep over the wall that separates our houses.
There are things I planned long ago, like her godmother, Celine, and the school she would attend. There are also things that I hadn’t realised I’d have to change, like my monthly budget and the woman who cleans my house.
I also had to get rid of my lover, which I didn’t foresee. Celine said it was a sign that I was becoming attached to Ella. “You’ll have to make sacrifices” she said, “I must have gone for years without sex because I was worried about what my kids would think.”
I’d been with Lennox for over a year. He wasn’t exactly a boyfriend. Lennox was one of the advantages of being single and having a little extra money in an impoverished country. He was 15 years younger than me and one of the most handsome men I’d ever known. He made me giggle like a little girl when he looked in my eyes; my heart started racing when he held my hand, and we laughed together about the most trivial things.  
I will never know if he really found me funny or interesting, or if he came to my uncle’s funeral because he actually cared. I’m pretty certain his affection for me was because he could take taxis instead of buses and was treated to meals in restaurants and hotel lobbies that he could never pay for himself.
Then one morning Ella ran into my bedroom and said “Hi Uncle Lennie!” and I realised that Lennox had to go. I imagined what Ella would think, years later, when she untangled the memory of me in bed with a man 15 years my junior. Being with him used to make me feel like a celebrity actress, but I decided it was a part of my life I had leave behind.
I never thought I would change my life because I was afraid my little girl would lose respect for me. I become one of those women in the supermarket with a nanny trailing behind me, pushing the trolley and reminding me to buy washing up liquid.
We were buying treats for a five-year-old’s birthday party, when I looked across the aisle to see Lennox glaring at me in the supermarket. In his trolley was a sack of mealie-meal, packets of soya and cabbage. He was wearing sneakers that I had paid for and the outline of his muscular arms and abdomen were accentuated by his too tight shirt.
I watched him for a while as he turned away and joined a queue. I thought about late night cocktails and early mornings in bed. A woman I once worked with distracted me waving at me and them weaving through the crowd. She immediately asked about Ella. I forgot about Lennox and like the proud parent I had become, described every tiny thing about my little girl, every word that entered her vocabulary, every new game she learned to play while this unhappy single woman listened transfixed.
I had just narrated Ella’s first day at playschool when the image of Lennox in bed on a Saturday morning flashed through my head. I looked back to where he still stood in the queue.
I knew he would accept my apology and take me back if I wanted him. But leaving him was so much more than just what Ella would think. It was the quest for something real. Not having to wonder if he had another woman in his life, if his mind was elsewhere when we were together.
Celine once asked me if I loved him, and I hesitated too long before saying no.
“You know he only wants your money,” she said.
“I am not an idiot!” I snapped, though she didn’t mean to offend me.
I wondered if he would find someone else to pay his way through life. There were many more women in this city with much more money than I – and he could always try a getting job. But men like him thought work beneath them. I remembered the look on his face, the sadness, the anger, perhaps there was real emotion there after all. Perhaps he had been in love with me.
Ella saw him and waved, “Hello Uncle Lennie!” My reverie was broken.
He smiled a thin smile and then waved back at her discreetly. Then he looked angrily at me and marched out of view, losing his place in the queue.
I followed the silhouette of his body as long as I could then I turned back to my envious friend.

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