Getting old, caring for the old in London

It is tough looking after the elderly in London when you are also getting old

It is tough looking after the elderly in London when you are also getting old

Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday
On New Year’s Eve, when we were all in the village and still celebrating after 2am, we saw Mainini Maggie disappear with her phone behind the kitchen hut. Piri whispered to me saying: “Yaa, Mainini Maggie has an English boyfriend. Listen, she is speaking to him. If she has a man at her age, then there is plenty of hope for me! ”

Mainini Maggie lives in England.

She is our aunt, from Piri’s mother’s side.

Mainini left Zimbabwe in 2008, when there was so much hunger in town and also in this village.

Some people blamed the hunger on the sanctions, Tony Blair, George W Bush and everyone else who lived outside Zimbabwe and knew very little about Zimbabwe.

Piri and I hid behind the other side of the hut and eavesdropped on Mainini Maggie’s conversation.

It was rude to do that, but it was New Year’s Eve. There was no harm in listening to romantic talk between lovers wishing each other Happy New Year in Zimbabwe and Britain.

After all, the relationship between Zimbabwe and Britain goes back a long way, from the time we lived in Rhodesia, to Zimbabwe Rhodesia, to independence, to Margaret Thatcher, to Tony Blair, to sanctions and to the emigration of so many Zimbabweans to England, the country that we used to call our mother country. A little love talk between two people in two different continents was a good thing and something to listen to.

“I miss you too darling and happy New Year to you!” said Mainini Maggie, smiling into the phone. Then she paused, listening.

“Don’t worry darling, I will be there in a couple of weeks. Hang in there my dear,” said Mainini Maggie.

Then Piri giggled and Mainini Maggie saw us.

I made the sign of blowing a kiss, just to say how nice it was for Mainini to be wishing her loved one happy New Year over the phone.

Mainini Maggie whispered, telling us to keep quiet. She put the phone on speaker phone and this is what we heard:

“No, Maggie, you do not understand. It is only you that I want.”

Piri and I looked at each other and our faces dropped. It was not a man’s voice on the phone, but an old English lady’s voice. She sounded irritated and unhappy.

“Maggie, listen, I said I do not want this Ukrainian or Russian woman nursing me. I only want you. Please come back soon. Why do you want to stay in Zimbabwe for so long? That country is no good for you. It has never been any good to anyone! ”

“My dear Mrs Hamilton. I want to spend a bit more time with my family. I have not seen them for many years. But you know I will come back soon. Take care and happy New Year darling,” said Mainini Maggie with an English tone of voice we had never heard before.

Mrs Hamilton spoke a bit more about her pains and the rough treatment she was getting from the bad nurse. Piri and I listened. This was no romantic conversation. We left Mainini Maggie to her phone call and continued to enjoy dancing and looking at the village stars on New Year’s Eve.

“So, is there anyone else you call darling apart from the old lady?” asked Piri, laughing, when Mainini Maggie came to rejoin us.

“Iii, where would I get the time to even think of romance at my age? I am 65-years-old,” said Mainini Maggie, sitting down on the bench near the kitchen hut.

I have known Mainini Maggie for many years. She used to come over to our village and stay with Piri’s mother before the liberation struggle.

In those days, she was a Red Cross nurse at the clinic in Buhera. She married an agricultural officer or a mudhumeni. They had two sons. One day, when her husband was coming back home from the Native Commissioner’s office in Enkeldoorn (Chivhu), the vehicle that he was a passenger in hit a landmine.

He died on the spot, together with many others who died in that place near the steep hill at Hokonya.

Everyone said it was the war.

Nothing could have been done to stop such bad luck.

Mainini Maggie left her husband’s village during the war and moved to Mbare, in Salisbury, before it became Harare.

Then we heard she had married an elderly Malawian man who had no children of his own. The man had a small house and he treated Mainini Maggie’s sons as his own.

Just before the land reform and the turmoil and sanctions that followed, Mainini Maggie’s husband died. She was a widow again for the second time.

Her sons were already in their early 30s. In 2008, Mainini Maggie left for London.

She did not come home at all, because her immigration papers were not in order.

Last year, Mainini Maggie got her residence, which was followed by a British passport.

She did not tell Piri, Reuben or anyone, how she finally managed to get a British passport. Some people said she told the British government that she was a refugee, or that she feared persecution for her religious beliefs. People made up stories. But whatever Mainini Maggie said to get a British passport must have worked.

She was legally a British citizen now and could live in the UK and work wherever she liked as well as travel anywhere in Europe without being stopped by any suspicious immigration officer.

“I wish I had a British passport, or an American one or even an Australian one,” said Piri as we sat on the hard benches last Sunday at Harare International Airport.

Mainini Maggie’s holiday was over. She had already checked in but there was time for one last beer with us before she boarded the plane to London via Lusaka and Dubai.

“Even an Australian one?” said my cousin Reuben, the one who lives in Australia.

“Do no scoff at the Australian passport. It’s just as good as any other Western passport. The only bad passport is an African one. It needs a visa to get to get into Europe. ”

Then Piri started begging Reuben again to take her to Australia. Reuben said there was nothing for Piri to do in Europe, Australia or anywhere unless she has a visa. Besides, Piri had no qualifications. We had gone through this whole argument before. But Piri would not listen. She said, “I will clean the bottoms of elderly white people, I will serve tea with cakes, make beds, cook chips and make salads. I will say ‘please’ and ‘thank you madam’ even if she scolds me. Because me I want money, I will say, sorry madam thank you madam. What is so difficult about that?”

Then Piri carried on about neighbours or people she knew whose relatives had helped them to go to the Diaspora and work hard. She said those people have houses all over Harare.

One day, they will come back and enjoy their retirement here in Zimbabwe. Piri accused us all of being selfish. She said we did not understand the meaning of family any more.

Mainini Maggie told Piri that living in London was not as easy as it looked.

Life was hard and the English weather did not make it any better. As a nurse aide who cared for the elderly and the disabled, Mainini Maggie said she barely made enough money to pay her the bills or to send home to build a new home for herself. As it was, she had only managed to renovate the old Mbare house that she inherited from her husband.

But Piri would not believe her. Mainini Maggie lifted the heavy fur coat she had on her lap and showed it to Piri, “You think I want to go back to London and freeze? I am 65 years old and want to stay here, enjoy the sun and the laughter, go to church, come back and sit here on the veranda in Mbare, play with my grandchildren, listen to stories and watch people go past.”

“So, for how long will you look after another old lady when you are getting old yourself?” asked Reuben, taking yet another picture of us.

“You must start thinking more about yourself, your physical and spiritual needs, your material and also your emotional needs. Life is too short to give it all to the care of one old lady in London. Come back home, Mainini,” said Reuben, as he poured Mainini another Zambezi beer.

“I want to retire back to Zimbabwe soon. But if I do so, where would I start? What would I eat?” Mainini said.

We could sense the sadness, or perhaps, the despair in her voice. I could not avoid looking at her hands and imagined what work she must do when caring for the elderly in British homes for so many years.

  • Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.
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  • Musoro Banga

    nice article