~The British Protectorate of Zanzibar, October 1963~
“Pretty girls of your age should remain at home,” Uncle Bago had warned Redemption, whipping away her dream of independence. He changed his mind when he heard that a British official was looking for help in the kitchen. “It would be foolish to not to take up such a position in these inauspicious times. You never know when the experience might prove useful.”
Her aunt decided a letter of recommendation from the local doctor was required and insisted on taking a watermelon down to the surgery. “This will do as a sweetener, a gift. We pay for favours on Zanzibar.”
The sea wind nearly tore off Redemption’s headscarf as they crossed the coastal road but Doctor Ari was expecting them. “I’m so glad you’ve come,” he said, greeting the two women in Kiswahili as they bustled into his consulting rooms. “This sounds like a great opportunity.”
“Redemption is keen to learn how to prepare European food.”
“Is that your Christian name?”
“It is.” Redemption drew in her breath. He was so much younger than she expected.
"For better or for worse," her aunt muttered. Her name defied her appearance. It was Beauty. While her fuller figure could be deemed attractive, she projected an attitude that exceeded convention.
“I gather you wish to acquire The Queen’s English,” the doctor went on.
“She’s already fluent.”
“Are you married?”
The scent of peppermint hung in the air. It was one question Redemption dreaded.
“Not yet betrothed, either.” Aunt Beauty stood to one side, adjusting various undergarments. “It would be easier to find her a husband if she wasn’t so skinny. Knowing how to bake will increase her prospects.”
The doctor stared at her for a moment, opened a fountain pen and wrote furiously on a piece of headed paper, one dark hand obscuring spidery words. “The job you are going for includes accommodation and should be fun, a bit like working at a hotel but with a family atmosphere. Is that alright with you?”
Redemption nodded. “I’m hoping to perfect my grammar while earning money for college." She clutched the watermelon, concerned the doctor would consider her immature. "I enjoy cooking but my ultimate dream is to teach biology.”
He smiled briefly, folding his note into a stiff, blue envelope. “The Chief Justice will want to know if you can wait at table.”
“She can wait anywhere,” Beauty declared.
This brought light to Redemption’s face. Doctor Ari caught her trying not to smile and burst out laughing. “Present his wife with this reference,” he said, handing her the sealed envelope, “and tell her you can cope in a crisis.”
“This is so kind of you,” Redemption mumbled, offering him the watermelon.
“Why not take it with you? It’s not far.” He gave her directions, explaining what to do when she reached the house. “I must dash but look forward to sampling the fruit of your labour tomorrow. They’re hosting a cocktail party.” With that, he grabbed a hat and hustled the two ladies out through his waiting room. “Don’t dally - we’re in for a deluge.”
“I’d pity his wife, if he was married,” Aunt Beauty said as she watched him swing into a shiny motor car. “Tall, dark and handsome, but never at home.”
The doctor acknowledged them with a cheerful wave and roared off down Residency Road. Redemption hadn’t considered him at all attractive. The first thing she’d noticed was his nose. It almost preceded him.
“Smartly dressed, at any rate,” Aunt Beauty murmured, rearranging her jewellery. “Unlike white people. Heat makes them irritable and sweaty.” She picked up her basket and left for market, shrieking at a passing rickshaw as she waddled off down the crowded street.
Redemption hoisted the watermelon onto her head and set off into the coming storm. A towering cloud mass had turned the sky grey, causing the tropical humidity to become oppressive as she passed the law court. Window shutters rattled as a man with tribal scarring across his features walked out of the ancient building discarding a piece of paper. It spiralled off like a tormented spirit as heavy rain began to fall, great drops soaking his pin-striped suit. Redemption nearly stopped to ask if he needed assistance but he turned to shake open a black umbrella and she hurried on, crossing into a sandy alley that led down to the sea.
The Chief Justice’s residence soon loomed above her. It had an upper verandah that faced the Zanzibar channel where white-capped waves danced towards the coast of East Africa. Drenched by the sudden downpour, Redemption rang the bell-pull and walked through an open door into a gloomy majalis. The lobby enabled her to wait out of the wind but she looked around with caution, feeling she’d entered a fortress. While iron bars covered every window, two brass cannons pointed directly at her, as if in warning. They stood on either side of a high wooden door, which creaked open.
“We are not accepting sellers!” A tiny man, wearing a crimson fez and an aggrieved expression, looked down at the watermelon in disgust.
“You are mistaken, Bwana,” Redemption pleaded, knowing she must look bedraggled.
“Not today,” he said, as if she was nothing more than a street-hawker.
“But, I have come to work here.”
The carved wooden door slammed shut as disappointment flowed through her. The thought of returning to Aunt Beauty and her husband engulfed her in dread but she had nowhere else to stay and no way of finding enough money for a passage home to the mainland.
“Don’t worry.” A young man with no more than a towel around his waist, swung under a purple arc of bougainvillaea growing over a side-door. “I’m coming to your rescue.”
She stood back, alarmed. He was so good-looking. “Have you been watching me?”
“Sure thing! We don’t see many girls here.”
Redemption was silenced by the sight of two live shellfish, which he held in one hand.
“Crayfish - no claws. I dive for a living,” he explained, flicking water from his cropped, Afro hairstyle. “These are for tomorrow night.”
“I’ve come to help,” Redemption said, longing for acceptance.
“With the party?”
“Memsahib!” he shouted, opening the heavy door with one hand. “Your prayers have been answered.”
“Doctor Ari has provided me with a reference but I no longer look presentable.”
“Nice shirt though,” the young man said, stroking the fabric.
“It’s faded from too much washing,” she objected, taking a step back. Love was the last thing she was looking for.
“I have an angel here,” he called out over the sound of the rain. “One with big brown eyes and a watermelon. She likes washing.”
A click of shoes descending stone steps and a glamorous woman in an evening dress stood above them, looking like the Queen of England. “Asante sana, thank you, Juba,” she said, curtly dismissing the young man. “I hope he hasn’t been teasing you.”
“How do you do?” Redemption curtsied, handing over the blue envelope from the doctor. It was a bit damp.
“We’ve been expecting you.” Rings glittered on the lady’s fingers as she opened the envelope. “Our cook has returned to the mainland. Do you have experience of handing around food at parties?”
“Only at church gatherings.”
“A good start.” The lady’s eyes widened as she read the letter of introduction, a smile crossing her face. “Nineteen and still single?”
“All my friends were married by the time they were seventeen, but I’ve been taking exams.”
“I had to wait until I was twenty-two before I walked down the aisle. Follow me. We must find you a uniform.”
“I have this white school blouse,” Redemption said, mounting the flight of stone steps, “and possess certificates of baptism and matriculation.” She wasn’t brave enough to add that she’d passed with distinction.
“That’s lovely.” Click-click went the stilettos as they entered a first-floor reception room flooded with light and the heady smell of lilies. “Come this way.” She turned down a covered walkway and into a kitchen lined with fitted cupboards. The hit single Candy Girl was playing on the radio while heat emanated from a range in one corner.
Redemption’s eyes widened, taking in the shiny modern appliances. “My aunt provided this.” She placed her watermelon on a table, hoping it would be deemed acceptable.
“How very kind.” The lady drifted past, patting her hair-do. “You must need to get dry. We are out for dinner but Abdul will show you to your room.”
“And what is what,” added the diminutive man in a fez who had popped up behind them.
“We’ll begin your training in the morning,” and she swished off in her high heeled shoes.
Redemption swallowed hard, amazed to have been taken on so promptly.
“We’ll see how well you do over the next week,” Abdul said. “Come this way.” He looked as peeved as he had at the front door but led her down a series of steps to a paved courtyard filled with the calming smell of fig trees, which grew straight out of an ancient limestone wall. “It separates us from the British Residency,” he said, sounding proprietorial. “We share a gardener. I must get him to cut back this creeper.” Orange flowers hung over a door that opened onto an arched passageway leading into the ground floor of the house. There were rooms on either side. The ‘what is what’ contained a shower, water-closet and basin with polished taps. Opposite was a barrel-ceilinged chamber painted bright blue. It was furnished with a bed draped in quantities of mosquito netting as if it belonged to a princess. A violet counterpane was tucked under smooth white sheets drawing her eye to the unexpected luxury of a pillow.
“Electric light,” Abdul said, flicking a switch. “And useful shelving. We have hot water today. Take a wash and come up to the kitchen for a meal before sundown.”
After he left, Redemption opened a window onto the courtyard burdened by her own guilt. She had lied to the good doctor. Baking had never interested her. She processed no desire to become a chef even if the post was thought respectable.
As a little girl, she had dreamt of getting married, wanting no more than to conform to the pattern of rural family life. Everyone she knew had nurtured this intention, instructing her on how best to undertake domestic tasks while the boys raised livestock in the African bush. Living far off on Zanzibar, Aunt Beauty was the one female relative who had not known of her shameful secret nor heard about what had happened.
“You will never be able to get married or have children of your own,” her grandmother had assured her. “No man will want you.”
“Why not?” Redemption had cried, wiping tears from her face with the back of her hand. From that moment, she had decided to create a better future for herself and plunged into her studies. She had arrived on the island in search of freedom without anticipating the need to finance her further education or survive alone. Working as a servant had not been part of her plan but she drew back the mosquito netting and sank into the princess bed with relief. It was possible to take a shower for the first time in weeks and sleep alone, rather than with her annoying young cousins.
“It is unheard of for women,” Abdul said, coming into the kitchen the next morning, “to be employed as domestic workers here in Stone Town.”
Redemption put down the kettle with a clunk. “Am I not permitted to earn a living?”
“They have a female cook next door,” Juba said, appearing with a basket of seafood. “Things are changing,” he added, giving Redemption a broad smile, “or so they claim on the radio.”
Abdul was having none of this, despite the fact that Redemption was standing in front of him. “Women must care for their families,” he said, fussing over a pile of folded laundry.
“I am not married,” Redemption assured him, adjusting her headscarf with dignity.
“Why not?” Both men stopped working, wanting to know more.
Her brother had insisted she needed to accept such enquiries as a compliment but finding an appropriate answer felt uncomfortable. “I hope to teach,” she said with spirit.
“Reading and writing?” Juba asked.
“Natural sciences, at secondary school level.”
It became easier for them to chat after Abdul left with an armful of linen.
“Don’t you want babies?” Juba asked filling a vast pot with water.
“My aim is to help teenage girls.”
“That won’t be easy.”
“I have five sisters. They're only interested in their appearance.”
Redemption moved towards the comforting presence of the stove, looking out of a high window to see the gale had gathered momentum. Storm clouds had turned the sky an inky blue and were rumbling ominously. Even the seagulls seemed to be taking cover.
“Ghastly weather for entertaining,” the lady of the house said, rushing into the room with an item of sharply ironed clothing. She shook out the folds. “Slip this on, over the head.”
Juba smiled as Redemption smoothed the garment down over her skirt. “Wow! Very smart,” he declared, standing back. She was horrified. It was a man’s kanzu, identical to the long white garment he was wearing.
“You have a gorgeous figure!” the lady declared. “We can add a sash later. You’re so lucky to be tall. Please wash your hands in Milton’s, then we’ll begin.”
Wearing male clothing felt strange, being tight in the wrong places. Redemption found herself hitching it up as she walked over to the sink. Although flushed with indignation, she imagined her great-grandmother saying, “Do as you are told, child!” and opened the bottle of sterilizing fluid obediently.
“Now, I must introduce you to my best friend.”
Redemption spun around, expecting a person, only to be greeted by the open door of a white, metal cupboard labelled Frigidaire, which began to hum like a nest of bees. Misty air wafted from a metal box in the top right-hand corner above wire shelves laden with food. She had only ever encountered chest freezers in shops.
“My husband is in charge of making ice,” the lady said, extracting an odd-shaped package. “Whatever you do, don’t touch the metal ice-tray. It’ll burn your fingers.”
Juba winked, indicating that he’d explain later.
“Now, we need porcupines.”
He winked again, a broad smile lighting his eyes.
“Can you cut these pineapples into cubes?” A number sat waiting in a basket.
Redemption nodded, thinking the family must keep a pet that needed feeding. Choosing a sharp knife, she removed the spiny skin and diced away, the tropical smell reminding her of home.
“That was quick,” the lady said, placing a small packet of wooden spikes before her. “Now, take one of these little cocktail sticks and add a square of cheese to each chunk of pineapple and poke it into half a melon, making it look like a porcupine. Leave enough space for its face at the pointy end and stick on currants for the eyes, like this. Here’s a picture you can copy.” A magazine was placed on the table. “I need ten,” and with this, she disappeared.
It seemed an unusual task but was better than gutting mackerel at the market, as Uncle Bago had once suggested. The magazine promised that these ‘delightful creations will add distinctive elegance to any hostess buffet.’
The first spineless porcupine glared at her as if in horror. “How will people know these offerings are edible?” Redemption asked, a wry expression spreading across her face. “Why would anyone want to eat such an odd combination of food?”
“It’s all the rage.” Juba’s eyes twinkled as he plunged a large crab into boiling water. “Did you know you would be taught by Sir Roland’s wife?”
“Lady Knox?” She had not expected anyone so elegant and fashionable. “I thought she’d be a grey-haired old lady.”
“She does like everything carried on a tray.”
“It must be some sort of tribal habit. They originate from Scotland.”
“Scotland? I was hoping English was spoken here. I need to extend my vocabulary.”
“I can teach you a few words,” Juba said, providing her with a crude one.
Redemption was not to be tricked. “Do you mean copulation?”
“I’m only saying that porcupines mate for life,” Juba answered, pinching a piece of cheese.
“They steal people’s shoes,” she said, cautioning his fingers with her knife.
“Don’t you think them loveable?”
“Yes, but they can be a nuisance.”
“Tell me about your family,” he said, suddenly serious.
Redemption relaxed as she told Juba about the mango tree in her front yard and of Tom the tortoise who was said to be a hundred years old. Her face lit up as she described the house her parents had built in a U shape for friendliness. “It has a sheltered courtyard where pots of geraniums bring colour to our lives. We have hot and cold running water,” she said proudly.
“As they do here.”
“Yes, but this is a gravity-fed system, unique to the region. My father installed pipework at the mission school next door, where I was educated.”
Juba warmed to her enthusiasm. “Do you have any problems?” he asked, swiping her knife to tap open a crab claw.
“With the water supply?”
He wanted to know if she had any brothers.
“One. Salvi is working at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Dar-es-Salaam.”
“Haven of Peace, as they call the city. We could sail over one day.”
“That sounds stylish.” The thought of returning to Tanganyika with him was thrilling. “Would you take me?”
“Sure thing,” he sang out as another crab lost its limbs.