They brush away her law studies like an inconvenient fly.

‘Your father said we can section you’, they say.

The force of her father’s will moves across the country from Bulawayo to Harare. It takes the route that Emily herself takes to get to university each term, past Gweru, Kadoma, Chegutu. The force travels along the Bulawayo Road and propels her from her bed to pack a small bag. Pens and note book, her new diary. Three changes of underwear, three tee-shirts, two pairs of jeans. One book: The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State.


Her clothes are not wanted here, they remain in her bag. She wears a striped gown with the many-wash-faded letters ANNEXE ANNEXE ANNEXE all over it. She is branded across her breast, on her right arm, above her knees, across her back. She is small, Emily. The gowns are supposed to be one-size-fits all but so voluminous is hers that she feels like she is in a tent. In the window, she catches her reflection. She cannot see herself. MockingNurseMatilda takes down her particulars. Name, age, race, religion, height, weight. She asks Emily what tribe she belongs to.

‘This is what slows progress in this country’, Emily screams. ‘The notion of tribe is a patronising Western construction,’ she adds when they have restrained her. ‘The Goths, Vandals and Visi-goths, those were tribes, they talk about Serbian nationalism, but African tribalism. I do not have a tribe, I belong to the nation.’ 

They force her onto the bed.

‘I am a student,’ she weeps. ‘A university student.’

‘Emilia is a Catholic sister, Ezekiel is an army sergeant, Sonia there manages a hotel,’ MockingNurseMatilda says. ‘Welcome to the Annexe my dear, we welcome students too.’

Emily reads aloud from the Origins of the Family. A wave of gratitude washes over her. These men, Marx and Engels, Karl and Friederich, dead and white, they get it, they really, really get it. ‘In the first place, sexual love assumes that the person loved returns the love; to this extent the woman is on an equal footing with the man. Secondly, our sexual love has a degree of intensity and duration which makes both lovers feel that non-possession and separation are a great, if not the greatest, calamity; to possess one another, they risk high stakes, even life itself.’

She cries herself to sleep and sleeps a dreamless sleep. She wakes to find a Coloured girl staring at her and smiling as she plays with the beads at the ends of the braids on Emily’s hair. ‘Feel my baby,’ the Coloured girl says.

Her name is Estelle, and she is a star rising high above the farinaceous reaches of all that is ordinary and elemental. Nothing can touch her, and nothing does.

‘Feel my baby’ she says again, eyes closed. She places Emily’s hand on her stomach, chopping board flat. ‘He will be born tomorrow.’

‘Ralph.’ Estelle says the name like she is tasting its sound.

‘Ralph,’ she repeats.

‘That is what I’ll call him, Ralph, like the Karate Kid.’

Together Emily and Estelle look out onto Second Street Extension where up and down goes the little green bus.


In the Annexe, she finds that she is not the only one who is not mad.

‘I am not mad’, says Ezekiel.

‘And I am not mad’, says Estelle.

‘Why do you look at me as though I am mad?’ asks Emilia and hits Ezekiel on the head. No one is mad except the nurses with their faces out of focus, they are gone and there they are again, with their large ears and large hands that grab and say she needs rest. They give her three small pills, one orange, one square and white, one round and white. She is happy that it is NiceNurseLindiwe and not MockingNurseMatilda who helps her to a bed. There is something Emily has to tell her, something important, terribly, desperately important. It is the most important thing she has ever said to anyone. She clutches NiceNurseLindiwe’s arm and looks into her eyes. ‘Beware the Jabberwock my son,’ she says. ‘The jaws that bite, the claws that catch. Beware the Jub-Jub bird and shun the Frumious Bandersnatch.’


Ezekiel sits in the corner away from the windows. Concentrated, he won’t show anyone what he is doing. He reveals his work eventually, shyly, a pencil drawing of the Taj Mahal. The domes and columns are delicately fragile in black and white. ‘That’s a building in India,’ he says. ‘I saw it in a book.’ The next time that Ezekiel screams ‘Abraham, Abraham,’ Sister Emilia tears the drawing and the Taj Mahal flutters in seven torn pieces to the floor. Ezekiel does nothing but sit and draw another. He gives it to Emily. If possible, it is even more beautiful than the first one. ‘It is the most beautiful thing that I have seen,’ she says, and means it.  She cries, for no reason. Ezekiel puts his hand on her shoulder and smiles. Together, they look outside the window. She persuades him to sing a new song. Continuing the common theme, she chooses a Sunday school song that also features Abraham.

Father Abraham has many sons

Has many sons, has Father Abraham

I am one of them and so are you.

So let us praise the Lord.

Up and down Second Street Extension goes the little green bus.


Emilia, Emily, Estelle, Ezekiel. Madness seems reserved for those whose name starts with the letter E. All of them Es, except for Sonia, the resident white. Her hospital towel is twisted in a turban about her head. She smokes blue Madison, regally, she holds the cigarette away from her as she says to Emily, ‘You speak English well. Very well, for an African.’ She gives Emily her cigarettes. The blue Madison is not harsh on the throat like Dr. Chikara’s Kingsgate. Emily smokes one, five, this is the beginning of addiction, here among the Es of the Annexe.

All of them Es except for Sonia and MaBheki.

Emily has learned to stay away from MaBheki in her corner. Her madness is of a malevolent bent, an ungentle madness that requires restraints, and not just the pills, orange and white, square and round.

‘I want my meat,’ MaBheki screams.

She has devoured all of her babies, she says, she is particularly fond of the flesh of her boy children.  A peculiar hunger comes over her when she sees a male child, she says, she feels a compulsion to feed. She looks at Ezekiel as she talks, and Emily sings him the new Abraham song until he is calm. MaBheki is not long at the Annexe, her madness calls for rigour of the kind that the Annexe cannot deliver.  They strap her to take her out of the Annexe, out of Harare and out of Mashonaland to Ingutsheni, the oldest, the biggest mental hospital in the country, Ingutsheni, the place of fable, the constant rebuke in the ears of the young: don’t talk like you are at Ingutsheni. Before Ingutsheni was a mental hospital, it was a lunatic asylum, and there will MaBheki’s voice join those of the dangerously mad, the criminally insane.

MaBheki bares her teeth and her eyes meet Emily’s.

‘I want my meat,’ she says, and the door closes behind her.

In the moment that the door closes on MaBheki, Emily sees the trajectory of her own life: from the casual, almost conversational, question, how many Dispirin would you take to kill yourself, overheard by Anna the sub-warden, who puts the university machinery into operation by relaying the question to the Warden who relays it to the Dean of Students who relays the question to Dr. Chikara, who relays it to her parents who insist that she be sectioned in the Annexe. She grasps this much: she is here, not because she asked the question, but because someone overheard her ask the question. Depending on whether she asks that question again, or, more precisely, depending on how loudly she asks it, her life could go either way, to the little green bus up Second Street Extension towards Bond Street, Pendennis and the university, or the other way, turning where Second Street meets Julius Nyerere Way to go past the National Gallery and the Monomotapa Hotel, past Town House and all the way to the railway station to take the night train to Ingutsheni.



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Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas

The Annexe Shuffle by Petina Gappah

Page 2