Time moves on. Haunts of childhood stay still
Zimbabwe Notebook: Home hasn’t changed at all
Amazing how fast everything comes back after 44 years. It was Salisbury airport then and it’s Harare airport now, but, hire car collected, I at once remembered the way back into town and never needed a map even though the street names – Stanley Avenue, Jameson Avenue – had mostly changed. Returning to what was then Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe has given me a new sympathy with John Major’s much-mocked exclamation in a party political video in which he returned to his boyhood home in Brixton. “It’s still there!”
“Of course it is, you ninny,” we all cried. But time and again in the past week, and to the exasperation of my companion, I’ve been whooping spontaneously at the amazed discovery that an entire country does not vaporise simply as a result of one’s ceasing to favour it with one’s presence. “My old school — it’s still there!” “Our old house, it’s still there!” “The Chimanimani mountains – still there!”
The potholes, though, are new. Actually Zimbabwe has a better road network now than when the white government fell at the end of the 1970s, but there does seem to be a problem with maintenance. Potholes are a major topic of conversation among Zimbabweans black and white, each contributor outbidding the last, like anglers, in their claims as to the size and frequency of the shockers they’ve most recently encountered.
Nobody, however, has yet outbid one motorist I met who had heard from a friend just over the border in Mozambique: “. . . and on this lonely road he rounds this bend, and there in the middle of the road was this almighty pothole so he jams on the brakes and to his astonishment a woman’s head appears above the surface of the road, then her body, then a towel which she wraps herself in and scuttles towards the ditch clutching all her clothes and a bar of soap.
She had been bathing in the pothole.”
A working country
So potholes, yes; and power cuts, yes; and the grass verges aren’t as well mown as they were in the days of white Rhodesia. But if you’re expecting ambushes, armed robberies and empty shelves in the supermarkets, you’ve been misinformed. Huge political problems abound, but Zimbabwe is not devastated and its people are not destitute. Now that they’ve abandoned their own currency in favour of the US dollar and the South African rand, the country more or less works.
As a tourist — and I do emphasise “tourist”, for who knows what a tourist never sees? — you will encounter a gentle, friendly and safe place; a muzzled press but fairly open conversation; a viable mobile phone network, fuel in all the petrol stations, clean rooms in a range of lovely hotels, nice people, good English, spectacular landscapes — and almost no other tourists at all.
We appeared to have the Chimanimani mountains almost to ourselves. No, not “almost”: entirely. The visitors’ book at the national park entrance recorded the last visit as being three days before. I had always wanted to climb these mountains as a boy, and now here we were, on a cool day of sunshine and cloud, clambering up steep footpaths across tumbling streams towards a magnificent wall of pale quartzite peaks, their summits some 8,000ft above sea level.
We picnicked on a wide, flat valley beneath them — thick with yellow elephant grass, small antelope scampering away. We clambered down before a glorious sunset, bade the warden goodbye and good luck in getting another visitor or two, perhaps, in a few days; and made our weary but exultant way back to our bungalow — the Bradt guide quoting a description of the proprietor as “probably the nicest person in the world”. She was.
The darker side
Tourists, as I said, don’t see everything; and our happy picture was sometimes challenged by darker stories. Once he trusted us, one young African in Matabeleland told us that his parents, who had become too “political”, had been wired into their hut while the children were away and incinerated when the hut was set aflame. Terrified and still a youth, he had walked south, alone, and crossed the Limpopo River illegally to South Africa to make his way in the world.
Now he had returned, because “the storm has abated … for the immediate”. He had an outstanding command of English but as if learnt from a 19th-century Methodist school textbook. “Let me now put the flesh of detail”, he said gravely, “on the skeletal outline with which I have already furnished you.”
Then he explained how the park that we were in had been protected as national patrimony “for the benefit of babies and sucklings”. I thought of this clever, orphaned boy picking his way alone in the dark across the Limpopo, possessing literally nothing, towards a future completely unknown.
The article drew a sharp response from Tom Benyon of Zane:
Zim ruled by fear Published at 12:01AM, April 3 2012
The shops may be full of goods but people right across the community in Zimbabwe cannot afford to buy anything on offer
Sir, Matthew Parris (Mar 29) claims that “Zimbabwe is not devastated and the people are not destitute”. Although Zimbabwe may look peaceful, it is still a vicious police state, its people ruled by fear. The government is proceeding with its “indigenisation policy” which means the confiscation of half of all the businesses in the country. Although the old, debauched currency has given way to the SA rand and the US dollar, and the shops are full of goods, the people served by Zane (Zimbabwe A National Emergency) right across the community have long since been rendered destitute and cannot afford to buy anything on offer.
Tom Benyon, Director, Zane, Bladon, Oxon
The Vigil thought to leave the matter at that. But supporters in Australia pointed out to us an article in the Spectator (http://www.spectator.co.uk/columnists/all/7764243/the-troubling-truth-about-zimbabwe.thtml – The troubling truth about Zimbabwe, Matthew Parris 7 April 2012). They asked use for our comments. Here they are:
The troubling truth about Matthew Parris is not that he is challenging received opinions but that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. The Vigil has no qualms with his historical commonplaces about the Smith regime etc. But he shows only a superficial understanding of what is going on today. There is no sign that he has read any of the dozens of books published on Zimbabwe in recent years or any of the stories about Zimbabwe easily available on the internet. Has he ever, for instance, looked at the Zimbabwe Situation website, a daily compendium of news about Zimbabwe, often containing as many as 20 or 30 stories? He could usefully have looked at the Sokwanele summary of abuses, which he could have found in Zimbabwe Situation (http://www.zimbabwesituation.com/apr6_2012.html#Z16 – Zimbabwe Inclusive Government Watch – Issue 37).
We at the Vigil – 95% black – are in constant contact through our families with what is going on at home. Our relatives there do not share his rosy picture, redolent of patronizing white colonialists: ‘Don’t shout at Mugabe. We can’t expect to understand these charming black people or their culture of killing each other.’
Mr Parris may, for all we know, be visiting rural Iran and have a similar piece in the Times this Saturday when we will be protesting as usual outside The Zimbabwe Embassy in London. We will also be demonstrating outside the South African High Commission at their failure to get Mugabe to honour the global political agreement he signed. And we will also be visiting Downing Street to present a petition calling for UN supervision of the coming elections.
Sorry for the shouting Mr Parris. But you are paying for your holiday with our blood.
The Vigil, outside the Zimbabwe Embassy, 429 Strand, London, takes place every Saturday from 14.00 to 18.00 to protest against gross violations of human rights in Zimbabwe. The Vigil which started in October 2002 will continue until internationally-monitored, free and fair elections are held in Zimbabwe. http://www.zimvigil.co.ukPost published in: World News