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.

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

  1. Hi, I know this is kind of late, but did you check 1Time when you were looking for flights? I flew from Vic Falls, Zambia to OR Tambo for about R900 one-way in July. The price may have changed now, but I’m sure it won’t be near US$240.

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