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.

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2 responses to “The road to freedom.

  1. Pingback: Equestrian Findings » The road to freedom. | This Is Africa

  2. Pingback: The road to freedom. | This Is Africa | Horse Sports Expert

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