Saturday 16 November 2013

o : Harare

Chicken, Pizza & Creamy Inn
Fifth Street

Dear o,

We prepared for the unexpected Zimbabwe leg of our southeast African circuit at the last minute.  Our guidebook for Africa (ie, our Bible, worn and cracked but still in one piece) was written in 2009, just past the apex of the monetary and economic crisis in Zimbabwe.  Out of date, it draws a bleak picture of the country and, while it mentions that the political violence is not normally directed at visitors, the section's writer evidently didn't venture much further than  Indeed, all that is listed for accommodation here in the capital, Harare, are three lodges priced at a minimum of $180 per person per night.  We needed some other opinions.  Luckily, we can also access, and even better, a stream of international travellers passed through Livingstone while we were there.  From them we gleaned information about minibuses (safe, contrary to Lonely Planet's Africa), trains to Bulawayo (expected to be late by at least four hours; in our case, seven) and how friendly we can expect Zimbabweans to be (confirmed).  Still, maybe it was for the pleasure of that thin, white travel-book paper, I wanted some hard information.  At Jollyboys Backpackers in Livingstone I gave my passport to the desk as collateral to borrow their Lonely Planet guidebook, Southern Africa, revised in 2012.  I flipped to the Zimbabwe section, found an improvement from our tome and a couple glossy photographs, and then stumbled on a single sentence in the "Dangers & Annoyances" section: criticising the 89 year-old president, Robert Mugabe, is illegal, and can get you arrested.  Of course.  Still, just after we crossed into Zimbabwe, I asked Al to give me an elbow to the gut if I start spouting my mouth off.

Sure enough, when I went yesterday to collect our passports from the Mozambican embassy here in Harare and on the way passed by a pro-Mugabe, anti-Tsvangirai, "stop the sanctions" protest outside the US embassy, I went alone.  There was no elbow, no hard look in the eyes, no one to stop me from joining the crowd and asking questions.


The day before, at Masvingo, we met a couple who were taking a couple days off from work in Harare to visit relatives and see the monument at Great Zimbabwe.  They gave us a ride to Great Zimbabwe and back, and then worked hard to help us hunt down a bus to the capital.  Only the boyfriend, Mark, did the guided tour with us, and afterwards we found ourselves sipping Fanta Orange in the adjacent campground while we waited for the girlfriend to pick us up.  We'd touched on our jobs, where we were from, what the weather was like there, what we were doing in Africa, and all the other conversational appetisers.  The girlfriend was late.  Silence descended on the round stone picnic table: the first course was picked clean.  It was either dig into something meaningful, something difficult, something political; or, shut up, enjoy the shade, and have the main course somewhere else.  I think we were all a little too hungry.

Mark talked about Zimbabwe during the 'troubles', when people took wheelbarrows of devalued currency to the banks to buy a loaf of bread.  He said all of the people who could leave the country did, but that most people had no choice but to stay.  He said it made the people stronger, that they would always remember what it was like to wake up and suddenly have nothing, to wait in day-long queues to purchase food.  He also said that Zimbabweans are either weak or selfish, or both; otherwise, why didn't they rise up and fight?  Why are things still the same?  We argued with him, said it must be too complicated to blame a whole people, but Mark wouldn't bite or budge.  He said Zimbabwe would just have to wait for nature to take its course.  We all knew what this meant.

Mark still played cautious, and was quick to say that he respected Mugabe, that Mugabe was a warrior who fought for and won Zimbabwe's freedom from colonial power, that Mugabe deserved to be revered as the nation's father.  But in between these lines, which were simultaneously sincere and forced, spoken from a conflicted mind in a conflicted nation, there was an angst, an anger, and a resolve.  Mark talked about the notorious land reforms whereby white farmers were uprooted, their lands redistributed, and Zimbabwe's identity reclaimed.  "But now we know," he said, "it is not about the land.  It was never about the land."  He said that the farmers left to Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Botswana, and now those countries are prosperous in diversity while Zimbabwe languishes in xenophobia.  I couldn't help but think of Louis XIV expelling the Protestant Huguenots from France in the late 17th century, and how these 600,000 members of the emerging middle class would later propel their new home countries (Holland, Germany, England) to greater dynamism while France stagnated.  I couldn't help but think of what I saw from the train and bus windows in Zambia: huge industrial-scale farms, giant meat supermarkets, busy cities with bustling rows of hardware stores and brand new shopping centres, and giant billboards advertising big-ticket consumer products like home furniture, vacations and new cars, instead of the usual case of beer deals and mobile phone plans.

Contrast this with what I saw from the train windows through Zimbabwe: the wires of a signalling system scavenged, the infrastructure totally destroyed, station houses abandoned, factories falling apart, old east London-style tenement housing locked up, electric fences abounding.  So what am I saying, that "white people" create success?  Of course not.  But diversity seems to.  Tolerance seems to.  I flipped the pages in my scrappy, unreliable mental notebook of history and tried to piece it all together.  Free trade, corruption, institutional development, culture, social enhancement, social progress, Chinese diamond harvesting, American platinum speculating, wage control, price control, division of labour, goodwill, investment, community spirit, what, what, what?  The menu was too large, yet these were the images that swelled as Mark spoke.  Connections came into the light, problems betrayed their sharper edges, solutions suggested themselves.  History's dancers danced, and I started to see the choreography behind the swirl.

The chat with Mark wasn't enough.  I get insatiable when it comes to this stuff, gluttonous for opinion and knowledge and story.  I want a dinner table loaded with religion, politics and compassionate disagreement.  I want to keep eating until I explode.  It was the same in Egypt when I was there three weeks before the Arab Spring, when cab drivers and hotel owners talked about Mubarak, how the government was corrupt and at war with its people, how new blood was needed, how the young would rise up, and how nature would take its course.  It was the same yesterday, when I came upon the protest.  My stomach groaned.


There was about 70 people, with a quarter off to the side and the rest gathered in a cluster on the road in front of the embassy.  Their signs read, "Tsvangirai does not speak for Zimbabwe", "Obama: Zimbabwe will not become another Chile", "Protect Our Heritage", and above all, "End the Sanctions".  I found a man in a white shirt who seemed to be one of the leaders of the chants to the passing traffic, and I asked him what this was about.  The chanting continued, got louder, and everybody glared at me.  The man was out of breath, but he stopped for a moment, looked me up and down, scowled, and told me to speak to their secretary general.  He turned his back to me as everybody carried on chanting, waving, and staring.  I found the secretary general, but was quickly dismissed: we are protesting the sanctions.  What are the sanctions? I asked.  He coughed in disgust and pointed at me: "their sanctions," he said.  "Why are there sanctions?"  "Because they want to change our government," he answered, still indicating with his hands that it was me who wanted to change the government.  That was all I could get out of him before he angrily walked away and rejoined the crowd.  I stood and watched for a few minutes, and it seemed a few of the quieter ones were gathering around me.

One man in a white ZANU-PF (Mugabe's party) shirt finally came up to me, at the head of several others.  He was playing strong, the leader, but his lips quivered and he couldn't hold his eyes with mine.  What was he afraid of?  "Are you a journalist?"  "No, I'm not a journalist."  "How do I know?"  "Because I said so.  Are you a journalist?"  He didn't answer.  "If you said no, I'd believe you," I continued.  "Why don't you believe me?"  "We don't want journalists here," he responded.  "But don't you want more people to hear what you have to say?  Wouldn't a journalist help you?  Wouldn't it be good if I were a journalist?"  "No, we don't want your kind of journalist," he said.  I wanted to ask, do you mean by my kind of journalist, a light-skinned journalist?  A white journalist?  I didn't.  I shut my mouth.

The man calmed down.  He told me about his father, how he left home at 16 to fight for Zimbabwe, how the sons and daughters now had to pick up the fight.  He told me that his friend who worked in Australia couldn't get his paycheque cashed because of the sanctions.  He told me that Morgan Tsvangirai was a bad man who asked for the sanctions to be imposed on Zimbabwe.  "Why?" I asked.  "Because he is stupid, and he is a puppet, and he doesn't care about Zimbabwe, only himself," he said.  I said I was sorry about his friend who had worked in Australia.  Someone else came up to me, the same man in the white shirt who scowled at me at the start, and shoved a placard in my hands.  "What's this?" I asked.  "This is to prove that you are not a journalist."  "Tsvangirai does not speak for Zimbabwe," read the sign.  I handed it back.  "I don't know if this is true," I said.  His face was hot.  "It is true.  Do you want to help us, or not?"  "I want to learn and make up my mind for myself.  I can't hold that sign until I've made some research, and seen the other side of the coin."  "What are you doing here?"  "I'm trying to learn," I said.  He huffed, and walked off.  There was a good dozen people around me now, some laughing at my apparent naivete, some still confused by my presence.

The man in the white shirt was nervous again, and he looked at me as if trying to balance a steaming potato on his head.  "I'll leave now," I said.  "Okay," he said, and shook hands with me, his grip alternating in a few seconds between firm and timid.  "But please do something for me," I said, "you need to tell your friends not to assume I am a bad person just because of the colour of my skin.  The world isn't that simple."  He didn't respond, but shook my hand again, and said I was brave for coming.

When I walked away I didn't look back to see if I was being watched or followed, or if the sneering continued.  It probably did, but I was losing my concentration.  I was getting very hungry; I hadn't eaten all day.


Anti-sanctions protest
Anti-sanctions protest
Dusk in Harare