"It's you, isn't it?" I can't hide the triumph in my voice when I spot the woman with the orange teardrop earrings. "You are the 30-Something Lady!"
I've been trying to track down this writer for months. She pens a column in Zimbabwe's state-controlled Manica Post newspaper called "Diary of a 30-Something Lady." During the latter years of this Southern African country's crisis, Zimbabwe's very own Bridget Jones has written with humor and honesty about what it means to live here as a professional 30-something singleton.
The 30-Something Lady has to cope not only with man problems but also with price increases, power cuts, and the psychology degree she's studying for in her spare time.
"Which is better, no water or no electricity?" she ponders, coming home one night to find there is no water for her bath. When she hears that the payment of her office-job salary will be delayed – a common occurrence here after a nine-year economic downturn – she wonders how she'll pay for her manicure as well as her rent.
She writes about her friends, slim Ms. Matetwe ("I tell you, the girl eats but it goes nowhere") and "traditionally built" Ms. Mafuta; about bad hair days, inattentiveness during Sunday sermons, her love of shopping, and her on-off relationship with quiet but secretly devoted Mr. Old Mutare, her Mr. Darcy equivalent.
I know I'm not the only one who flips eagerly to her column, with the red heart logo splashed in it, on Fridays: Other readers text their comments to the Manica Post regularly. Amid the suffocating state propaganda and the rumblings of political violence, "Diary of a 30-Something Lady" has been a breath of fresh air – a window into the everyday life of Zimbabwe's never-cowed middle classes.
I wanted to meet this woman. There was just one problem: She writes anonymously.
Last year, I noticed that a column on fashion and beauty that appears in the Manica Post was also snappily written. Now I wondered if it was by the same author. I pored over both columns several weeks running to see if there were any crossovers. There weren't.
But two months ago, the fashion columnist was interviewed separately in the Manica Post. She revealed she was setting up a small eatery. A clue, perhaps? I stapled the interview into my own bulging diary and asked around for new food outlets. No, the ladies-who-lunch told me, there are still three cafe-cum-restaurants in this eastern Zimbabwean city.
In February, the 30-Something Lady spoke of her plans to work on a project she'd dreamed of since childhood. The project was, she admitted, a cafe. Bingo!
Optimistically, I tucked into my car a secondhand book I thought the fashion columnist (and the 30-Something Lady) might like: "The Dress Doctor," by onetime Paramount Films chief stylist Edith Head. It lay on the passenger seat, plastic cover glinting reproachfully at me all those days I still couldn't locate her. Then I drove my child to his sports lesson, held once a week at a local church complex. Normally I drop him at the door but that day I had to pay his fee. I walked inside to find a small eatery, tastefully draped in blue. And there was a woman, a little – but only a little – younger than I. She was wearing a red jacket and the kind of high-heeled shoes only a fashion critic could carry off. I felt as if I'd bumped into a friend.
"You're not supposed to know that I write that column," she laughs. "But people are starting to guess."
She's delighted with the "Dress Doctor." "Can I keep it?" she asks. "I like to highlight things with a marker."
I nod yes, happy to be in the presence of a fellow reader. Books are still scarce in Zimbabwe: She's never read "Bridget Jones's Diary" though she has seen the film.
"So how much of what you write is true?" I ask.
"Ninety percent," she says firmly. "Ten percent isn't." She draws much of the material for her diary from five people she knows well. "But I don't write about them too closely."
I pop the million-dollar question: "Does Mr. Old Mutare exist?" According to recent diary entries, the 30-Something Lady has finally agreed to marry him. But there's a problem with lobola (bride-price) and she is having second thoughts.
"No, but he could," she says enigmatically.
If I'm disappointed that Zimbabwe's Mr. Darcy has turned out to be yet another imaginary hero, it's not for long. I look at this mixed-race woman who's given me, a white immigrant, such insight into modern Zimbabwean culture. "I love what you write," I tell her simply. Creative, brave, a dreamer, a reader, and a talented writer: She gives me hope for Zimbabwe's future.