Lauren Miller on feminism, witchcraft, adolescent obsession and, predictably, The Lock Down
We gathered at the Chinhoyi courthouse very early in the morning, as agreed. It was the quarterly date for circuit court and our journey was considerable; out to Mhangura, a small copper mine settlement on the Great Dyke. It was still cold. Our breath rose before us in tiny puffs, like miniature offerings. Mrs Soko, the magistrate stood talking with her husband, and I could see from the way she touched the curls in her hair and how she turned her face up to look at him that she adored him. Shame, then, about his behaviour. She couldn’t know what I knew: that when she’d been discussing matters with a clerk, her husband had squeezed my arm and breathed in my ear.
‘Mmm,’ he said, his voice husky, ‘Mwaka, I must have you ma petite cherie.’
I wrenched my hand free from his. He was nothing but a two-bit rogue. I stepped away to apply a defiant dash of lipstick. Pursing my lips, I rolled and smacked them together.
‘Ah, I forgot my gown in chambers,’ the magistrate said, turning to me. ‘Mwaka darling, go up and get it for me, will you? It’s behind the door.’
‘Of course, ma’am,’ I said, eager to please her as always. Mrs Soko was stern when sitting in court, but pleasant and well-liked by staff. Typical of most high-powered Zimbabwean women, she was unassuming, unboastful, and hesitant to pull rank. I had decided that to emerge out of the shadows and into the marvellous light, I should model myself in all things on her.
I’d retrieved the gown and was drawing the door to when the magistrate’s husband appeared on the stairs. He’d contrived to follow after me.
‘Mwaka, a fine Coca-Cola body like this,’ he closed in on me and murmured into my ear, the alcohol on his breath penetrating my nasal passages.
‘No!’ I said, beating down his questing hands and slipping past him. Back in the car, I sat smarting but said nothing of course, and so joining the company of the complicit who may say no but will not tell, who will protect a rogue in order to protect a saint.
I slid into the car, a low-lying Mazda hatchback, and stretched my pencil skirt over my plump knees. Squeezed in at the back of the car was the public prosecutor, the court clerk and myself, the intern. Our legal files and court documents were crammed into the boot.
‘Needed the loo,’ the magistrate’s husband said with a wet grin when he finally appeared. He got into the driver’s seat, gave his cheek to the magistrate for a kiss and released the clutch. We were off on our journey to circuit court.
‘I have a little hangover, a tiny one,’ he explained to no-one in particular, bringing his thumb and index together in a pinch to emphasise how little. He opened a can of Lion lager, and hid it in a brown paper bag. I saw him steal furtive glances at me through the rear-view mirror.
He was driving even though the magistrate had requisitioned the car from the government for the trip. The Mazda was a compact vehicle but a highly capable one. He wrenched the gearstick this way and that way, and slammed it up, coaxing maximum performance out of it as only someone driving a pool car does, making it snarl and whine then hum, so that its nose nodded through the changes. And he did it with one hand, changing through the gears and steering while using the other to steady the wheel and cradle the lager between his legs.
We flew past schoolchildren walking to school and vendors at the big funeral parlour already touting their wares at that time of day; wood and stone carvings for the tourists passing through, earthworms to anglers on their way to Kariba dam, sweets for the kids and cigarettes and vuka-vuka aphrodisiac for men. There were more vendors further up, after the bridge which formed a dip in the road, and the golf course on the left which was as big as the whole town centre combined, and on the right, the big hotel with the high walls and razor wire and peeping palm trees where only rich tourists slept.
There was a curve in the road at a mountain pass after the city limits where the acacias were perfectly topped, like plates in the hand of a maître d’; the grasslands were expansive; and the anthills looked like derelict cities. When we rounded into the curve, the figure of a white-sleeved policeman came into view. He flagged us down, bending his body at the waist in sync with his hand movements. There was no time for the magistrate’s husband to hide his lager; he only just managed a tyre-burning halt next to the policeman.
‘Ah, ah!’ the policeman’s open mouth hovered above us. ‘That is liquor right there.’
It was said as a statement, not a question. He adjusted his peaked cap to the back of his head and peered into the car at our upturned faces.
He pointed to a lopsided, mud-caked bus with goats and chickens and bicycles tied down on the roof rack. ‘Go and park behind that bus, shamwari,’ he instructed.
The magistrate’s husband coasted off the road and to the spot indicated. A bus conductor was negotiating with another policeman and waving about his money bag as he made a futile point even as some passengers were already being taken off the crowded bus. A white farmer in a dusty bakkie had also been stopped. He sat with his dog in front while a group of black women and their children huddled in the back, surrounded by live chickens in wire mesh cages and other farm knick-knacks.
The policeman sauntered over to us, whistling and adjusting his white sleeves.
‘Sah!’ the magistrate’s husband opened the gambit by offering deference.
‘Ah shamwari. Now, let’s see, speeding, overload, drink-driving, are you carrying dagga in the boot too?’
‘No, sah,’ the magistrate’s husband replied.
‘The car has papers?’
‘All the papers, sah.’
‘It’s a government car?’ the policeman had noted the colour and crests on the vehicle registration plates.
‘Yes, sah. Government car.’
‘So why are you driving a government car like diabolis himself, eh?’
We watched from the back. The magistrate stared fixedly ahead.
I had met the magistrate for the first time over twenty years ago, in 1997. My legal degree had a prosecution and court placement component and I had chosen to do mine at the old Magistrate’s Court in Chinhoyi to be near my widow mother who needed nursing. I was placed under the arms-length tutelage of a prosecutor who was also a policeman, a fat man who sat with his legs spread out before him, his tie loose and his shirt flying out of his pants. His jacket was some kind of misshapen gown, especially tailored, which he would shrug into as he waddled into remand court, presided over by Mrs Soko who shouted in case after case, ‘Remanded… in custody … bail refused, next.’ As his trainee, I sat with him at the bar to learn by observation and to assist with files, handing him the one he required and putting away the completed one.
We were short of female role models at the university. I wanted some of that Queen Nzinga fierceness that this magistrate exhibited, that my mother should have exhibited with my wayward father. I had first seen it when they brought the mayor of Chinhoyi before her on a murder charge.
A domineering and brooding presence in any space he entered, the mayor had very dark, velvety skin with tribal markings and the puffy cheeks of a well-fed potentate, as if he was blowing away unpleasant things. His eyes were darting dots wedged deep above a stubby nose, a large pair of snarling lips which he never used for the trifling purpose of smiling. All this was underlined by a square chin with a deep scar in its centre. He stood comfortably two metres in his socks.
The mayor owned a string of businesses throughout the town; a bakery here, a butchery there, a supermarket too, and then a fleet of lorries, although most of them appeared to be for spare parts. He had become the Executive Mayor of our town in 1995 through a combination of violence and fortuitous happenings. The directive from central government had said prospective candidates for the post must own a local business and possess an O-level education at the very least. There were strong rumours that the mayor had left school without a single O-level pass, but a legal challenge never developed legs. He floated to the top of a poor field of candidates comprised of local business titans who could neither read nor write and some who could, but ran grinding mills and bottle stores and other such mediocre enterprises.
The mayor’s campaign took off when one dusky evening, he bought the vote with a bag of maize meal and a chitenge cloth for every woman who queued for it at the back of his supermarket.
But it was violence which was the hallmark of his politics. In the mayoral elections of 1995, he burnt a rival’s car to cinders. No charges were brought against him because of his wealth which he threw around like confetti. Then one day, a shopper was rummaging for frozen kapenta fish in a deep freezer in the mayor’s supermarket. Instead of finding fish, he found the frozen head of a human person, a little girl. The police began their investigations immediately, but the docket disappeared. One dogged policeman kept digging. The docket kept disappearing. The policeman persisted. Eventually the mayor and an accomplice, a man called Shaky, were eventually arrested and brought to court.
The charge was that the mayor had contracted Shaky to find and garrotte the little girl in order to harvest her body parts. Police had found the severed head of another little girl in the boot of his car. The mayor’s explanation to the police was that he had run over the little girl on the highway; he had taken the head from the scene in order to hand it over to the authorities. That explanation had satisfied the police at the time, but now they saw a pattern and decided to add a second charge of murder.
The mayor’s first hearing happened on a typical sizzler of a summer’s day. People sat outside the court and fanned themselves under the jujube and mimosa trees. In the courtroom, a big-time lawyer from Harare arrived casually clutching a sheaf of papers, and pulling a sizeable entourage of relatives and other hangers-on. He conferred with the prosecutor and an agreement on bail by consent was hammered out. Of course, bail depended on the magistrate’s approval. But, having agreed, the two lawyers expected that to be a formality.
The court in Chinhoyi was not too far from the prison complex. Accused persons with scheduled hearings were brought to court on foot with an escort of armed prison officers, behind, in front and on the flanks. The spectacle of the mayor of the town being marched to court with other common prisoners, in loose khaki remand prison clothes and in handcuffs and leg irons, with head bowed, brought the town to a stunned standstill. Men and women stood with their hands folded across their chests and watched with slack mouths as the men inched their way into the court complex like a ghost train at dawn. They were led into the court by the side door to squat and wait their turn in the underground holding cells.
When the mayor’s file came up, the Clerk of Court stood at the court’s swing doors and shouted out at the top of his voice as if he was not aware of where the mayor was;
‘Fibeon Muda; Fibeon Muda, Fibeon Muda.’
The mayor hobbled into the courtroom from below and through the trap door and stood up in the dock. His wives, children and relatives craned their heads from the gallery and fanned themselves with paper in the sweltering heat of the August mid-afternoon. The broken fan above hung limply, uselessly.
A hush descended on the courtroom.
The mayor straightened himself to full height, meaty lips clenched, eyes bloody and roving, jaw taut, and nostrils flaring like a stallion on the flats. He looked around the court very deliberately, as if noting faces for later, then malevolently at the magistrate ahead. The magistrate – my magistrate – met his gaze and held it.
I sat with the prosecutor at the bar. He struggled out of his chair and pulled out the charge sheet and read out the particulars of the charge. The mayor listened intently, his head in his hands, as the prosecutor spoke.
‘Number 1.The first accused person is the Mayor of Chinhoyi. Number 2.The second accused is Shaky, a local layabout. Number 3. The deceased is the daughter of the second accused. Number 4. That, on a certain date yet unknown, the first and second accused persons did unlawfully and with malice aforethought, kill the deceased, in that they met and conspired to harvest her body parts for ritualistic rites.’
‘How does the Accused plead?’ the magistrate asked after the charge was read, peering down at the mayor with undisguised disgust.
‘Not guilty on all charges, Your Worship. I intend to fight these charges tooth and nail and prove to the whole world that I am an innocent man.’ The mayor was haughty. ‘I have been stitched up by my enemies.’ His supporters responded and cheered.
‘Silence,’ the magistrate shouted above the din. ‘It is recorded that the Accused has pleaded Not Guilty. Accused is remanded in custody. I understand that a bail application is to be made but I will not hear it. You can try the High Court, not here,’ the magistrate declaimed, waving her hands.
The mayor’s lawyer leapt up to his feet like a shot. ‘If it pleases the court, Your Worship. With the greatest respect Your Worship, these charges are politically…,’ he said, waving his papers like a charm.
‘Counsel, this is a Schedule A offence,’ the magistrate spat. ‘I have no jurisdiction to hear you.’ She rose from her seat, scooped up her papers and disappeared through the door behind her high chair before the lawyer could respond.
There was immediate pandemonium. The mayor was bundled out of the dock. The mayor’s wives wailed. His brothers shoved the prison guards, and shouted at the door through which the magistrate had disappeared.
‘This man is the mayor of this town!’ they called after her. ‘Who do you think you are, eh? We know who sent you, nincompoop you! We know where you live, hure! We know your useless, drunkard husband too!’.
Meanwhile, the guards were shoving the mayor’s head down into the trap door. He pushed it back above the officers’ hands and called to his wives: ‘Bring my Colgate and toothbrush.’
‘When the gods are punishing a wicked man, don’t lift a finger,’ the prosecutor said with a big grin and squeezed my thigh under the table. ‘What are you doing tonight, sweetheart?’ he asked.
In the evening, I walked briskly down a hospital passage to the small ward where mother was. She shifted under the thin hospital blanket which covered her to the chin and turned towards me when I entered.
‘Mwaka, you are here my precious eagle egg,’ she said with a weak smile. The smell of sick hung in the air like an accusation. Above, the fan did nothing to move the air.
‘I am here, mother,’ I said as I took my usual position on the bedside to rub her withered arms with Vicks. Proper medicine was simply unaffordable. I recounted to her the drama of the day and the contrasting fortunes of the murdered little girl and the powerful woman magistrate.
‘A girl child with no education is a half person,’ she said, her eyes glistening. ‘A girl child who is also poor is a nothing person unless they who are around her choose to make her a something person.’
‘Why did they pick on a girl?’ I asked her.
‘Because no-one makes a fuss over a girl, that is why. But the gods made her body parts potent in death,’ she smiled.
The wind soughed through the tangle of mimosas outside as I finished with the rubbing and started with the feeding.
‘And never let a man drive and compromise your life. You have to emerge out of the shadows of a man,’ mother said later that evening after the night bathing.
Ironic that this wise, dying woman had not done so in her own life. All through my childhood, she had made excuses for my no-good father. I can barely remember what he looks like.
We all knew that the magistrate’s husband was itching to tell the policeman that the lady sitting next to him in the car was a magistrate who had sent down powerful politicians, but how to do it? And how to explain who he was exactly and why he was driving a government car?
‘Where is it that you work? What is it that you do,’ the policeman asked him, his pen poised to write out a booking.
‘I’m an engineer myself,’ he said softly, ‘but I am driving the magistrate to Mhangura Mine for circuit court, sah!’
He had done that thing of evading the question asked but answering an important one. The policeman peered inside with a start, noting the lady who sat in front and the black gown neatly folded in her lap. He looked at us in the back, dressed for work, his eyes lingering on my exposed knees. He withdrew his head and folded his book and went to speak with a colleague. They conferred for a good while then came back together.
‘Shefu,’ the other policeman, with bars above his pocket, spoke and addressed the magistrate. ‘You can go. Drive safely.’
That afternoon the fat prosecutor, fatigued by a combination of the afternoon heat and a heavy lunch, allowed me to handle the sentencing while he sprawled back in his chair and valiantly kept his eyes open. All I had to say pretty much was, ‘No previous convictions in this one Your Worship’ or ‘One previous conviction on this one Your Worship’ and so on.
The next case was for drink-driving. The magistrate avoided eye contact as she passed sentence to the man before her.
‘This matter is part-heard and adjourned from the last circuit. It is for sentencing only. I have heard mitigation but drink-driving is a heavy scourge on our national roads. It must be tackled with ruthless singlemindedness. I’m also, of course, under the strictures of the mandatory sentencing guidelines.’
She paused, running her tongue over her lips, then continued. ‘However, after taking into account what was said in mitigation, I have decided to hand down a suspended sentence on condition that you…’
The prosecutor started and pulled me close with a heavy hand, his eyes brightening with shock, as he whispered: ‘She has never, ever done that before.’