Zimbabwe – wounded, wary…and wonderful

Zimbabwe – “Caged Bird” (also a poem by Maya Angelou)

I love Zimbabwe – I was born there, my father was born there, I went to school there, and I was married there. A few weeks ago I returned for a wedding.

It was a packed ten days. We stayed on a farm, we visited friends in Harare, and we spent three days in the Eastern Highlands.

Every step of the way weary Zimbabwe was courteous and kind.

A private garden in the suburbs of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe

(This trip was over the Easter holiday of 2019, shortly before fresh price rises – particularly school fees – and electricity cuts shocked across the country.)

Harare’s gardens were filled with trees and birdlife, there were few roadblocks, and there was little sign of the military or police.

It was easy to drive around the city…if you could find the fuel and plot your route around the potholes. Networking helped us with the fuel, but the potholes kept catching us…although we did learn to be careful at intersections.

The positive part was that every destination was worth it, with cheerful gatherings in homes or restaurants of those we hadn’t seen for years. Some friends were struggling, some were doing okay – nothing was easy for anyone, but all smiled that Zimbabwe smile with its mixture of pain, and stubborn hope.

On one occasion I asked a local if he thought I could take tourist photographs in Harare – quick snaps of street scenes and the new buildings. He was sure there would be no problem…but something stopped me, perhaps a memory from my last visit in 2017. It was just a feeling, but I stuck with it most of the time…at least until we arrived at Twala Animal Sanctuary.

Duiker at the Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary at Goromonzi in Zimbabwe

This sanctuary, out beyond the prison complex at Chikurubi, cares for its own rescues as well as the animals of the poorer local communities. It overflows out of a farmhouse and garden into the bush beyond.

We were met at the entrance by a handful of horses, and then adopted soon after by three cats and a puppy who came with us on our guided tour around the bird enclosures, and past the free-range duiker in the flower beds. Puppy and friends didn’t follow us out to the lions, but Horace the monkey, with his injured hand, was waiting en route, and, bizarrely, a donkey decided to join us to watch a lioness tear into her evening meal.

It was about then that the rain came down in a blanket, which disrupted our farewells but did not dampen our memorable, happy, Durrell-of-an-afternoon.

Verandah life at Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary at Goromonzi in Zimbabwe

We were also surrounded by animals during our farm stay, and we met them over three well-fed days of comfort in a sprawling house, set amongst trees, granite, pets, and an assortment of wildlife.

Giraffe, Zimbabwe

Here we walked and talked across generations, each of us with experiences shaped by different regimes, but linked by the struggles and pleasures of growing up in Africa.

Farm garden in Zimbabwe

Our young hostess, busy with small children and a job of her own, was an excellent cook and recipe tester. We asked, knowing the distance to Harare, and the shortages of fuel and ingredients, how she managed.

“Sometimes it can take me a month to find everything,” she answered with a laugh, her smile like so many Zimbabwean smiles – no self-pity, no denial, and just a flicker of exhaustion.

The wedding, a few days later and the main purpose of our trip, took place in the green terraces and tea estates of the Eastern Highlands.

Tea plantations in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe

Getting there began with another search for petrol and jerrycans. Information from a friend led us to a garage with fuel, where our pocketful of US$ meant we could roll up to the vacant pump and avoid its neighbour, where a long queue waited to pay in local currency. It felt embarrassing to pay more because we could, and especially for something so necessary as fuel.

We did try our hand with ECOCASH – online local payments in RTGS dollars (real time gross settlement) – which works for most people. Zimbabweans seem to have mastered this but are in a constant struggle to get hold of actual cash, and to keep track of prices which head up at a shocking rate.

Our quick trip spared us the worst, but even so it felt like wading through deep mud in flip-flops. Exchange rates changed from place to place, so did the currency needed, and some things, like toll roads, were best paid for in impossible-to-find hard cash.

It was tricky, but we were helped out constantly by Zimbabweans who understood the system. They somehow managed to keep calm and to keep going, whilst keeping an eye out for others less able, and dealing with the tangle of everyday shopping.

One young couple even managed to organise a wedding many remote miles from the capital. I don’t think any of us could quite believe that, despite the news of unrest, fuel shortages, currency issues and cyclones, the celebration really was going ahead.

Marondera, Zimbabwe

But it did.

Our route to the wedding took us through Marondera, where we stopped to resupply a passenger whose luggage remained ‘misplaced’ by the airline he flew in on. Thankfully the TM was well stocked, Edgars had the clothes needed, and the local hardware store produced a sleeping bag. The goods were there…for anyone who had the money.

Freshly equipped, we then gave in to the temptation to visit an old friend – the preparatory school Ruzawi.

Ruzawi School in Marondera, Zimbabwe

We strolled through the school’s immaculate grounds, and along its polished corridors which were quiet for the Easter holidays, but full of chattering memories and half-forgotten names that were remembered too by the security guard who escorted us around the premises. Together we thought of them, those now scattered “Learning Knights” and their teachers, as we walked where so many had been.

Our route onwards took us through Juliasdale, and then along the Honde Valley.

The newly refurbished Halfway House in Zimbabwe, Africa

The road was excellent tarmac for most of the way, and deserted by Kenyan standards, although the final hour or so was increasingly hazardous thanks to chunked out holes, ambling livestock, and views that cornered from sublime to magnificent.

En route to the Eastern Highlands in Zimbabwe

In all the journey was a little over six hours (less if you’re a local) and the final stop, Aberfoyle Lodge, was worth every inch of the way.

The buildings sat low amongst wild, forested hillsides and green slopes of tea, banana and avocado. It was quiet and comfortable – a discreet resort…at least until we arrived.

Aberfoyle Lodge and its golf course in the Eastern Highlands in Zimbabwe

The wedding party descended over two days, in a rattle of enthusiasm, and trailers filled with extra tables, tents and cutlery that wound themselves past the tea factory, and on up, and then down, to the lodge.

The Wamba tea factory, Eastern Highlands Plantations, Zimbabwe

The little lodge, recently expanded and beautifully refurbished, stretched to its maximum to fit us all in.

Aberfoyle Lodge in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe

The squash court overflowed with mattresses, the sun shone, the unflappable young manager smiled, and the excellent staff kept us in food and drink, while the party played on from each clear dawn until the moon was well risen.

Aberfoyle Lodge, Eastern Highlands, Zimbabwe

On the day itself the bride arrived on a tractor through the fields of tea, to exchange rings with the groom under the palm trees. It was sunny and peaceful, accompanied by the notes of a single violin, and followed by drinks and games on the lawns.

Preparations for the wedding under the palm trees at Aberfoyle Lodge in the Eastern Highlands in Zimbabwe

As night fell we returned to the lodge for speeches that made us cry, and music that filled the floor.

We were friends, and amongst new friends, and always there was that smile – that Zimbabwe smile…no self-pity, no denial…everybody just hanging on. It felt as though we were surrounded by an energetic exhaustion, a mixture of old courage and new ventures, of waiting with wary hope for things to turn.

Wedding completed, the final stop on our whirlwind tour was La Rochelle near Mutare.

La Rochelle Country House, near Mutare, Zimbabwe

The historic, old house – influencer in the history of Zimbabwe – was lovely, but it was the plants that were outstanding.

One of the many orchids at La Rochelle, Zimbabwe

Beautiful orchids filled the greenhouses despite the years of turmoil, and in the grounds exotic trees rubbed shoulders with Zimbabwe’s finest specimens.

All were established, mature, and once again made much of, as La Rochelle’s new management tidied her history back to life.

Lady Viriginia Courtauld – she and her husband, Sir Stephen Courtauld, built La Rochelle and lived there between 1951 and 1970

The property, created by foreigners and gifted to the country, was beauty and quiet, abundance and diversity, and cared for by Zimbabweans with the resilience to hope.

Morning tea at La Rochelle Country House in Zimbabwe

It was a fine place to end our visit to the Eastern Highlands.

A few days later we flew out of the country, so grateful to have been but sad to leave.

Evening light, Zimbabwe

Link to the words of “Caged Bird” by Maya Angelou

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019

34 thoughts on “Zimbabwe – wounded, wary…and wonderful

  1. Excellent memories – I did 10 years BSAP, ending at Melsetter, fine dining at nearby Black
    Mountain Inn, Cashel. Stationed also at Nyanyadzi, and Chipinga.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A bit of poetic licence with the photo of a lilac-breasted roller behind chicken wire. Otherwise rather nostalgic for anyone forced to leave because they were driven off their farm, or who left because of kleptocracy and rampant inflation, denying them opportunity to find employment or keep abreast of the spiraling cost of living.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for your comment – it’s a sad history. Just one point – that lilac-breasted roller was behind chicken wire. It may still be as I photographed it in its large enclosure at Twala animal sanctuary. It came to the wire to look at us on our late afternoon visit.

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  3. Georgie, you have captured all the nuances and aspects of your visit in such a clever and evocative way. The pictures reflect the beautiful landscape, homes and gardens to perfection! Loved seeing you briefly and so resonate with all your words. Xx

    Liked by 2 people

    • Gwen thank you! It was such a treat to catch you in Zimbabwe, and I’m so pleased you recognise the feelings I tried to capture. It all feels far too far away now. Xx

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  4. What a mouthful!. This ability to constantly capture scenes of the moment as they unfold has the magic of painting and impacting theatrical and indelible images on the mind. It’s like I was there too. Wonderful!!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Oh my word, how lovely to see all these gorgeous photos and the narration is stunning. My husband and I set up La Rochelle after the boarding house was closed down in 1995. We were there for 3 years, then we went to run Aberfoyle Country Club, giving it a new lease of life, for a year. Someone has kept these places very special.
    My heart yearns for Zimbabwe, but I don’t want to return.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for getting in touch, and for telling us about your connection with both La Rochelle and Aberfoyle. Both places you cared for are looking wonderful – such a credit to the teams who look after them. I can only imagine how much you must miss their beauty.

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    • You reflected exactly how I feel when I see all the photos and read the article. My heart yearns for Zimbabwe but I don’t want to return. Everyday living is just too difficult.

      Liked by 1 person

    • How wonderful to be able to get back that often. As we flew in, a section of the rows of seats behind us erupted in clapping and cheering as we touched down, as one of the passengers celebrated her first visit back to her country in ten years.

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  6. So wonderful to see……makes me want to just get there as fast as possible, because I know what the air is like, what the sunsets are like and the beautiful starry nights. Very well written and such a pull of the heartstrings, especially since I spent such a big part of my life in that part of Zim.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is a lovely, garden of a country, but daily life is tough. The difficulties spiral in so many directions, unpredictable and sudden, and made worse by the stress of not knowing when they will end.

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