Tag Archives: zimbabwe

The Rhodesians have always been a dubious people.

Monday, November 8.

It was just two months ago, in the South African resort town of Hartbeespoort, that I played my first round of golf not prefixed by the word “mini.” Jacques, a roommate, had taken me to visit a friend staying at the posh West Lake Country & Safari Estate, an exclusive housing development on the shores of the Hartbeespoort Dam. This was a long way from my crowded commune in Auckland Park. The villas were ornamented with fountains and statuary and trophy wives; the grounds populated by springbucks, impala, red hartebeest, blue wildebeest, and white people. You took in those bearded Tritons and potted palms and expansive lawns and thought that some epic melodramas of South African Carringtons and Kardashians were playing out inside. On the golf course, though, it was an unheroic afternoon. My posture poor, my swing crooked, my drives of the low-lying variety, I spent the better part of the day thwacking balls into and out of sand traps, fretting for the neighbors’ windows, while Jacques and Broadley tapped in for par or birdie, exchanging good-natured claps on the back like a pair of junior executives.

It is thus not for pure sporting purposes that I arrive this morning at the Royal Harare Golf Club, a venerable institution with a pedigree dating back to the 19th century. I have been invited by friends – George and Gerald – caddies who I met at a bar across from my hotel last week. Monday, they explained, is the day when the caddies of Royal Harare get to play the course for themselves, so I’ve come to join them for a friendly round on the back nine – a chummy confab under the sun, followed, if all goes well, by a post-game tipple in the clubhouse.

As the story goes, the first fairway of Royal Harare is almost as old as colonial-era Rhodesia itself. The club’s first architects gathered in September of 1898 to design what would become the Salisbury Golf Club, just three years after the British South Africa Company, carving up its colonial concessions between the Limpopo River and Lake Tanganyika, had settled on the name of Rhodesia for the vast territory. This was an impressive feat of imagination for the first generation of Rhodies. Just a year after the Shona/Ndebele uprising – the First Chimurenga – had been quashed, these African whites were already eager to place a genteel stamp on their newly civilized territories. The natives were pacified; how else to pass the time on a Saturday afternoon? While my Greek forefathers were shunting sheep across mountain pastures in the Pierians, Cecil Rhodes’ contemporaries were driving a fleet of ox-drawn ploughs across what would become the front nine. Thus, Salisbury Golf Club was born.

The founders’ fustiness is still on display. As I greet George at the caddy station, he regards my outfit – my untucked shirt and calf-length shorts – with alarm. On the wall behind him, a sign lists the club’s extensive dress code. What is permissible: collared golf shirts, polo shirts, high neck T-shirts (“Tiger style”), polo neck winter shirts, tailored shorts with belt loops, 3/4 shorts with belt loops, and “predominantly white, ankle length or longer socks with shorts.” What is not: round neck T-shirts, V-neck T-shirts, denim shirts and vests (damn!), shorts with “elasticated” waist, tracksuit bottoms, denim trousers, dark socks with shorts, and something called “secret socks.” This, it should be noted, is the dress code for the course alone. The clubhouse rules are even more stringent.

There is something to be said for this rigor, this propriety, in a nation that, just two years ago, was printing new currency so fast that it devalued as soon as it left the presses. Outside Royal Harare, Zimbabwe might be burning; inside, sir, would you please tuck in that shirt? At the reception desk, someone known as the Caddy Master gives my outfit a disapproving once-over, settling on my bare ankles. I have discovered what exactly “secret socks” are, as mine are hidden below the line of my low-top sneakers. The Caddy Master confers with George, who looks decidedly more uptight when he doesn’t have a half-dozen Castles in him. “White socks,” says the Caddy Master. “Let me see what I can do for you.” He disappears into the back room and reappears some anxious moments later with a pair of mismatched socks. About the only thing going for them is the fact that they are white and long. They are also torn and filthy, which leads me to wonder if someone else’s dirty white socks are really a step up from the freshly laundered secret socks hidden in my sneakers.

White-socked, shirt tucked in, thus outfitted like a total jackass, I join the rest of my foursome outside. Along with George there is Thomas, a Royal Harare instructor with a shark-like smile and an eight handicap; and Nick, a baby-faced youth of some 21 years, a part-time caddy and university student who just took up the game last year. It is a hot, bright, cloudless afternoon; even a short round on the back nine suddenly seems a bit ambitious. Thomas, as the most serious golfer among us, is the first to plant his tee in the ground and line up his shot. His arms are long and muscled, his waist, I’m guessing, a trim 28. He looks every bit the athlete until he takes a pack of Madisons from his pocket and lights up. Tucking the cigarette into the corner of his mouth, hitching up his pants, and blowing out a few puffs of smoke, he proceeds to whack the shit out of the ball, which jumps off the tee with a mighty ping. We watch it, a tiny white speck, vanishing over the treetops and into the clear blue sky. Then it reappears, taking a few dainty bounces before resting snugly on the fairway, roughly four miles from where Thomas has just teed off.

We stand there admiring the shot, Thomas holding his pose just long enough to insist we admire that, too. Nick follows, sending a low, screaming drive into the rough to the right of the fairway. I’m next. I spend a minute or two adjusting my grip, shifting my feet, coming to terms with the fact that a golf swing is a lot more complicated than it looks on TV. George approaches, moving my hips, tucking my elbow, tilting my chin. It is like a buttress propping a derelict building: remove the support and the whole thing comes tumbling down. As soon as George removes his steadying hand from my elbow, it jerks up; once he’s aligned my head with the ball, I look up to figure out which part of the fairway I want to aim for. My first swing sends the ball skipping across the fairway and into the rough. My second makes a beeline to the rough on the other side of the fairway. It is in this way, zigging and zagging my way toward the green, that I position myself for a neat putt from a few feet out. “Call it 10,” I say, no doubt being charitable to myself on this brutal par 5.

Already I can feel the strength of the sun on my neck and face. No doubt this is a fine day to be sipping gins and tonic in the shade and comfort of the clubhouse, but it’s a tough morning to be schlepping around the back nine. George and Thomas, eager to share their wisdom, position me with care before each of my shots, dispensing little golfing koans as I proceed to make a mess of the scorecard. “Keep your head down,” says George, tilting my head forward. “Don’t doubt your swing. Just trust it.” For a few minutes I manage to find a Zenlike place from which to send my little Precept soaring; once I convince a handsome chip shot to settle neatly on the green. Otherwise, it’s sheer chaos. Tee shots go zinging into the bushes and caroming off trees; putts ring the lip of the cup but refuse to drop. On the 11th, stuck in a sand trap, I take a mighty swing that sends a clump of sand skyward. The ball doesn’t budge. George sighs and shakes his head. “It is part of the course,” he says.

Slogging between holes, the golf bag feeling like a sack full of anvils, I ask George if many politicians visit the club. It turns out Morgan Tsvangirai himself comes to Royal Harare four or five times a week for a round with fellow MDC heavyweights. George, chest out, tells me that just last Friday, he had a chance to caddie for the man they call Morgan. “He has a 14 handicap,” says George, letting it be known, in his admiration, that this is a fine handicap for a prime minister. I can picture MT and his inner circle using the quiet greens and expansive fairways of Royal Harare to plot strategies, make plans for the next election. I ask George what they talked about, and he shrugs. “Anything. He is very open with his life,” he says. “He is a very kind man. A gentleman. He comes here just like you.” He pauses and adds, “Maybe with three, four bodyguards.” I ask if they’d ever entertained President Mugabe on the links, and everybody laughs. “We cannot have the president here, or there would be soldiers everywhere,” says George.

On the 13th I get a call from Andrew Moyse, a media watchdog, about an interview we’d arranged for the afternoon. It seems we’ll have to cut things short at Royal Harare. This is probably for the best: it is easy to see our enthusiasm flagging in the midday heat. Thomas has managed to squeeze in a few pars and birdies around his chain-smoking, and Nick, perpetually in the rough, has been hacking at the grass like he’s on a Mississippi chain gang. George, meanwhile, hitching up his blue jeans and adjusting his cap, sends a few wayward shots far off the fairway. He has not played competitively in months, he says. Today’s excursion was more for my benefit: he wanted to take me out onto Zimbabwe’s most famous golf course and teach me how to swing. Walking along the 17th fairway, making our way back to the clubhouse, two duykers go prancing through the shade, zigging and zagging. In Vic Falls, says George, the game surrounds the course – you can see them just beyond the fencing, elephant and zebra and giraffe craning their necks, perhaps to get a better view of the 18th green. Once, driving from the course, their car was stopped by a pack of buffalo, a long dark heavy line trudging across the road.

Back at the clubhouse, on the practice green, six geriatric men – their faces ruddy, their shins like polished ivory – send putts back and forth across the tightly clipped grass. Thin, leathery women in sun hats sit drinking and chattering in the shade. The pennants flap lazily atop their flag poles. For a brief moment as we pass the putting green, I have a powerful intimation, as if I’m witnessing the end of something: the dying gasps of the colonial era, perhaps, the only thing missing from the tableau being the black waiter in white coat-tails, serving canapés. But the feeling passes; I know I’m being unfair, lazy and ahistorical. Thirty years after the death of Rhodesia, the whites who remained to become a part of the new Zimbabwe aren’t an easy caricature of colonial-era privilege. They’ve braved the bullying and provocations of the government; they’ve faced farm invasions, threats, violence. Three decades ago, their friends and family “took the gap” to South Africa, afraid of what black majority rule would mean to the colonial order of Rhodesia. The old way was undone a long time ago. It’s not hard to see in these survivors traces of that old pioneering stock – Rhodes’ men who drove their ox-ploughs across the untamed greens – hitching their fortunes to a leap of faith in the only country they’ve ever known.

At the clubhouse, tired and wrung out by the sun and heat, I propose a quick drink to boost our spirits, to put some vigorous stamp of commemoration on the afternoon. This is a miscalculation on my part. The others, of course, are still on the clock – Thomas no doubt with lessons to give, George obliged to hang around with the other caddies, waiting for someone to request his services. Suddenly I feel ridiculous, every bit the creature of leisure as the old pensioners putting on the practice green. But there seem to be no hard feelings on their end. I buy a round of Cokes to rescue the mood, and we part warmly, graciously, thick-as-thieves – as if we’d just pulled a fast one on Royal Harare, and the old dinosaur were none the wiser.

It is a fine afternoon, the first, since my arrival last week, untroubled by rain. But the day veers off-course in the dwindling hour before dusk. I am obliged to put on my journalist’s hat for my chat with Andrew Moyse, but the afternoon mood – the drowsy heat, the lethargy of the golf course – has left me disjointed. My thoughts are scattered, my mood suddenly downcast. It will take a great act of courage, I realize, to rise to the occasion – to present myself to this media watchdog and old-school hack as one worthy of bearing the mantle of our profession.

Moyse greets me at the offices of the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe sitting at his desk, finishing off a late lunch of rice and stew. Handsome, cocksure, with something mischievous and swaggering about the eyes, he strikes me as the sort of erstwhile foreign correspondent who’s seen a few coups, screwed a few ambassadors’ wives, and now settled into a happy career as a thorn in Robert Mugabe’s side. I’m quickly unnerved in his presence. His graying hair, his assuredness, his hard, clear, pool-hustler’s eyes, all conspire to remind me of my greenness as a reporter. From my first softball question about the media climate in Zimbabwe, I feel like a boy playing dress-up in the mirror, slouching beneath the broad shoulders of his father’s oversized suit. Moyse seems to take this all in stride. He is happy to brush aside my village-idiot questions and discourse on his own, with great passion and at great length, about the corrupt institutions that undermine the country’s media bodies. “The public media are being used as propaganda weapons of ZANU-PF, and they’re not likely to make any concessions,” he says. “It’s like any dictatorship. You don’t expect to get any concessions from a dictatorship.”

As with most of its decisions since the formation of the ill-fated unity government, Mugabe’s party has skillfully toed the line between public concessions – whether it involves the divvying up of government portfolios with the MDC or the liberalization of the press – and private muscle. ZANU-PF is still calling the shots, with state media – the daily Herald and the sycophantic Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) – playing the role of Pied Piper. Whatever initial optimism surfaced this June, when the government issued licenses for five new independent newspapers to begin printing, has quickly given way to the usual cynicism and despair. Only one new daily has gone to press in the five months since; the same repressive media laws still hang over editors’ heads like Damocles’ sword. “They could be closed down tomorrow under exactly the same laws that they were closed down under in 2003,” says Moyse. “Nothing has been locked down in legal terms with regard to reforming the legislation.”

Moyse knows that civil-society and media watchdog groups like the MMPZ are facing an uphill climb. The legal groundwork in Zimbabwe has to change, so that a genuine commitment to a free and independent press is entrenched in the language of the constitution. Just as necessary, he says, is an overhaul of the recently restructured Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe – the legislative body that oversees the granting of broadcasting licenses, which is stocked full of ZANU-PF appointees. Despite government promises to liberalize the airwaves and allow private broadcasters to compete with ZBC, not a single license has been issued. “What we’re asking for is an independent commission, and not a biased one,” says Moyse, to allow for private broadcasters to enter the arena. While he knows a dramatic shake-up of the public broadcaster seems unlikely, he hopes that organizations like the MMPZ can keep the government mouthpiece in check. “The idea is to cut down on the rampant abuses on the public airwaves, and to keep the idea of public broadcasting on the agenda,” he says.

This is all the more urgent as Zimbabwe prepares for another election season. Already Moyse has seen the rhetoric turned up a notch on ZBC news broadcasts. “They just report on the activities of ZANU-PF politicians,” he says, “and they rarely report on MDC – only negatively.” His concerns come in the wake of a study published by MMPZ, “The Propaganda War on Electoral Democracy,” which documented the abuses and failures of public media during the 2008 election. Among its findings:

Not only did the official media abandon their public mandate to provide a fair, adequate and credible news service to the people of Zimbabwe in complete disregard for local, regional and international guidelines on fair and equitable media coverage of contestants during elections; they were complicit in suffocating any news of what evidently became a national campaign of extreme violence to liquidate the opposition party’s structures and terrorise the electorate in general against voting for MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

In addition, these media also played a crucial role in fanning the flames of hatred and intolerance against the MDC, a legitimate political movement, at a time when mobs of mostly ZANU-PF militia under military instruction roamed the countryside conducting a campaign of violent retribution against opposition supporters. The violence resulted in the deaths of more than 140 opposition activists and the brutal beatings, arson, torture and displacement of many thousands of innocent citizens.

“Everyone has half a hope that this election will make a difference,” says Moyse, “but we’re not really sure about it.”

Back at the hotel, as if to underscore his point, I catch a few minutes of the evening news. It is a remarkable program, one that could have easily been culled from a Soviet-era newsreel. The segments are heavy on references to ruling-party comrades, bland statements from the politburo, and the occasional tirade against Western imperialists. One story begins with the observation, “The Rhodesians have always been a dubious people.” Referring to an “alleged” increase in farm invasions, the ZANU-PF talking heads go on to discredit such reports on the rather philosophical grounds that the very notion of farm invasions by black Zimbabweans is ludicrous; in the words of one official, “It is like saying you are invading your own home.”

That night, groggy from the day’s athletic and journalistic exertions, I again find myself at Book Café, my happy little second home in Harare. The caffeine and the cheery commotion of young musicians and poets offers a much-needed pick-me-up. I’m well into my second cup of coffee by the time the open-mic night begins to gather steam. There are some nervous poets and off-key rastas and a beautiful young vocalist with a voice like Erykah Badu c. “Tyrone.” Throughout the performances a grave young man sits by himself near the stage, fidgeting with a sheet of paper folded into quarters. Finally, with what can only be described as heroic effort, he lurches from the table – from whatever depths of solitude he occupies on these Harare nights – until he finds himself panic-stricken in front of the microphone. The atmosphere in the café is somewhere between light mockery and encouragement. At last he summons up the nerve and begins, in a warbling voice, to sing a patriotic song – its rousing chorus full of exhortations and desperate love for Zimbabwe. It is a terrible song, sung terribly, but the sweet poignancy of this brave patriot’s performance, the bright shine of his sweat-slick face, carries the night. The applause thunders and showers down on him like summer rains, and in his eyes is the joyful awareness of what it is to love and be loved.

We are poor, but we are here.

Sunday, November 7.

The heat, the terrible pall at the start of the rainy season, lies over Harare like wet cotton. I’ve already sweat through my shirt when Tanya arrives to meet me on the steps of the National Gallery. She is bedecked with necklaces and bangles; her hair is knotted up in a rasta hat; her belly and small, braless breasts are outlined in a green Abercrombie t-shirt. We greet with little fist-bumps and an awkward hug. She is taking me to Epworth, to her home, to meet her young rasta son and see how the place where she lives. Already the sky is hazy, threatening rain. I hope we can make it to Epworth before the clouds erupt.

Tanya starts at the beginning, again, telling me about her life. She is 24, born in a place called Kadoma; she came to Harare when she was only 14, after her parents both died of AIDS. She spent the next eight years living on the streets, hustling, selling hand-made jewelry. On the streets she found a surrogate family: other homeless kids, Harare’s orphans, looking after each other. Two years ago she got pregnant; after the birth of her son she moved to Epworth, one of the poorest communities ringing Harare. She tells me about her struggles and misfortunes with heaviness, but not with regret or self-pity. “I believe He is up there, the man above,” she says. “He is watching over me.”

On the quiet, Sunday-morning streets, Tanya is a celebrity: the homeless, the barefoot street kids, driven from the city center during the week, are sitting on the curbs and huddled in the doorways, calling out to her: “Tanya! Tanya!” or, “Rasta! Rasta!” She gives out fist-bumps and one-loves like a rasta politician. Outside the New Life Church, a house of worship in a small auditorium, like a Knights of Columbus, a group of men are idling in the street. I ask why they’re not in church and they jerk their thumbs toward a few cars parked by the curb: they are getting paid to look after them. The sound of music lilts toward us from the church. It’s like killing two birds with one stone. Turning the corner we see a group of youths, lean, grinning, jogging past us with dozens of pairs of cheap sunglasses. They are being chased by a few policemen, pedaling their bicycles lazily, close together. Walking past the empty shopping centers, more young rastas call out to Tanya. They exchange greetings in Shona. “When someone says, ‘Ndaipi’” – What’s up? – “you will not hear them say, ‘Cool,’” she says. “They will say, ‘Hapana.’ ‘Nothing.’” For the city’s street kids – beaten, harassed, hustling for food – “nothing,” an uneventful day, is a good day.

Tanya tells me that on Friday night – the night we met at Book Café – she never made it back to Epworth. She slept with some friends on the street – the way she says it, it’s like she crashed on a friend’s sofa. There were always problems with the police, she says. There was one cop on a motorcycle who drove past their group with a truncheon. He swung it and caught one of her friends on the side of the head. Then he came back and started beating him on the legs. “I cried so much when I saw that,” she says. She has had run-ins with the police in the past, was arrested once for reciting a provocative poem. “I was saying some things opposing” – she makes quotation marks in the air, too cautious, on the street, to say the words “Mugabe” or “ZANU-PF.” She was hauled down to the station, bullied, questioned. “I am just a poet,” she told them. “I am talking for those people who can’t say.” She spent the night sleeping on the floor of the cell. Everywhere we walk, in what to me looks like a placid, green city on a Sunday morning, there is something to trigger a bitter memory. The parking marshals guarding the cars in their bright reflective vests, she says, are being paid by the city. “It was a job we used to do on the street, something to survive,” she says. Now her friends are being robbed of even that meager income. She sighs. Nothing is the same. “We used to call it Sunshine City, but not anymore,” she says. “Now it is dirty, the lights don’t work.”

We reach the Road Port station, crowded, even on a Sunday morning, with people shuttling back and forth: to churches, to funerals, to an aunt’s house in the village. The place is packed with combis, most blasting reggae. It is like a Friday night in Kingston. Tanya, well-known, much-loved, is greeted like an icon. I imagine a young girl, a rasta, who survived close to a decade on the streets has earned the respect of Harare’s youths. We get into a small, crowded combi, the stuffing poking from the seats. It quickly fills: a youth with short, tightly coiled dreads; a father and his young son in an oversized Sunday suit; a neatly dressed young man playing solitaire on a Toshiba netbook. The smell of body odor is strong – a sharp smell, an African smell, that I’ve encountered nowhere else. What do the bodies smell like, packed into a crowded bus in China, or Bolivia, I wonder. We drive from the city; on the outskirts we pass a sign, “Safe Journey,” and below that: “Thank You Call Again.” It bears the Harare coat of arms and, beside it, the Coca-Cola logo. Further still, approaching Epworth, we see the famous balancing rocks in the distance – the peculiar geological formations that look like some adolescent game played by giants. As we get closer, I can see election slogans – “VOTE MDC” – written on curbs and painted onto the rocks. Carpenters are sawing, hammering, building furniture on the side of the road. Three men crouch under a small tree, repairing bicycles. Raggedy houses are built everywhere, mud and brick shacks with tin roofs weighted down by stones. Some are in open fields and others are thrust against the sides of the balancing rocks – a precarious place to put a home, I think, as if a strong wind might flatten the living room.

We get out and walk along the road’s shoulder, admiring the rocks, looking out across the valley toward the control tower of Harare International. Epworth is one of the poorest communities ringing the city limits; many of the houses belong to second- and third-generation Zimbabweans, the children of Malawian and Zambian and Mozambican immigrants. During the 2008 elections, says Tanya, the place was like a tinderbox. “When there is violence in Harare, it starts in Epworth,” she says. We walk back to a junction to catch another combi to her home. It is just a few kilometers, she says, but the road passes through a dangerous area that she’s afraid to walk through. After getting into a combi and driving a kilometer down the road, she points out the window to a quarry that was abandoned when the diggers struck water. It looks like a placid little manmade lake; Tanya says it’s where the killers in Epworth dump the bodies of their victims.

Just as we’ve pulled up to her bus stop the clouds break; fat, cold raindrops begin to fall, dimpling the dirt road that leads toward her home. We jog through the gathering storm, the air smelling sweet, the neighbors watching us from their doorways, the sound of children’s voices everywhere. After a few minutes we duck into a friend’s house – it is a small, musty room, a storage shed, crowded with old furniture, foam mattresses, blankets, cookery, bottles of cooking oil. We shake the rain from our limbs. A young girl races in behind us, laughing, holding a chicken. The rain thunders on the zinc rooftop. We stand in the doorway, watching the sky, waiting, until Tanya takes me by the wrist and says, “Come.” It is a short jog to her place, past her neighbors’ small, shambling houses: one- and two-room shacks, the roofs weighed down with stones, the walls cracked, little vegetable plots on the side. Rainwater is running in torrents through the corrugated channels of the roofs, gathering in puddles, racing through the gullies. We make it to her house, soaked, laughing, shaking our arms and wringing our shirts. Her room is attached to the back of the landlady’s house. Another girl, Tanya’s roommate, greets us at the door. She is tall, square-shouldered, solidly built, her feet big and shapeless; she could be any village girl anywhere in Africa, pulling up vegetables in a field, carrying wood, stoking a cooking fire in the dark interior of a mud-walled hut, scrubbing her children’s dirty faces. Before Epworth they lived together on the streets. Now they share this single, dark, damp room with Junior, Tanya’s son, a sulking two-year-old with dreadlocks; and Brandon, a grinning eight-year-old, the son of her elder sister who died earlier this year. There is a single, sagging bed which takes up most of the room; the others sleep on it, says Tanya, while she sleeps on the floor, because it can’t hold the weight of the four of them. One of the walls is dark with water stains and on another hangs a collage, faded pictures of Bob Marley, Sizzla, Gregory Isaacs. There is a wall calendar and some framed Bible verses and a clutter of pots and enamel crockery. In this small, cramped room, Tanya has built her life. There is an amp beside the door, and Brandon lugs it outside for me to sit on, as the guest of honor. He squats on the floor beside Tanya and Junior, the four of us sitting there in the narrow entryway beneath the rusted awning, the mother stroking the son’s face, the rain pounding the roof and pooling in the muddied yard.

It is twenty minutes before we’re able to venture back outside. The yard is washed out, rivers and tributaries flowing in every direction. The sky is still heavy and gray. We had planned an excursion for the afternoon – a group of local Malawians gather every Sunday to perform traditional dances some kilometers away – but now that looks unlikely. Tanya takes me next door, to introduce me to the landlady, a tall, vigorous Malawian woman, who runs a small shebeen out of her living room. With a slight nudge from Tanya I greet her in Chichewa: “Mulibanje,” I say. She claps her big, muscular hands, erupts with laughter. “Mulibanje!” she says, in ecstacies. “Mulibanje!” Much Chichewa (hers) and puzzled head-nodding (mine) commences. She disappears into the kitchen, works at some mysterious potions, then returns, still smiling broadly, her head big, her jaw solid, her toes short and thick, like cocktail franks. The room is small and, like the kitchen I glimpse through the doorway, littered with brewing apparatus: pots of all shapes and sizes, large vats, dozens of chipped enamel mugs on a table in the corner, empty flasks and wine bottles. There are plastic floral arrangements on the coffee table, and floral prints on the stiff armchairs and loveseats, and a Philips TV at the front of the room. Some of the neighbors are sitting with us: an athletic young man in track pants and a red Diesel t-shirt; a young woman in a skimpy dress, the straps slipping from her bony shoulders, her carnal posture and explicit eyes suggesting she is a hit with the locals. They are both taking long slugs from plastic flasks filled with the landlady’s signature hooch. Their offers to give it a try are politely, then more firmly, rebuffed. Tanya forks over a few coins – the equivalent of 50 cents – for a small flask: about 300ml of what is no doubt an 80% a.b.v. concoction. She pours a small shot into an enamel mug, knocks it back, and grimaces with great, heart-stopping effect. You can imagine some medieval martyr, roasting over pagan flames, grimacing thusly. Before long word of my presence has rippled out into the surrounding houses. More villagers gather: men in soiled dress slacks and overalls, in blue jeans and baseball caps, handing the landlady some dull, dirty coins, receiving their bottles and flasks like communion wine, and proceeding to get shit-faced on the sofa. The landlady is in high spirits. It is good business, so far, for 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning.

We are talking the usual talk now, about Zimbabwe, about America. My life in South Africa is brought up, dissected. Chris Banda, the young man in the track pants sitting across from me, is, like most of his countrymen, wary of his southern neighbor. He has heard about the guns and the violence on the news. “Why can’t they be peaceful like Zimbabwe?” he asks. He is a fine, genial man, 32 – “my age-mate,” I tell him, to much approving laughter – a former player on the national soccer team. He wore the number 9 and played upfront alongside So-and-so – a national icon, it seems, now coaching the top team in the Zimbabwean Premier League. Chris’ fortunes had diverged from his former teammate’s. After playing soccer he drifted around, moved between odd jobs. Now he is a parking marshal in Harare: he is paid by the municipal government to wear a neon vest, to help drivers in and out of parking spots, to watch their cars for the opportunistic thieves looking to pull a smash-and-grab from the backseat. He seems genuinely pleased with his lot, knowing how fickle fortune can be in Zimbabwe, no doubt better off than many of his neighbors in Epworth. “Don’t worry about our poorness,” he says. “We are poor, but we are here. We are surviving.”

More men crowd into the room, light cigarettes, swig hooch, laugh, disappear, bicker outside, return with more coins for more hooch. One man, another 30-something, but with a weathered face, yellow eyes swimming in disappointment, is insistent that I buy him a bottle. I more or less give him the impression that there’s nothing I’d like to do less on this Sunday morning, but he persists. He leers at Tanya, leans into her, says some low things in her ear. Her face is blank, her body is rigid; I wonder what sort of indiscretions, what moral comprises, a poor young mother in Zimbabwe has had to make in her life. Soon there is more movement and shuffling energy by the door: someone has brought a generator, the neighbors have scraped together enough money for petrol so we can watch TV. There is a nest of wiring to untangle, many frayed ends being twisted together. They fire up the generator in the front yard and run the wires through a broken window. Someone crouches in front of the Philips TV – you would not see a priest approaching the altar with any more gravity – and pulls out a pair of DVD players. Yes, the landlady has made a nice life for herself here. Word has apparently gotten out about our frustrated plans to see the Malawian dancers, because soon a DVD is produced: a competition of traditional dance troupes, performing somewhere in Malawi some years ago, a great thumping of drums and whirling of dancers in elaborate animal costumes and masks. We are a rapt audience, a dozen village children now in the room, too, sitting barefooted on the floor in their moth-eaten, cast-off clothing. It is a shame we won’t be able to see the dancing in Epworth – they are eight, ten kilometers from here – but this seems like a good enough substitute. Afterward, spent by these wild evocations of the spirits, someone puts in another DVD: a much-watched, greatly scratched collection of Zimbabwean pop videos. The production values are not exactly MTV-caliber: the camerawork wobbly, the colors flushed out, the singers’ lips moving a half-beat behind the lyrics coming from the speakers. They are the usual ballads of broken hearts and boyfriends up to no good. Two lovers walking in a park. A man and woman quarreling. No doubt these videos were shot in a single take, on budgets that would get you change for your $20 bill. The girls in the room sing along, the boys chuckle when the cheating boyfriend is found out. No one has any illusions about what we’re watching – surely they’ve seen videos on Channel O and MTV Base at some bar in Harare. “They are not very good quality,” says Chris, sighing. But they are Zimbabwean videos all the same, and the music is still playing loudly, the lost loves still lamented, as me and Tanya say our goodbyes.

She’s put on a brave face in the landlady’s living room, but I can see Tanya is troubled. “It is not how it seems now, with everybody laughing,” she says. The landlady drinks as much of her African whiskey as she sells. Often she gets loud and belligerent; when she gambles, it’s even worse. “If she loses some money, eish, we will not sleep tonight,” Tanya says. When there is a problem with the rent, the landlady makes a scene in the street: yelling, cursing Tanya, asking the whole neighborhood why she hasn’t paid on time. “She cannot sit down, like we are talking, to discuss things,” she says. Often Tanya struggles to make ends meet – the rent is too high, it was $20 in September, then $25 in October. Now the landlady is demanding $30 for the single room – a price that would include electricity anywhere else in Epworth. “In other ghettos, you could not pay more than $20 for this room,” she says bitterly. But what can she do? If she complains, she’s back out on the street. With Junior and Brandon to look after, that’s not an option.

On our way back to the bus stop, Tanya wants to make a house call – another woman is renting rooms, and she wants to see if there are any available for December. I have a feeling that my presence during the negotiations would come as a recommendation of sorts – with friends like these, she is all but saying, how can I not be trustworthy? The house has a pigeon coop in the yard, and a chicken pen full of month-old puppies. A young guy is washing his jeans in a basin in the yard; another is cleaning his sneakers. Inside we’re greeted by a stout, matronly woman who clasps our hands with great feeling. She wears a yellow blouse with Victorian frills around the neckline, and a purple skirt cinched tight around her wide hips. Her headscarf has a beautiful pattern on it – a nautical motif resembling a Chanel knock-off, the cheap bright colors that bleed with each washing. She looks immensely pleased to welcome us into her home. She leads us into the living room, where the coffee table has been set for afternoon tea: a pewter pot, two plates stacked with slices of white bread, a jar of peanut butter. A man somewhere in his 30s, the landlady’s grandson, is seated in an armchair on the far side of the room. He wears a checkered shirt and olive slacks tucked into his gray dress socks: a neat, good man, a reciter of Psalms and believer in God’s graces. As Tanya unpacks the baggage of her troubled heart at the landlady’s feet, this man takes on a sagacious look. His face suggests a more than passing acquaintance with hardship. “These things will cancel themselves,” he says, spreading peanut butter onto a dry slice of bread. He tells me he is out of work – it is impossible to say how many holes have been punched into his threadbare belt – but his eyes are wide with wonder, thanksgiving, joy. “Even if I am sitting here, I am happy,” he says.

He remembers a trip he took to Malawi in 2002, when the white farmers were leaving Zimbabwe in droves, taking their skills to neighboring countries. He was working for some pet-care clinic and was tasked with escorting a group of St. Bernards to their new Malawian home. He traveled to Lilongwe, and then Zombe, with the rich fertile farmlands that the Zimbabwean whites would now till. Then he drove far to the north, to Nkhata Bay, and went fishing in the lake. He laughs now in his grandmother’s house in Epworth, remembering the fish he caught eight years ago in Lake Malawi. He wanted to stay – the cost of living was cheap, he remembers buying tea and bread and eggs for breakfast for less than $2 – but he had a job in Zimbabwe to come back to. He returned, but the life was no better for him here. He realized he was going nowhere looking after the animals of the whites. He would work all day and go to the bank and only have five hundred Zim dollars to show for it. “You have this money, and it is already spent,” he says. So he quit – how rarely have I heard such a thing in Africa, a man quitting his job. The decision was a good one, it gave him time to think about the future. “You have to keep cool, be settled, and you will find the decisions,” he says. “Your mind will find the bright things.”

Now he is looking for work again: he can handle a cash register, and he hopes that some shopkeeper will hire him as a cashier. He doesn’t know how to use the new computerized tills, he says, but he is sure he’ll learn quickly. “I believe that good things will come,” he says, folding another slice of white bread and peanut butter into his mouth and carefully wiping the crumbs from the coffee table.

On our way back to the road, Tanya is in good spirits. The landlady has told her a room will be free at the end of the month; something bright has come of this soggy day. Along the way an old, shambling man in a drooping gray suit calls out to us. It is Tanya’s uncle – not her actual uncle, she says, but she uses the term out of respect. They exchange elaborate greetings, and the man, in a fine Sunday mood, pulls a plastic bottle of bright red hooch from the inside pocket of his coat. He takes a long swig and offers it to me. The label says Tentacão Finest Whiskey; the logo is an image of a woman’s puckered red lips. I decline, clapping my hands together in the Shona sign of thanks. Undaunted, he takes another long swig. He has ears like dinner plates, great pouches of skin under his eyes, a nose the size of my fist. Pity these ravaged, old, misshapen bodies! Only his eyes are alive, alert. How many mischievous stories, I wonder, might we share under the mango tree? He tucks the bottle back into his coat, straightens his hat, and creaks off to his afternoon appointments. Tanya is laughing; she is a different person after hearing the encouraging news about the room. The sun is out, the air is fresh. A group of children is playing hopscotch nearby, their bare feet leaving prints in the dirt.

We’re stopped one last time before reaching the road – how much of these African days are spent on greetings and formalities? A group of teens, drunk, some friends of hers, are sitting outside someone’s home, knocking back cans of Castle and pouring shots of something bright and viscous. Two giant speakers are propped up in the dirt. The music is loud, full of bass; a girl in very tight jeans is shaking her hips suggestively. One of the guys, Brian, a muscular rasta in a yellow tanktop, gives me a few fist-bumps and says some rasta things. “You remind me of when I was a tour guide in Vic Falls,” he says, by which he means that I am white. He remembers taking tourists to Mana Pools, and Matopos; he camped on the shores of Lake Kariba and went whitewater rafting on the Zambezi. But all that was over now. The tourism industry has barely begun to recover from its decade-long freefall. Brian hasn’t worked as a tour guide since 2006. What was he doing now? He shrugs. What does anybody do? More fist-bumps and rasta farewells. At the side of the road two men with axes are dismantling a tree trunk, chopping it into bundles of firewood. Tanya leaves me as a crowded combi pulls over, the door awkwardly bumping along its track. The conductor leans far outside, waving his arm like a carnival barker. On the drive back to town the road is busy with women in church hats and men in Sunday suits, little boys muddying their smart shoes in the puddles.

After a busy week I’m ready for a quiet night with my writing, but the phone rings as soon as I’m back in town: it is Saki Mafundikwa, a local filmmaker, a friend of a friend from Joburg. He’s invited me over for dinner tonight, and I realize the writing will have to wait for tomorrow. An hour after saying goodbye to Tanya in Epworth, I’m grocery shopping with Saki, struggling to find a decent head of lettuce, having our patience tested by the math-challenged cashier at Spar. It takes close to ten minutes for us to get our change. (Small bills are hard to come by in Zimbabwe; most of the weathered singles you find changing hands in Harare would get turned down by all but the most hard-up U.S. merchants. American coins, too, are almost nonexistent. If your bill comes out five cents shy of the dollar, the balance will be paid out in a piece of chewing gum; for ten cents, a lollipop.) Saki, a tall, soulful rasta with towering dreads and a salt-and-pepper beard, shakes his head. Zimbabwe-born, educated in the States, having given up a successful career as a graphic designer in New York to return to his country in 1998, he is still, at times, a New Yorker at heart. The change debacle has almost given him a fit; he has high blood pressure, he says, and shouldn’t get worked up so easily. At his apartment complex – a high-rise just steps away from State House: perhaps the safest address in Harare – he is almost comically distressed: someone has decided to drill a borehole in the parking lot. The water came gushing up all afternoon, he says. The ground is still slick, puddles everywhere. The owner of erstwhile parking space 36 will no doubt have some words for management in the morning. Saki sighs: this is Africa. Hell, this is Zimbabwe. “Who puts a motherfucking borehole in a parking lot?” he says, laughing, grimacing, showing the sort of tortured black humor it takes to survive a Zimbabwean day.

The apartment is urban, stylish: it would not look at all out of place at his former address in Crown Heights. The coffee tables and bookshelves are cluttered with design magazines, African histories, biographies of Bob Marley and Fela Kuti; stacked atop the stereo are box sets of Otis Redding, Earth, Wind & Fire, Curtis Mayfield. The floors are hardwood, and the place is cluttered with objets d’art he has collected during his travels in Africa: a portrait of King Mswati III, masks from Cameroon, Shona stone sculptures, an mbira, carvings of hippos and giraffes, a ceremonial drum. An old turntable – yet another objet: urban America, circa 2010 – sits proudly next to the TV. It is a beautiful pad. Saki hands me some reading material – a brilliant piece by Joshua Hammer, in Fast Company, on the Marange diamond fields – while he prepares the fish in the kitchen. Thomas Mapfumo sings soulfully on the stereo – another Zimbabwean exile; unlike Saki, there is no coming back for him – and I sit there on the sofa, taking in exactly the sort of place I’d like to inhabit if I ever grow up.

I was put in touch with Saki because of his 2009 film, Shungu, an acclaimed documentary that he shot in 2008, during the run-up to Zimbabwe’s controversial presidential elections. I am writing a piece about Saki and Shungu for Variety, but an interview in his Harare apartment doesn’t come without a certain irony: Shungu is contraband in Zimbabwe, and copies of the film are almost impossible to come by. Saki admits, as he digs into his grilled bream (“from Lake Kariba” – proudly Zimbabwean), that filming Shungu came with a heavy price tag. “We’ll never make a movie like that again,” he says, referring to his wife and co-producer, Karen, a Jamaican born filmmaker living in New York. “Too much stress.”

The film focuses on a cast of ordinary Zimbabweans whose lives are drawn into the election-year turmoil: a poor opposition supporter trying to survive in the face of political violence; a doctor struggling to cope with the country’s collapsing health care system; a middle-aged widow who was given a farm by the government during its controversial land seizures from white farmers. Much of the filming as Saki traveled around the country had to be done covertly. At a police checkpoint, accused of filming for the BBC, he told the suspicious officers, “I’m a storyteller. This is for my children.” (They let him through.) Now, with Shungu racking up awards at film festivals across the globe, he realizes there’s a security dossier somewhere in Harare with his name on it. So far, he says, he’s been left alone. “They are waiting for me to do something stupid, like screening it in Zimbabwe,” he says. But he doesn’t plan on provoking them – not while Shungu is doing well enough abroad. “I have kids that I really love,” he says. “I don’t want to leave them for some foolishness.”

Reliving the period when he was filming is difficult, even two years later. “Shungu was so stressful that I can’t pick up my camera and go into the streets of Harare and start shooting,” he says. “It brings back the memories of how stressful that time was.” He says in 2008 he would come home at the end of a day of filming and look at the footage and cry. Post-production was hectic: the editing spanned two continents, with Karen working through the footage in New York. The schedule was tight; the pair wanted to make the deadline for Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival, where Shungu was eventually named an official selection. At times, Saki seems amazed that he ever pulled it off. “I had a lot of shungu” – the Shona word for “resilience” – “to get Shungu done,” he says.

After dinner he shows me a trailer for his next film, Basilwizi, about the indigenous Tonga of the Zambezi River valley. Tens of thousands of Tonga were displaced by the building of the Kariba dam in the 1950s – a traumatic uprooting for which the people were never compensated. In the half-century since, the Tonga have been all but ignored by the Zimbabwean government. Yet when he visited, Saki found that the people were proud, determined; they didn’t want to be seen as victims. They had found ingenious ways to survive. (In one clip, a woman devises a scheme to burn plastic bags and turn them into kerosene, which she sold at the village market.) Saki has been inspired by his visits to the Tonga communities. “Because they’ve been left alone for 50 years, going back to Binga” – a small urban center on the eastern end of Lake Kariba – “is like going back in time,” he says. “It’s like a place of magic. You don’t know what’s real and what’s made up when you’re there.”

Since returning to Zimbabwe, Saki has spent most of his time running the Zimbabwe Institute of Vigital Arts – “vigital,” a word he coined, meaning to train students in the visual arts using digital tools. (The institute’s acronym, ZIVA, is also the Shona word for “knowledge.”) He has been happy in his native land, despite the difficulties and frustrations. When he visited South Africa around the time of the reggae singer Lucky Dube’s murder in 2007, he knew that he could never make a home for himself south of the Limpopo. (“I thought, if they’re even killing rastas, I can’t be there,” he says – rastas, it seems, enjoying a sort of diplomatic immunity.) In a few months, his wife will be coming out to Harare to join him. His eldest son, Ticha, is already here. Filmmaking – a new venture for him – has helped him to explore a new talent, a new voice. Despite the stress, it’s offered its own form of therapy, too.

“At that time, if I hadn’t made Shungu,” he says, “I would’ve gone crazy.”

The road to freedom.

Saturday, November 6.

By the time I’ve finished my morning coffee and made a quick run to the Internet café, Brian is already knocking on my door, strolling inside and plopping on my chair, as if he owns the place. I can’t decide if I find his freewheeling ease charming or disconcerting. We’ve made plans to head to Borrowdale Racecourse for an afternoon at the races – an incongruous sort of Zimbabwe experience, all things considered. When Brian sees my casual wear he’s full of cheerful insults – I’m wearing shorts, no one’s told him how to dress for a day at the races. He’s wearing dark jeans and pointy black shoes and a red Polo shirt with polo horses emblazoned on the back – an appropriately equine touch, I think, given the circumstances.

Outside, on 4th Street, we hail a combi on its way to the northern suburbs. We are lucky to have the cab to ourselves – I’ve seen combis careening down the streets of Harare, four and five to a row, the occasional ass sticking out the window. It is a beautiful morning, at just a little past eleven – no sign of the rains that are bound to blow in by mid-afternoon. The leafy sprawl of suburban Harare passes by, the traffic of bicycles and beaten hatchbacks, the women with their vegetables spread across the sidewalk. On the outskirts of town we pass a billboard for some cleaning fluid: Beware of what you touch! Germs are everywhere. Then past the president’s house, a fortress hidden from the street by a tall, barbed wire-crowned wall and a forest of pine and eucalyptus. At Palm Rock, when I saw in my guidebook that the Borrowdale road passed the president’s residence, I asked the guys at the reception desk if it was okay to snap a few pictures of Chez Mugabe. They were hysterical, adamant. “No, no, no!” said one. “If you do that, we will never see you again.”

“There are cameras everywhere, in all of the trees,” said another.

“If you walk by you cannot stop, you cannot even look behind you, or they will grab you,” said the first.

“You cannot stop to tie your sneakers,” said a third.

“You have to walk with blinders,” said the first, holding his hands to his temples. Just like the racehorses I was going to see, I said, savoring the irony.

At the racecourse, ominously, there is no sign of a race day crowd. More ominous is the sign at the entrance, informing us that the next race will be on November 7 – that is to say, Sunday, the following day. It suddenly seems ridiculous that we’ve come all this way on nothing but the assurance of the Palm Rock receptionist – a man who had himself only heard of the day’s races secondhand, from a friend who saw an ad for the event on TV. Walking out onto the empty track, seeing just a few ring-necked doves cooing in the grandstand, a young woman in tights – a member of the adjacent sports club – stretching her muscles, it seems that we’re a day early for the races. We walk along the length of the track, the dirt groomed, the inner turf neatly trimmed. A heron spreads its wings and launches into the blue air. Brian, shaking his head at a race track that looks fit for the finest Arabian steed, says with a trace of bitterness, “Most of this was built using our money.” During the colonial era, he explains, when today’s Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi were joined in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, money from Zambia poured into the parliamentary seat in Salisbury. The resentment, says Brian, is still felt by Zambians half a century later. “I am studying here in Harare at a university that was built using money from my country,” he says. “My wounds are still raw.”

We walk past Spirit Hair and Beauty, a salon built into the grandstand, and toward the Fusion Café Bar. A ruddy white woman, yoga mat tucked beneath her arm, sweeps by, talking loudly into her cellphone; behind her, a black maid in a gingham frock is carrying two blond toddlers. We do another pass of the grandstand, then out into the parking lot, and then out onto the main road. Our spirits have sunk. Suddenly, the prospect of a long day in a strange place lies before us. “It is times like this I miss my country,” says Brian.

We crowd into another combi for the trip back to town. Brian suggests fortifying ourselves with a few pints and a day of Premier League football, but it seems like a waste to spend an afternoon in Harare in front of the TV. I feel an urgent need to make the most of every day, every hour, during my short time here. In three weeks I’ll be boarding a bus back to Joburg; a few days later, I’ll be back in New York. There will be plenty of time then for afternoons on the sofa, flipping through the channels for highlights, letting the hours carelessly slip away. Instead I’m on the phone with Annie – a photographer, we share a mutual friend in Joburg – and a different plan is set in motion: to visit Heroes’ Acre, the resting place of Zimbabwe’s war dead, on the city’s outskirts. Annie hasn’t visited the place in years – not since she was covering some solemn, patriotic funeral for a local newspaper – and more or less implies it would be a hoot. She needs twenty minutes to come gather us in town. Brian, as much a go-with-the-flow kind of guy as any, decides that an afternoon at a Zimbabwean cemetery would be just as fun as a day at the pub. In his cheerful red Polo short studded with thoroughbreds, he says he’s in.

Walking through town, Brian is again discoursing on the colonial-era federation, the shared histories of Zambia and Zimbabwe. He explains how today’s MDC have their roots in the Ndebele people, and the ZAPU fighters Joshua Nkomo led against the Ian Smith regime from rear bases in Zambia. After Zimbabwe’s first elections brought Robert Mugabe to power in 1980, he began a ruthless campaign to eliminate the opposition – including his erstwhile ZAPU allies. It was during that bloody decade that the North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade led the massacres in Matabeleland, Nkomo’s political base. The Gukurahundi – “the spring rains that sweep away the dry season chaff” – claimed some 20,000 lives, and remains a bitterly divisive issue in Zimbabwe. (According to many accounts, the ghosts of Gukurahundi still haunt the country’s “securocrats,” who fear that if ZANU-PF loses control of the government, they’ll be held accountable for their crimes in Matabeleland.) Many Ndebele, says Brian, fled to Zambia, where they continue to bide their time, supporting the opposition and waiting for Mugabe to fall. “In Africa, the wounds are very deep,” he says. “They do not heal. They are just covered over.” He points out that the Gukurahundi killings themselves were stoked by lingering resentments between the Ndebele and the Shona people, who accuse the former of having stolen their land and cattle more than a century ago. Now the president continues to provoke his Ndebele detractors. Brian shows me the planned site of a controversial Nkomo statue – a statue that was built by North Koreans – outside the Karigamombe Centre in downtown Harare. The word Karigamombe means “to grab the bull by the horns” in Shona; the name Nkomo, in Ndebele, means “bull.” Two decades after he had grabbed the bull by the horns, forcing Nkomo from politics and co-opting ZAPU into the ZANU-PF party, Mugabe was simply rubbing salt in the wounds of the Ndebele. (Earlier this year, attempts by the government to let the North Korean soccer team practice in Zimbabwe ahead of the World Cup were met with similar protests. The plan was ultimately canceled.) These are the sorts of political games at which Old Man Mugabe excels. Just why is it, anyway, that the man they call “Father Zimbabwe” is still waiting to be commemorated in Harare and Bulawayo, three decades after the independence of a nation he helped to build?

The remembrance of the dead, the writing of history in ZANU-PF textbooks, is perhaps the only reason I’ve strong-armed Brian and Annie into a trip to Heroes’ Acre. Just who is – and isn’t – included in the ruling party’s honor roll is of great interest to this reporter. In August, opposition officials lashed out at the ruling party’s politburo for denying honorifics to Gibson Sibanda, a leading ZAPU figure during the liberation struggle, and a former MDC vice-president, while dubiously bestowing them on the president’s brother-in-law. “President Mugabe and his party have no authority to decide who is a hero,” Arthur Mutambara, president of the MDC-M splinter party, told the foreign press. Last month, the family of Welshman Mabhena – a top-ranking ZANU-PF official and government-declared “national hero” – refused to have his remains interred at the memorial site, claiming that the deceased had been persecuted for criticizing ruling party corruption, and “would not want to be buried alongside thieves and crooks.”

(An old joke in Zimbabwe goes something like this: Two ministers are in Heaven, standing outside the Pearly Gates. A bemused St. Peter flips through the pages of the book in front of him. “Zimbabwe?” he says. “I’ve never heard of it. I have to go talk to the Chef.” When he finds the Chef, he tells Him there are two ministers from a place called Zimbabwe waiting outside. The Chef tells St. Peter He’d like to go with him to interview the two. When they get outside, St. Peter cries out, “They’re gone!” “You’re right,” says the Chef, “there’s no one here.” “No, no,” says St. Peter, “they’ve taken the Pearly Gates!”)

When Annie arrives, her three-month-old Kayla buckled into a safety seat in the rear, she laughs at our impromptu field trip. It’s been years since she last visited the memorial site, with its brutal neo-Stalinist arches looming over the Bulawayo road. Just the idea of a place like Heroes’ Acre, the fact of its existence, seems ridiculous to her generation, she says. “If you talk to those who fought in the war, they will tell you how bad Smith and his people were,” she says. “But for us born after independence, we don’t know anything about those guys.” At the entrance, with a tattered national flag flapping in the wind, there is a small commotion at our arrival. Groundskeepers look up, shovels and hoes in hand; a young woman nursing a baby rushes to the reception desk. Visitors to Heroes’ Acre, one suspects, usually arrive in a coffin. Inside there is a low-rent museum space, a raggedy puppet of a freedom fighter lying splay-legged over a bed of rocks beneath the words, “The Road to Freedom.” Beside it is a liberation polemic using all the much-worn vocabulary of the struggle, beginning with the heroic words, The road to freedom was rugged, and covered with thorns and stumps. (So, too, is the road to Lake Kariba.) After much denouncing of Ian Smith – “the leader of an arrogant and repressive regime” – and his government – “the racist, oppressive regime” – the country’s freedom fighters are celebrated for an uprising which “raged like a relentless conflagration, fanned by a wild wind, until final victory.” This, the climax of the Second Chimurenga, led to the dawning of a new day in Zimbabwe. “Eventually, and at immense cost of life and limb, the colonial burden of brutal oppression and discrimination was replaced by freedom, empowerment, sovereignty, justice and equality.”

And finally: “We salute the fine sons and daughters of Zimbabwe, who shed their precious blood to water the seeds of the freedom we enjoy today.”

It is a shame that the heroics of that age should be so diluted by this one, that the exploits of a bunch of third-rate leaders and first-rate crooks should make the very word “hero” impossible to utter without an eyebrow cocked. A shame, too, that admission into the memorial site – and even a tour of the museum itself – costs a whopping ten US bucks (and five for native Zimbabweans). For all the populist rhetoric, for all the blood-watered freedom and equality and etc., you’d think the government would offer this place up to the people, free of charge. But no, no reason to sully the graves of Zimbabwe’s heroic chefs with the dirty feet of its povos. The only time the gates of Heroes’ Acre are opened to the public gratis is when there’s a new hero to bury and commemorate. On our way to the car, Annie says drily, “Just pray that a hero dies soon.”

Having thus been denied twice in pursuit of an afternoon diversion, I’m bitter as the storm clouds suddenly blow in. It feels like the day is already slipping away. We just make it to Book Café as the rain begins to fall. Inside, hoping for a caffeine boost while Annie sets a different plan in motion, it seems we’ve turned up just in time for the weekly House of Hunger Poetry Slam. Being of the clean-cut and respectable-looking variety, we are promptly given a scorecard to help with the judging. The group is not altogether up to the task. Annie, busy with Kayla, punching text messages into her phone as we try to salvage the afternoon, isn’t the most attentive judge; Brian, meanwhile, looks mildly stricken to have found himself at a poetry slam, of all places. (How good does an afternoon in the pub look to him now, I wonder.) I try to shoulder the burden, needling Annie to translate the Shona poems, begging Brian to sit still for 20 minutes. Just as things are starting to pick up, though, and some of Harare’s more accomplished poets are finding their groove, Annie’s phone chirps: her friend Conrad is outside, it’s time for us to go.

Conrad, a local journalist, greets us in the parking lot, the engine still running on his SUV. Denied our horses and heroes, we’ve decided to spend the dwindling daylight hours boozing and braai-ing instead. Conrad, in a baseball cap and denim shorts and a pair of brown leather ankle-length boots, is good company, happy to theorize as I pepper him with questions about the political situation in Zimbabwe. Will there be elections next year? Can the coalition hold? Are the generals already plotting their next step? It is hard to peg him as an optimist – he has seen too much already – but he suspects much of the talk about early elections is political posturing. Everyone acknowledges that ordinary Zimbabweans aren’t ready for another round of elections; but the Chefs, he says, aren’t ready for it, either. During all the turmoil of 2008 and 2009, when the shops were empty and inflation was running into nine and ten digits, even the Chefs had to adjust to life’s daily inconveniences. “They don’t want to go back to that time,” he says, “when now they can just walk into a shop, walk into a bank to withdraw money.” But ZANU-PF has to remain antagonistic toward the opposition; they can’t let the MDC claim credit for the economy’s stabilization, for the return of something approaching normalcy to life in Zimbabwe. It is a precarious balance the ruling party has to strike: to build on the progress that’s been made in the past year, while still doing its best to sabotage the opposition. When the elections finally come – in 2012, perhaps, or 2013 – things will get ugly again. I ask Conrad about SADC, and South Africa, and whether they might use their political and economic clout to prevent a repeat of 2008. He laughs bitterly. “They are toothless dogs,” he says. “They will just say keep talking while people are dying.”

He steers us down the potholed roads, past suburban houses in flowery compounds. It is a lovely drive. I struggle, as I often do in countries riven by conflict, to imagine scenes of violence on these same sunny streets. Most of the worst violence, I know, was in the countryside in 2008. I ask Conrad what Harare was like during the elections, and he lets out a frustrated sigh. “In town, it was really bad,” he says. The shops were empty. Prices soared on the black market. A 2kg. bag of sugar – a dollar and change at the supermarket today – would go for $10. “You adapted and found ways to survive,” he says. “Many people learned to just have one meal a day.” And there was the violence, too. People were disappearing in the night: journalists, civil society members, MDC supporters. There were lists drawn up of prominent activists; pick-ups would arrive in the dead of night, doors kicked open, men and women bundled off to be beaten, tortured. If they were lucky, they would be released after a few days. Others were found in fields, ditches. Once, when Conrad and a friend were returning from a trip to South Africa, they got a panicky phone call from his friend’s wife. It was after midnight. Men had come to their house, she said, looking for her husband. She was taken to the police station for questioning, with her infant son. They were held for hours. Conrad drove quickly to the house, gathered the shaken wife and child, and brought them to a safe house. “Let me tell you, we flew,” he says. That was what life was like in 2008: code words, safe houses, activists vanishing without a trace. It all bore a disturbing resemblance to the liberation struggles of southern Africa in the ‘70s and ‘80s. How bitterly ironic that those same freedom fighters, now pulling the levers of power, were using the same mechanisms of repression of the Ian Smith regime against the opposition. During the 2008 campaign, Conrad would often be followed at night, the same pair of taillights following at a cautious distance for miles, shaken only after brave evasive maneuvers. (“I am one hell of a driver,” he says.) Now he could relax behind the wheel, he could fiddle with the radio and turn to joke with Annie and Lizzie, another friend we just picked up, in the backseat.

We drive from the city, past the bottling plants and factories on the outskirts of town, the apocalyptic industrial scenery that looks exactly like the sort of place you’d burn the car and dump the bodies. Brian, who has hardly stopped talking since we left Book Café, is telling us about his college days in Lusaka, and his run-ins with the police as a student activist. He remembers getting mixed up in some protests that caught the eyes of the authorities, who were ever mindful of the political tinderbox that was the university campus. They brought him in with a dozen others, the leaders of the student union, and interrogated them for three days. “That time,” he says, laughing, “they really beat me.” But the police were sloppy; there were dozens of witnesses when the group was taken off campus. Before long there were calls in the newspapers and on the local radio stations for the students to be released. When he got back to campus, he was greeted as a hero. The girls especially admired the lumps he took. He tells the story with relish, apparently disappointed he couldn’t get hauled in by the police more often. Then Conrad tells his own stories of police harassment, his narrow escapes when he was a rep for the Zimbabwe trade unions. Once he had to leap from a moving car and run to safety. We are all in a high mood listening to these tales of bravado, the stories no doubt richly embroidered for the foreigner and the swooning girls in the backseat.

Passing through the rural outskirts of Harare, past the Extra Mile Leisure Spot, past a procession of cars and pick-up trucks with mourners singing funeral songs in the back. The road’s shoulder is alive with women weaving baskets, and roasting corn over small wood fires, and youths selling cigarettes and soda and mangos and airtime. In every field there are church-goers, white-robed Zionists and Apostolics, singing their praises to the sky. We pass the New Testament Faith Apostolic Church: a dozen white crosses painted on a boulder. Children walking along the road, carrying jerry cans, swaying heavily from side to side. “We never used to have these boreholes in town,” says Conrad, gesturing out the window. “It is because of the broken-down systems.” There is a rusted chassis in a field, and car parts everywhere: doors, fenders, axles, shredded tires. I feel like an archaeologist, excavating the ruins of an ancient, 20th-century civilization. Mechanics in overalls, carrying spanners and crowbars. Spare tires and hub caps stacked on the side of the road, arranged like modern art. Brian, in the backseat, telling another story. He was a mischievous boy, he says. When the family wanted to take him to be circumcised, they told him he was going on a special trip. Shrewd young Brian knew better. “They wanted to take me at 5am, so I left the house at four,” he says. “They were looking for me all day.”

We reach Adelaide Acres (“We guarantee your satisfaction”), a small hotel and conference center a half-hour’s drive from town. It is set on green, wooded grounds full of birdsong; in the parking lot, we watch a pack of vervet monkeys scampering through the trees. (“Do you eat monkeys in Zambia?” says Conrad. “No, that is in DRC.” “Ah, in DRC it is a delicacy.”) A listless man is sitting near one of the braai pits, listening to a transistor radio. Words are exchanged. We go to the reception area, then back to the braai pit, then back to the car. Conrad is flustered. It seems they’ve already run out of food – at half-past four on a Saturday afternoon, when all of Harare is in a festive mood, there is no food or drink to be had at Adelaide Acres. “Normally, all you see are cars here,” he says, sweeping a hand across the empty parking lot. He shakes his head. “This is very bad business.”

We are back in the car, driving toward the city in the golden, late-day sunlight. Hungry, not having eaten since two slices of bread and peanut butter this morning, I’m nonetheless in a fine mood. Brian, chattering away in the rear, is keeping us entertained. He was raised in a Lusaka slum, he says, brought up by his aunt, because his mother and father were still in university when they had him. Later, as a young boy, he moved out to his family’s rural area. He lived a simple village life. He would fetch water from the well and till the field with his cousins. There was always some domestic drama playing out in the kitchen. “I remember my uncle coming home after he had spent his whole salary on drink,” he says. “He put the equivalent of $10 on the table for my aunt. She said, ‘What is that money?’ And he said, ‘Manage it.’ She said to him, ‘I’m going to manage you.’” We laugh.

“That is called a structural adjustment,” says Conrad.

Brian says, “She really beat him that time.”

They are laughing together, remembering the village life. Everywhere in Africa, in every city, you find men and women laughing, sighing, remembering the villages. “You can take the boy out of the bush,” says Conrad, “but you cannot take the bush out of the boy.” Brian laughs, his whole body is convulsing with laughter as he remembers trying to catch chickens in the yard. “That day, everyone will know you’re having chicken, because they will see you chasing it through the village,” he says, laughing.

“And for the next two hours,” says Conrad, “you will suck on that bone, just to show everyone you had chicken.”

Those were the special occasions. Who had money for chicken every day? “It is not like when you people eat vegetables, because it is healthy,” says Brian. “No, we ate it because that’s the only thing we had.”

“Those were the days,” says Conrad.

“You ate what you had that day, and you worried tomorrow about the next day,” says Brian.

We turn down a few bumpy dirt roads, the sun is sinking fast now, and we reach Merek, a large parade ground crowded with cars packed bumper to bumper. (“Later, it will really fill up,” says Conrad.) At the front of the lot are the butcheries and bottle shops: Mereki Bottle Store, Big Brother Butchery & Bottle Store, Super Pork (“$3,80 per kg”). Music is rattling from a dozen speakers, the sound warbling, the ground thudding with bass. Further, in a cloud of smoke, scores of husky women in gingham frocks are stirring vats of sadza, and tending to smoky grills piled with chicken and beef and plump links of sausage. Each woman has a sign above her grill: Amai Prudence. Amai Memory Wasu. All roads lead to Amai Temptation. As we approach they begin to call out to us in high, fluting voices – you would think these stout madams were coy schoolgirls meeting their sweethearts under a mango tree. Conrad steers us briskly through this crowd: he already has his favorite, Amai Tanaka (“Simply the best”), who is sweating fiercely over the farthest of the grills. Negotiations ensue; a deal is struck. We are back in the butchery now, inspecting the chicken breasts and the fat-marbled cuts of beef. It is astonishing how much meat you can buy for ten US bucks. Outside we make a pass through the bottle store and leave our meat in Amai Tanaka’s capable hands. The sun has vanished behind some distant hills, headlights begin to pop on in the gloaming. Much of the crowd has been at it, I suspect, since early afternoon. There is the raucous energy of a summer Saturday night, the air hot and heavy with the threat of rain, the drinks much-tippled, the grills puffing out charry smoke, the girls parading back and forth in spaghetti string tops and pants you couldn’t squeeze a quarter into. Our spirits are high indeed as we knock back beers and swap the inevitable tales of cultural differences and sexual preferences. Brian tells a story about an Egyptian girl that simply can’t be repeated. The air around us is charged with desire, longing, promiscuity. “You will not see men bringing their wives here,” says Conrad, eyeing a few young girls in tight pants. Merek, it seems, is a meat market in every sense of the term.

When the food arrives we clear some space for it in the back of the truck. There is a pile of greasy chicken legs and breasts, and steaks stacked like pancakes, and a hunk of sadza about the size of a wedding cake. Amai Tanaka has added some mysterious salts and spices, dressing the meat with all the care and precision of a surgeon dressing a wound. It is a marvelous meal. Annie and Lizzie, who have spent the past hour gossiping in the backseat, suddenly reappear, their appetites strong. We eat with our hands, in the African manner: balling the sadza between our fingers, tearing pieces of chicken from the bone. Afterward, licking our fingers, light-headed from all the meat and booze, I make plans with Brian and Conrad to meet again in Joburg: after the holidays, when I’m back from New York, during the brief two-week window I’ll have before getting on a plane to Ghana. It is the sort of plan that seems driven more by the inspired mood than any sort of practicalities. But we stick to it, shake on it: we will reconvene for more mischief in Joburg in two months’ time.

Stomachs full, spirits high, we pile into the car as the first fat drops of rain begin to spatter the windshield. Around us some of the other revelers are rushing toward their cars, but most people seemed to be gripped by that peculiar lethargy of African crowds, an endless shuffling and milling, shouts and laughter, an indifference to anything as inconsequential as a little bit of rainfall. On our way from the parking lot, someone signals from the side of the road. There is someone, he tells Conrad, pointing toward a line of cars behind us, trying to get our attention. Conrad squints into the headlights, rolls up his window, and drives off. It is no one that he recognizes, he says, and if history has taught him anything, it’s not to stick around for unfamiliar faces in the night.

I can never love another country.

Friday, November 5.

Last week I emailed Owen Maseko, a Zimbabwean artist, who achieved a degree of fame in the Western press this year after his mixed-media exhibition on the Gukurahundi – the killings of more than 20,000 Ndebele by government forces in the 1980s – was promptly shut down by the authorities after it opened in Bulawayo in April. I was hoping to meet Maseko later this month, but alas, he is gone now, he has a residency in the UK and will then be traveling to Spain. (Maseko was arrested less than a day after the opening, charged with “obscenity and ethnic bias.” Last I read, he was meant to stand trial for his crimes, but no word if that trial has taken place.)

I know very little about Zimbabwean art, and so I’m wondering, on the steps of the National Gallery here in Harare, if I can expect a bunch of mini-Masekos inside, their anti-government polemics brazenly hung from the walls (unlikely); or if the works will be avowedly apolitical (e.g., Still Life with Mealies); or if there might even be the odd pro-ZANU-PF ringer thrown in to ensure the museum still gets its annual funding (e.g., Still Life with Slogans). But the work, as it turns out, is largely apolitical, unprovocative, and, if we’re being honest here, not all that destined to stir the pulse. There are some village scenes and some color tests and a sort of mini-homage to bread, both as the stuff of life and as a symbol of political protest. (The president, a real man of the people, has used the withholding of food aid as a weapon against his opponents.) Maybe I’m trying too hard – I want too much to feel Zimbabwe’s pain in its art, to see the struggle played out on broad, blood-soaked canvases. A luta continua. Instead I find a few pedestrian paintings, and a strange, beautiful installation of insect sculptures, “Creature/Tuzvipuka,” giant flies and millipedes and dung beetles in wood, stone, metal and bone, by the artist Victor Nyakauru. Outside, the massive rock sculptures of the Shona fill the sculpture garden: bug-eyed, big-lipped men and women with tumescent tummies, the dark polished stone blinding in the sunlight. People sitting on benches in the shade, students mostly, laughing, holding hands, or kicking out their bare feet on the grass.

The city is crowned by sunlight, it washes the drab office buildings and lights the jacarandas and the flame trees like candelabra. In African Unity Square, a leafy park across from the Meikles Hotel, the flower-sellers are out in numbers, cutting stems, primping bouquets, and soliciting passersby with cries of “Roses! Roses!” How much sweeter to hear than the ubiquitous, “Airtime! Airtime!” Like most of Harare’s informal street vendors – the sellers of flowers and vegetables, the repairers of watches and shoes – they were cleared out in 2005 during Operation Murambatsvina (“Drive out the filth”), an ostensible inner-city clean-up campaign targeting the opposition strongholds in the cities. They’ve been back since 2007, a man, Blessed, tells me, selling their wedding and funeral bouquets, guilting young men into buying single roses for their sweethearts, or for the girls sitting on the grass in the park. Blessed is happy to be here, happy to be living and working in his country. “The publicity about Zimbabwe is just rubbish,” he says. “You can have a business here. You can do anything you want, as long as it’s not illegal.” Things have been getting better this past year; the government, he says, has sorted out the problems that pushed this country into an economic freefall. “We like that old man,” he says, wary, like all the Zimbabweans I’ve met, to call Mugabe by his name. “The problem is the opposition.” Now that life is returning to normal, the tourists are coming back, too. They like to come to African Unity Square, says Blessed, with its shade trees and benches and lawns. From the top, if you were high above Harare, you would see that the park’s pathways resemble a Union Jack. African Unity, by way of the British: I wonder if the “old man” appreciates the irony. I tell Blessed about the life in New York, and in Joburg, and he shakes his head. “It is too much crime that side,” he says. “South Africans are a violent people.” He has worked in Botswana, in Mozambique, but he has always come home. “I love Zimbabwe,” he says. “I can never love another country.”

The clouds begin to roll in in the afternoon, the wind picks up. You can set your watch to these African rains. After lunch I retreat with my laptop to Book Café, for another caffeination session while the rain batters the rooftop. The usual crowd of young musicians and poets is there, as well as a few middle-aged men – stocky, serious, with neckfat like the folds of an accordion – drinking Lion and Castle lagers by the bar. They seem out of place in this crowd of bohemians and idealists. Their faces are fat, blunt, cheerless, pragmatic; I can safely say they will not be dancing to the mbira music tonight, nor snapping their fingers at the poetry slam tomorrow. One man, whose puffy round face and ample belly recall the Shona sculptures I saw at the Gallery this morning, seems to be scrutinizing me from across the room. Whenever I look up our eyes meet, and if I hold the gaze for a few seconds, he doesn’t so much as blink. For a few minutes I have the thought that I, a white guy on a laptop in a café known for its agitators and opposition sympathizers, am being watched. The feeling passes; I tell myself this man is just curious, as is so often the case in Africa, by the sight of someone who’s so obviously from out of town. Only later, when a filmmaker friend tells me that Book Café is “crawling” with government spies, do I wonder if I’ve had my first run-in with the CIO.

It seems only logical that the government intelligence network would have a presence at the café. Journalists, poets, artists, musicians, filmmakers: anyone who’s ever had an unkind word to say or sing about Old Man Mugabe has probably passed through for a drink or a performance. (Most, in fact, seem to be regulars.) In a country where as many as 250,000 are employed by the government to snitch on their neighbors, any self-respecting turncoat would know that a place like Book Café offers plenty of bang for your nefarious buck. Sedition is on the menu; resistance hangs from the walls. A few hours of casual eavesdropping is probably enough for some low-level snitch to fill an ample file for the intelligence bosses back at the home office.

In the evening I’m back to see Mawangira Enharira, a celebrated mbira group. Sedition is one thing, but Zimbabweans are just as keen to shake their asses on a Friday night. It’s early, hardly seven, when I arrive, and I decide to pass the time on the sidewalk outside, watching the early-evening comings and goings as the rain again begins to fall. A young girl in a white blouse and blue skirt comes up to me, making soft, plaintive noises. She hands me a sheet of paper laminated and bearing the stamp of some primary school in Chitungwiza. I am Scholastic Hove. I have no father and mother. I stay with my blind grandmother. I ask Scholastic how old she is, and whether she has brothers and sisters. She looks up at me, silent, and bats her eyes. “That girl, she cannot speak English,” says a taxi driver nearby. On the paper is a list of Scholastic’s needs: $20 for tuition, $4 for groceries, $1 for water. I hand her a buck and pinch her cheeks, and she trudges dolefully away, holding the dollar in her hand.

This is a popular corner, it seems, for Harare’s street kids and hangabouts. (I’ve already been warned that it’s not safe to walk the three blocks from Book Café to Palm Rock after dark.) Not long after Scholastic walks off a man, rumpled, drunk, all skin and bones inside an oversized jacket, joins me. He tells me his name is Reggie, and he is having a hard time in life. He comes from a place near Mutare – his “rural area,” as they say in Zimbabwe – and he has just lost his grandfather. He is hungry, and he is depressed, and he has asthma. He used to work for Mawangira Enharira, the group performing tonight, carrying their equipment to and from gigs. Now he has no job, no money. “As a man, you have to be very strong,” he says. His eyes are almost yellow, the color of the moon. He cannot stop thinking about his grandfather, who it now seems did not die recently, but some time ago. He talks about it the way a storyteller will spin legends and myths around a campfire. “It was a terrible season,” he says. He has had problems with the police, he has gotten mixed up in bad things, he sighs, his face is hung with a thousand sorrows. “I cannot talk about that situation,” he says, “or maybe you will see them grab me or harass me.”

I offer to buy him something in the OK supermarket – a loaf of bread, perhaps, to get him through the night. He says it would be even nicer if I could buy him something to put on that bread, to make a sandwich. I give him a look. We walk into the supermarket, the guard giving us a significant once-over, ready to club Reggie’s head, I suspect, at the slightest provocation. How often have I, with my big, soft, bleeding, white-man’s heart, been roped into these African tragicomedies? How many drunks have shuffled through supermarket aisles, their faces bright with fluorescent lighting, their chins stubbled, their shirts filthy, scratching their asses as I shepherd them past the biscuits and potato chips and pasta sauces and cuts of beef in search of the cheapest thing to put in their sunken stomachs? Reggie asks if I can buy him a bag of mealies – he can cook at home, he says, it will last all week. This seems only reasonable. The mealie bags are stacked in the back corner, 5kg. and 10kg. sacks, like they’re holding back flood waters. The 5kg. bags are $2.15, which is about as much as I’m willing to part with for this man who, long-suffering life notwithstanding, has probably spent too much time and money in the sauce to warrant a great outpouring of sympathy. I wonder, really, if this supermarket odyssey is more for his benefit or my own? I pick up a 5kg. bag, and Reggie makes a very boozy suggestion that the 10kg. bag would be even better. I point out that, bless his aching heart, I don’t have $4.15 to spend on his mealies. I am not the WFP. He’s getting more and more plaintive, a few people have begun to stare, and I think how ridiculous it is to be starting an argument with a drunk over how much charity I’m willing to show him. Behind Reggie’s shoulder, another man gives me a bug-eyed look and makes a gesture with his hand, as if to say, Ix-nay on the um-bay. Suddenly I’m mad not only at Reggie, but at myself. Why, in a country full of suffering, when an honest, sober man has to work himself to the bone for a $2.15 bag of mealies, should I be showing such largesse to drunken Reggie? Why, more to the point, do I keep getting myself into these things? The answer, I suppose, is that I’m as weak as the next man; that I have a soft spot for human frailty; and that I am touched, besides, by anyone willing to share their heart’s sorrows with me. Suddenly feeling profoundly sad, pissed at myself, at Reggie and his dead grandfather and Scholastic Hove in her soiled white blouse, I buy the miserable sack of mealies and more or less push Reggie out the door. I am ready for a beer, for mbira. I am ready to be entertained.

Upstairs the café is almost empty, it is still too early for even a sound check, and I wait outside at the top of the stairs, watching the guys in their crisp blue jeans and the girls in heels as they begin to arrive. Behind me a bunch of men are arguing in French – Congolese, they are here to see the rhumba band that is performing next door at the Mannenberg. The rain is falling steadily now, the wind is cold and blowing through the arcade of the Fife Ave. shopping center like a wind tunnel. “You’re waiting for someone,” says a girl, a rasta, her hair coiled inside a headscarf the colors of the Ethiopian flag. I tell her I’m just watching the rain, waiting for the mbira group to perform, and she leans over the balcony beside me. Her wrists are bangled with copper and beaded bracelets which, she says, she makes herself. Necklaces, too, she says, showing off the polished stones and cowry shells strung across her neck. Her name is Tanyaradzwa Todini, she is a poet. She says she’s seen me around, but I say I’m just passing through, I’ve made Book Café a second home in Harare. I tell her I’m a writer, too, skirting around the word “journalist” the way Zimbabweans dodge the name “Mugabe.” I ask if poetry is a good living in Harare, and she laughs – nothing is a good living in Zimbabwe, she seems to suggest, especially poetry. She would like to go to South Africa – she’s heard that it’s possible to make a living as an artist in Cape Town. Here there are few tourists, and the police are always harassing you. She used to sell jewelry on the streets, “but then they had the clean-up” – Operation Murambatsvina, the same crackdown that drove Blessed and the other flower-sellers out of African Unity Square. Just a few weeks ago, she was showing some necklaces to a tourist, “a white sister,” when the police grabbed her and took her things. She spent the night in a police cell; the next day, after she paid a fine, they let her go. “They take our things away, and for what?” she says, her face clenched tight as a fist. The police made life difficult for everyone. “Those ladies who sell vegetables in the street,” she says, “the police will throw the vegetables in the garbage bin, make them sleep in the cell, and then tell them to pay the fine the next day.” A few years ago, there was a woman who sold peanut butter – every week, the police would come and confiscate her goods, make her pay a fine. One day she decided to make a special batch of peanut butter with rat poison. It was confiscated, too; later they found the policeman dead, along with his wife and two kids. Tanya tells this story without a trace of emotion. “They know the life in Zimbabwe is hard enough,” she says. “We do not have justice here.”

A few plaintive twangs of mbira come floating out of Book Café; the show is almost starting. Tanya tells me her parents both died of AIDS; her sister, too. After her parents’ deaths, she left her rural area and came to Harare. For eight years, she was living on the street. But then she met a man. She got pregnant. “You know men,” she says. “They just give you a child and they disappear.” She decided she couldn’t stay on the street any more. “If it’s just you, you can survive,” she says. “But you cannot do it with a child.” She found a place in Epworth, a poor community a few kilometers from Harare. She moved in with another girl, “another sister,” who had been living on the street with her. They took in Tanya’s sister’s son, and soon her own son was on the way, too. Now Junior is two; the other boy, Brandon, is eight. They live in a single room together, the four of them, sharing a single bed. I ask what her name, Tanyaradzwa, means in Shona, and she says, “Someone who offers their shoulder in sympathy.” I ask about Todini and she smiles. “It means, ‘What can you do?’”

She has never been to Europe – she has never left Zimbabwe – but she’s had brushes with the outside world. A few years ago she met a Spanish filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary about her. “It won a big award in Spain,” she says, offering to send me the link. When she joined Facebook, hundreds of Italians tried adding her as a friend – Todini, it seems, is a common name in a certain southern city. She wants to visit Ethiopia some day, because it’s the birthplace of rastafari culture. She wants to visit Kenya, too. She’s seen pictures of the Maasai and Samburu women with their beautiful beaded jewelry, and would like to learn how to make those colorful necklaces and bracelets and headdresses. She wants to see the ocean, too. “I have never been to the beach,” she says. I wonder if she might some day make it to Beira, in Mozambique: a straight arrow-shot from Harare, it is an eight-, ten-hour drive. You could make it to the border in a few hours, I suppose, then across the narrow band of central Mozambique – but I stop myself, it’s absurd to suggest such a journey to a poor poet and her young son. Who had the time, the money, for a beach holiday in Beira? I might as well say that with spaceships, it’s easier than ever for mankind to reach the moon.

The music is picking up strength, I suggest we go inside, offering to pay the $5 cover for her. She says it’s okay, she can get in for free as a performer. “I can use that money for something else,” she says, giving me an expectant look. Somehow, I’ve just put myself in the hole for another five bucks. We take a table inside as the group warms up the crowd: plucking notes on their mbira, beating their drums, a rhythmic bunch of rastas shaking their knotty heads in syncopated time. “Even our ancestors, when they spoke to their gods, they played those instruments,” says Tanya. The pace of the music soon picks up, one of the singers moves onto the small dancefloor and launches into a wild dance routine. I wonder, when Tanya’s ancestors spoke to their gods, if such maneuvers and acrobatics were like being possessed by spirits. After nearly ten minutes the routine is over, even the audience seems to be dripping in sweat. The group leaves the stage. “That was just the sound check,” says Tanya, laughing her marvelous laugh.

By the time they return the place is full, the tables crowded with rastas and young, smartly dressed couples sipping beer from tall glasses. We sit in silence, me and Tanya, listening to the music. Now and then she gets up, wiggles her hips, pumps her fist in time to the beat, and then vanishes to bum a cigarette off someone. The music is fast, frenetic – none of the plaintive sounds I associate with mbira, with Roy Sessana, the old Bushman, plucking his lonely notes under the stars in the Kalahari. The dancefloor is packed with broad-hipped girls and tall men dancing close to them. A gangly white girl in a rasta hat comes over to our table and bumps our fists. I assume she is a friend of Tanya’s, but no, it turns out, they’ve never met before: she just wanted to come over and compliment Tanya on her jewelry. It is a certain axiom of mine, that it’s not a party in Africa till a white girl in a beanie hat turns up and gives you a fist-bump. I expect her to say “one love” and discourse on African unity, but no, thankfully, she sits there with her eyes glazed over, too high to say a word. Before long we’re joined by another guy, a young Zambian, who was sitting by himself at a nearby table. He is a medical student at the university, his name is Brian, he is so good-hearted and gregarious that I want to hop on the first bus to Lusaka, just to meet more Brians. He is full of observations about the differences between Zambians and Zimbabweans – that Zambians, for example, dance with their hips (getting up to illustrate), because, like the Congolese, they are close to the equator; whereas the Zimbabweans dance with their legs (wildly, unappreciatively flailing his legs), because, like South Africans, their center of gravity is farther south. There is no way to prove or disprove this thesis, but we take it with good humor. We’re an odd foursome, from our separate, colliding worlds, though on the surface, looking at our table, you might suspect we were out on a double-date. I find this both hilarious and kind of sad. The white girl gets up and drifts off like bong smoke, doing a loopy little dance with her hands. We all exchange looks at her departure, a sort of collective “What the fuck?” Brian is disappointed: he was hoping to hook me up with her, since we shared so much in common, which is to say the fact of our being white. This Brian, it seems, is a real character. Before we get up to leave, we swap numbers – I’m planning to see the weekend’s thoroughbred races the next day in Borrowdale, and invite him to tag along.

Outside, in a gathering storm, Reggie is again standing on the sidewalk. I had watched him walk off with the mealie meal before, shambling down the street. Did he take it back to his home? Swap it at a shebeen for a few more beers? There’s nothing left in my heart tonight for Reggie; the pathos of his yellow eyes and ragged trousers could ruin what’s left of this night, if I let it.

“I am still very depressed,” he says, as we get into a cab. And then we leave him there in the rain.

That thing that comes out of the barrel of the gun: you cannot take it back.

Thursday, November 4.

Twelve hours after collapsing into bed, the air stuffy, the mattress stiff as a coffin, I can feel the life slowly returning to my tortured limbs. In retrospect, I have to wonder if the bus ride was worth the money I’d saved: I spent my first full day in Zimbabwe in a sort of narcoleptic stupor. Somewhere in the morning’s aches and pains is an important lesson, and I have to wonder if my plan to repeat this journey in reverse on the 28th of the month – to haul ass from Vic Falls to Joburg overnight, and to leave myself just a single day before returning to New York – verges on the stupid or the foolhardy. Last week, as a contingency plan, I’d checked the cost of flights from Livingstone, Zambia, to OR Tambo: about $240 for a one-way ticket that would save me some 20 hours of travel time. It is an enticingly First World option. But then, I already know this will be a tight month; I’ll probably be running out of money by the time I reach Vic Falls. It’s the reason why I’ve packed my tent along with all my smart Joburg clothes, just in case. And it’s the reason why I’ll probably be bitching through another Citiliner coach ride 24 days from now.

Well-rested and caffeinated on this humid Thursday morning, I’ve set myself a very open-ended plan to see the city, trusting that the gregarious nature of your average Zimbabwean – and my unabashed whiteness – will lead to comic mayhem and hijinx in the streets of Harare. In this, I have rarely been disappointed before. It is strange to be a curiosity again, to feel the frank stares of the husky women selling avocados and tomatoes on the side of the road, to know that the man sitting on a tree stump with a yellowed copy of last week’s Herald will lower his paper, just to watch me go. The pace, too, of this city is more easy, more welcoming than Joburg’s. For every office worker bustling by on some dire mission – to fax! to photocopy! to scan! – a dozen others are talking easily in the shade, fingers laced together, giving every hour the urgency of lunch hour on a Friday afternoon.

My only pressing order of business is to buy a SIM card from Econet, the least disreputable of Zimbabwe’s derelict phone networks. This is accomplished in an electronics shop stocked with Keson TVs and Super Star toaster ovens and piles of last year’s Nokias. It is a bustling little shop: a man in the rear is rifling through a stack of $20 bills; another, middle-aged, wearing bifocals, is repairing phones with a small screwdriver, his hands steady as a surgeon’s. The woman behind the counter disappears into the backroom to find my SIM. When she returns, she counts out my change, a couple of rumpled dollar bills, from a plastic bag full of foreign bank notes.

As soon as I step outside, a dozen offers for airtime are politely rebuffed. It is in this way – by selling airtime and newspapers and single cigarettes and cheap sunglasses and leather belts – that a man must make a life. Down the road a hair salon is looking for freelance talent: “Rent a chair – barber needed,” says a sign in the window. On the corner, a man repairing watches has set up his workshop, a single sheet of cardboard, atop a milk crate. There are tiny gears and springs and leather bands, and screwdrivers and needlenose pliers laid out like a dentist’s tools. Another man sells primary school text books and rat poison. There are commercial banks everywhere, and a credit bureau, Greatermans, promising “Ready Credit That’s Better Than Cash.” The Cell Insurance Company (“Sweetness from the honeybees”) wants clients to “unlock wealth together through risk management.” I have no idea what this means. In the window of the TV Sales & Home showroom (“Guaranteed Quality Furniture & Appliances”), a dozen refrigerators are lined up like showgirls. An advertisement for Cakes Unlimited is taped to every lamp post on the block. “Sweetening your function,” it says, with “Wedding Cakes, Birthday Cakes, Anytime Cakes.” In the windows of Treasure Trove, a second-hand shop, are cassette tapes (“The Biggest Hits of ’98”) and paperbacks from Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith, Danielle Steel. In the bookshop next door, the shelves are lined with NGO tracts on adult literacy, women’s rights and agroforestry. There are Bibles and Christian DVDs, and a copy of Dick Walker’s Trout Fishing. Down the street the windows of Barbours department store are dressed with their Christmas displays, a couple of low-rent electric candles and garlands full of thrifty Yuletide cheer. Nearby the letters have been pilfered from the façade of the F.W. Woolworth store; the doors are padlocked. On the groundfloor of the MDC National Headquarters down the street is the She ‘n He Boutique – “The Professionals in Hair Care.” It is perhaps here that Tsvangirai and Tendai Biti and the other MDC stalwarts go for a clip and a shave. Someone has written on the wall:

Morgan is more
Than ever before

The windows on each floor are hung with red curtains, the color of the MDC. During the last election campaign, party supporters flashed red cards at rallies – thousands of self-appointed soccer officials, deciding it was time to “send off” Mugabe. The populist movement of the opposition seemed to have even shocked the president – he was stunned to see the force and conviction of those that had come out to oppose him. You have to wonder what honeyed lies the sycophants who surround Mugabe have poured into his ear. Did he realize, during the waning days of that 2008 campaign, when his generals reportedly talked him out of accepting the cozy retirement package floated by the West, what a shambles he presided over? Did the old liberation hero feel betrayed by the country he had brought into being, by the Oedipal rage against the father of the nation?

In recent weeks, the campaign against the opposition has already begun. Three times the prime minister has tried to brief supporters on the current gridlock in the coalition government; three times he has been rebuffed by the police, allegedly because the second-highest-ranking member of the Zimbabwean government had not gotten the proper permits for a public rally. The farce of democracy, of the GNU, lurches on.

On the First St. pedestrian mall – at the corner, appropriately, of First and Speke – the soapbox preachers are working the crowd. Two men are deep into a fiery sermon when I arrive: the one, a young, handsome man in black trousers and a neatly pressed purple shirt, accuses us in English of all manner of sins; his partner, older, mustachioed, sweating ferociously, is struggling to keep up in Shona. I have arrived just in time to catch the tail-end of a diatribe against the League of Nations, and the terrible pall that hung over the world on the eve of the First World War. “It was a preview of Armageddon,” says the preacher, drawing a chorus of Hallelujahs and Amens from the admittedly historically well-versed crowd. It is a shambling assortment of men – mostly men – a few neatly dressed in collared shirts and neck ties, professionals out on a lunchtime stroll; the rest, in t-shirts and blue jeans, in old slacks ironed to a dull shine, doubtless have nowhere else to be on a Thursday afternoon. I suspect, for a street preacher in today’s Zimbabwe, it is never hard to draw a crowd. The pastor, full-throated, all fire and brimstone, is warning us that we are in the Valley of Decisions. It is a valley Zimbabwe has stepped into before. Terrible violence, treachery, Armageddon, lies ahead. “The sun will not show its light, and the stars will fall from the sky,” he says. Men clapping, nodding, pumping their fists. Amen. Hallelujah. Amen. The decisions Zimbabwe makes, once they’re made, he says, cannot be undone. It is like firing a bullet from a gun. “That thing that comes out of the barrel, you cannot take it back,” he says. “You can only yell to the one in the way, ‘Take cover!’”

(Last week the President’s spokesman, George Charamba, ruled out MDC calls for American, British and EU monitors to observe the next election, saying the West had already taken an “antagonistic stance” toward the government. “We have made enough concessions,” he said. “This is now a hard-knuckled phase of Zimbabwean politics.” Begging the question: what was it before?)

Nearby, a raggedy man is performing low-rent theatrics and entertainments to an even larger crowd. Not for this P.T. Barnum the fire, nor the brimstone. He is deep into an apparently side-splitting Shona routine when he sees me standing in the back row. “My friend, how are you?” he says, spotting his mark. He urges the others to move aside so I can come to the front, saying, “Africans, stand back.” I am briefly grilled on my provenance and purpose in Zimbabwe. Then he asks what I’d like to see. He says he can perform “World Cup tricks” like Kaka, the Brazilian star; he can eat fire; he can walk on a wire suspended between two lamp posts. He is a charismatic man, his eyes bright and mischievous – a real charmer. There are just a handful of coins, worthless coins, on the ground by his bare feet. I tell him I’d like to see him walk across the wire. “But first you must pay up front,” he says, drawing delighted laughter from the crowd. I hand him two filthy dollar bills – quite possibly equal to the take he will get from the rest of the day’s performances. His face is neutral – it is probably not what he had hoped for from the white man, but it is good, good enough. He warms up the crowd with his World Cup tricks, bouncing a soccer ball from his feet to his knees to his head to a wooden stick clenched between his teeth. Much appreciation from the schoolboys in the front. Then he performs his high-wire act, not simply balancing himself and walking across it, but perching on one foot and swinging the other leg wildly from side to side. Enthusiastic cheers and howls and laughter all around. The crowd is his, it is on his side. But they are poor people all the same. After each trick, he makes a pass around the circle, singling out some of the easier targets for ridicule. When a well-dressed man – a banker, a lawyer, a schoolteacher – arrives, he receives a little fist bump and a low exhortation, in Shona, to contribute to the show’s upkeep. It is a hard job. He is met with apologies, stone-faced silences. Who has money these days to pay for entertainments? When they’re being offered so freely on the street? He gets a few coins from one man; another hands him a bill and asks for change. The day’s miserable take is spread out at his feet. He squats and begins to count out the dull coins – 5- and 10- and 20-cent South African pieces, a few silver coins, perhaps worth a couple of rand – announcing with each: “This one is for short time, this one for condom, this one for sadza, this one for tomatoes, this one for onion.” Short time? I ask. He makes a hand-pumping gesture, a universal sign language. He is setting aside those coins to get laid.

The rain is beginning to fall, I walk quickly through the streets, looking for a place to have lunch and wait out the rain. The city is full of take-out joints and fast food chains – Wimpy, Chicken Inn, Steers – and most of the restaurants are packed. This is not what I’d expected at all. Nor is the Eastgate Mall, an upmarket shopping center next to the famous Meikles Hotel, its airy promenade crowded with shoppers and university students and a few straggling tourists. I realize now how much is missing from my understanding of this city, this country. I know the broad historical arc from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, from the brief, post-independence honeymoon to the last decade’s tailspin. But all the details, the finer points of the individual lives missed by history’s broad brush strokes, elude me. Nowhere have I made allowances for such a place as the Eastgate Mall to exist.

There is a food court on the second floor, a half-dozen restaurants – The Healthy Choice, Casa Della Pizza, Piefect (“The Perfect Pie”) – which, curiously, are all selling the same exact lunchtime buffet. Beef stew, chicken stew, fried chicken, grilled chicken, accompanied by sadza or rice. Clearly this is a shrewd marketing gimmick: the place is packed. The crowd is too much for me, I decide to wander back toward the hotel, to try my luck at one of the restaurants on Selous. At Food For Africa I have a tepid meal of chicken stew and limp French fries – a disappointment, after the utilitarian pleasantness of Sweetpots last night. Afterward, feeling curiously drained by the morning’s wanderings, the heat and humidity of the rainy season already getting to me, I am back at the Fife Ave. shopping center, past the Here’s Health Pharmacy (“Right of admission reserved”) and Little Harrods clothing shop, up the stairs from the OK supermarket, and settling into another coffee at Book Café. I have found, I think, my daily routine: a few hours of wanderings, a cheap lunch, an afternoon pick-me-up at Book, and then an evening of whatever misadventures I chance upon.

At the café, a group of rastas are sitting nearby, their beers looking warm and well-nursed. One of them approaches me, a spindly man named Lazarus, selling CDs. At first glance I had pegged him for a young man, maybe in his twenties; but his face is worn with care-lines, his eyes are full of ancient sorrows – he must be 40, at least. He says he was born in Zimbabwe, but his father was Malawian – he wants to try his luck in that country, if the immigration stars align. But he can’t apply for a passport in Zimbabwe – he will have to go Lilongwe, a long journey, an almost impossible journey, from here. He wants $7 for the CD, then asks for just $5. I would like to help him, but my budget is already strained this afternoon, I have nothing at all to spare. I promise him I’ll buy a CD the next time I see him, and we swap numbers – a sure sign that I’ll be getting an SMS reminder before the weekend is through.

Late in the day, approaching dusk, and the heat has finally lifted. The streets are busy with rush-hour traffic, minibuses shuttling city workers to their homes in the suburbs. At the Palm Rock I take a cold shower – my t-shirts are stuck to me after these muggy afternoons – and then putter around the room, feeling indecisive. I don’t entirely have an appetite for dinner, but it seems like the night would be wasted in my room, either typing away on my laptop or working through one of the half-dozen books I’ve brought along from Joburg. Surely the bar at Sweetpots – a convivial enough place when I supped there last night – would offer some interesting diversion on a Thursday night in Harare?

It doesn’t take long for my Third World juju to work its magic. As soon as I’ve stepped into the bar I’m greeted like a prodigal son. Much laughter and fist-bumping commences, introductions lost in a slur of boozy words and thick accents. There is a George, and a Gerald, and then two others whose names I miss. They are caddies, of all things, working at the Royal Harare Sports Club – the most venerable of this city’s surprising number of golf courses. Having put in a full day on the links, they have retired to Sweetpots for a cozy happy hour drink or six. They are a loud, gregarious bunch, thrilled to have welcomed a foreigner into their local watering hole. George, short and shit-faced, is especially proud to introduce me to his country – a country which he has come to know by its courses. When I tell him I’m going to Mutare next week he leans forward eagerly. “You must visit Leopard Rock,” he says – the Leopard Rock Hotel, in the Bvumba Mountains, among the most celebrated of Zimbabwe’s colonial-era resorts. And am I going to Vic Falls? I have to go to Vic Falls. He was there just a few months ago, competing in a tournament. “If you have not been to Victoria Falls, you have not seen Zimbabwe,” he says, poking a finger in my chest. “Here in Harare there is fuck-all.”

Still, it’s been a good fuck-all these first few days. When I tell him that if it weren’t for Harare, we never would’ve met, he laughs and concedes my point. Then, pulling me aside, clapping me on the shoulder, he says in a low voice, “In fact, I know someone who can help you to get the elephant tusks.” I tell him I’m fine for now, but if that changes, he’ll be the first person I call.

In the corner of the room two men dance to Congolese music, doing herky-jerk motions with their arms and hips. A pair of girls, young, heavily made up, wearing copper-colored weaves, sit at a table and show off their ass cracks. A few appreciative nods from the male clientele. The rest of the crowd, a shambling assortment of men in work clothes and rumpled dress shirts, is engrossed by the action on the flat-screen TV: Manchester City and another side, a Swiss team, are playing in some European league fixture. A roar goes up with each City shot or clever pass – a Zimbabwean’s allegiance to an English Premier League side is, I suspect, as vital a part of his identity as his rural area or his clan’s totem. Sitting at the bar, a well-dressed man, a passionate City supporter, lets out a war cry when Emmanuel Adebayor scores a late equalizer. In the general commotion that follows, the eruption of hoarse cheering voices and spilled drinks, he clears some space for me by the bar. George grudgingly allows me to be shared with this perfect stranger, though I can see he is crestfallen. The man’s name is Joseph, he is a government worker, an anonymous figure, he insists, in some anonymous ministry. “I am just a simple civil servant,” he says, though I suspect this is about as honest as my reply: “I’m just a simple traveler.” He is a brilliant, militant man, this Joseph, he launches into an anti-imperialist diatribe almost as soon as the word “America” has left my lips. (“I don’t mean to denigrate your country, but Americans are very stupid,” e.g.) You could not have culled a more strident screed from a ZANU-PF textbook. All the elements are there: the conspiring of the Bretton-Woods institutions; the hypocrisy of the Americans (“Have you seen how American blacks are treated?” he asks George, who isn’t entirely sure what the safest answer is, and who tactfully doesn’t reply, “They make them President.”); the perfidy of the British; the age-old tale of the white man’s lust for land (“It is not an African concept to ‘own’ land,” he says – a sentiment not shared by his land-grabbing comrades in the politburo); the continued tyranny towards and oppression of Africans by whatever means – political, economical, ideological – necessary. Beating the air in front of him, unmoved by the panic and confusion registering on George’s drunken face, he concludes, “America is built on myths and lies. It is not the American Dream – it is the American Nightmare.”

It is, all things considered, a hell of a performance. And the thing is: there’s a lot of sense to what he says. America is a hypocritical and unjust place; the World Bank and the IMF do make it awfully hard for African countries to dig out of their World Bank- and IMF-subsidized holes; the wrongs of the colonial era haven’t been fully addressed or put to rest. When it comes to the woes of the developing world in general, and Africa in particular, a lot of First World governments – with their structural adjustments and trade imbalances and immigration strictures – have a lot to account for. But lost in Comrade Joseph’s speech is the irony that it’s being delivered by someone on Robert Mugabe’s payroll. Is there anyone less qualified to rail against injustice and hypocrisy than a ZANU-PF talking head? Is the plight of America’s blacks as bad as, say, the plight of Zimbabwe’s blacks? Hasn’t three decades of state-sponsored thuggery in Zimbabwe – from the Gukurahundi of the 1980s to the electoral crackdown of 2008 – proven that when it comes to oppressing Africans, plenty of African governments are doing just fine on their own?

Joseph is stubborn, eloquent, convinced of his logic: there is no arguing with him. But his bitterness isn’t so simple; it expands, contracts, looks for new targets. Last year he was in New York, he was part of an official delegation to the UN. It was a bitter pill to swallow. “I hate those fucking politicians,” he says. “They think I respect them because I say, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘No, sir.’” He laughs – an angry laugh, a terrible laugh. Zimbabwe’s politicians, it seems, are no better than the white overseers of the US, the UK, the World Bank. They are two sides of the same corrupt coin. In his own way, I suspect that Joseph is no less an idealist than the Black Power poets and rastas reciting their One Love slogans at Book Café. But his disillusionment, his betrayal, must be even greater: he believed in the socialist utopia, he’s watched the whole Marxist enterprise grow as hollow and derelict as the abandoned buildings in downtown Harare. There are no ceremonies and twenty-one-gun salutes for the dreams he’s been forced to bury, no Heroes’ Acre. They just sit there in the angry chambers of his heart, gathering darkness, waiting, like the serpent’s head, for something to strike.

The problem with Zimbabwe is those people who do not want to leave.

Wednesday, November 3.

Somehow, in the heat and stench and general unpleasantness of the Citiliner coach, I manage to doze off a few miles past the border. This is a testament to the will – the body’s desire to get what it wants, no matter how rank the obstacles. I sleep soundly for a few hours; when my head first jerks up from my drool-covered chest, it is just a few minutes before dawn, and the sky – gray, overcast – is already lit with the first traces of daylight. I have no idea where we are, but it is marvelous country – large granite rock formations towering on one side of us, the saw-toothed profile of some mountain range on the other. Beside me Richard is sleeping peacefully with his hat as a pillow, his bare feet stretched beneath the seat in front of us.

A few minutes later I’m out cold again, and I don’t wake until we reach Masvingo – a scruffy little town on the north-south road that was this country’s first colonial outpost, Fort Victoria. It looks every bit its 120 years. A gas station on the city’s outskirts is our first stop in Zimbabwe, and it is a groggy lot of travelers that is deposited into the parking lot, quickly swarmed by guys selling Econet airtime and changing money. (Though the rand is accepted in shops throughout Zimbabwe, it’s usually at an unfavorable rate. Thus the guys in track suits holding bricks of dirty American bills.) There is a small restaurant that, at this early hour, is already serving up the day’s first plates of fried chicken and beef stew and French fries and sadza. A sign on the door says, “Renovations in progress. Pliz bear with us.” Next door is a doleful supermarket, Exor, its sparse shelves stocked with bags of flour and sugar, and Willards brand potato chips, and something called Chompkins, and loaves of stiff white bread. The bottled water is kept in sub-arctic conditions – it is frozen solid. I buy a copy of the Zimbabwe Independent and two bottles of ice and stand in the parking lot, stretching my legs.

The brief stopover has energized us for the final leg of the journey. We are well behind schedule – it is already close to 8am – and there are still some 200 kilometers to go. The landscape now resembles typical African bush: miles of flat, open plains; overgrown elephant grass; little mud huts with wilting thatch roofs. Villagers are walking along the road’s shoulder, pushing bicycles or carrying bags of vegetables or holding a small child’s hand. It is not like two years ago, when fuel was so scarce that public transportation was crippled. You would have to wait days for the next bus to pass, and even then, it was only those with the sharpest elbows who made it onboard. Now the problem is far more prosaic: unemployment is well over 80 percent, there is little money to be made, and the buses that go barreling along the road from Masvingo to Harare, from Bulawayo to Gweru, from Harare to Mutare, are beyond the means of most Zimbabweans.

On the front page of the Independent, meanwhile, storm clouds are brewing. The dispute over President Mugabe’s recent unilateral appointments has grown more contentious: “Tsvangirai to sue Mugabe” reads the lead headline, with the accompanying story detailing the contents of a letter sent by the prime minister to South African President Jacob Zuma, in which he threatens legal action against the president. While constitutional scholars cited in the story see little hope of a lawsuit moving forward – even if Zimbabwe boasted a legitimately independent judiciary – the prospect of the country’s top two pols slugging it out in court hardly seems to bode well for the already strained coalition government. In a second front-page story chronicling the GNU’s unraveling, author Dumisani Muleya observes that “the recent good working relationship” between the prez and prime minister “has all but broken down in bitterness and recrimination,” with relations “almost certainly [bound to] get worse towards elections.” On the Op-ed page, editor Constantine Chimakure puts it bluntly: “The GPA is all but dead!”

Any hopes of a recovery from the country’s decade-long economic slump are perhaps dying with it. With Mugabe threatening to force the issue of a constitutional referendum as early as March – despite his cronies’ repeated attempts to disrupt public meetings on a new constitution – and with another sham election slated to follow on its heels, you get the sense that a terrible sort of end game is playing out in the halls of State House. How far will this president and his corrupt party go to win another election? Will the tepid response of the international community in 2008 shame it into more forceful action this time around? Can South African President Jacob Zuma – perhaps the most influential figure in the complicated electoral picture in Zimbabwe, despite the fact that he’s fighting for his own political life in the ANC – take more decisive steps to rein in the ZANU-PF ruling junta? Will any African leader ever stand up to the liberation hero Mugabe? And what exactly is waiting in the wings when the old dinosaur finally topples – with Zimbabwe’s hard-line “securocrats” already refusing to recognize a Tsvangirai presidency, and scrambling to shore up their power bases with wealth plundered from the diamond fields of Marange? Is it possible that things could get worse – much worse – before they get better?

Really?

Finally, just after noon, we reach the gray industrial parks on the outskirts of Harare. We stop at a dusty drop-off point beside a field. Touts surround us with airtime vouchers stuck to the ends of pointy sticks, holding them up to the windows. A shop advertises Very cold cold Coke. Another says Jeans 4 U. Now begins the interminable slog through the city’s traffic. Already the passengers from the back of the bus have begun bumrushing the front, jostling their way down the aisle. It is going to take great courage, I see, to force myself into this maelstrom. Approaching the center of town – the sky hazy, the shops rundown, the streets flowing with pedestrian traffic – I borrow Richard’s phone to call Memory. She is the wife of my friend Samuel, a young Zimbabwean artist who sells paintings and beaded sculptures on 7th Street in Melville. He’s asked me to bring her R800 for this month’s rent. When I reach her she tells me she is already waiting at the Road Port bus station (in fact, she’ll tell me later, she’s been there since 8am – thank you, Citiliner!). When we pull into the parking lot, the crowd from the back of the bus now heaving forward, I can see her waving to me outside: a pretty girl in a white skirt and white blouse, a dark line of red lipstick across her lips.

The porters surround us as soon as we step off the bus. So, too, do the taxi drivers, jangling their keys. Memory steps into this tumult and pulls me to safety. I apologize for our lateness – it is half-past twelve, had I known, I would’ve called from Masvingo – but she says it’s not a problem, not a problem at all. She asks after her husband, who didn’t have the money to make the trip with me. Poor Samuel! Back in Joburg, on the corner of 7th and 2nd, he would be sitting now with his blanket spread open, his little beaded sculptures of turtles and lions and lizards, of hippos and zebras, of motorcycles and parrots, of football players and Jules Rimet trophies left over from the World Cup. Last week he showed me a special order, a TV camera, he was making for a foreign journalist. He sat in front of the mini-market on the corner, bending the wire, threading the beads with his long, nimble fingers. His thick dreads were piled under his rasta cap; when he stood in his loose t-shirt and baggy jeans, he looked like a sack of bones. Memory and his young daughter were still living in Chitungwiza, a working-class suburb 30 minutes from Harare. From Joburg Samuel sent money for food, for the rent; he sent medicine – still expensive and hard to come by in Zimbabwe – for his sick grandmother in the village. His younger brother, Silas, also an artist, had come to join him in Joburg, but the life was too expensive there, and there wasn’t enough work for the both of them. Two weeks ago Silas came back to Zimbabwe. He is on the phone now, Memory hands it to me, he wants to know how was the journey, and when will I make it to Chi-town to see him?

We find a quiet place and I hand Memory the money. She is not worried about carrying R800 through the streets of Harare, or onto a taxi back to Chitungwiza. This is not Joburg, after all; despite the problems this country has faced, the crime rate has never reached South African levels. Memory takes the money, stuffs it into her purse, thanks me, and disappears briskly into the crowds on the avenue. Then I head back to the bus, retrieve my bags, and get hold of a taxi driver to help me find a hotel.

The driver’s name is Right-On – it is actually Right-On; he shows me his passport for proof – and he is from Gutu, near Ruhera: Tsvangirai country. He is tall and stocky and wearing a khaki-colored uniform that makes him look like a safari guide. What better person to steer me through the wildness of Road Port station? Outside he points me to his car, a silver compact, that he bought in Durban last year. Even with the import duties – more than $3,000 – it was cheaper to buy in South Africa than here. But otherwise the life here has improved dramatically. “I can say that it is 100 percent, 120 percent better than before,” says Right-On. “The Zimbabwe economy has taken off like I-don’t-know-what.” He steers us through the streets, toward Selous Ave., where I’ve read about a string of budget hotels. The city center is compact, the jutting figures of its office towers occupy just a couple of square miles. Turning down Fifth Street, then Selous Ave., we are in a quiet neighborhood studded with the bright orange blossoms of flame trees. It is lovely, I’m already smitten here. I tell Right-On that it’s much prettier than I’d imagined. He laughs, as if to say, What did you expect? “The problem with Zimbabwe is those people who do not want to leave,” he says.

We visit a handful of hotels, Right-On insisting on going inside to do the negotiating, “because they will see the color of your skin.” We settle on the Palm Rock Villa, a cheery little guest house with a pleasant garden and a self-catering kitchen and statues and curios lining the walls. It is $25 a night – a bit more than I was hoping to pay, but a reasonable price considering the five-minute stroll to the center of Harare. Right-On helps me to settle into my room – it is huge, it has a stiff double bed and a closet and a writing table and a full-length mirror – and then suggests I get out and see the town. “As a tourist you must walk around, sweat a lot, and then bathe,” he says, sounding like a poor-man’s Lonely Planet. He tells me to call him if I need a ride, or if I have any questions about Harare. “If you have any problem at all, I will take care of it for you,” he says.

Having arrived at last, having made the drop-off with Memory and found a comfortable base for the next week, I’m finally overcome by exhaustion. It is just after 2pm, and it has been a brutal 24 hours. I shower to wash off the Citiliner grime – the water is gloriously hot – and take a shit for the record books. I pull on a fresh pair of underwear, by far the most underrated luxury of life on the road. In a new change of clothes, I feel revived. Though I’d expected and hoped to have a full day in Harare after my theoretical 9am arrival, I’m not all put off by the short day ahead. Tonight, I suspect, will be the earliest of nights. I set the bar low for the afternoon. Coffee is my only priority for my first day in Zimbabwe. Anything else will be a happy bonus.

The weather has already begun to turn. The haze has given way to low, churning clouds; the air is heavy and damp, it is just a matter of time before the rain begins to fall. Already I’m reminded of the wet heat of rainy season in those parts of Africa not blessed by Joburg’s crisp, Highveld climate. Luckily, sanctuary is near at hand: Book Café, a coffee shop and performance space that’s been recommended by South African and Zimbabwean friends. It is a second home, I’m told, for many in Harare’s arts and music communities, and the walls when I step inside are plastered with advertisements for upcoming shows: Hope Masike, Tuesdays at 8pm; Alexio & Shades of Black on Thursdays; Dudu Manhenga & Colour Blu in an “Afro-jazz adventure” this Saturday; before that, a poetry slam; on Monday’s, open mic. The walls are brightly painted, the tables draped with African textiles. A Yamaha keyboard and a Pearl drum set are on a small stage at the front of the room, surrounded by speakers and amps and cords. A half-dozen young bohemians are tapping away on their laptops in one corner of the room, clustered around the few available outlets. There are guys with blown-out afros and knotty dreads, and women with bright print dresses and bangles rattling on their wrists. The soundtrack is a mixture of Afro-jazz and reggae. It is a place where I imagine a younger generation of Kwame Nkrumahs and Patrice Lumumbas, of Steve Bikos by way of Lucky Dube, would feel right at home.

Sitting by the window, the streets lit by the orange blossoms of flame trees, the rain falling in fat, cold drops, I fight my way through the last few pages of research I’d printed up in Joburg – 96 pages of news clippings from The New York Times, The Economist, The Telegraph, The Guardian, from the BBC and CNN and Reuters and AFP, printed out in 10-point Times type. I’ve been following the news out of Zimbabwe for nearly two years, duly scanning the headlines in my daily Google Alerts, prepping for a trip I’d expected to take a year and a half ago. So much has changed since then. I had spent three months traveling from the far north to the far south of Mozambique, until finally, exhausted and craving something akin to a normal life, I moved into an apartment in Maputo – a spacious three-bedroom, high above the clamor of Ave. 24 de Julho, with two balconies facing the city and two facing the sea. This was in March, and just a couple of weeks later I was already turning my sights to the west, to Zimbabwe. I had begun to stockpile dollars – the economy was still pegged to the Zim dollar, forex was in great demand – and was preparing to visit in time for the Harare International Festival of the Arts, HIFA, held at the end of April each year. But then came the news from home: my father had collapsed in front of the house, the doctors had found a tumor the size of a walnut next to his brain. In just a few days I’d packed up my life in Maputo, an African life that had spanned some 2 1/2 years since my last visit to New York. Then I boarded a flight for JFK. Zimbabwe would have to wait.

A year and a half later, my father fully recovered, my African life having resumed its course, by way of Rwanda and Burundi and the DRC, I have finally made it to Harare. I have high hopes, extravagant hopes, for the next few weeks. My time here is shorter than I would’ve liked – on the 30th I have to be back in Joburg, boarding a flight for New York – but I expect to make the most of this month. My phone is full of numbers – friends of friends, writers and filmmakers and photographers to look up here in Harare – and I have learned, from past trips, that four weeks is just enough time, at the appropriate breakneck pace, to see something of a country. That is, ultimately, my great hope for this month in Zimbabwe: to see a bit of the country, to have something worth saying before I pack my bags for another American homecoming.

Paying my bill, briefly revived by the rich, strong coffee, I head to the supermarket to buy some provisions for the next few days. I don’t expect to do much cooking at the Palm Rock – at the restaurants nearby, I can eat for $2 or $3 a meal – but I want to have a tin of instant coffee on hand, a loaf of bread, some peanut butter – breakfast provisions, enough so I can put in a couple of hours on my laptop each morning before leaving the hotel. The OK supermarket is amply stocked – it is impossible to imagine the scenes from just two years ago, when the BBC smuggled out footage of bare shelves in all the shops, and people were forced to buy sugar and eggs from black-market hustlers on the side of the road. If I hadn’t been following the news these past few years, if I had never heard of a place called Zimbabwe, would there be any way to know how much this country has suffered under its tyrant-in-chief? Atop a display for Toplife long life milk, a Hisense 26” LCD TV is being advertised for $725. This is more than twice the average yearly income of most Zimbabweans. And yet here it is, on display in the OK supermarket. You can put it in your shopping cart along with the Willards potato chips and Castle lagers and Nescafes.

It is, as expected, a short night for me. I have a brisk meal at the Sweetpots Bar & Restaurant just down the road: a $2 plate of sadza and beef stew, accompanied by a soundtrack of English football and the boozy bonhomie of the neighborhood drunks. With all due respect to dear, dirty Jozi, it is nice to be in Africa again.

When you have blacks and whites together, then you will see nice things.

Tuesday, November 2.

Treasure has arrived, punctual, grinning, dressed as if he’s on his way to a wedding.

“You are going to say hi to Bob,” he says, giving me an awkward half-hug, then smoothing the front of his handsome shirt.

It’s been months since I’ve seen Treasure, my Zimbabwean taxi driver – not since he took me to Joburg’s Park Station to get on a bus to Botswana in July. Today, as I meet him on the sidewalk in front of my house, preparing for a 20-hour bus ride to the country of his birth, he is in raucous spirits. He arrives in a battered little hatchback; it is not Treasure but Pleasant, his sister’s son, who is at the wheel. Pleasant lives in Mpumalanga; he is visiting Uncle Treasure and picking up a bit of work on the side. I can tell he’s never driven in Joburg – I will be fortunate, I think, to make it to Park Station in one piece. Nervously he steers us into oncoming traffic. Treasure is rifling through his wallet, looking for pictures of his fraternal twins. They were born just days before we met six months ago. They are as old as our friendship.

“That one, she was even clever in her mother’s stomach,” he says, showing me his fat-cheeked daughter. “She was always kicking.”

Outside, Joburg passes in a flash. I have been manically busy this past week: catching up on work, preparing for Zimbabwe. It feels like South Africa is already speeding away from me. Last month, I learned that Variety will be flying me out to Burkina Faso in February to cover the biannual FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou. My lease expires at the end of January; the timing seems serendipitous. I’ve decided to make the most of my plane ticket and spend the first few months of 2011 traveling in Ghana and Burkina Faso and Mali. I might not be back in Joburg till April; I might not be back till June. Just as some semblance of a normal life has begun to sink in, I’m off on another grand adventure.

Treasure comes from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. He just went back to visit family last month, he says, sighing, but it was not the same. The Zimbabwean economy might be in recovery, but in Bulawayo – as with the rest of the country – a decade of economic decline has taken a heavy toll.

“It was good 30 years ago,” says Treasure, shaking his head. “Now there are too many blacks. If you have only blacks in one place, you will not see anything interesting there.”

He pauses, as if weighing these words himself. “When you have blacks and whites together, then you will see nice things,” he says.

They park at the station and carry my bags to the Greyhound terminal. A long line is already forming at the baggage check, men and women with heavy sacks and nylon bags, transporting whole households, it seems, back to Zimbabwe. Treasure and Pleasant pump my hand, wish me a safe journey. I inch forward with my duffel bag, nudge it along with my foot. It is a good bag – Adidas, the real thing, I bought it in New York last year. I would have gone through three cheap, Chinese-made knock-offs in the same time, I’m sure.

At the front of the line I place my bag on a scale; the man at the ticket desk approves. This is nothing compared to the furniture and kitchen appliances most of the other passengers will be taking with them. He hands me two ticket slips – bless the efficiency of South Africa. Behind his head are signs outlining the company’s latest prohibitions. “Greyhound and Citiliner will no longer take empty buckets at all.” “With immediate effect no paint will be conveyed on Greyhound/Citiliner.” “With immediate effect all blankets will be charged a standard rate of R20.” Nowhere do I see a sign, “Greyhound and Citiliner wish you a pleasant journey.”

It’s quarter to three and most of the passengers have arrived, tossing their bags into a trailer hitched to the back of the bus. It is another marvel of the South African transport system – here you won’t see two ragged youths on top of the bus, strapping down our cargo, the whole bus tottering under the weight of boxes and suitcases and potato sacks. The passengers have now queued for boarding. A young woman in front of me, a pretty lady in her twenties, stands beside a red shopping bag from Alex Ladies Fashion, a Road Master toy truck, a case of Top Lay grade 1 eggs. I point to the truck and ask if she has a son – a boy, yes, waiting for her and her husband in Harare. She is holding a large bakery box – they are bringing home a birthday cake, too. Her husband has vanished into the terminal to buy food; I help her with her things as we move toward the front of the line. I tell her this is my first time to visit Zimbabwe. “Why?” she says, as if accusing me of some wrong-doing. “It is very beautiful.” One of the eggs in the Top Lay case has cracked. I can feel the yolk running down my leg.

Onboard there is a wild commotion of bodies and bags shifting, settling into the physical equilibrium that will carry us to Harare. Despite the trailer hitched to the back of this Citiliner coach, there are still suitcases and duffel bags and pots and buckets in the aisle. It is a tight squeeze – this, it seems, is one of the lesser options of the South African luxury bus racket. I might have done well, I suspect, to shell out the extra R85 for Greyhound. I am wedged into a seat beside a middle-aged man who has dressed for this journey as if for church: in charcoal slacks and a pinstriped shirt and an old corduroy hat. His body is snug against the window; mine is half-way into the aisle, my back awkwardly pressed against the contours of the seat. It is going to be a long journey.

We pull from the station at nearly 20 past three – an ill omen, I suspect, for the company’s promise to get us to Harare by 9:30am. Outside the blur of downtown Joburg whizzes by. I am going to miss this city. We turn through traffic and onto the M1, the highway that will take us first to Pretoria, then Harare. It is a beautiful, blue afternoon. We drive north through the green suburbs on the outskirts of the city, the trees studded with the purple of jacaranda blossoms. In the distance, the office towers of Sandton – the economic heart of the city, and the country. In the lanes beside us, the winners of South Africa’s post-apartheid sweepstakes zip by in BMWs and Benzes. We pass a billboard for Jameson’s whiskey. The drinking experience, it promises us, is “Rich and luxurious.”

The Citiliner bus, meanwhile, is poor and crowded. We have waited nearly an hour since leaving Park Station, but the air conditioning has refused to kick in. The smell of sweat, the sharp tang of body odor, will accompany us the rest of the way. The windows are shut against the prospect of a fresh wind – an African superstition, as I’ve griped before, that I still can’t unravel. We stop at a police checkpoint. The heat is unbearable. The children on the bus begin to wail. “Eish,” says the man sitting next to me.

It is close to five when we reach Pretoria, the city bursting with the color of jacarandas and flame trees. At the bus station, pandemonium. If I had thought the bus looked full before, I was mistaken. A dozen passengers are waiting to board, toting pots and pans and ironing boards, refrigerators and kitchen appliances. Touts circle the bus, selling cookies, chocolate bars, pudding, lollipops, hard candies (“Sweets! Sweets!”), and, fittingly, toothbrushes. It is twenty minutes before we’re again on our way. A woman across the aisle opens her book, True Life in God: Vernacular Conversations with Jesus. The conductor pops in a bootleg DVD; brittle, pixellated images of African wildlife flicker across the screen. We watch this shoddy entertainment for ten minutes before the screen goes black. People begin fussing with the curtains. “Now the sun is jealous,” says the man beside me, gripping his hat. His name is Richard, he installs CCTV cameras for banks and private businesses in Joburg. This is, I suspect, a very good business. He is on his way to see relatives in Harare, and then his family in Bulawayo. “Now, when you visit some relatives, you see the situation is getting better,” he says. “It is not like it was these last years.” The supermarkets are again full; for those with the money to buy things, life has returned to a sort of normalcy. But with elections looming – perhaps as early as next year – Richard knows this situation won’t last. “When we Africans have elections, we change everything,” he says.

It has been two years since the opposing sides in Zimbabwe’s fractious government signed a power-sharing agreement, effectively allowing Robert Mugabe and his cronies to nullify the electoral victory of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in the 2008 election. This was a bitter sort of political compromise for Tsvangirai and his party, who had won the March polls by a decisive margin. Even after the trickery of the electoral commission – which had waited a full five weeks to release the results – Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party conceded that the MDC had taken a plurality of the votes. But lo! they had just fallen short of the majority vote that would have granted them an outright victory; instead, the electoral commission announced a run-off to decide the presidency.

In the weeks that followed, brilliantly chronicled by the Zimbabwean writer Peter Godwin in The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, Mugabe’s henchmen unleashed a brutal wave of repression and intimidation around the country. Dubbed Operation Mavhoterapapi? – “Who Did You Vote For?” – by Mugabe’s homicidal generals, the campaign sought to beat, bully, torture, maim and kill opposition supporters into submission. (It was followed by the even more violent Operation Ngatipedezenavo – “Let Us Finish Them Off.”) The tactic worked: just days before the June 27 run-off, Tsvangirai announced that he could not take part in the “violent, illegitimate sham” of a second-round election. With more than 200 of his supporters killed and thousands more lying bloodied in hospitals across the country, the man who would be president said that he could not ask his supporters to vote for him “when that vote would cost them their lives.” Tsvangirai withdrew his candidacy. When voters went to the polls on June 27, goaded by Mugabe’s thugs, just a single name appeared on the ballot. Less than an hour after the results of the run-off election were announced, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was sworn in at a hasty ceremony boycotted by the entire diplomatic corps.

Even from the perch of his megalomania, Mugabe knew the farce couldn’t last. He was vilified abroad and wildly unpopular at home; with the international community refusing to accept the legitimacy of the election results and the country around him in ruins, he finally bowed to pressure to allow the MDC into the ruling fold. Under the terms of the Global Political Agreement, the government would be divided between the two parties (as well as a third, MDC-M, a splinter faction of the opposition group formed by Arthur Mutambara), with Mugabe appointed as President and chairman of the cabinet, and Tsvangirai accepting a neutered role as Prime Minister. Crucially, though, the most important ministries would remain under Mugabe’s control. So, too, would the armed forces, the police, and the intelligence services. Though the GPA staved off the immediate crisis, it refused to address the broader constitutional issues that vested too much power in the presidency, and offered little clarity on the rules of succession should the doddering old tyrant – now a few months shy of his 87th birthday – die while still in office.

There have been signs of hope surrounding the wobbly structure of the coalition government. Since the adoption of the US dollar – dubbed USAs, “oo-sahs,” on the streets of Harare – late last year, the economy has stabilized. Gone are the runaway inflation rates of 2008, the lunatic denominations in the billions and trillions that devalued so quickly that a loaf of bread would double in price as you waited on the check-out line. The stores are again stocked with goods imported from South Africa; teachers and civil servants, no longer paid in the worthless currency of the Zimbabwean dollar, have returned to work. Hospitals and clinics now have the basic medicines that most lacked just two years ago. The schools are again open – many stocked with nearly $13 million worth of text books recently donated by Western donors. Even the tightly controlled media space has been cautiously nudged open, with the granting of licenses to five new independent newspapers earlier this year.

But a political crisis still looms, with growing fears that the coalition government – the Government of National Unity, known with more than a hint of mockery by its unflattering acronym, Gnu – is on its last legs. Since the coalition formed, the president has balked at taking any significant strides toward improving the country’s appalling human rights record. No one has been held accountable for the horrible violence of 2008, though the perpetrators and ring leaders are well known. Civil society groups are already warning that the military and the dreaded Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) are setting up bases and torture camps in rural areas ahead of the next round of elections. Rights groups continue to face harassment by government thugs, and the contentious Marange diamond fields have become a virtual no-go zone for activists looking to shed light on the controversial mining being done there. The invasions of white-owned farms by so-called “war veterans,” meanwhile, continue unabated, while ZANU-PF hardliners – and Mugabe himself – have stepped up their efforts to introduce “indigenization” laws that would force all foreign-owned business to sell at least 51 percent of their shares to black Zimbabweans.

Crowning the laundry list of dysfunctions are Mugabe’s calls for early elections in June of next year – an effort by the octogenarian ruler to entrench himself for one last go-around, amid growing signs of his deteriorating health. The president has openly railed against the coalition government and its “stupidity,” acknowledging that polls in 2011 – after the expiration of the GNU’s two-year mandate – would allow the country to return to single-party rule. Last month Tsvangirai – criticized even by his supporters for taking too conciliatory a tone in the coalition government – finally lashed out at the president’s unilateral appointments of nearly a dozen provincial governors and cabinet members. The two have not met in weeks.

In spite of it all, on the Citiliner bus, the people continue to shuttle back and forth between Joburg and Harare, between Harare and the villages, bringing the household goods and hard cash that keep many of their families afloat. Even in Zimbabwe, life goes on. It is approaching midnight when we finally reach the border, the South African post well policed and fortified with concrete barriers and electric fences and miles of concertina wire. By some estimates, as many as three million Zimbabweans have fled the country – a quarter of the population – with most finding their way, legally or otherwise, into South Africa. The life for them south of the Limpopo River is hard; many live in crowded slums on the outskirts of the poorest townships, working odd jobs at slave wages, facing harassment and attacks from their South African neighbors. Still, there is the prospect of a better life for them there. They can earn enough money to survive, to send remittances back to their families. It is for this reason that some will brave the crocodile-infested Limpopo, the packs of bandits who prey on border-jumpers on both sides. Hoping to keep themselves afloat until the old tyrant dies and the country he destroyed can rebuild from the ruins.

We are processed by the South Africans with humorlessness, with blunt efficiency. In the toilet I read the political screeds written on the bathroom stall: “Mugabe must go now,” “No rights in Zim,” “Mugabe has killed Zimbabwe’s future!!” It is a sad commentary that many Zimbabweans are reduced to voicing their anger on the door of a South African shitter. Outside the bus is marshaled through another passport control, two policewomen boarding, inspecting the passports that their colleagues had inspected and stamped just minutes before. Incredibly, they haul half a dozen passengers off for various infractions. A young man behind me is protesting that he is going to renew his expired passport in Harare this week. Off the bus he goes. Outside they are lined up, weakly inquisitioned. “This driver is not very clever,” says Robert, knitting his hands beside me. He says the driver should have paid the police a small fee to let us pass unmolested. Instead, the fee is outsourced to the violators standing outside. One by one they reach into their pockets and hand over what one South African friend dubbed a “pay-as-you-go” fine. A blind woman gets onboard, holding a small plastic mug and singing gospel songs. She wears a khaki t-shirt that says “Champion By Choice” and makes a single pass of the bus, coins plunking into her cup. She gropes to the front and descends. The passport violators have again boarded, looking cheerful and chagrined. “Fifty rand later, and it’s fine,” says the guy getting into his seat behind me. Then we are driving across the bridge spanning the Limpopo, the dark waters rushing beneath us, and crossing into Zimbabwe.

The scene at the border control is dispiriting: a half-dozen coaches have beaten us here, the passengers are pulling their great hefty sacks of goods from the bellies of their buses to be inspected by customs officials. Richard gives a harsh guffaw. “We will not leave here before seven o’clock, let me tell you,” he says. It is just a few minutes shy of one. We disembark and begin the long, slow trudge from the end of the bus queue to the immigration hall. Huddling outside are dozens of homeless – some wrapped in blankets, others wearing only their shorts and skirts and blue jeans. Do they sleep here every night, hoping for some miracle dispensation that will carry them across the Limpopo to the Promised Land of South Africa? Inside the cheerless bureaucrats wait at their counters in soiled white shirts with missing buttons, two pinprick holes above the left breast where, in better days, a name tag was probably sewed. Across the room, on the departures side, three officials sit with their backs to me, games of solitaire on their computer screens. Their attention is evenly divided between their card games and their supplicants. A drunk lurches in and begins making loud accusations. I am processed, stamped, and given a receipt with minimal fuss. At the other end of the arrivals hall, men in worn suits and women in frumpy sweaters sit with their faces scrunched over declarations forms. I have seen the cargo being unloaded from other buses: the bicycles and sofas and armchairs, the refrigerators and microwave ovens, the plastic chairs and plastic buckets and plastic tubs, the pots and pans, the blenders and TVs. They will be declaring all night. A prim woman stands behind a counter beneath a sign that reads “Tip Processing, Carbons Tax, Road Access Fee.” They seem like the sorts of mythical duties invented by ZANU-PF officials to pad their salaries. The woman stands there, watching the comings and goings of the customs declarers, waiting for a tip to process.

Outside our bus has ambitiously pulled to the front of the queue. Richard, ever the realist, suspects the driver has finally found the right palm to grease. We haul our things from the trailer and stand beside them on the curb, awaiting inspection. Behind me is a hill crowned by a small police station and an abandoned shop with a sign that says “Third Party Insurance Here.” Homeless bodies are sprawled on the pavement outside. Nearby are two empty telephone booths, the phones themselves having no doubt gone the way of the missing manhole covers and pilfered street lights that have had even the wiring inside ripped out and resold. When a nation is ruled by kleptocrats, it is no wonder that the povos will resort to any means for survival. A young woman in a fisherman’s hat leads an old blind man through the crowd. He is holding a staff with a brass star on top, tapping it on the ground with each step. They are singing together, softly, poorly, in a way that makes your heart ache. Overhead two billboards cryptically read: “Green Zone: You are in the green zone,” and “Red Zone: You have now entered the red zone.” No one is around to explain either the zones or the prohibitions they entail. It is a dysfunctional border, a sense of barely controlled entropy. I can imagine the chaos at midday, the enormous bribes one has to pay to make it into Zimbabwe by nightfall.

Our driver, meanwhile, appears to be on the frugal side. An hour after moving to the front of the line, there’s not a customs official in sight. Clearly not enough palms have been greased. It is well after 2am, and I’d barely managed to grab 20 minutes’ worth of sleep on the bus. My whole body feels heavy. One of the other passengers – the young guy who’d had to pay R50 before – stands beside me, surveying the flea market that is our bus’ load. “That is the African mentality,” he says, looking at the shopping bags full of cooking oil and milk and eggs. “I don’t understand why you would go to South Africa to buy your groceries.” Behind us is a slick coach from maMundi Tours, the V.I. to Citiliner’s disreputable P. The seats are cushiony and plush and seat only four to the row (we are crammed in five across). There is no doubt the cabin has been cooled to sub-arctic chill. When we ask some of the passengers how much they’ve paid for such luxury treatment, we are appalled: R300, a full R15 less than we’ve shelled out for our own day of torment. The fact that they left Joburg more than three hours after us is only further salt in the wound.

At just a few minutes to three we are finally met by a customs official. Here the sheer lunacy of this border becomes evident. After peering into a few duffel bags and poking at a few sacks of potential contraband, he waves us onward. The whole inspection has taken just under 15 minutes; it takes us twice that time to repack everything into the densely crammed trailer in the rear. It seems almost ludicrous, given the near collapse of almost every segment of the public sector, to rail against inefficiency at the Beitbridge border crossing. (Earlier this year, the state-owned Herald reported that crime victims in Zimbabwe were forced to drive the accused to court, because the Zimbabwe Prison Service had run out of fuel.) As one final indignity, we’re not allowed to board the bus until it’s driven a further 100 meters up the road. We walk in a solemn, single file to catch up to it, the sky littered with stars, the blind man and his daughter singing off-key songs of praise to whoever is watching over them.