Nelson“Meddum,” she said. “I have some bad news. Nelson is in prison!”

It was the jetlag, I thought, I couldn’t have heard right. It was bad enough coming home to find Saziso, our lovely housemaid, pregnant. We’d only been gone a month; how did I not know before?

Trying to get my travel weary brain to focus, I asked “Nelson? Prison? How? Why? When?”

Apparently, the police had just turned up at our house two days ago and told her. Saziso had tried to find out, but as was the norm here, she wasn’t told anything. Neither were our local friends who she had gone to for help.

“Not Nelson,” we muttered despairingly, he was the sweetest man God had ever created, with an extra heart where the brain should have been. My husband went directly to the local police station, while I came inside to unpack, shower, and make sense of it all. Random arrests in Hwange were not uncommon, but what could the authorities possibly want from a simple, hardworking, and honest gardener? I found myself in tears, thinking of our dear sweet boy.

Nelson Munengi had come into our life four years previously, in the April of 1992. We had just relocated to Zimbabwe from China, where my husband’s company, Babcock, was re-commissioning the boilers in the power station for the Zimbabwe State Electricity Board. Unlike China, where all the expatriates had been housed in a local hotel, here in Africa we were given huge bungalows to live in. Ours was No.1, Msasa Lane on Baobab Hill, a prestigious address I learnt later, only for expatriates and local bigwigs. I had been instantly charmed by the bungalow but was in despair of the land. Over an acre of rocky ground with a few gorgeous Msasa and Acacia trees. This was to be my home for the next few years, how on earth was I to make a garden out of it.

Lo behold, the next day Nelson appeared at the front door, offering his services for the princely sum of 300 Zim’ dollars a month (less than 30pounds). Never having interviewed home help before, I hired him immediately, and regretted it almost the same day. For Nelson had never worked in a garden before and didn’t know the difference between a rock and a root. But boy could the boy work! He dug and dug away, under the blazing African sun. I stared guiltily from within my air-conditioned rooms, venturing out timidly to explain and instruct. Every time I tried to help; he would physically shrink away. “No no meddum, I do, not you.”

            My husband explained that it was bad form here to be seen helping the help, but I didn’t care. As soon as I acclimatised myself to the heat, I joined Nelson, and within months we had the semblance of a lawn, some rockeries, and a vegetable patch.

We had days when I had to fire him again and again (he always turned up the next day), especially that one time he pulled out all my beautiful cosmos seedlings leaving the weeds in its place.

When Nelson had enough money, he married Florence, a lovely young girl from his own Tonga tribe. Within a year, they brought their little baby boy to us for our blessings. I named him Moses but realised soon after that they called him Desperate Moses, which I had no idea how to react to. A beautiful baby boy being called Desperate. It really was desperate!

There were so many Nelson anecdotes I had saved in my head, remembering them now whilst praying my husband would find him alive and manage to get him released. After all, he played golf with Inspector Shumba, the Police Chief, surely that would help?

There was this time when I was making a video film of the garden, to take back to India on our annual holiday. Focussing on Nelson, who had been prepped in advance, I had said “Nelson, say something.” Gazing into the lens, he had scratched his head, smiled shyly, and said “Something, meddum.” On the rare occasions he was late, and I had to fire him (it was a game we played now), he always said “sorry meddum, I missed the bus, she ran away, I had to come footing it”.

 I never corrected his English unlike the maid, who was a clever girl and wanted her O levels. And it was with great delight that I was tutoring her to pass her English exam.

“Oh dear,” I thought, remembering her obvious condition “what’ll happen to her ambitions now?”

My reverie was interrupted by the joyful sound of our Labrador barking, and the gates being opened. Sarajit drove into the garage, grinning gloriously, even chuckling. He seemed to be in too fine a humour for a man who had just survived a long journey from the UK, and then spent an hour in an African police station. Gulping down his water, he said to Saziso and me, “sit down, you’ll need to sit for this.”

To this day I’m so grateful he made us sit, as I’d have surely been knocked over by his tale. I’m giggling as I type this, so will tell you in a nutshell.

Nelson was not in the sort of trouble we were worried about. It wasn’t the usual case of a Tonga boy being picked up by the Shona or Ndebele police for questioning, or worse. No, it was a small town, and everybody knew he worked for Mr Sen from Babcock.

“So why was he arrested then?”

“Ah,” Sarajit laughed, “he was caught in the act.”

“Act”, I almost scream now, “what act? Stop being so mysterious. What happened?”

You’ll smile when you hear this too.

Some neighbours of his, had asked Nelson to accompany them for a job one evening. Always in need of an extra dollar, he went along, thinking it was a gardening job. He was quite the landscaping man by now, and it never occurred to him that gardening was usually a daytime activity. The men, went to a big house in the Colliery estate, and told Nelson to hold the ladder while they went up into the house through the window, and to whistle if he heard anyone coming.

Well, our boy with the two hearts and zero brains did just that. He was still whistling when the police came and caught him holding the ladder. The other two had long since disappeared.

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