The Best One Can Do, Given the Circumstances
Munatsi was in bed when the phone rang. It was on silent, but the green light from its
screen illuminated the dark bedroom in which she lay with her flatmate, her flatmate’s
six-year-old daughter sleeping between them.
“Will you take that somewhere else, me and Tata are trying
to sleep,” said Rachel, her flatmate.
Munatsi grunted, rolled out of bed, and pressed answer. She
stepped barefoot onto the carpet and made her way to the corridor, the voice at the other
end of the line went:
hello, is anyone there?”
you want?” Munatsi said, leaning against the wall. She flicked the light switch,
but there was no power. ZESA’s erratic load-shedding meant that they were lucky to
get six hours of electricity a day, but it was worth a try all the same.
“Detective, there has been a murder,” said the voice at the
Gidi at H.Q.”
Gidi, my caseload is full. I have no capacity to take this on. Call Superintendent Chiweshe
and he’ll put Zvobgo or Moyo on the case.”
“I already spoke with him and he told me to call you.”
Munatsi groaned. “Fill me in,”
cut and dry, like biltong on the rack. Rhodesville P.S. say a female attended the station
with two children to report she had murdered her husband. She was immediately apprehended
and taken into custody. OIC sent two officers to her house on Boscobel Drive East and they
confirmed there was a deceased male with—”
“Tell Rhodesville to secure the scene, and not to steal
anything. I’ll deal with this in the morning. Is that clear?”
up and went back to the bedroom. There was no need for her to hurry on such a case, especially
with a confession in hand. She had already been putting in long hours, with no overtime
pay; hell, the government had not even paid her last month’s salary. It was January,
and that meant she had gone through Christmas broke. Rachel was a nurse and she had not
been paid, either; the only folks who got their salaries on time were those in the army
and intelligence services. Just how it was. The only reason the landlord had yet to kick
them out was because they were both in professions useful to know someone in, just in case
anything ever went wrong. Munatsi was not feeling particularly motivated. She crawled back
into bed, relieved to be under a warm blanket once more.
got into her battered 1963 Series IIA Land Rover. It was dusk, the sun hidden behind skyscrapers,
and the car looked like a heap of white scrap metal on wheels. She turned the key and there
was a metallic click. Turned it again. She had heard more of a rumble in her tummy than
any sound that engine gave. Munatsi stepped hard on the clutch, put the gear in second,
took off the handbrake and the car rolled down the slope. She released the clutch and the
Land Rover coughed, splattered and went quiet. There was only one thing for it, turning
the ignition off and trying again. The second time, the old girl jerked, shaking Munatsi
around, and she roared like a steam engine, diesel filling up her veins, as Munatsi pumped
the accelerator hard, black fumes pouring out of the exhaust. She drove down onto Hebert
Chitepo Avenue, joining the sparse early morning commuters.
The robot on Selous turned red on her
and she stopped, occasionally revving, just to make sure the old girl was kept fed. A vendor
peddling the morning papers came up and knocked on the window, flashing the day’s
headlines in her face. He had a toothy grin, was wearing an Econet cap on his head, and
a waistcoat that had an assortment of goods sticking out – toothbrushes, toothpicks,
Okapi knives, cigarette lighters, all strategically displayed. The man was a walking convenience
store. Munatsi rolled down her window.
“You want the Herald or
the Independent? I’ve also got—”
“How much for that Okapi?” She cut him off.
The robot turned green as he answered.
A kombi behind her hooted, but she paid it no mind.
“Is it sharp?” she asked.
“Enough to skin an elephant,” he said, taking the money and
handing the knife over.
Munatsi drove off, just as the robot turned amber, leaving
the kombi stuck at a red. She went down Samora Machel, and from there on to Rhodesville.
The desk sergeant was surly –
he had not been paid either. His potbelly stretched the buttons on his shirt and his shoes
were unpolished, the kind of thing that never happened back in the day when Munatsi joined
the force. He looked up at her as he presented the docket. She was a tall woman, a shoulder
and two heads above him.
“Open goal, Detective,” the sergeant said to her.
“Confession and everything.”
“Good job. I’m just here to tick the boxes,” she replied.
He led her to the cells. The corridor
was dank, and the smell of shit and vomit was overwhelming. That said, Rhodesville had
some of the cosiest cells in Harare. The florescent light flickered overhead.
Chigumbura!” the sergeant called out, opening the door to the women’s cell.
The floor of the twenty-by-ten room, packed
with women lain down. You could hear them wheezing, coughing, snoring. In the furthest
corner was the bucket they used for their toilet, full up from the night’s use.
Nearest the door was a pregnant lady, belly showing through the grey, lice-ridden blanket
she was sleeping under. A small figure got up from the corner near the toilet bucket and
stepped over sleeping heads, anxiously making her way to the door.
The prisoner’s eyes were red from
weeping. White lines marked her cheeks like fine hupfu. She shivered, exposed in her nightdress;
barefooted, the cold concrete floor could not have helped. Munatsi walked behind her, the
sergeant ahead, observing her hunched shoulders, as they were led into the interrogation
room. It was a sparse space. Two metal chairs bolted to the floor, and a metal desk. There
was no window and the four white walls were artified with dried blood and faeces.
“Sit down,” Munatsi said, pointing at the chair opposite.
“Put the file on the desk – you can leave us now, Sergeant.”
“Open goal,” the fat man said, before leaving.
Munatsi opened the file and scrolled through
details of the confession in the statement. She took her time, letting the prisoner soak
in the silence that was only occasionally broken by the rustle of a turning page.
Then she looked up at the prisoner who was staring at the floor, her head covered in a
grey doek. She had two black eyes, and a cut on her lower lip.
Munatsi opened her notepad and took a
pen out from her jacket pocket.
“Did they beat you – the police?” Munatsi asked.
The prisoner shook her head.
raised her eyebrows. The lads liked to soften suspects up now and again, but if the suspect
was ready to confess, then there was no need. Beating people up was hard work, and the
ZRP didn’t like hard work.
“Who gave you those bruises?”
The prisoner remained silent.
here you drove in just around 1am and told the constable at the desk that you had killed
your husband. Is this correct?”
The prisoner nodded. She was hunched in a little ball,
barely filling her seat.
are you?” Munatsi asked.
the girl whispered.
have you been married?”
“I didn’t get that.”
“Four years,” the prisoner replied.
Munatsi did the math and sighed.
how old was he?”
“I don’t know.”
“And those are your children you brought with you, aged 10
The girl shook her head: “My husband’s.”
Munatsi stood up, and walked to the left
wall where the window should have been. A “Lupemba” had scratched his name
in the plaster. There was a dark palm mark next to it, as if someone with sooty hands had
touched it. The girl’s accent told Munatsi that she was rural, probably Manyika
from Manicaland. She hadn’t asked for a lawyer, probably didn’t even know what
one was. Munatsi clenched and unclenched her fists, thinking, just when her
cell phone rang. She checked, saw it was her SO, and answered.
you caught an easy one last night. Great. I have another thing
in Mbare that I want you to look at ASAP. Do the paperwork, we’ll transfer that one to Chikurubi on remand,” the voice on the phone said.
“I need a few more hours on this. Heading over to her
residence just now, Supt,” she replied.
“Get it done quickly.” The superintendent hung up on her.
Munatsi turned back to the prisoner and
asked her to hold out her arm. She reached into her pocket, took out the Okapi knife, flicked
it open and said, “I want you to be very quiet.”
The knife was as sharp as the vendor had
said it was.
It was around
mid-morning by the time Detective Munatsi arrived at Boscobel Drive East in
Highlands. This was the kind of neighbourhood Munatsi could only ever dream of
living in; the sort of folks who lived here were the type who owned their own homes. A
solitary constable was manning the gate, he recognised her car and waved her through. Munatsi’s
immediate problem was that this property stood on flat terrain, which meant starting her
car afterwards would be its own mission. She could leave the engine idling, but then she
couldn’t afford the diesel, and the department was getting tighter on their fuel-mileage
allowance, which was already based on newer, more efficient cars in the fleet, not her
old Land Rover. It was a pain, but she parked on the driveway behind three other ZRP
vehicles and cut the engine.
She got out, inspected the place. Typical four bedroomed
colonial bungalow set on an acre. Lush green lawn, suggesting a borehole hidden
somewhere. Palm trees and exotic flowerbeds, mixed in with indigenous msasa and
mopane. Walled veranda. Typical middle-class set-up.
Assistant Inspector Guzha came out of the house to meet
way, Detective,” he said. “The forensics guy is
anything for us?”
“You know these UZ types, all they tell you is what you can
already see in front of you. Guy takes a blow to the back of the head, has his
skull smashed in, and we need this scientist
to tell us what happened?”
“Wait till the pathologist writes his report. He’ll tell us
if the deceased is actually dead,” Munatsi said, with a chuckle.
They went inside, to the living room. Someone had turned the television
on, probably one of the cops, and it was playing South African music off a satellite channel.
The room was well ordered; family photos on the wall, old, green fabric sofas mixed in
with a new leather settee, glass coffee table, faux Persian rug, and a dead man in the
middle of it all. Munatsi walked over to him, squatted, looked at his face.
“So this is Mr Chigumbura,” she said.
“Only in the flesh,” Guzha replied.
The dead man was round and heavy. His
hair – where it was not bloody – was black, speckled with grey. He had deep
lines on his face and was pushing sixty. The photos on the wall showed pictures of his
older children, two girls in their twenties, and his late first wife, who was a good
decade and a half younger than him, in their last portrait. The pride of place
was taken by two accounting certificates, framed; an undergrad and a Masters
from Fort Hare in South Africa, displayed for every visitor to see.
“Where’s everyone else?”
“They’re in the kitchen, making themselves something to
eat,” Guzha replied.
“You guys got gloves?” Munatsi asked.
“I’ve got the last pair,” Billy Mungate, the forensic
scientist, said, popping out from the corridor. “Been requesting them for
months, but we never get any. I have to wash and reuse these.” He held up his
hands, showing a pair of blue gloves, the left one torn at the heel of his
Munatsi knelt down and sniffed the dead man’s mouth. Teachers
or Grants whisky. She crawled round and looked at his hands. Slight purple bruising on
you think?” she said to the two men in the room.
“Oh, she whacked him alright. Young wife probably having an
affair, he confronts her…” Guzha said.
“See, I don’t speculate. I just do science,” Billy said,
stepping up closer. “He was hit at the back of the head with that Shona family
sculpture. The whole thing is hard, black springstone, weighs at least a kilo
and a half, maybe two.”
Munatsi duck-walked to the sculpture on the carpet, next to
the leather settee. It was a popular icon at the open markets for the few
tourists who still ventured to Harare. Three figures embracing: Father-Mother-Child,
forming a circle of unity with their hands.
“Sad times when a husband and provider is murdered by some
young slut who probably only got with him for his money in the first place,”
Guzha said, shaking his head. “Sad times.”
“What makes you think that?” Munatsi asked.
“They were married how many years, and she hasn’t had any
children of her own. Probably one of those who uses family planning tablets and
goes around aborting.”
Munatsi made to stand up, half rising, but then something
under the sofa caught her eye. She squatted back down.
“Hey, what about this—”
“Don’t touch—!” Billy called out, but he was too late.
Munatsi stood up and presented a bloodied
Okapi knife. Sharp blade with a brown handle.
“The. Evi. Dence,” Billy completed his sentence, holding out
his blue gloves.
Munatsi stood up and shrugged. An honest mistake, by a
twenty-year veteran in the force. Billy fished into his pack and brought out a
sandwich bag, and told the detective to drop the knife into the bag.
“Sorry, Billy, it just happened,”
take it to the lab and see what I can find.”
“Good, because Mrs Chigumbura told me a different story, and
she has a deep gash in her right forearm, which I think came from that knife,”
“I swept this room clean and I didn’t see that,” said Guzha,
“Then you must be blind,” she said, stepping away from the
scene. “Don’t worry, I won’t document your incompetence. Now, did you guys say
someone was making breakfast? I’m starving.”
It took three constables pushing the car for fifty metres
before she would start up again. She roared to life and Munatsi honked to say thank you
before she drove away.
Watching the leafy suburbs recede in her rear-view mirror,
she remembered an old case, from when she had just joined Homicide. The suspect
was a woman called Eugenia Phiri, a flea market trader who lived with her
unemployed mechanic husband, Reginald Phiri, in the township of Tafara. Reginald
used to beat on his wife near enough every day, something all the neighbours knew. One
day, Eugenia defended herself by picking up a log from the cooking fire and wielding it
against him. Munatsi made the arrest and took the statement. When the case went to the
High Court, they found Eugenia guilty of manslaughter, and sent her to Chikurubi Maximum.
That was the law, and the circumstances of a man who beat his wife with his hands failed
to satisfy the judge that this was sufficient grounds for acquittal.
Eugenia had hanged herself halfway through
her sentence. And for years, Munatsi kept telling herself, this was the law, she was just
doing her job.
She adjusted her rear view mirror and looked herself in the
“I’m just doing my job,” she said.