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You Can’t Eat Beauty

A story by Panashe Chigumadzi
Pola Maneli

“Mama, what is ‘NO LYE’?”

Mama ignored Tsitsi. She prepared the relaxer for her client, an older girl from their street who was about to start as a trainee nurse in the new year. She was short and light and plump and, in Tsitsi’s judgment, so ugly that she would scare away the patients. Tsitsi got up from their sitting-room floor to behold the purple box on which the beautiful Dark&Lovely girl with long, shiny black hair smiled back at her. Tsitsi scratched her own mufushwa and practiced mouthing “NO-LYE RELAXER.”

“Please, Mama, what is ‘NO LYE’?”

“It means they are not lying.”

With that, Mama turned away from her and plopped the first creamy white glob onto her client’s scalp. Tsitsi didn’t really believe her but as she watched her mother transform her neighbor into a light Dark&Lovely Girl, it struck her as a wonderful lie. Just imagine, she thought to herself, with the help of this magic box Light&Ugly is going to trick all the patients and their visitors at Parirenyatwa into thinking that she really is Dark&Lovely! With some Ambi to clear up the spots on her skin, they might even think that she was too beautiful to live in Mbare.

“And they say, you can’t eat beauty,” Mama laughed as she held up the mirror for Light Dark&Lovely. It was the refrain women in their street threw at her because she was always painted and styled like the white woman they said she thought she was. Light Dark&Lovely was so pleased with her results that she couldn’t help but join in the laughter, too.

As Mama repeated it, it sounded a rhetorical question: You can’t eat beauty?

Oh, but you could, and they had. And for this, and the fact that she ate her money with her daughter alone, the neighbors called her a witch. It had always been just the two of them. Sure, Mama had always had “friends,” but she had never considered marrying them, let alone bringing them home because she didn’t want to take a chance on Tsitsi’s body—such were the dangers of love as a single mother. Fortunately, Mama’s hair business meant that her want of men would never become a need for them.

Tsitsi looked at the box again. She was mesmerized by the purple glory in which Dark&Lovely Girl stood and smiled. It seemed to her a shining dollhouse that she could also live in if she would just be allowed the special ritual, too.

*

Over the years, Mama landed clients in Harare’s Dales. One afternoon, when Mama was at a woman’s Borrowdale home, Tsitsi prized a new box of relaxer out of her storage cupboard.

Unlike Mama, Tsitsi put on the gloves and took care to lay out the instruction sheet, too, slowly mouthing out the descriptions to each stage. She found a knife and cut the wool tightly weaved around her thick mufushwa. As she mixed the ingredients and quartered her hair with the geometric precision that made her Mrs. Hungwe’s star Form Two math student, she imagined Mama’s impatience.

Finally, she was ready. She smoothed, then combed, the white mix into her hair. She waited for the burn. She pictured Mama swatting her clients’ heads for scratching their scalps or holding their noses in defense against the stinky smell, and did all she could to keep still until it did. She wanted to scream. She kept quiet. Everybody knows that you really need to burn your roots or suffer the fate of ending with the same hard mufushwa that you started with. Only when it became a white-hot fire on her head, did she allow herself to let out a murmur. As she knelt over to wash the cream out in the zinc basin, she found that she enjoyed the burning sensation so much that when the hairdryer sent the final round of fire onto her scalp, she burst into fits of giggles.

Her giddiness ended abruptly as she turned around to reach for the moisturizer only to find Mama instead. God knows how long she had been there watching. For what felt like an eternity, Mama’s inspecting eyes held Tsitsi in a kind of stupor. Tsitsi flinched as Mama raised her hands. Instead of delivering a blow to Tsitsi’s face, they went to her hair. Tsitsi was almost shaking as Mama’s fingers felt for burns on her scalp. Unable to find any, Mama stood back, surprised by her precocious daughter’s work. Tsitsi’s body remained tense until Mama began to baste her tender scalp with Blue Magic. Mama effortlessly pulled the blue fine-toothed comb through Tsitsi’s now silky, straight hair before heating her tongs and expertly curling her ends, so that Tsitsi was, to her assessment in the mirror, a more than decent approximation of Dark&Lovely Girl.

*

Tsitsi pestered Mama until she gave her permission to accompany her on the important call-out. Now and then, she still assisted Mama with big jobs even though she had clients of her own. Years back, when Tsitsi had told Mrs. Hungwe that was going to get a beauty therapy certificate instead of her A-levels, Mrs. Hungwe wrung her wrists, threw up her hands, repeating that familiar refrain, “Tsitsi, but you can’t eat beauty.” And yet here she was, accompanying Mama to State House. Which of Mrs. Hungwe’s students would ever set foot in the presidential grounds?

All through their kombi ride, Tsitsi had to remind herself that this was Mama’s client. Tsitsi knew she’d have to work hard to contain the hand’s itch she had nursed the moment she first laid eyes on the limp tendrils veiling the face of the twentysomething-year-old bride who smiled timidly next to her septuagenarian groom.

A bodyguard escorted them into a dressing-room-cum-home-salon. Jealous down, Tsitsi thought, as she laid out Mama’s equipment, she truly was more beautiful than the People gave her credit for.

“Good morning, Madam First La—”

“Amai! It is Amai! It is how many years and you people still don’t know that I am Amai? I am Amai to you.”

Tsitsi had clearly underestimated her in more ways than one. She was barely much older than Tsitsi, and yet here she was demanding that Mama call her Mother. Who knew such ugliness could come out of such a beautiful mouth?

“Good morning, Amai.”

Tsitsi knew that it was only because Mama could not say no to money that she was subjecting herself to this. With the first indelicate scrape of hair, the Mother howled like a small child. When the next brush caused the Mother to scream again, Mama dropped it and began shouting, too. “Nhai, Amai! If you don’t want pain, how am I supposed to make you beautiful?”

Again, Mama tried. Again, the Mother wailed. They were surely going to come to blows. Tsitsi stepped forward, wielding her comb.

“Amai, let me try,” both Mama and the Mother turned to face Tsitsi. “Everyone says I have a soft hand.”

It was true. Mama could not deny this. She stepped back reluctantly. With little time before her ribbon-cutting ceremony at the children’s hospital, the Mother acquiesced, too. She sat uneasily, but was soon comforted by the delicate weight of Tsitsi’s hands as she diligently washed, then set her hair in rollers and pulled them out so that her hair fell into the tendrils Tsitsi so hated. The Mother made to get up, but Tsitsi clasped her hands, gesturing for her to stay seated. Tsitsi knew not to push a new client too far.

Ever so slowly, she began to tease out sections of the tight curls, making sure that the Mother could see what she was doing. In time, her inclinations to object were lulled away by the large, soft undulating waves forming on her head. When she was finished, the Mother did not say anything to approve except, “You’ll have to come with so that you can fix any strays.”

*

The children did not smile at the Mother. They hadn’t all morning despite all the toys and the shoes and the Freezits and Mazoe and cake and ice-cream her aides had plied them with.

A nursing sister humbly suggested that the children were likely tired. Perhaps they should end the ceremony. As she made her plea, Tsitsi spotted a solitary toddler whose nostrils overflowed with mucus down to her pouting little mouth in the corner of the new play area. She had never had the mothering instinct, but felt so offended by the child’s appearance that she pulled out a tissue from her bag and gingerly began wiping its nose. Just as Tsitsi instructed the child to blow harder into the tissue, a ZBC cameraman hovered over her. 

Tsitsi looked behind her and saw the Mother scowl. She thought quickly and deposited the child into the hands of the Mother who initially received the child as if she were a dirty bag of potatoes. As soon as the cameraman appeared, the Mother transformed. She began to make baby noises, pinched the child’s cheeks, and, to Tsitsi’s surprise, committed so fully to her impromptu role that she kissed the child right on her still snotty nose. The child laughed. The room applauded the Mother’s motherliness.

Tsitsi received a call from the Mother the next day, “Did you see The Independent today? All these years of charities and orphanages and rural welfare schemes and what have you and this is the first time they have something nice to say?” Before Tsitsi could respond, the next instruction was issued, “I will see you next weekend.”

Tsitsi immediately decided that they were going to try Mama Africa. She googled Bella Naija at the corner Internet cafe and ransacked her cupboard for her copies of Genevieve and ThisDay. For a fitting crown, the unassuming dhukus worn by the country’s rural womenfolk would not do—they declared their wearer a cleaner rather than a Queen, so Tsitsi would have to look to other great head-tying traditions.

Printouts and magazine copies in hand, Tsitsi appeared at Mr. Omotoso’s popular Avenues dress shop and demanded that he tutor her in the art of gele tying. Once her initially reluctant instructor was satisfied that she had mastered the basics of the craft, she was trusted to improvise on queenly styles. It was a hasty tutorial, but Tsitsi, fast learner that she was, quickly graduated to the art of creating sky-high cloth crowns.

When Tsitsi arrived a few hours before the Mother’s fourth annual orphans’ Christmas party, she knew she would not get anywhere if she spoke of her intentions. She simply carried out the beginnings of her usual routine, washing and blowing out the Mother’s long hair. Instead of putting it in rollers, she combed her hair back. The Mother opened her mouth to object just as Tsitsi pulled out a beautiful length of red-and-gold printed brocade material so long that she had to fold it twice across the length of her shoulders. Tsitsi suddenly stretched the gele in front of the Mother’s face, muffling the sound of her protests. She slowly wrapped it around her head, pulling tight, as if to confirm that indeed this was the direction they would be taking, whether she liked it or not.

Carefully, Tsitsi made her first pleat, overlapping the material at the back of the Mother’s neck, bringing it forward to middle of her forehead, taking it back again, and fastening it tightly on the Mother’s head. With heightened ceremony, Tsitsi began to make more pleats, round and round and round her head, until she had constructed a tall red-and-gold spiral that so hypnotized the Mother that she felt she was finally receiving the coronation she, unjustly, had never had. The Mother beamed under her new crown. Its imposing height and weight fit her so well that she soon came to feel naked without it in public.

*

“How does this look?”

“It looks fine, Amai.”

“Just fine? Mai Kunaka sowed it just for Amai’s first official South African visit—what’s wrong with it?”

“There is nothing wrong with it, Amai.”

“So then?”

“Well, Amai, if I am honest, I think it makes Amai look older than Amai is.” Tsitsi was lying. Really, the outfit, a pink lace dress, cinched at the Mother’s small waist, cowled at her smooth neck and trailing to her dainty feet, matched with a light pink gele, did no such thing, but Tsitsi knew that nothing was more precious to the Mother than her youth. Tsitsi was enjoying the Mother’s growing dependence on her approval and had began to actively cultivate it. “To be fair, Mai Kunaka is older, so her tastes might be better suited for Amai.”

As Tsitsi expected, even the oblique comparison to the matronly Mai Kunaka ripped straight to the heart of Mother’s youthful vanity and sent her into a panic, “We’re supposed to fly this afternoon! What are we supposed to do?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll call Mr. Omotoso to bring some outfits, okay?”

When Mr. Omotoso, who, after agreeing to what he felt was a reasonable cut for Tsitsi, was on standby, arrived with an entire wardrobe of tight-fitting clothes just thirty minutes later, the Mother almost collapsed in relief. Mr. Omotoso and Tsitsi cooed at each outfit the Mother turned out in.

Look at you!”

“Now this is a showstopper!”

“Have you ever seen a First Lady more youthful?”

“They will mistake you for Baba’s daughter!”

Never mind that some uninformed people already did mistake the Mother for the Father’s daughter, the flattery spun the Mother into a flurry of delight so delirious that Tsitsi once again thought the Mother would collapse as she moved to and fro in front of the mirror. 

Once Mr. Omotoso had left and the trip’s outfits had been packed into the Mother’s Louis Vuitton luggage, Tsitsi decided to risk throwing the Mother off one more time. She began to stare at the Mother’s head.

“What? What is it?”  The Mother began swatting at the sides of her head as if there was a fly circling it.

“Nothing. I was just thinking.” Tsitsi began to squint.

“Thinking about what? Come out with it.” The Mother moved closer to the mirror to see if she did not have a pimple on her forehead.

“Well, I was just thinking that if Amai really wants to look young, we should take off the head wrap and chop it all off.”

“Chop it all off? You mean Amai with short hair? It’ll make Amai look like a schoolgirl!”

“I thought Amai wanted to look young?”

The Mother kept quiet, touched her head. “What about Amai’s headwraps?”

“Amai’s headwraps look wonderful, but we don’t want to be so predictable. We want to keep the People guessing.”

The Mother nodded and kept quiet again. “You really think short hair would look good on Amai?”

“And why should I lie? Amai is a dream client. Amai can pull off any style.” Tsitsi was already plugging in a pair of clippers. It was true. The Mother really could pull off any style. She had a rare flair for reinventing without fictionalizing herself.

“Are you sure?”

“Why not? Amai should take risks.”

As they made their way through the airport the Mother could barely stop touching her risk, pretending that she was attending to an itch. Tsitsi trailed behind her. She was sure that the Mother was about to pull off her scarf and wrap it around her new, tinted brown crop, when they both overheard a Rihanna-ed Home Affairs official whisper, “Jealous down, Amai is a natural beauty.” To which her Popcorned colleague responded, “And they say Zimbabwean women aren’t beautiful!” Like a giddy schoolgirl, the Mother cupped her mouth and turned to face Tsitsi who gave her two thumbs up.

*

As soon as the General made a surprise announcement that the military wanted to bring the elections forward on account of the Father’s age, Tsitsi knew to expect the Mother’s call.

“Let’s do twists today.”

“Ewo, Amai.”

After years together, Tsitsi knew not to try to persuade her to do something less time-consuming, like a weave or wig installation. In times of crisis, the rituals of grooming helped to ease the Mother’s mind. The more intricate, the better. Attending to what she could control, she reassured herself, renewed her sense of power.

“Come by yourself.”

“Ewo, Amai.”

Tsitsi also knew not to insist on her two assistant stylists. They would have reduced the eight hours that the countless tiny identical twists demanded to two, but in this time, there were few the Mother felt she could trust. If she could trust Tsitsi with what was most precious to her—her image—she could trust her with her life.

It had been a while since the Mother had sat for twists, so Tsitsi had to stop at her new salon opposite the OK supermarket on Fife Avenue to fetch the hairpieces. With the Mother’s generous funding, Tsitsi had converted a crumbling house into Woman’s Crown and installed Mama as its manager.

As Tsitsi made to park her silver Rav4 under the jacaranda tree canopy, she was distracted by a large noisy crowd gathered a short distance away from the OK. She couldn’t tell whether they were riled up about the General’s announcement or had just found an innocent victim onto whom they could pummel out their frustrations. She hoped it was the latter. She had big plans for Woman’s Crown.

Just as she drew in a big breath to calm herself, Tsitsi hit a pothole and ended up swerving her left rearview mirror into one of the rotting tree stumps. Damn. She slammed her steering wheel. The horn’s blare alerted a few of the young men lined up on the Avenues hustling CDs, DVDs, windscreen wipers, car-wash detergents, forex, and erectile dysfunction drugs. Two of them, one with short, unkempt dreads, another with a bald head, appeared at her tinted window.

“Sista, how can we help you?”

Tsitsi was about to shoo them away like pesky mosquitos, but decided that she might as well have it looked at while she was inside Woman’s Crown.

“Rasta, can one of you fix it?” She pointed a french-tipped finger to the mirror.

“Iribho, sista. Two dollars.”

“Tibvire, I can get any one of these small boys hanging around here to do it for fifty cents.”

“Sha, sista—”

She began raising her window.

“Okay, okay, sista, don’t go.”

Tsitsi lowered her window again, “I’ll give you one dollar.”

He clasped his hands in gratitude, and quickly set to work with his friend trailing behind him as she looked for coins in between her ten-, twenty- and fifty-dollar note wads. 

As he bent to fix the mirror, the dreaded man stopped to hold his bald friend’s arm, “Blahz, let me tell you the one that was played to me today.”

“Iii, which one?”

He broke his seriousness and shook his head in laughter, “Ha, I was just finished with one of my regulars, when this old man in his old Benz parked that side where Divine and her girls usually wait for their clients. I saw him and ran to him before the others got there. The old man slowly opened his door and asked for two packets. I gave them to him and he gave me five dollars. We all know things are tight, so I thought, let’s help each other, and asked, ‘Mudhara, should I look for you here tomorrow for the other five?’ He opened his cubby hole, showed me his gun and said, ‘Mfana, are you really trying to ask me such a silly question?’ and then he drove off!”

“Blahz, you were hijacked!”

The two men dug into each other’s ribs.

“Imagine! I nearly lost my life just because the old man wants to keep up with his young small houses.”

“Tingazvitesei? This is what happens when all these men are suffering from ED.”

Tsitsi finally found a bond coin at the bottom of her Ferragamo handbag and gingerly dropped it into his hands, reminding herself that she should really try to find a better location for the second salon she was planning to open next year.

“Thanks, rasta.”

“Thanks, sista.”

Inside Woman’s Crown, Tsitsi found Mama helming the front desk in a bright red, floor-length floral wrap dress and large afro wig. Her left arm was crossed over her ample proportions as she carefully studied the appointments book with a manicured finger.

“Maswerasei, Mama?”

“I can’t complain, Tsi.”

Tsitsi could see that Mama was distracted. Her eyes flit up and down from Tsitsi’s black platforms to her white shirt dress to her fade several times. The dress she would approve of, but Tsitsi knew she would have something to say about the haircut because she thought her daughter’s head was too small for the style to work.

Tsitsi was too worried about the General’s announcements to take Mama on. She was tempted to confide in Mama, but she knew what she would say: “Tsi, Pepukai and Doxa have just finished building houses for their mothers. Those girls are making good money. Cash. Forex. Why don’t you go and work in salons kuJoburg or London like everyone else?” It was as if Mama could not see that Tsitsi had to come too far to consider talk of renting a station in a crowded salon again. Either Mama truly could not see, Tsitsi thought, or she was jealous.

“Amai wants twists today.”

Mama grimaced, as if in disgust at such a boring style.

“I know my client.”

Mama pretended to shrug, “Horaiti, Tsitsi, I’ll tell Shingi to take the hairpieces to your car.”

*

When she arrived, the Mother’s bodyguard had instructions for Tsitsi to go to the master bedroom.

“Gogogoi,” Tsitsi knocked on the door. As she waited, she almost wished that the Mother had not made this request. Although the master bedroom was right next to the home salon, Tsitsi had never set foot in it, let alone seen the inside of it.

“Pinda,” a feeble voice came.

Tsitsi almost tripped as she entered what seemed a pit of darkness. Motion sensors lit the large room dominated by an over-the-top, oversized, three-piece, ivory-colored bedroom suite. The Mother sat up straight on the lefthand side of the master bed. The Father could not have been nearby because the Mother had a bare face, and had only a dhukhu that matched the dark green regalia zambia embellished with the Father’s face tied around her small frame. No matter what time Tsitsi had shown up to attend to the Mother, Tsitsi had never seen the Mother look like this.

“Amai, is everything okay?”

“Put the hair pieces down. Sit next to me,” the Mother patted the space on the bed where the Father would have slept. As Tsitsi sat, it suddenly occurred to her that she had never laid on or even touched a marital bed before. This, together with the fact that the Mother referred to herself as “me,” unsettled her.

“Tsi, there are many people who want me out of here. I need to do everything I can to keep my place.” Tsitsi kept quiet and nodded. The Mother continued. “I want you to work for me alone. Can you do that?”

Tsitsi knew it was not really a question. “Yes, Amai, I can do that.”

*

On the tarmac to welcome the Father and Mother as they alighted the national carrier were the Vice President, the General, his Guns, a bevy of ministers, a traditional dancing troupe, a smartly dressed children’s choir, and a ZBC News crew ready to capture their return from China. 

Tsitsi had just put away the hair and makeup kits when she heard the Mother scream. She rushed out to their stairs to find a group of Guns scrambling to pull the Father up from the red carpet by his armpits, as the Mother threatened to smash the poor ZBC cameraman’s camera if he did not hand over the footage immediately. Anyone with eyes could see that the Father man was past a grandfather and had become an ancestor living on borrowed time, but the Mother could not have the image of his fall from their stairs confirm that.

Tsitsi moved to comfort the Mother who was still shouting hysterically, and now slapping the arm of the Gun who was closest to her, “Who is the fool that made Baba fall? Bring them here! I will fix them!”

The Father insisted that he had merely tripped. Really, there was no need to worry. No sooner was the Father on his feet, though, than he was back on the floor. A stretcher was sent for.

When the Guns tried to pull him up again, the Father took on the Mother’s hysteria and swatted them away, “My wife! Where is my wife? I want my wife!”

In a blink, the Mother was on the floor fanning the Father’s face just as furiously as she fired her barrage of insults to all around them, “Who is the snake sent to destroy Baba? Better they speak now, because I will crush them when I find them!”

Like a chick in a hen’s embrace, the Father seemed to glow under the Mother’s protective fire. After speaking in hushed tones among themselves, the Vice President and the General joined and stood over the Father.

“Er, Baba, you were due to address the Youth at the Rufaro Stadium later this afternoon. It might be advisable that we have a stand-in.”

“Yes, yes.”

“Yes, we were thinking…”

 “Yes, think it would be fitting that Amai address the young boys and girls, would it not?”

The Mother kissed his forehead. The Vice President and the General broke into tight smiles. The General tried his hand at diplomacy, “Baba perhaps it would be better if you have a more, er, familiar, face?”

“Who is more familiar to the people than their Mother?”

“Yes, yes, of course, Baba.”

“Good. Amai will stand in for me today.”

*

With little time before the rally, Tsitsi had to apply her mind on how to best improvise the party regalia so that it was figure-hugging, flattering, and functional. She stood the Mother in front of the home salon mirror in a red-and-yellow two-piece dress suit and headwrap—printed, of course, with the Father’s face—and admired her work. Tsitsi would be the first to admit, the style was loud, gaudy, vulgar even, but it would be effective. It would color-coordinate with the T-shirts, zambias, and dhukhus that the Mother demanded the Youth League find in time to be distributed alongside the bags of maize and fertilizer at the afternoon’s rally.

“We have twenty minutes before the driver comes, listen to my speech. I’ll just do the first part.”

Tsitsi sat down. The Mother began. She could barely get through a sentence without stumbling. Tsitsi winced. She was sure she preferred a priest’s droning to the Mother’s stop-and-start. As she stumbled on “reindustrialization,” the Mother looked up and saw Tsitsi’s face, “What is it?”

Tsitsi tried her best to straighten her face. “Well…”

“Well, what?”

“What if we left the paper?”

“How will the Mother know what to say?”

Tsitsi pressed hard against her temples. She needed something more natural to the Mother, “Remember what Amai said about the General’s skin bleaching?”

“Yes, he should get a new dermatologist. What about that?”

“Right. This is Amai’s pulpit.” She pushed her chair to center of the salon and placed another two chairs behind. If the Mother could be not a great orator, Tsitsi reasoned, she would be a great performer. “I will sit here. I am the General’s Wife. Next to me is the General. What is Amai going to say to us?”

The Mother hesitated. Tsitsi held out a brush to her, “Remember, Amai told me that his young wife is just a glorified small house?”

Just she was about to make another suggestion, the Mother grabbed the brush-mic from Tsitsi and pointed at the chair next to her, “You, General. We all know that you use. Although, whatever cream it is, it’s not good. The caramel around your chocolate cheeks gives you away!”

The Mother suddenly pointed at Tsitsi, “You, General’s Wife, you, we want to know, why are you forcing your husband to use?”

The Mother maintained her seriousness as she turned to face the constituents in the mirror, “God’s people, this is what happens when an old man tries to keep up with a model wife half his age. Nhai, can we really trust a man who uses to lead the army, let alone the country? If he lies to us about his color, what else will he lie about?”

The Mother faced her constituents again, raised her left eyebrow, and cackled. Tsitsi burst into applause. The Mother was like a talented actor who reads the script but does much more than is written in it. And oh, what a thrilling performer she proved to be on the national stage! If the Father’s magisterial orations demanded that he always stood still, dignified, disciplined at the podium, only ever lending movement to a raised fist, the Mother’s bar-brawl language required her to make use of the entire berth of the stage, cajoling her entire body and face into stark expressions to emphasize her statements, laughing when she found that she made a particularly good point, declaring that they were dealing with enemies, sellouts, and saboteurs in their midst—only just stopping short of naming the General and the Vice President—“Let them stop being cowards! Let them bring their guns out in the open!”

Who could believe such things could come out of such a pretty mouth? Who could believe what this woman was saying? No one could and that only added to the potency of this political thriller, which the Youth—T-shirts, zambias, dhukhus, and beers in hand—egged on with their new favorite slogan: “Everyone to the Mother!”

No sooner had the Mother begun rehearsing her next speech in front of the chair-pulpit than she had pushed off it, brush-mic in hand, cursing, “Puppet! Coward! Dog of a person! Snake in the grass! Whore!” as she paced up and down the salon. Having saved the best for last, the Mother suddenly stopped mid-stride, readying herself for her final strike.

“Amai will make you fall!”

Just as Tsitsi was about to applaud, the Mother suddenly thrust her forehead, crash, into the mirror. In horror, Tsitsi got up from her chair to help her as the Mother bent over howling. She had caused the mirror to crack, but her forehead was saved by the white dhukhu she was wearing, Tsitsi’s stylized design taken from the ones worn by the women of the Apostolic Faith whom the Mother would be addressing at a rally the next day.

“I think Amai can just stand still at that part. Isn’t it enough that Amai is telling the Vice President his days are over?”

The Mother shrugged Tsitsi off, “Amai is fine. We just need to try it again.”

Tsitsi sat back in her chair, knowing that there was little else that motivated the Mother as much as failure. The Mother took off her dhukhu and this time executed her head-butt within inches of the mirror—before adding another improvisation: a flick-back of her weave, a move that could have restored to feminine equilibrium an all-too masculine move, but failed.

Through her reflection in the mirror, the Mother looked at Tsitsi expectantly.

“Amai is going to address people of God tomorrow. It’s too rough. Too angry. Too much like a man. Let’s try it without…”

The Mother did not wait for Tsitsi to finish before resuming her rehearsal.

Once at the National Stadium, Tsitsi knew too well that whatever advice she had given her would be disregarded as she watched the Mother being transformed by the experience of complete power over the thousands paid and bused in for her performance.

God’s People or not, the cheering, video-taking crowd was motivated by a greedy and cavalier selfishness sought and sustained by the Mother herself. In the presence of others, the Mother had an uncanny knack for serving up impromptu rivalries and scandals and indignations, always with the effect of adding something more colorful, more vivid, more thrilling than would otherwise have existed.

Uneasy as she was, Tsitsi could not help but smile as the cheers rose to a maddening crescendo, demanding more and more from the Mother until finally she erupted and delivered the coup de grace of her speech—only this time “fall!” was declared almost as instantaneously as she jolted her forehead into the rapturous applause of God’s People, who, though stunned by her incredible aggression, were like bystanders at a terrible accident scene, unable to look away.

In the stadium’s din, Tsitsi was suddenly overcome by the ominous feeling that a line had been crossed. She saw in the Mother’s eyes the rapt look of someone who feels she has done something: created a scene that people will remember.

*

At first, the Mother was icy as Tsitsi undid, washed, and treated her hair. A few hours into installing the new set of twists, Tsitsi could sense the Mother’s unease melt steadily under the glow of the home salon’s Hollywood makeup lights, so that by the time they heard the distant sound of explosions going off, her mercurial temper quickly shot into a show of bravado, “Let them bring their guns here! Amai will fix them!”

And now, here they were. Tsitsi was surprised by how uneasy the Guns were as they walked into the salon. After taking in the shelves of mannequin heads topped with afro, braided, Rihanna, Brazilian, Mongolian, Peruvian weaves and wigs, and the swaths of synthetic and 100 percent human hair hanging under the Presidential Portrait, the Guns stood momentarily perplexed, as if they had walked in on their naked mother.

“Stop it! Amai will slap both of you! Staring as if you have never accompanied your women to the salon. Is it that you are so stingy that they can’t get their hair done? Or that you don’t you have women?”

The Guns avoided eye contact with the Mother as if her half-braided, half-afroed head had suddenly metamorphosed into the half-snake head of Medusa and they, too, would be turned into stone as she had done with her poor, senile husband. Just then, the General walked in, momentarily breaking the spell. For an instant, all Tsitsi could do was look at his skin. He broke into a gap-toothed smile, regarding the room as if he had finally come upon the Mother’s real source of power.

“Get out! All of you!” Pushing Tsitsi out of her way, the Mother got up and began shooing the three men as if they were bothersome little children. Without flinching, the General grabbed her arm and pushed her back down into the salon chair.

“Where is Baba? Does he know what you are doing?” The Mother’s voice was a shaky version of its usual shrill timbre. Tsitsi saw that the Mother’s face was suddenly wet with tears. She looked pathetic.

The General drew an impatient breath. “Baba is safe. We will take you to him if you cooperate.”

“She stays until she finishes Amai’s hair,” the Mother’s voice was as firm as she could muster. If there was one thing she would fight for in this moment, it was this. The Mother would rather die than let the Father see her without her hair done or full-face makeup.

The General looked as if he were about to pull the Mother up by the arm but knew that he couldn’t afford to bruise her. Like a parent dealing with a tantrum-throwing child, he closed his eyes and drew in his breath again, “Ngaa bhanzure.

“Her hair in buns? You can’t expect Amai to go out like that!” Everyone turned to face Tsitsi, surprised that she would speak out of turn. “I’ll be fast.”

Unwilling to prolong their interaction, the General left the salon without a word, leaving his two Guns, who stood with their rifles across their bodies as if guarding their manhood from castration by one of these unhinged women.

Tsitsi set to work, improvising. The hair that was unbraided she plaited into neat cornrows. The braided hair she wove into a mat of evenly spaced rows. From behind one of the soldiers, she pulled out a drawer from which she took out black wool and a thick needle. She looped the wool through her thick needle and sewed the bottom tight, braiding the loose ends into one long strand, which she folded back in on itself before finally sewing tight.

Once she had prepared a neat bed for the wig she was about to put on, Tsitsi moved the Guns out of her away so that she could survey the mannequins. Excitement and fear mixed together in her body as she looked at the new range of lace front, afro, and hand-braided wigs in various shades. She fastened a black hand-braided wig onto the Mother’s head: not too showy, just humble enough.

*

With one hand, Tsitsi tightened her red regalia zambia firmly over her breasts so that one of the Father’s noses was firmly under her armpit. It was early in the evening, she was on her phone watching “Best Of” clips of the Mother’s rallies, and someone was knocking frantically on her door.

Tsitsi remained in bed. Since the General had his Guns escort her home, Tsitsi had not heard from the Mother. Tsitsi obeyed a self-imposed house arrest and dared not leave her apartment on Josiah Tongogora Avenue, whether to see what was happening across the street at State House, or even to check on Woman’s Crown a few streets away on Fife. The knocking continued. Maybe they were coming for her, too?

“Tsiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!”

She should have been relieved, but Tsitsi had to draw in a deep breath. She exhaled as she pushed herself off her bed and silently made for the entrance. Mama’s knocking and shouting only grew in strength until Tsitsi opened the door.

“So, you don’t have a mother anymore, isn’t it?”

Tsitsi kept quiet. It was true. She had been ignoring Mama’s calls. Everything was happening so fast, which sometimes made her angry with herself for not being bold enough to do something, but Mama’s panic was not going to help.

“Just look at you. People will say you don’t have a mother! You look like you haven’t bathed in days, your fade is not a fade anymore, and your eyes are red!”

“Mama, you will not come here…”

Mama pushed past her into the sitting room. Tsitsi followed.

“How many times did I warn you, Tsi? This is what happens when you trust a woman who borrows her power from men!”

“Mama, if things had gone to plan Amai was no longer going to need Baba.”

“How is that possible when she was always acting like a silly little girl? You should have left when I told you to!”

“What would I have told Amai? She would have closed down all of my shops and I would never work anywhere in Harare!”

“And where do you think you are going to work now, Tsitsi? What kind of woman will allow any of us to touch her hair? It’s all over, Tsi. Did you see what those men did to the Youth League? Had they really known that you were the one whispering things into Amai’s ear, they would have arrested you, too! Thank God, they only saw a hairdresser!”

Tsitsi began to cry. Mama caught herself just as she was about to threaten to give her a reason for her tears if she kept at it.

“A grown woman does not cry, Tsi!” 

But Tsitsi did. She continued to cry, leaving Mama at a loss for what to do until she tried what she knew best. She dropped her bags, pulled her daughter up by the armpits, and led her to the bathroom. Mama unwrapped Tsitsi’s zambia and sat her down in the tub. Tsitsi flinched and grimaced as Mama roughly scrubbed her skin with a soaped-up pumice stone, just as she had done when she washed Tsitsi as a girl in the zinc washing basin. Mama had taught her not to squeal. Now that she was a grown woman, Tsitsi took the stone from her and scrubbed herself until her skin felt raw and she was satisfied that she had rid herself of old skin.

If beauty was pain, as Mama had always said with almost as much frequency as she repeated that a woman’s hair was her crown, this pain was her duty. Oh, and what a glorious duty it was, catching Mama’s approving eyes in the hand mirror she held for Tsitsi. “Now, just look at you.”

Finally letting herself take it in, Tsitsi smiled, softening in the hard-won light of Mama’s approval. Yes, she was her mother’s precious self-image.

*

Tsitsi was beginning to feel good about herself again, washing her hair and putting in a fifteen-minute leave-in conditioner, when Mama’s little goat of a phone began bleating from between her breasts. She dug it out and read her message aloud, “It’s Mai Musoja. She says, “Baba to announce resignation on ZBC.”

Tsitsi put on a towel and followed Mama to the sitting-room TV. They waited. Ad after ad appeared. Tsitsi still had the conditioner in her hair. Her scalp was beginning to sting a little. When the Father did finally appear, he was flanked by the General and several other officials.

Mama looked at the General and sucked her teeth. “How can people trust a man who bleaches to be the leader of a sovereign African nation?”

“You know, I helped Baba maintain that smooth blue-black skin of his,” said Tsitsi. “After I saw the Kardashians getting Vampire facials, I advised him to try them on a visit to Singapore. Did you know that’s where that rumor that Baba changes his blood whenever he goes overseas comes from, Mama?”

Mama did not reply. She kept her focus on the Father. Without his tailored suits, shining skin, and jet-black hair, the Father could no longer deceive the People into believing that he was going to outmaneuver, outlast, and even outlive them all. He looks like the mudhara he is, Tsitsi admitted to herself. She dared not say aloud how she amazed she was at how, in just over a week, the Father had developed a stoop, his shoulders hunched as if invisible hands were pushing him down.

She wanted to lash out and scratch him, but she could not say it. She knew what Mama would say. This was the folly of depending on any single man. What would happen when he failed you? When he could no longer stand erect on his own?

Where was the Mother in all of this? Tsitsi’s scalp was now stinging a lot. Just as she began to stew in her anger, the Father began. Pages were pulled out. He subjected them to twenty minutes of meandering, seemingly putting papers away, skipping over some parts, the General behind him visibly on edge. Suddenly, the Father put his papers down: “Tatenda, Ngiyabonga, Asante Sana. Thank you very much.”

Mama threw up her hands, “Tsi, we better get ready to be border-jumpers!”

Tsitsi smiled and got up to wash out her over-processed hair. Even in his ninth decade, the mudhara was still sharp enough to understand the power he had when all the world watched him.

*

“Who even speaks like that?”

Tsitsi could barely contain her cackle as they watched the Vice President declare to all in the National Stadium in his strange sing-song approximation of the Father’s Queen’s English that he felt deeply humbled by the decision of the Party to nominate him to be the New President.

The Mother did not respond to Tsitsi. Her mood had only marginally improved since Tsitsi had arrived and insisted that she take off her black dhuku and allow her to install a new lace front from Woman’s Crown’s first range of wigs. The Mother’s eyes remained trained on the monitor as they live-streamed the Inauguration.

“Do they really expect us to trust a President who sings as he speaks and a Vice President who bleaches?

“Someone should advise him about the cut of his suits.

“He should also to do something about his weight.”

Tsitsi rolled on without the Mother’s input. When the camera zoomed in to the General’s Wife, Tsitsi was quick to shoot: “Who is she trying to fool with those plaits? Acting as if she’s poor! We know how much the General is paid! And we know that he steals!”

With no reaction, Tsitsi paused, and tried again with something that would tug at Amai, “Or is it that she really wants us to know that she is young, with this schoolgirl’s hairstyle?”

The Mother remained quiet. Tsitsi decided to change tack. She paused the live link and searched her Ferragamo bag for a newspaper pullout that she unfolded and began reading to the Mother:

“An interview in The Herald with the incoming ‘Second Lady,’ as she likes to call herself. Listen to this. She is answering a question about her dress, she says: ‘There is a senior MP that came here. We had a small talk. It was some time, but finally she got to her subject about my dressing. She said she had been sent by women from the party to maybe convince me to wear African attires and things like that, but I refused! I told her that I am not trying to fit into anybody’s league. My husband is happy with the way I dress and it’s not about to change. That was it and I told the MP that she could take that back to the party women.’”

The Mother now held the paper for herself and narrowed her eyes to read the paper’s fine print, “What a silly girl. In any case, they are still threatened by her. They have been telling Amai that the President’s Wife wants the General’s Wife to hand over the Defense Forces charity to her. Apparently, she doesn’t want her new role as Mother to be overshadowed by the former model.” She laughed and then paused for a bit, before adding, “The First Lady is smart.”

Tsitsi did not want to overplay her hand. She resumed the inauguration’s proceedings and continued with the Mother’s hair. After some time, the Mother began again, “Do you remember that Congress outfit?”

“Of course, I do, Amai. Someone needs to tell the girl that just because her mentor Mimi Koutsakis thought macramé was fashionable, doesn’t mean it’s suitable for her new role.”

“Someone also needs to tell the girl to stop acting as if she was competing in Miss Zimbabwe! Her breasts are always out and she is always wearing sleeveless dresses so that we can all see that tattoo of hers!”

The Mother reached for the newspaper clipping again. She began reading aloud, “‘Michelle Obama dresses like me and people applaud her and appreciate her for that because she is not trying to be someone else. Melania Trump dresses like I dress and everybody loves it, no one complains.’ She goes on to tell the poor interviewer that she will not change just because she is now Second Lady! Ha, she will learn!

Tsitsi watched the Mother from the mirror as anger filled the Mother’s chest. From where Tsitsi stood, she could almost feel it humming. Who knew what heights it could propel them to this time? Wherever it was, Tsitsi felt reassured as the Mother grew into the state in which she was most natural.