Kate Chambers: Modern women have secret voice in Zimbabwe

She is Zimbabwe's Bridget Jones. Well, kind of.

Where British Bridget worried about control pants, cigarettes and the dangerous-but-delectable Daniel Cleaver, her Zimbabwean counterpart frets about power cuts, how she'll pay for her manicure now her salary is late again and whether quarrels over the lobola (bride-price) will torpedo her wedding plans.

Throughout the latter years of Zimbabwe's crisis, a columnist calling herself the 30-Something Lady has penned a weekly diary in the state-controlled Manica Post. The paper is resolutely pro-President Robert Mugabe, regularly carrying articles criticising his opponents in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Even the editor's first name is Hatred - yes, really.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Amid the propaganda, the 30-Something Lady's preoccupation with bad hair days, boyfriends and her biological clock is a breath of fresh air - even if, as writer Ann Ruthenburg confessed when I finally tracked her down, it's not 100 per cent true.

On the face of things, the 30-Something Lady's life in a Zimbabwe shakily emerging from years of shortages and Bridget Jones' experiences in London's cut-throat media circles couldn't be further apart. But the similarities are striking.

Remember Shazzer and Jude, Bridge's best friends? The 30-Something Lady has Mrs Matwetwe ("I tell you, that woman eats and it goes nowhere") and Ms Mafuta, who "puts on weight just by looking at food" and whose money problems have pushed her into being a "flesh peddler".

British Bridget couldn't stand the Smug Marrieds. The pet hate of Zimbabwe's version is people who bring their kids to coffee dates.

"Now every conversation is interrupted by small voices: 'Mummy, look what Davie is doing', 'Mummy, can I go play?' and 'Mummy I'm hungry'." If this is what motherhood looks like, I think I shall take my time," she grumbles.

It took weeks of sleuthing to track down Ruthenburg, who writes anonymously. Eventually I found her in a caf in eastern Mutare.

She'd dropped clues in recent columns about opening a coffee shop. In a city where mealie-meal sadza porridge and nyama (meat) are the platters of choice, a Western-style shop serving sponge cakes can't go unnoticed forever.

Nor can a glamourous manager with orange tear-drop earrings and platform shoes.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"You're not supposed to know that (the author) is me," she says.

Ruthenburg is also a fashion critic for the Manica Post, churning out pieces on how to "Wear Your Denim Throughout Winter" and urging officeworkers not to wear socks with sandals.

We stand in the winter sun on the steps of the church, well away from her friends. "How much of what you write is true?" I want to know. "90 per cent. Ten per cent isn't." She eavesdrops on conversations, getting much of her material from the complicated lives of five friends "though I don't write about them too closely. I don't want to get sued," she says grimly.

The way women end up abused and unhappy when they consent to be Small Houses (the local term for maintained mistresses) is a favourite topic. "I want to say, Hey, this is true and things shouldn't be like this."

After betrayals by Mr Gorgeous (his mother preferred the girlfriend with his baby) and Mr IT, the 30-Something Lady has finally found happiness with her own Mr Darcy, monied businessman Mr Old Mutare, who may or may not also be a new black farmer. But a death in the family that necessitates a trip to Zambia means bride-price ceremonies have to be delayed. Now the 30-Something Lady is getting cold feet.

"Does Mr Old Mutare exist?" I ask. "No, but he could," she says enigmatically.

I wonder aloud why one of Zimbabwe's local publishers hasn't snapped her up. "I have seven of my novels in a drawer at home," she says.

As so often in Zimbabwe, there's hope in her voice.