The minute I heard about their plans to live with their daughters abroad, I knew I would soon be unemployed. I dreaded returning home and finding means to support my family in the rural areas, my sibling with school fees and my welfare. Since I was fifteen, I had been a housemaid for my father's younger brother and his wife, Baba and Mai, virtually a surrogate daughter. Martha had migrated to South Africa, with the elder one Ivy, now in the UK. None of them would ever come back, although they came separately on their annual visits before Covid. With each visit, there was no guarantee they would be able to resume their jobs, what with the erratic border closures and quarantine restrictions that ate into their holidays.
When Mai fell ill and was hospitalised, the situation was difficult, and Mai's younger sister was summoned to help me run the household to the standards of his absent wife. Although Baba was a big boss at work in some bank in the city, it became clear he couldn't look after himself. His two daughters were constantly on the phone checking upon him as if Baba was the sick one. He lost his appetite and survived on bread and cheese, being one of those husbands who only ate his wife's cooking. I didn't mind. Less work and fewer plates to wash up!
Mai was eventually released from the hospital. She spent her time recuperating on the verandah while Baba fussed around her like a mother hen. The daughters' worried phone calls to their parents increased their frustration at not being there in person. I would get second-hand instructions on caring for their mother, who insisted that she wanted to go back to work after one month of sick leave. Baba couldn't understand it, especially since they were relatively well off and their house was mortgage-free.
"You have just survived chemotherapy, and yet you want to start exerting yourself again. It's as if I can't afford to maintain the two of us on one income!"
"Baba, that is not the issue. What do you want me to do all day? Mull over my illness? I may not be strong enough to take up hobbies like gardening, but at least I can return part-time to my desk job at the city council. It's not about the money. At least I will be occupied and have company while you are away."
When the daughters heard that Mai had returned to work, they were not amused. The arguments during phone calls became more heated. Mai gave up answering and left all the stressful conversations to Baba, who was slowly worn down by the barrage of counterarguments.
"Mai, your daughters are relentless and taking it all the wrong way! It's you who's being stubborn, going back to work against my advice. They are phoning me at all hours, claiming that their mother is not being well looked after. You should try winning an argument with them!"
From then on, Baba avoided their calls pretending that he had just left for the shops or was in town. That didn't stop the daughters, who started contacting their mother using the landline, knowing full well Mai would send me to relay messages.
It was on a Friday after Mai's relapse that things got worse. I wasn't eavesdropping while cleaning the house. However, Baba and Mai have never been very keen on using headphones, so I followed most of the conversation and even peeked at the laptop screen where I saw the two daughters in a tag team during the conference call. I missed some bits while hanging the washing outside. So by the time I returned, the call had ended, and Mai said she had developed a headache. Baba escaped into the garden, looking exhausted as he muttered about not being given much time and parents being treated like children.
There was an element of gloom for a few days, and then the topic started again. This time I filled in the gaps in the whole discussion between Baba and Mai. It got very heated when Mai mentioned that it was not all about how the two of them felt. They had to consider the stress they were putting their daughters under, especially since Ivy and Martha were so far away.
While I was cleaning out the kitchen cupboards, Mai came in and, leaning against the countertop, said,
"I wouldn't bother too much with all this cleaning. We have to pack the contents up soon enough."
"What do you mean? We are moving house?"
"Yes and No. I wish life were that easy. I'm sure you already have an idea of what's going on. We have decided to leave the country and join our daughter Ivy in the UK."
"Leave the country? Why? You hate the cold, and you'll miss the sunshine!"
"Our daughters have decided that we can't look after ourselves, and it's better if we move to London to be with Ivy. "
"But I am here, and I can look after you," I said. "Your friends are also here. What about your position in the church group?"
"Noone is belittling your efforts. You have been good to us, especially when I was hospitalised. But it was difficult for Baba to cope, even though he was not the sick one. He's not very good around sick people."
"I don't understand," I continued. "There are hospitals here. Most of your relatives are here. You both have jobs. Are you going to give all of that up to live in a foreign country?"
"We've tried reasoning with our daughters with little success."
"But what about your house and other belongings? What about me? Does that mean that will be the end of my job?"
"We'll have to sell up. As for your job, I'm afraid it's the end. We have tried to work out who would be able to take you in, to no avail. Most people we know are cutting down on expenses and don't need a live-in maid. Part-time perhaps, but that won't help you."
"So, Mai, I will have no job and no money to send home to support my family? I am the breadwinner! Can't I go with you?"
"My dear, it's unlikely we will have accommodation for you. You forget we will be virtual lodgers in my daughter's house. What about your visa and work permit? Do you even have a passport?"
I collapsed into a heap, sobbing.
Baba, who had just come in from work, passed through the kitchen and signalled to Mai to follow him.
"What's happening? Why is the girl crying?" said Baba looking exhausted.
Mai shared the story with him, and he looked even more helpless than Mai.
"I knew this was going to happen," said Baba. "Are you sure we can't do anything for her?"
"What exactly? Both you and I know the employment situation out there. Even people with degrees are mopping floors and stacking shelves in supermarkets. Never mind Tadiwa's situation. A school dropout? Perhaps we have been too hasty in our decision making or are we being selfish?"
"Mai, we have to be realistic. The children are right. We cannot stay on our own any longer. Look at the drama we went through when you were last sick. If we have a repeat, you know the situation in the hospitals. The services are deteriorating by the day. At least where Ivy is, you will get quality medical attention, and I can have some peace of mind."
Mai looked at him in despair, "But we can't just abandon Tadiwa. She's your niece. We can't send her back home after exposing her to a better life. You know what your brother is like, he will marry her off as soon as possible. One less mouth to feed and less responsibility, as far as he's concerned."
"So what's the solution, Mai? We haven't even asked her what she wants to do. Perhaps she has a plan. We have less than a month to sort her situation out. Tadiwa, come into the dining room," Baba called out.
I pulled myself together and joined them. Even though I was the one soon to be jobless, I felt for them. Both had aged within the last week.
"Tadiwa, I understand that Mai has told you about the plans the children have for us, which unfortunately do not include you. Do you have any ideas about what you want to do after we leave?"
I had my dreams about what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't want to be a housemaid forever but go back to school. I wouldn't have minded repeating some of the classes, even if it meant joining my younger sister in the same year, as long as I finished high school. I could then train as a nurse and eventually go back home and work at the local understaffed clinic. I shared my future vision and felt a weight lifted off my shoulders as Baba and Mai listened intently.
"You mean you had a solution all along, and yet we've had sleepless nights over your future? What you are saying makes sense and is within our means. So why have you been working for us when you could be at school?" said Baba.
"My father said that I am getting old and am educated enough to leave school. He has even found a local business person whom he wants me to marry. You know, the one who owns a chain of supermarkets and a hardware store at the local township. The polygamist, married to two sisters." I continued, "I felt I had few options and chose to come and live with you instead."
Baba said without hesitating, "Sometimes I think that brother and I are not of the same mother. I know he is a traditionalist and his ideas on girls education are antiquated. But I never really thought about how they would play out in real life with his large number of children. Now that you have got some domestic training, he probably does think you are ripe for marriage!"
Mai looking more relaxed, said, "Poor Tadiwa. I've always suspected you had ambitions. But it's sad to find out that they would have never been realised if we had not talked about emigrating."
"No one has ever asked me."