Phyllis Puffer
Senior Love

Zimbabwe, Summer 2012

Hello?   Hello?

   Nobody answered.
A large portion of white cloth, clearly clothing, and similar patch of black showed through the landscaping of the beautiful house set in beautiful gardens. The gardener perhaps?

The gate in the wall around the house was open, showing a clearly upper class dwelling in this upper class suburb of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. The research institute, where I was working for the summer, was located in the neighborhood, and I was on the prowl. 

The quest was for wealth to photograph to balance the scenes of poverty, war, and destitution which form the world’s image of African countries. The poverty, war, and destitution are certainly true, but not everywhere, and this was one part of the “not everywhere.”

The walkway, the house and a large area in front of the one story, red-tile roofed house were of brick. A sign over a paved open area across from the house said, “Visitor Parking.” I looked around for a sign saying, “Visitors please report to the principal’s office.” It seemed that the establishment might be a private pre-school or day care center.

A large man came slowly down the brick path.  He was not a gardener.  He was an Indian Muslim, of which there were many in this city.  He wore the long white robe and long black vest common among men in that community as well as a flat-topped, round cap. His middle had expanded with age and prosperity.  His brown beard was long and curly.

“Good morning. I would like to take a photograph of your beautiful house and garden.”

“I’m just here for the wedding of my niece. I’ve just come up from Durban.”

Durban is in South Africa on the coast by the ocean and quite a distance away. I had seen before that the ties between the Zimbabwean and South African Muslim communities were close.

“Let’s go ask my sister. She’s having her hair colored.”

Sister was sitting on a straight-back, wooden chair outside in the midst of yet more beautifully landscaped garden. A young black African girl was there, clearly the beautician, but she left almost immediately. A half- grown, grey and white striped cat sat in front of the scene, but it walked quietly away when I bent down to pet it.

Sister also was middle aged.  She was wearing a long gown, covered with a beauty parlor shoulder cape, her long, wavy, black hair extending wetly down her back. She was a calm person, rather detached, and apparently unconcerned that a beauty secret was revealed.

Sister readily gave her consent to photograph the house. She didn’t seem impressed, flattered, or even interested. Both of them forbade me to photograph the people.  I was embarrassed to have asked. I had temporarily forgotten that many Muslims do not permit photographs or paintings of humans as being too close to the practice of idolatry.

I photographed busily around the establishment accompanied by the brother/uncle who commented at length on the plants and house and life’s events. He showed me a word painted on the wall of the house above the house number.  He said it meant welcome in Arabic.

“My niece married a man from London.”

Another example of a close-knit yet far flung community.

“I was married 41 years.  My wife died suddenly from a heart attack.”

We had gotten to the gate and I started to photograph the landscaping outside the wall. 

The brother/uncle showed me the sign on the gate, “Honey Cinnamon Garden.”

“My sister is a wonderful cook. She can cook anything.”

The sign had not made any sense to me before and only a little more now but it explained the visitor’s parking and might partly explain the extraordinary quality of the gardens as an asset to a catering company.

“I was in plastics manufacturing, but I don’t do that anymore.”

I thought that might mean that he was retired.

“My son is in pots and pans.  He has _____.”

I don’t remember the name of the son’s company but the father became very enthusiastic as he explained the science behind the superiority of his son’s products. 

There was something about different layers of metal put together making the pots heat slowly with need for only a little cooking oil. Food doesn’t burn. He emphasized that this was healthy cooking.  Whoever thought anyone would be passionate about cookware. I found myself becoming interested. 

He stopped himself and returned to his personal life.

“My wife died. I was so sad all the time. They said at the mosque, ‘You are always crying.  You need another wife.’”

“We’ve been married three years. I married a widow. She was married 21 years. She never had children. My children love her. My grandchildren love her. She loves the grandchildren. 

Married 21 years and no children. We’ve been married three years. She wanted a religious man. No smoking.”

The way the man spoke about his marriage belied to an outsider the complicated, exciting and deadly serious processes which would have been put in motion within the community to bring about this union. The men, and probably even more so the women, would have been mobilized in match making. The man’s own mosque community would have activated personal contacts with other mosque communities in Durban, with other mosques in South Africa, and even Zambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, on farther north and east to the edges of the African continent and the Middle East. Also to Europe, Asia, the Americas. A man would have a cousin here, whose wife or sister would know an eligible woman. Another man would have an uncle there whose wife or sister or mother could verify character. There would have been much discussion of age, interests, personalities, backgrounds, and yes, money, also compatibilities of culture, language, temperament, education, and on and on and on. How excited the community would have been.  After a short time, or a long time, or somewhere in between, the contacts would have been made. There would have been introductions and discussions. Then, great joy, a wedding. A relationship would begin.  Love would develop and grow.

The sharp, strong, African morning sun made tiny points of light on the little curls in my friend’s dark brown beard.  Here was a happy man.

Phyllis Puffer received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University, all in sociology. She has traveled in over 40 countries, mostly in the Third World.



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