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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 little lodge, recently expanded and beautifully refurbished, stretched to its maximum to fit us all in.
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.
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.
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.
The historic, old house – influencer in the history of Zimbabwe – was lovely, but it was the plants that were outstanding.
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.
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.
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.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019