I was returning from ten years of studies abroad to visit my parents. I had barely escaped witnessing the crumbling of all my heart held dear. Just before I left Zimbabwe, I had experienced the petrol queues and the rise in prices, but never would I have imagined that in my absence the shops would become a wasteland and my family would rejoice when they managed to acquire a packet of Soya Mince for their dinner and the bargain price of a billion dollars. Though I constantly heard about the daily, and sometimes hourly inflation, and I saw the photos of empty grocery stores, I cannot (or perhaps, will not) comprehend such a Zimbabwe.
My Zimbabwe is the Zimbabwe when the Red Vienna reigned supreme. At parties, at braais, in the tuck shop at school – you were not living if you did not enjoy the tasty goodness of Colcom’s Red Viennas. That is the Zimbabwe that is fixed in my soul. The days when the Dairiboard Man was a hero. At the sound of his bell, we would gallop up the street to meet him on his bicycle loaded with a box of ice-cream. Coins jingling in our pockets. Five cents would buy you a Fatso. Twenty cents a Monster Mouse or a Green Mamba. And if you were feeling rich, you could go for a Super Split or a Choc Ice, though never paying more than a dollar.
While I was visiting my parents, I found a five cent coin at the bottom of a drawer. Children today have no idea it is money. They think in USDs. Calculating foreign currency exchange rates has become a necessary skill. Deep down, I long for that little girl with a pom pom in her hair running barefoot down the street to present the Dairiboard Man with a small silver coin bearing a rabbit. I almost threw away the five cent coin I had found. A useless remnant of a lost time. But my mother stopped me. ‘I need those to scratch my Buddy Cards to juice my phone.’
As we descended into Harare on my arrival, from my window seat I had watched the red soil and the acacia trees come into focus and in my heart I rejoiced at coming home. How I had missed seeing the city turn lavender with jacarandas in September. And Christmas in May when red bursts of poinsettias peeked through hedges along the streets.
Nothing I had seen abroad could match the orange beauty of the flamboyant trees in bloom. As we landed my heart beat once again to an African rhythm. An air of peace filled the cabin as many Zimbabweans exhaled their relief at finally coming home again.
But, it was not the same home that we once knew. When I had left Zimbabwe ten years earlier, Harare International Airport was a buzz of activity. Those coming. Those going. Smiles of hullo. And tears of goodbye. A myriad of uniformed staff bearing logos for British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa and the like.
Now, I entered a ghost town. Besides the plane I had arrived in, there were no others in sight. None of the shops or restaurants were open. I was greeted by empty spaces and toilets without running water. I was welcomed by desolation and the desperation of those waiting for something nice from America brought to them by the friend of a friend of their cousin-brother who bought it from a sale in Walmart.
My parents did not have enough fuel to come and pick me up from the airport, so I had to take a taxi home. When I asked the driver how much it would cost me to get to Borrowdale, he replied, ‘WekuAmerica 150 USD.’ I was clearly not American, but he had seen my bags and heard the accent that had inadvertently slipped into my voice over the past decade and had decided that I was ripe for extortion. Welcome to the new Zimbabwe. I was too dumbfounded to argue so I pulled out the USDs from my wallet and paid the man to take me to a home I knew no longer existed. In the back of a battered Mazda 323 that was masquerading as a taxi, driving down Borrowdale Road I saw the sign. The bright red billboard with five words in block white capitals written across it. ‘THE RED VIENNA IS BACK!’
I smiled and the ‘taxi’ driver who had been eyeing me creepily in the rear-view mirror asked, ‘Ko muri kusekei?’ I opened my mouth to answer then realised that I had no words to explain that from the depths of my being, my mind had just been flooded with thoughts of the days when the word ‘Diaspora’ did not exist in my vocabulary.
The days when my friends and I could expect jumping castles and ice cream cakes at every birthday. The days when Greenwood Park was a wonderland of rides on high chairs and screaming on the train in the tunnel clutching candy floss and popcorn. The days when mothers packed porkpies and crisps for their children’s break at school, and Mazoe Orange was a given instead of a national treasure. The days when a black kid from the suburbs could be ‘best friends’ with a white kid and an Indian kid with no political subtext. The days when…
The Red Vienna is back. But during my brief visit home, I did not rush to TM or Bon Marché to look for it. It is a memory of a Zimbabwe that once was. It will never taste the same again.Post published in: Arts