Five days in the suburbs of Harare, capital of Zimbabwe

Coming in to land at Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe

Coming in to land at Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe

We fly in to the land where I was born and raised.  She is green from the recent rains and dusted with small white clouds.

I have not been back for fourteen years.

Ice cream seller in Zimbabwe

Ice cream seller in Harare, Zimbabwe

Harare, according to what I have read, is in disarray. It is the capital of a country now rated amongst the poorest in the world where I can expect to be swallowed by potholes, and roadblocked in between.

I am on a British passport and apprehensive.

The airport is not a good start.  We arrive early on a flight from Johannesburg.  The visa queue is slow-moving and unsure of itself, but it does eventually filter us through to luggage collection and on to customs where bags are scanned and passengers interrogated.  Anything ‘new’ arouses interest.

Outside the airport the light, washed by the rainy season, is as bright as I remember it, and the airport road much grander than I recall.  It whirls us in towards the city, confident and empty.

The airport road in Harare, Zimbabwe

The airport road in Harare, Zimbabwe. The tall palm in the distance is a communications mast in disguise.

I take photographs where I can.  There is nothing to say that I shouldn’t stroll around covered in cameras, but nobody else seems to so I decide that it’s Better to Be Careful than remotely BBC.  The result is dozens of blurred photographs of Harare’s suburbs – my home away from home for five days.

Here, amongst the trees and gardens, city life is undoubtedly at its most comfortable.  There is little immediate evidence of misery, but there are daily stresses such as potholes and roadblocks, both worse on some roads than on others, and there is crime – bag snatching from paused vehicles – is on trend.

“Don’t leave stuff on the seats.  They smash the windows and grab anything they can.  The noise is shocking and glass goes everywhere.”

The airport road in Harare, Zimbabwe

The airport road in Harare, Zimbabwe

My first impression is of deep greens, red soil, and the glitz of new buildings.  Trees, the indigenous and the exotic, line the streets and stretch up behind garden walls.

Jacaranda tree in Harare, Zimbabwe

Jacaranda tree in Harare, Zimbabwe

Leaves and flowers rim the sky – banana plants; palm trees; msasa; frangipani; and avenues of jacaranda.  It is hard to get any sense of stress in such surroundings.

Frangipani tree in Harare, Zimbabwe

Frangipani tree in Harare, Zimbabwe

The road verges have their own characters – some are well maintained, others overgrown, and a few filled with maize and small signs that advertise seed suppliers.

Street corners act as shop fronts watched over by listless vendors.  On one junction there might be tomatoes or barrows of fruit; on another displays of metal sculptures; and further along stacks of bricks beside paving stones arranged in careful teepees.

Street vendors in Harare, Zimbabwe

Street vendors in Harare, Zimbabwe

The trees play their part – shade for life without progress, and branches to hang hope on … telephone numbers … someone to fix your lawnmower perhaps.  There is little sign of any tourists in town.

My base for my five nights in Harare is a friend’s guest lodge.

A place to stay in the suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe

A place to stay in the suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe

We slip through electric gates into a beautiful garden, one of hundreds in the city.  It is a little oasis that offers employment to a few, and a place to rest.

This is the world of the survivors, but even here there is anxiety about the arrival of the dreaded ‘bond note’ – Zimbabwe’s new currency.

Old Zimbabwe dollars from the 2007/8 currency crisis

Old Zimbabwe dollars from the 2007/8 currency crisis

Zimbabweans, scarred by the hyperinflation, currency collapse, and shortages of of 2007/8, know that the ‘bond notes’ are backed by nothing other than the flick of a cat’s tail.  They know Zimbabwe is down to her bones in terms of what she can provide without import … but knowing this does not help.

Zimbabweans are trapped, with little option other than to ’embrace’ the new currency.  It’s not easy, especially if you have an illness requiring repeat, expensive medication.

“How do I buy my medicine?  The pharmacies in Harare want me to pay in foreign currency, in cash.  I can’t use my card because they don’t trust the banks to hold on to the dollars I know I’ve paid into my account, and the banks ration the dollars I can take in cash – US$50 a day if I’m lucky, and my medicine is more than that.  I could use bond notes but no pharmacies want them because they can’t import with those. So how do I pay?  I can’t.  I have to go to South Africa where it’s much cheaper to buy what I need but the problem is that there the banks say that my US dollar notes, especially the small ones, are too dirty to swop for rand.”

A Zimbabwean laugh, a weary ripple, completes the picture.  Nothing is funny … but why cry?  Just make a plan.  Fine if you can, if you’re young and earning, but not if you have no money, if you’re ill, or if you’re elderly and alone. These vulnerable groups, who struggle to exist outside the economy, whether it’s cash or barter, are in real trouble.

What about good news?  There is some.

There are fewer power cuts now – which I am told, is because of the fall in demand from the struggling industrial sector.

I do see potholes being filled.  Usually thin, impoverished entrepreneurs do the work and then beg payment from passing cars in return, but, on one occasion, a blue-suited team is at work.

Potholes being repaired in Harare, Zimbabwe

Potholes being repaired in Harare, Zimbabwe

There are also signs of development.  A brand new, huge supermarket opens the week we’re in town …

A large, brand new supermarket is open in Borrowdale, in Harare, Zimbabwe

A large, brand new supermarket is open in Borrowdale, in Harare, Zimbabwe

… and Chicken Inn has some bright new roosts.

The bold, bright colours of Chicken Inn in Harare, Zimbabwe

The bold, bright colours of Chicken Inn in Harare, Zimbabwe

Roundabouts are sprouting and they’re getting creative.

The 'Art Roundabout' in Harare, Zimbabwe

The ‘Art Roundabout’ in Harare, Zimbabwe

Religion appears to be on a roll.  The Celebration Church and its Centre look brand new and impressive.

The Celebration Church in Harare, Zimbabwe

The Celebration Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe:  “…The gospel of prosperity is unmistakable; the message is insistent that health and prosperity are the right of every true Christian, so much so that poverty and disease manifest a deficient Christian life.” (Extract from: Historicising Pentecostal Christianity in Zimbabwe by Lovemore Togarasei of the University of Botswana/RITR, UNISA.)

It’s a Pentecostal church, founded by the American couple, Bonnie and Tom Deuschle, and grown on the roots of what I remember as the Rhema Bible College.  It has boomed but not without some local controversy.

Also in demand are private schools, some of them older than others. One of the newest and most highly-regarded is the Hellenic School, not far from the Celebration Church.

Another new building in Harare is the British Embassy (2008) in Mount Pleasant.  Built in concrete grey from foundation to lid, and ribbed with iron railings, it looks like a bad-tempered tin shack on steroids – the steel flip-flop of diplomatic footprints.

Over the weekend we visit Sam Levy’s village for breakfast.  Anyone with a car seems to be there – it’s a happy mix of the well-dressed well-off.  The only signs of hardship are the queues outside the banks and the ultra-thin parking attendants.

The suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe

The suburbs of Harare, Zimbabwe

This is the difficulty with Harare.  It’s a city of light and shadows.  The stories I’d heard outside the country, some taut with anxiety and others content, are all true.

I know from friends, family, the media, and my own history, that in Zimbabwe brutality is hidden.  It’s soft-padded until it pounces.  It’s a cruel game of cat and mouse, with consequences that are deadly for some and seemingly avoidable for others.

On my last evening in Harare we drive a little way outside the city to a farm.  It has turned some of its land into an animal sanctuary with big cats of its own.

Tobacco barns on the dirt road that leads to Wild is Life, the animal sanctuary outside Harare, Zimbabwe

Tobacco barns on the dirt road that leads to Wild is Life, the animal sanctuary outside Harare, Zimbabwe

We have an afternoon and evening to meet the animals there.

Wild is Life - the animal sanctuary outside Harare, in Zimbabwe

Wild is Life – the animal sanctuary outside Harare, in Zimbabwe

At one point young elephants, once traumatised, amble into view.  We study each other at close quarters with no touching allowed … their gentle joke is clearly on us.

Young elephants at the Elephant Nursery outside Harare, in Zimbabwe

Young elephants at the Elephant Nursery outside Harare, in Zimbabwe

Our final visit of the evening is to meet a pangolin – ancient, endangered creature, elusive and mythical, with a tongue so long he has to stow it down by his pelvis.  His constant companion is Mateo.

 

At the end lions call in the night … a reminder of who this land should really belong to.

Coming in to land at Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe

Coming in to land at Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2017

Here are a few links connected to this piece:

This is from the website of the company that built the British Embassy in Harare.

This is the academic paper on the Pentecostal Church in Zimbabwe

 

29 thoughts on “Five days in the suburbs of Harare, capital of Zimbabwe

  1. Aaaahhhhhh Georgie, how this article resonates with me and my experience of going back. When I went back in 2011, it was after only 8 years since my previous visit but I remember the bitter-sweetness of being home. Isn’t it amazing that in just 5 days you can experience the joy of familiarity and the pain of the new reality? We are and always will be from that land. For better or for worse, it is still home to me, my “heart home”. Thanks for sharing Georgie! xxx (PS: Micky wrote a delightful article following her recent visit to Harare. She wrote it for the magazine she works with in South Africa, Getaway. Let me know how I can get a copy to you Georgie; it’s a pdf I have. I think you will enjoy it!)

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      • I would like to. I didn’t really a chance to explore as much as would have liked because I visiting my sister there who has some problems. I just had ten days. Went to the leprosy village at Mutemwa and and some local attractions – the lake and lion reserve.

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      • I hope your sister is doing okay now. I’m glad you managed to see a few sights although it doesn’t sound like it was a very easy visit. I hope there’ll be a happier time.

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    • Hello, the road blocks are definitely on everyone’s minds out there. Some people had experienced difficulty. One lady I spoke to said she has to drive through three road blocks every day to get to work. Sometimes she is not stopped, and other times she is and asked to pay a fine. The reason she is given for the fine is that she is speeding even though she says she is not. Some people say that if they are stopped the conversations are amicable and they can usually get through without payment. However, there are worrying stories about road blocks where the encounter has turned difficult. This sort of situation is especially stressful if you are on your own, cannot prove your innocence and do not have the cash on hand to pay the fine. During my five days in Harare’s suburbs, driven by locals in cars that were in good condition, we were never stopped. The advice I was given was that if you are driving alone in Harare you should know your route well, your car must have no faults, and you must not speed. So it was a mixed picture I got about road blocks. Some people were very anxious about them and others less so. If you cannot afford to keep your vehicle in tip top condition it is more worrying – I did hear that the small commuter ‘buses’, often in bad condition, are stopped more frequently and passengers asked to pay towards the fine. It is a worry for everyone. I hope that answer is helpful. Georgie

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  2. Georgie, I so enjoyed reading this. It must have been a bitter-sweet experience for you. Thank you for sharing your experiences there. Really interesting.

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  3. Thank you for showing us this sad and lovely part of the world — with which I am all too unfamiliar. I wish your native country well. I loved seeing the animals. Keep up the great writing and photography!

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  4. Very well written up, Georgie. We loved seeing you and hope you enjoyed your first trip back in 14 years. Don’t leave it that long before you come back again xxxx

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