Sweet Medicine, by Johannesburg-based Zimbabwean writer Panashe Chigumadzi, is the story of Tsitsi, a young woman who seeks romantic and economic security through ‘otherworldly’ means. The story takes place in Harare at the height of Zimbabwe’s economic woes in 2008.
Read an excerpt below.
“So,” Chiedza announced dramatically as she sat down on a chair at their usual table, “I’m here with my sugar daddy, Jonathan, the American spy I met at Borrowdale Race Course.”
“A spy? ChiChi, what kind of movie are you living in?” Tsitsi scrunched her nose.
“Yes, Tsitsi, a spy! You think Zvobgo and his crew are just paranoid? This Jonathan, he’s a real-deal spy.” “So if he’s the real deal, what’s he doing with you?” “I think he has jungle fever,” she threw back her head and began to cackle. “I even asked him what his fascination with black women is. Told him that I’m sure that black, white, and even purple women for that matter, have the same anatomy. He just laughed and grabbed my bum. Anyway, he’s in a meeting in one of the rooms here, so he told me to keep myself entertained until he’s done. And then, you know …”
Chiedza’s voice grated with exasperation. She used her eyes to great effect.
She loved to dramatise everything she said. She pretended to gag as she rummaged through her handbag for a packet of cigarettes. Tsitsi watched as Chiedza lit up, the smoke curling high up to the chandelier above them. She thought about how all of this, made even more deplorable with the impending addition of alcohol, would have scandalised her mother and, not too long ago, would have scandalised her too.
Aside from the release, Chiedza smoked as a way to keep the weight off. “You know I don’t have curves like you, Tsitsi. Ndikafuta, I will never become a Coke bottle,” she said as she mimed the shape of the bottle with her hands.
“Instead, I’ll be more like a fridge or a bottle of Mazoe!” She would, she said, make a large fridge too – like the one Tsitsi had bought for Mama and Sekuru Dickson – and burst into laughter.
Chiedza’s make-up was painted on in bold, garish colours as if to implicate her American lover in a scuffle the previous night.
Tsitsi herself was unrecognizable from her usual, traditional guise. She had her twelve- inch weave brushed out in full display and wore a tight-fitting dress.
In any case, it didn’t really matter if she was recognised as Zvobgo’s Live-In-Girlfriend, because the diplomats, forex dealers, authorised journalists and the like, all tacitly agreed to a code of self-censorship or risked implicating themselves in the immorality.
Chiedza had always been industrious. When her older sister, Netsai, had been an air hostess with Air Zimbabwe, she had been one of the first to begin importing goods from London. She applied the same kind of diligence to her beauty. She was the kind of woman who had an immediate effect on men, simply because her entire being,
her whole demeanour, was sexual. And so she often dispensed with rules of courtship, relying on an innate ability to approach men directly and still have them pursue her after the first encounter. When she had worked as a waitress, it was for what she called ‘the networking opportunity’. According to Chiedza, it was better than being a secretary. Her hours were flexible, for one. And, of course, she could pick and choose. She could afford to be non-committal – there was a greater variety of men available to her, so she could be discriminating in her choices.
On quiet days, when the restaurant manager was not there, she often used to take the patrons’ orders before sitting down at the table with them, a move that always disarmed them and, for many, elicited a nervous sense of excitement at her show of assertiveness, a hint of sexual confidence and prowess. The kind of show that let them know that this was a woman who could ride on top. For those with imagination, her build lent itself to the image of a sturdy mare, one they would not need to be gentle with, one they could ride and be rough with, feeling her take, and enjoy, all of them, unlike the gentle and fragile virgins they had married.
Chiedza called a waiter to their table. “Whisky on the rocks please.”
“Just a Coke for me.’’
“Nhai iwe, Tsitsi, I thought you asked me to come out for drinks?” Chiedza pulled the waiter’s arm. “You remind me,” she said to Tsitsi, “of the religious zealot you used to be.’’ She turned to the waiter. “She’ll have the same. Just add lime for taste.”
Tsitsi tried to object, but she knew that this was all beyond her control and it wasn’t long before their waiter was returning with their fourth round. By then she no longer noticed. And when the waiter came back with their fifth, Tsitsi took her drink right off his tray before he had the chance to set it down. On an inebriated wave, Tsitsi continued her soliloquy. She felt self-conscious of the repetition, but the relief from unburdening herself got the better of her.
“Shuva, Chiedza,” she paused to consider her words, “I have it better than those holier-than-thou women with their marriages.”
“You know, T, I took a psychology course for two semesters.” Chiedza leaned forward, placing her arms on the table, so that Tsitsi could smell her whisky-and-smoke-laced breath, “And do you know what was the most important lesson that I learned?”
Tsitsi shook her now heavy head. “I’ll tell you, the most important thing that I learnt was not from a textbook, but from experience. It’s that the beautiful thing about the mind is that if you tell yourself a lie enough times, you will start believing it. The Catholic saint who dreamed of a big white wedding has talked herself into living in sin.”
“Look, whatever keeps you happy, my dear. And, most importantly, whatever keeps you fed in this upside-down BACOSSI economy, handiti?’’
Tsitsi held her head in her hands and then looked up, forcing a smile. “Chi, it’s easier this way. He’s my husband now.’’
Chiedza stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray, then fished for another in her bag.
Despite a number of strikes, the match wouldn’t light. She got up and approached the next table with the confidence of a woman who is used to having her way with men – men who are in fact looking to be tempted. The men at the next table – old white men with skin pink from a day in the Sunshine City – smoking cigars, and they happily obliged, even offering her a cigar, not only because Chiedza was possibly the central character to a fantasy they wished to act out, Tsitsi guessed, but also because of the easy camaraderie of smokers that never ceased to amaze Tsitsi.
One of the men happily produced a lighter, and popped it, igniting the flame. Chiedza bent over, putting the cigarette already in her mouth to it, and inhaled. Immediately, she seemed to come back into focus, taking deep pleasure in the fumes.
“Thanks ka?” she winked at them.
“Why don’t you join us?” his friend asked.
“Next time,” she glanced back over her shoulder, smug with satisfaction.
Settled back in her seat, Chiedza remained quiet for a short time, inhaling the smoke from her cigarette before continuing.
“The most difficult kind of honesty is honesty with yourself, Tsitsi – you know that.” Chiedza drank deeply before leaning in towards her. “But tell me, you must be getting bored, lying under the same septuagenarian?’’
“No. Not really.’’ Tsitsi averted her eyes.
“Zvenyu! He’s that good, huh? Inga, rather! I have to say, I didn’t see it coming from that potbelly.’’
“No. We haven’t—” her speech slowed as she struggled to find the words jumping around in her head, which was now pounding with a bad headache. “You haven’t what?”
She straightened herself and raised her hand for their waiter. “Bring me some water, please.”
“Tsitsi, what? You haven’t what?”
“Whatever I say can and will be used against me. I hereby invoke my Miranda Rights to remain silent under questioning.” Chiedza laughed heartily, almost choking on her whisky. “What? Your Miranda Rights! Don’t make me laugh!” Tsitsi smiled, “I took a law course too, you know.” “I am your friend and have a right to know. Where there is a conflict, The Right of the Friend to Know takes precedence over the Miranda Rights.”
Tsitsi remained silent until the waiter returned with the glass. She gulped down the water and immediately called for another. Now more in control of the words in her head, she began again.
“Chiedza, Zvobgo and I haven’t done it in a while.’’
She said the words quickly in the hope that they would float up, disappear lightly into the air with her friend’s cigarette smoke, but Chiedza latched onto them.
“Wow, so His Excellency His Grace Comrade Zvobgo is a keeper. You stinge him and he doesn’t kick you out?’’
“No, Chi, he’s been focused on other things.’’
“Other things?’’ Chiedza narrowed her eyes. “You mean other women? Shamaz, I’ve been with enough men to know that a man has to eat.’’ She sat her glass down and called for the waiter again. “Imwe whisky, Sekuru.” Tsitsi broke eye contact. “No. He wouldn’t.’’
“Ha, Tsitsi, are you saying our man is like Banana?” The thought flitted through her brain, but she quickly suppressed it. “No, no, Chi – I know he likes women.”
Chiedza did not seem convinced. “My dear, what makes you think you are so exceptional?”
“Never mind, Chiedza. It’s nothing. Really, nothing.” Even her own insistence struck her as suspicious. She forced an approximation of a laugh, “I know my Zvobgo wouldn’t do anything, okay?”
“And why not? If he could do it to her, he can do it to you.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Panashe Chigumadzi was born in the Mbuya Nehanda maternity ward of Harare’s Parirenyatwa Hospital in 1991, a birthplace she shares with millions of other Zimbabweans, but nonetheless feels is auspicious. She grew up in South Africa and is the Founder and Editor of Vanguard Magazine, a womanist platform for young, black women coming of age in post-apartheid South Africa. She is studying towards a postgraduate degree in Development Stuides at Wits University and is a 2015 Ruth First Fellow. Sweet Medicine is her first novel.
The Johannesburg launch for Sweet Medicine will take place at Keleketla Library on October 24. Panashe will be in conversation with acclaimed author and journalist Zukiswa Wanner