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For All Nails #51C: Victoria's Secret (Part 3)

by Jonathan Edelstein

West Nairobi, Victoria
26 February 1973

Even before Antonio Marques opened the apartment door, his wife could tell that he was not a happy man.

"Did something happen?" she asked, leading him to the armchair they'd brought from home. "You sounded like you wanted to kick through the stairs."

"I went to open a bank account this morning," he said, relaxing as she massaged his shoulders.

"I know," she said. "You didn't do it?"

"It was the bank where I went last week to ask for a teller's job," he answered. "There was a new teller at the window this morning, and she was black."

"They hired her instead of you?"

"That's right, María," he replied. "I found the manager and asked him why, and do you know what he said? He said my English wasn't good enough. Can't I speak English, María?"

"Your English is fine," she said. It wasn't, but she thought it best to be tactful. "You'd be an excellent teller."

"Yes, I would," he said. "I've been here a year. I'm a citizen. But I'm still doing nigger work in the sun because some bastard doesn't like my accent, and there's a nigger doing my job." He spoke the Portuguese with which he was familiar, but the word "nigger" was in English; it was one of the first words every immigrant learned.

"Don't worry," María said. "You work hard, and you're doing well in your English classes; I'm sure you'll find a good job."

"I hope so; I didn't come here to carry bricks and live in a hole. But let's talk about something else." He handed her the newspaper he'd bought that morning; he'd been too ashamed of his poor English to ask any of his workmates to translate it for him. "Can you read this to me?"

"Certainly," said María, sitting down beside him and scanning the headlines. "It says that pretrial motions are being heard today in the Madoka case."

"What's the Madoka case?"

"Let me read; I'll tell you," she said. "It looks like Madoka is a black lawyer..."

"A black lawyer?" he repeated. "I can't even be a teller, and you have to do your own housework, and the niggers are lawyers?"

"Quiet," María soothed. "Let me read. It says that she was indicted for supporting a banned political party, and that she's protested for black voting rights."

"Protested?" asked Antonio. "Doesn't she realize that in Esperança FN1 she'd be a maid? Here she's a lawyer -- what can she possibly have to complain about?"

Kigumo, Victoria
30 miles north of Nairobi
3 March 1973

If any white Victorian had overheard the conversation Letitia Ntimana was having, they wouldn't have believed their ears. It was a conversation any of them might have had, about politics and the affairs of the day -- but that is precisely what wouldn't have been believed. Blacks weren't supposed to concern themselves with such things.

If they had seen the person with whom Ntimana was speaking, though, they wouldn't merely have been surprised; they'd have been alarmed. That person, Charles Saitoti, was Kigumo born and raised, but he'd been a fugitive with a price on his head for the past six years. He was also the district commander for the Victoria National Congress.

Here in Letitia's home, though, there were no white people around to see or hear. There was no reason for whites to go to Kigumo, a town of hardscrabble farms and one-room hovels; the railroad station in the center of town existed solely to take workers to and from the city. Letitia's children lived here, and so did she on the rare occasions when her mistress allowed her to visit them. It would have been easier to sell the house and move them to Nairobi -- she'd be able to see them more often, and she wouldn't have to pay the tax on unproductive land FN2 -- but she wanted them to grow up with something of their own.

Her children's future was also the subject of her conversation. Saitoti had been listening for the better part of an hour; he agreed that the Ntimanas should have one, but he wasn't sure why she'd asked him to risk the trip into Kigumo to hear about it.

"It's a crime, what they're doing to Victoria Madoka," she said.

"So you've come to the subject at last," answered Saitoti. "So tell me -- exactly what does this have to do with your children?"

"It should be obvious, shouldn't it?" she asked. "Patten's declared war -- he wants to make clear that none of us can expect a place here."

"He declared war on us years ago," Saitoti said. "Why should I be concerned about what happens to a citizen?" He emphasized the last word; the term was a deadly insult in Victoria's nationalist movement, connoting a black person who had abandoned the struggle in favor of personal advancement.

"Aside from the fact that she represented you once?" Ntimana asked. "She's important precisely because she's a citizen. Think about it, Charles. Why haven't the citizens ever listened to you before? They think they don't need a revolution to get their share of this country -- all they need is to make enough money. And most of the ones who aren't citizens yet think that all they have to do is become citizens. Now, Patten's telling them none of that matters -- but we have to make sure they know they're being told."

"Are you suggesting we go public?"

"I'm suggesting a demonstration in Nairobi. Let's tell the citizens who's really on their side -- and let's remind them that there are other ways to change things than voting..."

Abingdon, Victoria
4 March 1973

In the hierarchy of black Victorians, most of the residents of Abingdon were "second class" - that is, earning between 100 and 500 pounds per year. They weren't rich enough to vote, but they could afford a few luxuries -- decent apartments, cars, school fees for their children. The schools in this working-class suburb were old and overcrowded, but they existed; the street sweepers and police patrols didn't come around often, but they came. Most of them could read; many worked in offices rather than factories or private homes. Anyone who could afford to live in Abingdon had something to lose.

As for all black Victorians, citizenship was their ultimate dream, and the fact that they were only one step away made it all the more poignant. Most second-class blacks would never achieve citizenship for themselves, but for many of their children, it had become a reality. The greatest joy of a second-class parent was to see his child become a citizen -- and the greatest tragedy was to see it slip away. For two of Abingdon's parents, this ultimate tragedy suddenly seemed terrifyingly near.

"Do you really have to go through with this?" asked Sarah Madoka as she cleared away dinner. "I'm sure that if you apologized, they'd drop the charges."

"No, Mother," said Victoria Madoka gently. "I can't."

"Look what you're about to throw away," responded Sarah. "You're a citizen, you have a beautiful home, you live just like the whites do. If you kept quiet, they'd leave you alone. Are a few villagers and factory hands really worth all this?" Like most of her second-class counterparts, Sarah didn't resent the whites nearly as intensely as she despised the third-class factory workers and fourth-class subsistence farmers beneath her.

"To me, they are," Victoria said firmly. "If they're not free, then I'm not -- and I mean that in the most literal sense. If a policeman sees me on the street when I go home tonight, will he treat me like a citizen? When I go to the theater, will the clerk sell me seats with the citizens? As long as nine tenths of the black people here aren't citizens, then the whites will become used to treating us that way."

"Do you have to pay the price for it, though?" asked Sarah. "There are so many other people who can fight that battle - why do you have to lose everything you've gained?"

"You could go to Bunyoro FN3, at least," said her father, Thomas. "They let you keep your passport -- I'm sure they'll let you leave."

"And I'd end up like all the other political exiles -- I'd make speeches, be the darling of cocktail parties, and accomplish absolutely nothing." She looked at her parents, partly in exasperation and partly in gratitude for their willingness to lose her to a foreign country rather than see her come to harm. "There are things I need to do here..."

Forward to FAN #51D: Victoria's Secret (Part 4).

Forward to 1 March 1973: A Helping Hand.

Return to For All Nails.