As she emerged from the main entrance at Sotherdon Hall Care Home into the dark winter morning, Petronella remembered to turn the volume on her mobile phone. She would need it if she had any hope of hearing the alarm when it was time to return later today for another 12-hour shift. There were twenty-six missed calls on WhatsApp, all from an unknown Zimbabwean number. Her heart lurched. It had to be bad news from home.
“This time you won’t have to wait for me oh, ‘Nel!” said Chimaobi, emerging from the home and falling in beside her. “Fred is asleep. I made sure he was dry, though.” She hugged her shoulders as she became aware of the biting cold. “Where’s Cat?”
“Her turn to be late, I guess,” said Petronella, absently. “It sounded like the second floor was very busy all night.”
As they sank into the snug Kia, Petronella turned the engine on to warm the vehicle, and returned her attention to the mysterious number on her missed calls list and wondered what it could be a harbinger of. Steeling herself, she called it back. It was answered almost immediately by a familiar female voice. “Hello, Mai Paida!” Being addressed as the Mother of Paida only heightened her trepidation, and the breath caught in her throat. “It’s me, Gogo VaPaida.”
Paida’s grandmother. Paida’s paternal grandmother, to be exact. Petronella’s mother-in-law. She had never called her directly before, Petronella usually got a perfunctory greeting before the end of an hours-long conversation with her son, Greg. Petronella knew from their relationship- or lack of it-that if she had bad news, she would have called Greg and told him. “Oh, it’s Amai!” said Petronella, hoping she sounded pleased to hear from her mother-in-law.
“Mmm, you are very hard to get hold of, my daughter,” Paida’s Grandmother said. Petronella could visualise her shaking her head reprovingly. “I was beginning to think I was given the wrong number by Baba VaPaida.”
“I was at work all night, Amai,” said Petronella. “I have only just finished, and seen the missed calls. Is everyone OK in Zimbabwe?”
“Everyone is fine, my daughter,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of time, you know how expensive data bundles are here. Yesterday, I was in Chitungwiza, our church committee was at a conference. I called on your parents, seeing as I was in the area.”
“Oh, how are they?” said Petronella, trying harder to keep her voice buoyant. Six years of being married to her son had taught her that Paida’s Grandmother did not just call on anyone.
“I couldn’t help noticing that they have a new solar power system installed,” said Paida’s Grandmother.
“Oh..” Petronella found herself faltering. “Yes, Amai, you know how it is in the high density areas, the power supply has become more erratic over the years, so….”
“My daughter, all I want to know from you is how much of the cost of that installation was my son’s contribution, that’s all.”
There was a stunned silence. In the distance, Petronella heard Chimaobi welcome Catalina, the third member of their car pool.
“Amai Paida, was I not clear?” her mother-in-law’s harsh, termagant voice cut through the silence in her mind and jarred her back to the present. “How much did Baba VaPaida give your parents for their solar panels?!”
“Amai, where is this coming from?” Petronella sensed Chimaobi and Catalina looked up in reaction to the tearful edge in her tone.
“It is coming from a family that is tired of your husband’s antics!” said Gogo VaPaida. “A family that is disappointed by your failure to reign him in. A family that is angry as we see now the reason you have let him neglect his duty to us as the eldest son; because your loyalty is still with your people!”
When Gogo VaPaida started like this, it was best to let her carry on.
“My daughter, I told Baba VaPaida his siblings here are now tired of him not pulling his weight in the family! The money he sends us is not enough. It is not fair on Gulliver. His wife is so patient, she has never complained about the money that he spends on us..”
Neither have I, Petronella thought.
“Your husband has been telling us that he has not been able to get enough shifts to enable him to send more money,” Gogo VaPaida said. “But, when I saw the solar panels on your parents’ roof, you could land a helicopter on those, I realised that the reason he is neglecting us is because he is now carrying your family! Do you really think that is fair? My son works like a dog to bring you to the UK, and you cannot wait five minutes before you start sending pounds to your family! Yes, they live in Chitungwiza, but life is hard for everyone in Zimbabwe. What do you think your neighbours say when they see your bright new solar panels, but your in-laws are in need? How does that reflect on you as a daughter-in-law?”
The words seared through her whole being, and she stored them away with the rest. Later, when she got home, she would have a good cry. She had cried many times before, and it looked like she would cry many times more in the future. The only salve to this torture was that Greg, Baba VaPaida, never took his relatives’ side or stayed neutral when they attacked her. Such occasions were far and few because she never told him about them. But she had heard him shout on the phone, even to his mother, when they called to complain.
Mercifully, Gogo VaPaida was done. “My daughter, you are a mother like me, so even if you are upset at my words, you understand the pain behind them. I just want my son to remember the woman who carried him for nine months, gave birth to him and nearly died while doing that, and raised him while putting up with his father and his relatives. God who is watching, and those who are in the ground are watching. After opening the way for you to enter the UK, they will be angry if you repay them this way. I do not want to invoke such anger, so I never complain, but sometimes, it is too much. I need just US$200 for my new project. Your husband has been avoiding the issue, and I am losing my patience.”
“I will speak to him when I get home, Amai,” said Petronella, resignedly. The phone/broadband bill would have to wait another week, but there was the risk that they would be disconnected before then. That would impact Greg’s work, but there was nothing she could do about it right now. He could tether his mobile phone to his computer, like he did the last time. That last time, poor Greg had not been able to meet the deadline and lost that opportunity. With demands from back home persisting, he was not able to keep up with the bill until nearly a year later.
“Yes, you speak to him, because I want to see change! I thought with you and Paida joining him last year, things would improve, but they are worse! Thank you for listening, my daughter. I shall not hold you up any longer, you will miss your bus or train.”
Petronella thanked Greg again for enjoining her to never mention to any of their relatives that he had bought her a car.
“It is well, Amai,” said Petronella, sighing resignedly. “Have a good day.”
As she hung up, she sank back in her seat and composed herself.
“News from home, querida hermana?” Catalina asked, leaning over from the backseat to offer a comforting squeeze of Petronella’s shoulder.
Between sobs, punctuated by expletives of shock and indignation, and soothing words in a mixture of English, Igbo and Spanish from the other two women, Petronella relayed the conversation she had just had. Since she had never shared this much of her personal life with the Nigerian and Honduran, Petronella gave them the back story. She had met Gregory online while she was living in Harare. He had come down to see her, and Paidamoyo was conceived. However, they could not meet the financial requirements of a spousal visa. Petronella got a job with the Namibian government and relocated to Windhoek, where Paida was born. Gregory flew over whenever he could. Sally, one of his sisters, visited and reported back to the family in Zimbabwe that Gregory was keeping Petronella in a very expensive apartment. They crowed about in Whatsapp messages that eventually came to her attention when she could not renew her work permit and had to return to Zimbabwe. Gregory took up care work, and, after a year and a half, finally had enough in the bank to meet the visa requirements.
“If only they knew that nearly every penny that they get from him is really from me,” said Petronella. “When I came over, Greg quit care work so he could focus on his writing.”
“So he did not get your parents a fancy solar power installation?” said Chimaobi.
“No, the money came from my father’s outstanding pension, which finally came through last month,” said Petronella. “But Greg’s family thinks that any signs of prosperity in mine come from their son in the UK!”
Catalina muttered to herself in Spanish, while Chimaobi shook her head in commiseration. “Black tax is really something, oh!”
“Black tax?” said Catalina.
“That’s what we call it when one person is seen as having made it and is obliged to support all the less well-off relatives, no matter how distantly related,” Chimaobi explained. “It has its positive side; it can be seen as the African values that emphasise family looking out for each other.”
“Oh, we have the same in Honduras,” said Catalina. “But you know, part of our ancestry is African! But we have it in the indigenous culture too, and in the European one.”
“The downside of the system is that it can create a cycle of dependency and entitlement,” said Chimaobi. “At the other place where I sometimes pick up shifts there is a lady, I think she is Zimbabwean like you, ‘Nella. She came over in her late teens, she is in her 40s now. All she has done the past two decades is work or attend church. She has no husband or boyfriend, and rents a council flat. With the money she has sent home, her five brothers have each had several marriages in succession. She is looking after some seventeen children, two at university in Malaysia. In another twenty years, she will be too old to work. She will have nothing to show for the years she has been here, and she will be nowhere closer to alleviating the poverty back home.”
“My in-laws are well-to-do, actually,” said Petronella. “Gulliver, who comes after Greg, is a successful businessman. One of the sisters lives in Dubai, the other in Sandton, Johannesburg. The two other brothers, one of them is in the States and the other in Australia.”
“So, why are they bothered that your husband sends your parents money?” Catalina asked.
“It’s not just my parents, but our daughter and I,” said Petronella. “Greg himself summed it up nicely; Zimbabwean men are not allowed by the extended family to love their wives. It is all about control. If he takes up responsibilities elsewhere, he is no longer theirs to control.”
“You are lucky Greg does not give them that room,” said Chimaobi.
“He says he saw how it messed up his father, and he vowed that he would not let the extended family have that much power in his own marriage,” said Petronella.
“If he stays like that, you will be fine,” said Catalina. “We also have bossy matriarchs in our society. I have learnt to count on my Jorgé to stand up to them!”
“We all have that struggle with our families,” said Chimaobi. “You are not alone, my sister, oh! Chin up, take us home now. This is life. See, you look better now than when you started telling us about your situation!”
Petronella felt as if she had just poured a burden out of her soul. The Black Tax would always be a feature of her generation’s life. There would be many hurtful calls such as the one she had received from her mother-in-law. Feeling fortified, Petronella pulled out of the car park. It was still dark, but the sky to the east was imbued with shades of purple and gold.
By the time she got home, Greg had taken Paida to school. Petronella showered and breakfasted quickly. She was eating when she heard him come into the house. He would head straight upstairs to look for her. “I’m in the kitchen, babe!” she called.
He stood in the doorway, a triumphant grin on his face, his eyes gleaming. She had seen that look before. Many years ago, in their flat in Windhoek. He had received the news that a publisher wanted to buy his novella. “La Noire called last night,” he said.
La Noire Hume was his US-based literary agent. Petronella felt a flutter rise in her stomach. The last time she had felt that same flutter, she had seen the words Your application for a Family Reunion Visa has been successful…. in an email.
“A publisher, I forget the name, is offering two hundred thousand dollars in advance royalties for He’s Not Dead Yet, and La Noire thinks she can get a separate European sale!” said Gregory. “She also thinks that later in the year leading into the next, she can get the movie people slobbering. She’s fedexed the contract already.”
The cup fell from her hand, bounced off the table, its contents sploshing all over the granite finish, and landed at her feet. Greg moved towards her. “This is it, babe. After all those years of frustration and disappointment, you are looking at a successful writer!”
She was sobbing and laughing when he swept her into his arms, their relief and joy mingling. “We must tell no one just yet, babe,” he said.
Petronella pulled her head back and looked at him, a puzzled frown on her face.
“There is an article in the paper about Gulliver’s business empire,” said Gregory. “Seems my poor brother has been in trouble for a while. No one saw the need to tell me, because no one expects me to be in a position to do anything about it.” He laughed. “Gulliver needs two hundred thousand American dollars soon or a sheriff will attach his property, including the family home our mother put in his name so he could get a mortgage on his. They think I don’t know about that little arrangement. Two hundred thousand dollars, the money that is coming our way, is what they need urgently! This wouldn’t be just black tax for them, this would be serendipity!”
The good daughter-in-law in her began to ask him if they needed all of it at once, and maybe if they sent some of it to bail the family out, that would bring them all closer. What she did not tell him, what she knew he would never understand was this was an opportunity to prove to her mother-in-law that she was on the same team, that she could be counted on to keep Greg in line. Surely, if she could persuade him to send this much money, they would finally accept her as a member of the family?
Greg opened his mouth to reply, and they both felt the vibration in his tracksuit top’s inside pocket as his phone came to life with a shrill tone. He reached into his pocket, and held it out for her to see who was calling.
Masimba Musodza was born in Zimbabwe, and has lived most of his adult life in the United Kingdom. His short stories, mostly in the speculative fiction genre, have appeared in periodicals and anthologies around the world. He has written two novels and a novella in his first language, ChiShona. His collection of science-fiction stories, The Junkyard Rastaman & Other Stories, was published in 2020. Masimba also writes for stage and screen. He lives in Middlesbrough, North East England.
Photo by David Werbrouck on Unsplash