A different kind of riches

Despite food shortages and hyperinflation, I've often felt wealthy in the past decade.

A woman walks On the roadway near Harare, Zimbabwe.

The driver of the shiny-new maroon car puts his head out the window.

"Are you merried?" he asks. Momentarily I turn my attention away from my small son, struggling to buckle his belt in the back seat.

Is this Zimbabwean man asking if I'm happy? At times like this I regret my lack of real proficiency in Shona. I should be able to answer this man in his own language. But I can't, not with ease.

"I'm sorry," I say. "Can you repeat that?"

"I want to know if you are merried," the man insists. He taps lightly on his steering wheel. Well-dressed, he could be a diamond dealer, judging from the boarding house he's just driven away from. It's a haunt for illegal dealers trying to take advantage of Zimbabwe's four-year diamond boom in the remote Marange fields, just over an hour's drive away from this border city.

"Merry?" I want to retort. "Today I'm verging on the grumpy, if you must know."

We've spent the last couple of hours, my son and I, with a small group of mothers in a lush garden just off the main Herbert Chitepo Street. Cake forks poised over an exquisite melktart, the womens' chatter ranged from continental holidays to expensive boarding schools.

Imported skin-care creams were laid out for sale on a polished table. A bunch of flowers towered over the merchandise: shop-bought flowers, that is, not the ragged (but oh-so-sweet-smelling) purple-and-white blooms of yesterday-today-and-tomorrow that I pick from my garden and stuff into a jam jar. Most of these mothers are well educated but do not need to work. Their husbands own transport companies, a chain of hardware shops, even an airplane.

They probably do not piece together – as I do – credit notes from stores (many Zimbabwean shops still do not offer coins as change) to buy an extra sachet of buttermilk to make cheap ice cream. Or come to a sudden halt in the car three times in two weeks because they miscalculated how far a $5 fuel allocation would take them.

I knew when I married my writer husband and moved to Zimbabwe 10 years ago that we wouldn't be rich. His family lost their home a few months after our wedding. Then came the grueling years of hyperinflation followed, after the formation of a unity government in 2008, by months of overpricing as state utilities adjusted – or didn't – to the realities of trading in US dollars.

Despite the economic crisis, I've often felt wealthy in the past decade. Maybe that's because Zimbabwe has taught me to redefine what being rich really means. Rich is how I felt this week when I emerged from my friend Mai C's house clutching a thin plastic bag bulging dangerously with home-grown onions and a slightly pocked orange pawpaw fruit. When I texted her to say thank you, she replied: "We just glad 2 be able 2 give."

I feel rich when I find yet another example of the creative way Zimbabweans use the English language. One correspondent in a daily newspaper complained of pedestrians who stroll nonchalantly onto busy roads "as if they had bumpers." Another exhorted indecisive locals to "take the owl by the horns."

Wordplay like that never fails to brighten my day.

But on some afternoons, it's hard to ignore the whisper: What would it be like to never have to think about money?

The man is polite, but he's getting impatient. "What about your car? How much do you want for your car?"

That I do understand. I shake my head. The 1991 spearmint-green saloon I drive is on loan from my husband's parents. "It's not for sale. It belongs to my mother-in-law."

"Your mother-in-law." He nods slowly. "So you are merried then?"

He means married. I laugh. "Yes, I have a husband."

He may not bring me diamonds but my husband will eat my home-devised dish of curried beans in tomato sauce three nights in a row without flinching (at least not when I'm in the room).

He has been known to change a diaper while listening to the 8 o'clock news bulletin on state TV and still meet his filing deadline a few minutes later.

He can vault 15 feet up a mahogany tree to rescue a polystyrene plane that an inexperienced small pilot persisted in lodging there. He can discuss narratives of deprivation in late 19th-century Victorian literature with me at 9 o'clock at night.

I ask you: What more could a girl want?

It seems to me that I am after all a very merrily merried matron.

"Thank you," I call out as the man reverses away. Thanks for reminding me.


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