We are all Zimbabweans now

we_are_all_zimbabweansAn extract from James Kilgores debut novel which has been hailed as an extremely accomplished and compelling book.

Before I can get my arms into the straps of the backpack, a tall man in a white Nehru jacket is standing in front of me. Good morning, sir, he says, trying to ease the backpack out of my grip. Let me help you.

He smells like freshly laundered hospital linen. I carry my typewriter as I follow him up some stairs and through a double wooden door. The lobby has well-vacuumed, ageing brown carpeting and dark veneer panelling. The brass light fixtures are missing most of their bulbs. Good morning, sir, says a tall blonde woman at the desk. Do you have a booking?

Mugabes picture hangs on the wall behind her. Theyve washed away his wrinkles. Hes wearing those dark-framed glasses from the days of the liberation war. Hes not smiling, but I like having him there. I unzip seven pockets in my backpack before I find the well-folded piece of paper that confirms my booking and hand it to her. Aaron, she says in a voice now half an octave higher, take the gentlemans bags to Room 124.

Yes, madam, he replies, picking up the luggage he has just set down. I follow the slow-treading Aaron down a corridor of more brown carpet to my room. The mattress sags and the nightstand drawer smells of mothballs. Im coated with lack-of-sleep slime and ready for my first shower on the African continent. Instead, I collapse on the bed. I fidget to find a comfortable position. After a few minutes the springs relax and Im asleep in Zimbabwe, exactly where I want to be.

Sirens sound in the distance. The driver perks up like a startled squirrel and slams his car into first gear. I must get out of here before the nonsense starts, he tells me. I might get stuck here all day. Bloody fools. He speeds away. Half a block ahead, a white-enamelled motorcycle glides to a halt in the middle of the intersection. A man in a sharply pressed green uniform and white helmet gets off the bike. His siren screams as he raises his hand to stop cross traffic.

By the time I reach the corner, four or five cars are backed up on each side of the street. A few of the drivers stand alongside their vehicles, chatting and smoking cigarettes. Dozens of pedestrians gather and look toward the oncoming noise. In the nearby high rises, a collection of black women in servants uniforms hangs over various balcony railings. As the sirens peak, a half-ton pickup shoots past. Soldiers in camouflage fill the bed, ak-47s at the ready. One shoulders a bazooka. Behind the pickup come four black Mercedes-Benzes.

As the third Mercedes passes, two women next to me point and say, Varimo. Varimo. I snap my head toward the car just in time to catch those dark-framed glasses. The Prime Minister is reading the newspaper in the back seat.

Behind the four Benzes comes a blue-and-white police car, then a second truckload of soldiers even bigger than the first. Another white enamelled motorcycle trails at the rear of the procession. The driver steps up the volume on his siren as he passes. I stagger off toward the city centre, feeling like a groupie after an all night

concert. Three hours in Harare and Ive already seen my hero. I keep forgetting that traffic travels on the opposite side of the road. I look the wrong way when crossing streets, barely avoiding collisions with the dented Datsuns, rusting Renaults and other ancient four-cylinder vehicles that dominate the roads. A Pontiac in Harare would look like a battleship in a yacht harbour.

The cars arent the only things out of date. Modern department stores havent reached Harare either. I walk slowly past a tobacconist minded by an old white man, a blue ascot riding high on his neck. A rack of pipes and tobacco canisters frames his grey hair. A cuckoo clock on his wall advertises Barclay cigarettes. The sweet fragrance wafting from the shop reminds me of my grandfathers living room. As a small boy, I loved to watch him tamp the shred21 ded leaves in his long-stemmed cherrywood pipe. The room filled with wonderful spices when he took that first puff. Ive never understood why my father smoked Camels instead. But then there are many things Ive never understood about my father.

A few doors from the tobacconist lies a sidewalk caf attached to a Wimpy hamburger bar. A curious glance reveals white women drinking tea and cutting toasted cheese sandwiches into bite-size pieces before delicately forking them into their mouths. Black waiters scurry about carrying red plastic trays. They respond to the curt orders of their customers as if the liberation war never happened.

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