I had been looking at the rather sad figures of South Africa’s economic condition when a small Zimbabwean family arrived. Their clothing was dusty and they looked tired. The man introduced himself as Arthur, the woman as Matilda and the small child as Mary. They were looking for a place to stay. “Are you legal?” I asked.

Arthur and Matilda looked at each other. Eventually Arthur spoke. “Not altogether.”

I did not know what that meant, but I was not that interested in finding out. “Tell me what you are you doing here. Why did you leave your country to come here?”

“There’s no work there.”

“There’s not much here.”

“There’s nothing in Zimbabwe.”


“Nothing, nothing, nothing. You search for years you still get nothing. There’s no jobs.”

“And here?”

“Here I get piece work,” Arthur said, “a day here, a day there, and so on.”

“And you, Matilda?”

“Me too,” she said, “maybe some ironing today, some washing tomorrow.”   “All right, you may stay in the outbuilding, if you like,” I told them, “but we have no work for you.”

“At least we will have a place to sleep,” Arthur said.

So they moved in. That did not involve moving very much. Their possessions were contained in two plastic shopping bags. There was already a bed in the room and we found a piece of plastic foam on which young Mary could sleep.

Every day we saw Arthur venturing out on foot among the plots and farms, looking for something to do that would help to feed himself and his family. Some days he stayed home and Mary went out on the same mission. In a way they were successful. Most weeks Arthur managed to find a few days of piece work. Now and then Mary also got a day or two.

“What are you getting paid?” I asked Arthur.

“One hundred and fifty, sometimes two hundred if I find a good employer.”

On occasions when they were obviously short of food, we asked them to do some work in the house and garden and Miriam fed them. Sundays they would usually sit outside, enjoying the sun, Mary amusing herself with a furry toy Miriam bought her.

Then one Sunday Arthur was alone. I saw Miriam speaking to him at the gate to the outbuilding’s yard. When she came inside, she was frowning. “Matilda’s gone,” she said. “She’s gone back to Zimbabwe. Arthur says it’s too hard here.”

“How will she live?” I asked Arthur later.

“I will send money.”

I wondered how much money he would be able to send on his irregular one hundred and fifty to two hundred a day. He answered, before I could ask. “Not much,” he said. “But she can also grow mielies and pumpkins.”

That situation prevailed for some weeks, then Arthur too was gone, taking his few possessions with him. I asked another illegal Zimbabwean who lives close by, if he knew what had happened to Arthur, but he had no idea. “Maybe gone home, maybe got a job somewhere else.”

Perhaps we will see them again some time in future. For the time being they have disappeared into the flood made up of Zimbabweans who have left their country, trying to keep their families alive somehow.


A Zimbabwean Family