It’s 8am. In the middle of the Rainbow Towers hotel parking lot in downtown Harare, under the shadow of the ZANU-PF party headquarters building, the City Link private coach we’re on has just pulled away from the curb to start the trip to Gweru when it comes to a sudden stop and a young female voice announces over the intercom that we will pray before the bus officially sets off on its four hour journey to the Zimbabwe midlands. I look at Kim, and then across the aisle to Niki, an English research intern who arrived last night along with us, and they reply with a “what the fuck?” expression. I shrug my shoulders. It’s been an interesting 16 hours since arriving in the country, and as the bus PA gives thanks and asks for blessings on our journey, I look up at the ZANU-PF building wondering, perhaps, if Robert Mugabe is inside at this very moment looking back down on us, hearing our holy petitions. Then I wonder who, exactly, the prayers are really meant for.
Ishe Komberera Africa.
“God Bless Africa” (Shona).
The journey here, despite being long and taxing, has been relatively without incident. A quick hop to San Francisco with a short layover, then an overnight flight to London with a nine hour layover, and another overnight flight to Johannesburg with a few hours in the airport before catching a quick flight to Harare. At some point during the London to Johannesburg leg I wake up and, unable to sleep, turn on the in-flight map to discover we’re crossing directly over the equator. As the plane steps over that imaginary line I find myself realizing that, perhaps more figuratively than literally, the world has been flipped on its head. Down has become up, autumn has now magically become spring, and below me southern Africa beckons.
When we land in Harare it’s four in the afternoon on a hot, sunny Sunday – 40 hours since we’ve left Seattle. The airport looks well-worn and disheveled, with its immigration officers in a similar state of adornment: thread bare uniforms, name tags missing but for the pinholes left behind to mark their absence, epaulets hanging haphazardly, expressions drifting disinterestedly. Queued up to pay for our entry visa we wait. And wait. And wait some more. Welcome to Zim.
I’ve been antsy since the flight took off from Johannesburg, mostly due to the fact that Kim and I have both been reading Peter Godwin’s latest book, The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe. Godwin is a white Zimbabwean who, as a teenager, fought in the Rhodesian Bush War as part of Ian Smith’s government forces, even though he wasn’t a supporter of Smith’s policies opposing black majority rule. After the war, Godwin traded his gun for a pen, documenting the Matabeleland Massacres and generally training his investigative sights on the crimes perpetrated by Mugabe and his ZANU-PF henchmen in their decades-long effort to maintain a stranglehold on power through extreme violence and intimidation. The Fear documents the aftermath of the 2008 election, which Mugabe lost outright (again) to Morgan Tsvangirai and his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, even after widespread voter fraud and intimidation. But using tried and true state-sponsored terror tactics that have been honed over decades, Mugabe has remained in power. This election go around the MDC has walked away with a power sharing agreement (in name only) that has given the (mostly ceremonial) post of prime minister to Tsvangirai. It’s the opposition’s biggest achievement yet. In-between, thousands were beaten, tortured, raped, and killed.
I have to keep reminding myself while reading Godwin’s book that the horrific abuses he documents, meted out on the Zimbabwean people by its long-serving president, happened barely 24 months ago. In fact, they’re probably still being played out as we arrive in the country. Mugabe rules by fear. You don’t know who you’re sitting next to. You don’t if the person you’re talking to is an undercover Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) officer. So even though the vast majority of Zimbabweans want him gone – and in every election for the past decade-plus have had the courage to show up at the polls to vote him out, even after being beaten, and with the vote heavily fixed in his favor – Mugabe still manages to keep his hold on power in the country. The result of all this, besides the human toll, is a country whose infrastructure is in complete shambles. There’s little industry, and almost nothing left to export. A lot of food is imported into the country, and the price of fresh fruit and vegetables in the local market is extreme. A package of three small cucumbers: US$5. A box of cereal: US$11. The average monthly Zimbabwean income (if you have a decent job): US$150. You can do the math. We weren’t surprised then to hear that unemployment is hovering around 94 percent; 20 percent higher than Kim and I had it previously pegged at.
All these things are going through my mind as we wait to get our entry visas. I alternate between chiding myself for being so paranoid about having this book with me, to kicking myself for being stupid enough to think it was a good idea to bring it, to feeling a rush of adrenaline for being so surreptitiously clever to read about the decimation of a country while traveling through it. This book, as well as Godwin’s two previous autobiographical books on Zimbabwe’s power struggles (Mukiwa and When a Crocodile Eats the Sun), are simply too compelling to leave behind. At any moment, at every moment, I expect a tap on the shoulder by a CIO agent. “We know what you’ve been reading. Now come with us.”
After about 30 minutes Kim and I finally find ourselves at the front of the immigration line for visas, with one problem. The person who apparently handles-single entry visa stamps, we’re told, is on break. Indefinitely. And the immigration officer we’re speaking with is only allowed to sell us double-entry visas, or so she says. Several people who’ve been waiting in line with us are visibly upset at the news but it’s obvious, to me at least, that the con is on. “Take a seat,” the female officer says, “you might be waiting for a while.”
Watching our luggage spin slowly on the baggage carousel on the other side of the immigration desks (and quietly happy to see it arrive after so many legs of travel) I weigh up the options and then approach the immigration officer. “I’d like to buy two double-entry visas, please.” “Are you sure?” she says, feigning surprise. “I do not sell single-entry visas, only double-entry visas! Do you plan on returning to Zimbabwe again soon?” “Yes, I am sure. And a double-entry visa will give us an opportunity to come back to your wonderful country again, now won’t it?”
US$90 later, Kim and I pass through immigration and collect our luggage. Welcome to Zim.
We’re heading towards the airport exit when an older woman approaches us with a warm smile. “Hello Kim and Craig! I’m Anne, you’re liaison in Harare.” Anne then proceeds to give both of us a warm embrace and a kiss before we load our luggage in her car and head off for the house we’ll be overnighting in before continuing on to Gweru and Antelope Park. “How did you recognize us?” I ask. “It was your shoes,” she replies. At least it wasn’t our pants, I think to myself.
Anne Williams has been living in Zimbabwe for over 50 years, having moved from Portsmouth, England with her sister when a doctor informed them that her sister needed a hot, dry climate to remedy a medical condition she had. “Rhodesia or South Africa,” she says he recommended. “So this is where I came.”
As we drive through Harare the first thing that stands out is the enormous amount of trash that covers the roadsides. Candy wrappers, soda cans, water bottles; a myriad of refuse glittering in the late afternoon sun, including the occasional car stripped of absolutely everything but the frame itself. Commuter omnibuses zip by us down the roadway, crammed with occupants presumably on their way home from work. “Overflowing” doesn’t accurately describe how many people we see jammed inside them.
Talk drifts into politics and Anne tells a bit of her own back story since arriving here; the end of each sentence punctuated with “ya.” “I used to own three farms with my ex-husband before all the trouble started, you know,” she says. “One we sold. One was jambanja’d by the government, ya. And the third we offered to give to the government, and even offered to teach the new farmers how to grow and cultivate the crops, ya, if the government promised to build a schoolhouse on the property for the children of the farm workers.” “What happened?” “They just bloody took that one too, ya!” And she laughs.
Anne has an infectious personality and seems to have boundless energy. After losing her farms she struggled as best she could to get by, like everyone else in Zimbabwe. “It really became a co-op of neighbors,” she says. “You’d hear that someone up the street would have fresh eggs, or someone else in another neighborhood had vegetables, so you’d barter with what you had, ya. And that’s how we got by.”
Now Anne keeps busy juggling several jobs. She imports bubble wrap in bulk from South Africa to sell in Harare; she helps Andrew Conolly’s wife, Wendy, sell the rugs that are handmade by members of the community surrounding Antelope Park; she’s an avid artist; and she is ALERT’s liaison for volunteers who travel through Harare on their way to Antelope Park – picking them up from the airport, setting them up in overnight accommodations in a house ALERT rents, getting them to the bus connection in the morning, and repeating the process when they return from their volunteer stints. She is amazing to watch and listen to, as she has such a determined, focused energy about her. Not surprising, really, when you think about what it must take to have not only survived, but to have kept some dignity in the aftermath of the last 10-15 years in Zimbabwe.
Anne drops us off at the overnight house where Dixon, an older black gentlemen with a wide and generous smile punctuated by missing front teeth, sets us up in our room, fixes us dinner, then leaves us for the evening, telling us to make sure the doors are locked and the windows closed before we go to bed. We’ll find out later that the house had been broken into the previous week.
Still jetbedraggled from our travels we fall asleep early only to be awakened about 11:30pm by Dixon banging on our bedroom window from outside. “Craig, open the door! Craig, wake up and unlock the door! We can’t get in!” Seems I forgot to take the key out of the lock when I shut things up for the night and when Anne arrived with Niki they had no way to get in. Sorry, folks!
I wake back up at 4am, still on Seattle time. I put on some coffee, make some toast for myself and Kim, and sit outside on the veranda behind the house watching the light creep up over the horizon. Guineafowl skitter around the backyard and Kim giggles with delight watching them run past us. Anne arrives a little before 7am and we’re off to catch the bus, pulling up to the parking lot at the Rainbow Towers (formerly the Sheraton) to wait around with several dozen school children who are on their way back to boarding school for the fall term. After some haggling between Anne and the bus driver over our luggage and tickets, she sends us off with another hug, kiss, laugh, and a goodbye “ya.” She’s probably just pulling out onto Robert Mugabe Road when the coach stops and the prayer begins.
The bus ride to Gweru is a mostly long and boring affair. We head down the A5 past Heroes Acre on our left, a monument situated on a hillside southwest of Harare commemorating those who died for independence. The fact that it looks like it would fit in well alongside other communist or former Soviet monuments is probably due to the fact that it was designed and built by artists from North Korea. Trash litters the roadside non-stop, broken up only by the hundreds of people we pass who are looking for rides to work, school, elsewhere, from the dozens of omnibuses that travel the roadway alongside us. How they fit so many people in such a confined vehicle space amazes and saddens me. We stop several times along the way to either pay tolls, or because of police roadblocks. Most of the cars on the road are old and well worn. The police, however, have nice, shiny new BMWs. Very shiny – and very fast, I’m sure. Also at each police roadblock is a government soldier with an AK47, looking bored and young. Very young, very bored, and carrying an AK47.
The same worry of being caught reading material by an author who was labeled an “enemy of the state” by Mugabe keeps me from taking photos of teenage soldiers with large, automatic weapons; so there are only a couple of pictures of the drive from Harare to Gweru. Wouldn’t be good to put Kim at risk because of my actions. I am, however, writing a lot in my journal. While the scenes that are rolling by the bus won’t define our trip as a whole, and while, as westerners with money, we’ll only fleetingly have direct interaction with what’s happening around us, and while some of what we’ve been witnessing isn’t a complete representation of Zimbabwe or its people, it’s none-the-less important for me to document this. We’ll be in a relative bubble while we’re at Antelope Park, but this is the ever-present view on the horizon while we’re in Zimbabwe, no matter which direction we turn to look in.
While others are jammed a dozen deep inside omnibuses, and while young government soldiers finger their automatic weapons under the hot African sun, inside the bus we, at least, have the comfort of elbow room, air conditioning, and a video system. The downside of that last selling point is that they’ve decided to play some horrible Wayans brothers movie with the volume turned up to the extreme. Everyone on the bus is laughing at the movie, except us. It is excruciating to sit through. When the follow up film features a story about a young christian couple (he’s a fire captain, she’s a… a… I forget) who are struggling through a trying time in their marriage (which Jesus will fix shortly, don’t you worry!) everyone on the bus is, again, transfixed by the movie, except us. It makes B movies look positively triple-A, and I find myself pining for the Wayans brothers.
Kim and I are starting to grow hungry, and in need of a bathroom. It’s been eight or so hours since we last ate, and the piece of toast we had for breakfast is fast wearing thin. We also need to take our malaria medication, which we’re warned not to do on an empty stomach. The coach pulls up to what appears to be a gas station cum fast food restaurant and we’re told we’ll have five minutes to grab some food. As I step off the bus I see a caucasian man staring intently back into the coach. He’s wearing an Antelope Park shirt. Wait… Antelope Park? Have we arrived in Gweru? I swear no one said this was Gweru!
“Um, Sam?” I inquire tentatively, as that was the contact name we were given. “No, I’m Nathan! Welcome! Welcome!”
We pull our luggage off the bus and Nathan drives us off and away into Antelope Park. The whole time I’m left wondering about the randomness of it. What if we’d not seen Nathan? What if we’d stayed on the bus and continued on down the road, not realizing this was the Gweru stop? What if?
Welcome to Zim.