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?
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.