When the country in question is Zimbabwe, there’s an added cocktail of trepidation, intrigue and expectation of the unexpected. Last week Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that Zimbabwe had become “a hell on earth”. Media coverage gives snapshots of famine and disease, a general impression of anarchy that leaves little room to imagine shops, living rooms and the everyday stuff of life.
I’m writing this at the end of my first day in Harare. First impressions are notoriously evanescent, but here are mine.
Harare international airport is as modern as any other. Well, almost: there are several gold framed portraits of President Robert Mugabe, looking younger and more virile than his present 85 years. Get outside and there’s the familiar buzz of luggage trolleys, taxis and a city waiting to be discovered.
On the way into town, a Welcome to Harare sign competes for billboard space with a Coca-Cola advert. Some street lights work, others do not. Traffic lights are also a hit and miss affair, which leaves drivers eyeing each other warily and trying to guess who will make the first move. When cars do stop, they are approached by street sellers or children begging for money.
Pickup trucks are crammed with people or furniture. Some travellers prefer to wait in long bus queues or bicycle or walk. Women balance bags on their heads and carry babies wrapped ingeniously in blankets on their backs.
Dickens would have appreciated the name of the Rotten Row magistrates court. Or the brutal architecture of Mugabe’s Zanu(PF) headquarters, a towering concrete beast that, if designed to intimidate, achieves the feat magnificently. At its top is an image of the party symbol, a black cockerel.
I arrived at the Glamis stadium where the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), nearing four months into its unity government with Zanu-PF, was holding its annual convention. I looked up and saw Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s prime minister, striding across the hall.
Like a celebrity interviewer diving across the red carpet, I segued into Tsvangirai’s path and introduced myself in the hope of an interview. He extended a hand and slowed, but his gaze remained fixed on the middle distance. A security minder steered him on towards a waiting car, shouldering me to one side.
I switched my attention to his most powerful lieutenant, Tendai Biti, the finance minister and the MDC secretary-general. Biti invited me to follow him up to a VIP suite where the tone was rugby-club hospitality: red sashes on white table cloths, chuckling waiters serving food from a silver buffet. The suite looked down on a poorly maintained field that Biti explained was once used for showjumping. Now grass and weeds had begun to reclaim the concrete terraces.
I paused over a bowl of ice cream and fruit as Biti’s eloquence began to flow. In between mouthfuls of lunch and consulting a chunky Nokia mobile phone, he spoke with passion about how far he believed the unity government had come since the darkest days of last year.
I followed him into a corridor, conversing as we rounded a corner or two and went through another doorway. He stopped, facing a wall, and I suddenly understood I had pursued him into the toilets. We each laughed at the momentary absurdity, then I slipped away.
I stopped at the Rainbow Towers, a five-star hotel where tourists idled as they might do anywhere. A plaque testified that it was called the Sheraton when Mugabe officially opened it in 1988. The grass around the car park, I was told, used to be far more lush.
Then to the Parirenyatwa hospital, announced by a sign bearing the logo of Dettol. People were queuing outside, patiently but plaintively. I walked into the accident and emergency ward unchallenged and observed nurses chatting and men sitting to watch football on a black and white television.
Patients could be seen lying on trolley beds in wards or corridors under ragged blankets that contained holes. A line of women sat against a wall, three with drip feeds in their arms. There was a prevailing mood of resignation yet endurance.
I drove on in the magical light of late afternoon. Through the long yellowing grass I glimpsed a congregation of black people dressed all in white, many on their knees in prayer. On street corners outside the state house compound stood sentries with rifles slung over their shoulders, looking bored.
I passed signs tied to lampposts advertising Aquadrill, a company much in demand for drilling boreholes. At a Total petrol station and its Spar supermarket, people queued to get buckets filled with water from one such borehole. Nearby, soldiers in military fatigues waved their hands in the hope of hitching a lift.
Desmond Tutu might have described it as hell, but Harare is not the hell of bombs and bullets in Baghdad or Mogadishu. Instead the sense is of a cancer in the body, of a vegetation rotting from within. It is not the stuff of epic or opera, but rather of ordinary lives of quiet desperation.
Post published in: News