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.