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.
It is early 2017, and I have not been back for fourteen years.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are also signs of development. A brand new, huge supermarket opens the week we’re in town …
… and Chicken Inn has some bright new roosts.
Roundabouts are sprouting and they’re getting creative.
Religion appears to be on a roll. The Celebration Church and its Centre look brand new and impressive.
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.
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.
We have an afternoon and evening to meet the animals there.
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.
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.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018
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