A stroll before supper

Like her father before her, she takes a walk at dusk to greet neighbors and let the day settle.

By

I slide the sweet potatoes into the oven and slip out the door. I step quickly down Leopold Takawira Avenue and then turn left along Jason Moyo Street.

It is a habit I've only recently adopted: a brisk march round the block before supper. My son is bathed and pajama-ed, my computer tucked away, and the radio's relentless blare silenced. This small slice of time is mine.

I can hear the familiar sounds of evening in Zimbabwe: the rattle on a neighbor's gate as Baba ("father" in the local Shona language) returns home, the creak of an ancient bicycle up ahead. A dog barks. Then another. I catch the tangy scent of wood smoke wafting on the breeze.

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A shadow pads past. "Manheru," the man says (it means "good evening"). I reply in the traditional way: How have you spent your day? I have spent my day well if you have also, he answers. In my seven years in this beautiful, crisis-wracked African country, I have grown to love the long-winded ways in which locals weave a greeting.

I pull my padded coat around me, the relic of several years spent in Paris. There is a nip in the air. Winter will arrive early this year and with it the promise of plentiful crops: the rains have been good.

These 15 minutes are a gift I give myself. If I choose, I can check over the day: deadlines met or missed, snippets of conversations savored, food found or triumphantly concocted. After years of shortages, supermarket shelves are slowly filling up as confidence grows in a unity government formed in February between President Robert Mugabe and his once bitter rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. But prices remain high. Housewives must dig deep into reserves of creativity to feed their families. The monkeys may have stolen my mealies but I will not despair: Tonight I plan to fry green tomatoes to take the tartness away.

I turn right into Takunda Street. The sun sinks behind Kopje Hill, illuminating the sky in a last splendid splash of orange. It shimmers and is gone.

When I was growing up in rural eastern England, my father loved the minutes before and after nightfall. A day's teaching done, his front lawn mowed, and letters sliced open, he'd stride off into the gathering blackness. Tilly the dog strained at her leash. The pair of them marched down Langton Lane, past Spye Cottage where the artists lived.

On their way home, they'd skirt the old windmill without sails. The ground floor of the mill was stacked with round hay bales like giant Swiss rolls. In spring, the farmer let my two sisters and me squeeze down the sides of those bales during endless games of hide-and-seek.

We girls are adults now. Our paths have taken us far from the windmill. Sarah, a doctor, has sunk her roots by the Humber estuary on the North Sea. Edith, family-baby-turned-fashion-designer, has a flat in Brussels. We swap stories of our children's exploits by e-mail.

Dad's eyes would shine when he pushed open the front door. "That blew the cobwebs away," he'd announce as he sat down for supper.

My gate looms. Under the thunbergia creeper, I can just make out the small shape of Celeste the cat, her paws tucked beneath her as she waits sphinx-like.

On the kitchen counter, a lone candle burns. Tea-towels wrapped round his hands, my husband is turning the potatoes on the oven tray.

"Nice walk?" he asks.

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