Sam walked in, looking exhausted and slung his coat on a nearby sofa. Rachel ignored the hostile body language. He was obviously in a foul mood. Without greeting Rachel, he launched into his conversation,
'You keep saying you want to meet my family. I have bought our airline tickets online at work, and we are leaving in three weeks.'
After recovering from her initial surprise, Rachel remarked, 'Three weeks? That doesn't give us much time to organise ourselves. Why the rush?'
'You are the one who keeps saying I am putting off this visit and now you are saying the timing is inconvenient! We can always postpone it. I went home last year, and we can't really afford yet another trip. You even declined your parents' suggestion of a joint holiday in France due to costs. I thought you enjoyed spending time with your folks,' replied Sam sounding more belligerent.
'Sam! We keep going in circles. I have no problem holidaying with my parents. I just don't understand why you appear to not want to introduce me to your family. I have met no one from your side. This relationship should be based on trust. You have met mine who have welcomed and accepted you. Your reluctance to introduce me is baffling. Explain to me, I might understand.'
The two had studied at the same local community college. He had initially thought Rachel wasn't interested in him when they first met in a local bar where a mixed crowd congregated after lectures every Friday night. Sam had gone there reluctantly one evening, after sensing that his friends were beginning to give up on him after he continuously declined requests to join them even for one drink. Soon after a short courtship, they got married in a low key registry wedding.
In communication with people back home, he painted a positive picture of someone who had settled well into his new life in London. About his homesickness, he was more reticent. Trying to explain to others, his experiences and his sense of alienation and loneliness in a foreign land was difficult is one has never lived through it.
Soon after Sam was introduced to Rachel's parents and siblings, he began spending occasional weekends at their family home in Somerset. He still remembered the first awkward lunch when he met them with some trepidation. Back home, interracial liaisons were not that common, especially in the circles his family moved in. There was still an undercurrent creating an invisible divide, a relic of the country's history and its colonial hangover.
The family lunch had been an experience in more ways than one. Sam and Rachel arrived on time and Sam could tell that her parents were curious about him and yet too polite to ask probing questions. The conversation was initially somewhat stilted with the usual questions- Where did he come from? How was Sam finding England and the cold? Did he miss home, and how was Harare different from his life in London? Sam tried to answer respectfully, wanting to make a lasting positive impression, for Rachel's sake.
Lunch proceeded uneventfully, although he found the meal rather bland. He imagined they would also think his national dish of sadza, beef and green vegetable unexciting. People back home prepared meals because they were hungry rather than as an occasion to experiment with different culinary skills and dishes. It was more about feeling satisfied than savouring taste and spices and paying compliments to the cook.
After the meal, they stayed a while with Sam deliberately steering clear of any potentially controversial topics such as politics and religion. He deflected prolonged conversations about his country of origin, saying little about his family. Instead, he continued to show interest in Samantha's parents and their time in retirement. Rachel's father, an ex-banker in the city, was now an active member of a model railway society. His wife, a former accountant and a keen gardener prided herself on their immaculate lawn and proliferation of flowers on their extensive plot. At the end of the visit, Sam left feeling that Rachel's parents had outwardly accepted their daughter's choice of a life partner, knowing the challenges ahead of learning a new culture.
As departure date drew near, Sam phoned his brother Isaac back home to share the imminent travel arrangements. Isaac was always curious about life in the diaspora and occasionally probed Sam about his social life. Sam's response was to laugh and evade the question; explaining that he would be home soon and satisfy Isaac's curiosity.
Three weeks later, Sam arrived with Rachel at Harare International Airport. Sam emerged filled with emotion as he walked out of the Arrivals lounge into the midday sun. He was immediately recognised and surrounded by waiting relatives who had been alerted of his arrival date by Isaac. Rachel, although excited, began feeling overwhelmed and stood at a distance observing the mayhem. Sam was relishing the attention before he realised she had become marginalised. He entreated her to join him witness and appreciate the songs and dances of welcome, interspersed with laughter and embracing. The celebration tempered when Sam started to introduce Rachel to Isaac and the extended family. A young dreadlocked nephew, in his exuberance, asked in lilting English,
'Sorry, I missed the introductions in all the commotion. Did you say this is your wife?' Sam offered a brief response and deflected any further questions. He quickly rallied everyone saying,
'We are so tired, and I want to see my parents. Where is the transport? Let's go. Let's go!'
The cluster piled into a minivan which was soon packed to the hilt. It began heading down the highway to Greendale, one of the leafy suburbs of Harare. Rachel was overawed by the noise levels as everyone interrupted each other without pausing. Sam joined in, conducting high pitched conversations with the occupants in his mother tongue; while others were taking furtive glances at Rachel in the front seat. She was oblivious of some of her fellow passengers' muted conversations and more focused on looking out at the bustling lives along the route as the driver weaved through the traffic at breakneck speed. All the minivans en route were being driven as if the drivers were born of the same mother. Rachel was squashed between Sam and the minivan's driver who was bobbing his head to the beat of the loud throbbing music from the car radio. For Rachel, the afternoon dry heat and feelings of nausea compounded by jetlag, all created a tense nervous and throbbing headache.
On arrival at the parents' house, the minivan parked near the front door and the occupants poured out. Sam saw his parents, Baba and Mai rising from their garden chairs in the veranda. They slowly approached him in welcome. His father, with his pure white hair peeking from under a checked brown cap, wore his brown suit for special occasions. It was now shiny with wear. Baba could, however, still walk confidently, with an air of pride. Behind him came his mother enveloped in a broad smile while stooping over a wooden walking stick and dressed in a blue African print. Sam embraced them in turn as if they were fragile dolls. They had aged. His father realised that there was one face he did not recognise among the throng. He turned in expectation to Sam, trying to catch his eye. Sam reverting back to his mother tongue, drew Rachel close.
'Mai and Baba. This is Rachel, my wife.' After pausing, Sam continued in a nervous tone,
'Let's go inside where we can go through the formalities. We are exhausted! I hope Mai has cooked my favourite meal sadza, tsunga rine dovi ne kanyama.' Turning to Rachel, he continued, 'Let me translate. It is our staple food of stiff porridge, green vegetable with peanut butter and some meat. You will enjoy it, Rachel!'
Sam guided his parents into their lounge and sat them down as they continued to stare at him in puzzlement and awe. After getting their breath back and completing the welcome formalities, they were served Sam's favourite meal. The small talk was a mixture of English and Shona his mother tongue, so Rachel would not feel excluded. After exhausting topics on the ongoing heat-wave and impending drought, the neighbours and the journey, Sam's father with watery deep-set eyes finally turned to his son and said in the vernacular,
'Sam, it's wonderful to see you. You're coming home has made an old man and your mother very happy. We have been praying for your safe return since you left. Introduce us properly. Who is the person seated next to you? We were not expecting anyone to come with you. Is it a friend or what? Of course, she is welcome.'
His father and mother looking perplexed, waited for an answer. Rachel sitting next to Sam could feel their intense gaze. She sensed they were talking about her and recognised that the mood was now more sombre. Sam's mother, had not uttered a word after the greetings, as if she was not part of the conversation. Rachel nevertheless could feel her piercing brown eyes.
Initially, Sam was wordless, even though he had envisaged this would happen. He imagined what was going through his parents' heads. He was their firstborn who they had sponsored to study locally in multiracial private schools and then supported his move to the UK. Was there not always a possibility that Sam might make friends or even marry across the colour lines? The tension in the room was palpable as Sam started haltingly to narrate his story about Rachel and how she had become his wife. He stated in barely a whisper how he knew this was probably a shock for them, and Sam knew he had disappointed his family by not consulting them before taking Rachel as his wife. Sam voiced the many myths and misconceptions around interracial relationships, including the fact that some would perceive that the marriage to Rachel was a means to a better life. He was adamant that he was successful in his own right and didn't need propping up or Rachel to sponsor her for citizenship. He stated that he had not forgotten his traditions and values, just because he had married a white woman. All this outpouring went over Rachel's head since she was excluded by the language barrier. In the heat of the discussion, no one had remembered that she needed a translator.
After watching at his son in earnest and with his thin lips quivering with emotion, Sam's father quickly glanced at his wife whose response was to continue to stare at her feet; her wrinkled hand on her head. During the short lull, Isaac walked into the room and respectfully sat on a mat near Sam; trying to gauge the mood of his parents and older brother. The father looked at Isaac briefly and carried on addressing Sam,
"I have heard you, my son. This should be a day of celebration, and I stress I have no quarrel with Rachel. She probably comes from a respectable family. However, have you forgotten about Lucy, the woman you left behind with expectations of marriage? The one who was waiting for you to pay her lobola, the bride price? If you had taken Lucy, the daughter of my best friend back in the village, your customary marriage would have further cemented our relationship.'
The mood of the homecoming celebration had changed irrevocably, and the conversation carried on through supper. Senior extended family members from the village, who had come to welcome Sam were told of the family's dilemma. Their thoughts mattered since marriage was not about one individual. Rachel, somewhat neglected by Sam, had quietly left the room and was now being entertained by younger relatives who saw this as an opportunity to practise their English and ask about 'overseas'.
The conclusion to the clan's meandering discussion was that Sam's father had some damage control to do. There was no going back, once everyone understood that Rachel was Sam's legal wife under English law. However, the questions and awkwardness would just have to be tolerated. If the couple stayed in Harare, no one back in the village would be any the wiser. Rachel and Sam could spend the rest of the visit at far-flung tourist sites. There was Zimbabwe Ruins, Lake Kariba and Victoria Falls. Sam could even take Rachel to Hwange Game Park since tourists liked that sort of thing; wild animals in their natural habitat. A four week holiday could fly past without any problems.
Rachel never visited Sam's rural home in the Eastern Highlands, where the graves of his ancestors were. After a thoroughly eventful holiday, the couple boarded their return flights to London, leaving the appeasements and intricacies of traditional customs for his parents and the clan to navigate. Sam returned to see his parents with Rachel a few years later. By then, Lucy had joined the exodus of economic migrants crossing the border into South Africa.