2014 – SOUTHERN AFRICA DIARY – SEVEN

DAY 35. MONDAY MARCH 24th 2014. HARARE, ZIMBABWE.

I don’t think the smile has left my face today! What a delightful city. I have walked and walked until my feet are sore but my spirit is so high that I can forget the corporeal discomfort! The ‘Sunshine City’, they call Harare. It’s a good name for a city so sunny in all senses.

Traffic noise awoke me early, even through the ear plugs. It wasn’t the usual African chorus of car horns, just the roar of traffic coming into the workaday city. It is disciplined and fairly light for a capital, but I am at the very hub of the city. The minibus taxi boys were quieter: most people are coming in at that time, not going to disparate suburbs, necessitating the constant calling of destinations in the competition for customers as I am hearing now as I write. At one or two times today I was sure this must be one of the quietest cities on earth. It was just full of well dressed, neatly-proportioned people going about their business without much fuss and making little ado about it. As a very obvious foreigner I was left alone, unhassled to go about my business too. People with whom I had any dealing were polite, charming, friendly, well educated and thoroughly equal.

The parks and gardens, like the pavements, need investment. They look a bit tired, but they are there at least. The avenues of trees are old and some resplendent in tropical blossoms. Walking at night, without street lights, is a hazardous business with frequent drain covers missing and elephant traps a couple of feet deep ready to break the ankles and legs of the unwary. I cannot imagine trying to sue the Harare City Council for compensation! The weather was perfect with Harare’s altitude (1492 metres – almost 5000 feet) tempering the tropical sun.

Two blocks away I found the city post office, headquarters of Zimbabwe Post. There, with the most charming help of the counter clerk, I sent a parcel to myself. I was a bit dumbfounded to find it would cost £25 to send contents worth about half that, but it seems that Zimbabwe no longer troubles with sea mail. Well, I suppose it is a long way to the sea across other countries. So my parcel will arrive next week in Harberton…

From the post office I just walked and walked for most of the day. The people of Harare are mainly of Mashona extraction – the Shona tribe. I noted yesterday that they tend to return smiles rather than smile first. Today I found them very charming as soon as I had broken the ice and started conversations. The people of Bulawayo and the west are Mdbele, in my opinion a little quicker to respond. I have always thought that ‘Matabeleland’ is one of the romantic names of Africa.

*

From my windows I have a busy view of the intersection. The street is very wide with a generous reservation in the middle. Several fine colonial buildings with their distinctive shady arcading are interspersed amongst slightly newer buildings, including Torbay House at the corner. These old colonial references are everywhere, although Salisbury, the colonial name of Harare, I have seen only on drain covers. Almost opposite my hotel window I look at an old company called Gilchrist and Cooksey. You may remember my mild detective work in finding my great aunt’s extraordinary colonial mansion in Bulawayo a couple of weeks ago. You may also remember that she was married to a Mr Gilchrist, in the business of cattle auctions. It seemed too much of a coincidence that there would be no connection, so with my cousin Pat’s obsession with family history in mind I entered Gilchrist and Cookseys’ furniture store. The manager, Gabriel Chiuriri, told me the firm was established in 1939, originally as an auction house (!) and later turned to furniture retailing. He knew little of the Gilchrists involved but believes the present company owner, now in South Africa, was a nephew. What a strange coincidence that my hotel windows look across at a business almost certainly founded by my great uncle!

*

As an ardent reducer of ‘stuff’ from my life I restrict my souvenir purchases to interesting wooden spoons and the toy vehicles (and occasional animals) made from recycled scrap materials. I know that many of the little intricate vehicles I see are made in Zimbabwe, even if they are now sold all over Africa, having joined the generic ‘African’ artefact market that sadly knows no boundaries any more. Some of the ‘African’ artefacts are even produced in Chinese factories now. My collection of toys grows slowly with every trip but I really keep hoping to find the makers. With little expectation I walked a couple of miles to the shopping centre at Avondale, where I had been told there was a craft market of some sort. It did not look promising, until I spotted a well-disguised entrance to a sprawling, slightly scruffy market behind the smart shops. I dived in. I love African markets.

Within a few minutes a very charming young man, in a smartly pressed shirt, told me he had been waiting all day for my arrival. A good chat up line that made me laugh. His pitch was far from hard sell. Richard was very personable. We chatted as I looked sideways at the goods on his large stall. They were some of the best I have seen in Africa. I get fed up with all the mass-produced stone carvings, trinkets and touristic crap. Here were real handicrafts. Many were well crafted from wire and beads – motorbikes (Aha!), fine animals, flowers and many novelties, all beautifully made. Suspiciously, I asked Richard, “Are they made in Zimbabwe?”

“Why, yes, right here!” And he pulled aside some plastic sheeting to show me four men working behind his stall. I had struck gold at last!

Well, I had THE most delightful, entertaining and friendly afternoon! For the next two hours or more I sat behind the stall with Philemon, Obert, Gerald and Tafadzwa, with occasional visits from Richard for trade was slack. My four companions worked as they talked, well educated, articulate conversations about Zimbabwe and many many questions about England and the world. They were so well informed. It was a delight to sit and watch them deftly creating animals and flowers from beads and wire. “I wish you had some small BMW motorbikes!” I said wistfully.

“Don’t you have a photo?” asked Philemon, the motorbike-making specialist of the group. “I can make you one!”

We found a photo on the screen on the back of my camera and he snapped it with his mobile phone – and there and then went to work – on commission. I watched with awe. He had only a pair of long-nosed pliers and a coil of thin galvanised wire. In an hour he had made a framework that I could recognise as my BMW, so well bent that it looks as if it is machine made. Such accuracy and dexterity. I was fascinated and enthralled to see it taking shape. Meanwhile, Obert made flowers, Gerald made a large bead-covered elephant and Tafadzwa a beaded gecko, their hands twisting and sculpting the wires as they asked questions and told me about Zimbabwe, by far the best information I could hope to find. These are all educated men doing their best to earn a living in a ruined economy, and doing it with such admirable fortitude that I can only wonder why we have the temerity to dismiss Africa in the way we do. We have so much to learn from this continent, but we are too arrogant to see it, and assume WE must ‘develop’ them. No way do Philemon, Obert, Gerald and Tafadzwa need our lessons – in materialism, greed, self-interest, discontent, acquisitiveness and aggression… No way at all. Those men welcomed me as a complete equal, with the out-going warmth and generosity that is so much part of Zimbabwean life. The two hours I spent with them rate amongst the best experiences of this very rewarding trip. I look forward to meeting them all again tomorrow and sitting with them in their shady, simple corner of the market, Gerald sitting on the horns and skull of a buffalo, the others on those weak, ubiquitous Chinese plastic patio chairs that have smothered the world. I enjoyed their company so much – and I think they enjoyed mine too.

I have a feeling that another parcel may have to be dispatched before long – just when I thought I had lightened my load…

*
In the evening I went out to get supper. There is little choice here: just various fast foods, mainly chains from South Africa (Hey, I just realised, another admirable attribute for Zimbabwe: no McDonalds!). For a couple of nights I have been subjected to bloody pizzas, not a food I much relish. Tonight I looked for a Portuguese chain, also from South Africa, Nandos. I had seen it on the way home from last night’s forgettable pizza but could not find it again. I stopped to ask some security guards. Every ATM has a guard. They could not remember (well, I suppose they never afford Nandos, which is a little more expensive than the ghastly Chicken Inn and Pizza Inn) so they stopped a young man, walking purposefully past. He, Shadrack, knew the way, and promptly turned about and walked with me several blocks in a direction in which he was not going. He had been on his way to place a bet on a big football match – in England of course. I feel so inadequate that I cannot converse on football in Africa, having always to rely on my presence at several Africa Cup of Nations matches (Africa’s equivalent to the World Cup) in Ghana in 2008 in an attempt to impress.

This was another thoroughly contented day in Zimbabwe. It has risen uncontested to the top of my favourite nations of the almost 100 I have visited. It is extraordinary that the only two towns in which I think I could happily live in Africa are Harare and Bulawayo, the two major towns of east and west Zimbabwe, Mashonaland and Matabeleland respectively.

Zimbabwe, international reputation: complete basket case. My assessment: top in the world.

One should always come and judge for oneself.

DAY 36. TUESDAY MARCH 25th 2014. HARARE, ZIMBABWE.

…Still smiling!

Just back from supper, served by a pretty, friendly little waitress called Knowledge – (I was served petrol yesterday by a young man called Innocent Murungu) I wandered the immediate street around the hotel. It is hectic out there, a mass of calling minibus taxi conductors and crowded with an informal street market that has built up around this hub of taxis taking people home to the suburbs. The pavements are partially filled with vendors, making passage difficult as you weave in and out between all manner of goods laid on the pavement or balanced on small carts. There are fruit sellers with apples, grapes, pineapples, bananas, and peaches. There are every sort of cheap goods for sale: soap, toothpaste, scrubbing brushes, underpants, matches, pirate DVDs, mouse poison, sweets, hair products, lurid sugar drinks, phone chargers, religious texts, kitchen mops, socks, highway codes, hair extensions, patent medicines, combs, cabbages, floor mats, razors, shoes, leather belts, tomatoes, Gospel music, phone cases, potatoes, clocks, and every imaginable product of Chinese factories: everything you just might find yourself in need of as you set off on the weary, crowded and uncomfortable journey home packed four or five abreast in rattling minibuses, or even curled into the boot of a small Italian taxi car with your legs hanging out the back.

With it all is an outpouring of goodwill that I have never experienced in any other country. I stand out rather..! I forget this since after several weeks on the road, I don’t see the colour of people’s skin any more and forget just how I shine in a dark street. I haven’t spoken to a white-skinned person since I was in Lusaka. I see few white people here in Zimbabwe. I just don’t see the blackness any more; anyway, it’s never as simple as that: there is every shade of brown and every type of facial characteristic. Zimbabweans, as well as being the world’s warmest nation are some of the best looking people in Africa – to my taste anyway. Neatly dressed, neatly proportioned and quietly going about their everyday business. How sad that they have to battle with a defunct economy and such personal privation. They deserve so much better.

*

In a store this afternoon I fell into conversation with one of the employees, Tavengwa. Her salary, as a sales assistant in a clothing supermarket is US$250 a month – £150 or so. “I’d like to see England!” she exclaimed regretfully, “but we can never afford it…” Again: the inequality. Yet this nation is so well educated and intelligent. Even a shop assistant will engage me in conversation with better English fluency and comprehension than many English people. The basic level of education is to O level and I meet so many salesmen, pump attendants, waiters and craftspeople with more O levels than my pathetic four. Tavengwa was helping me to buy a tee shirt. “Buy two!” she joked. “You can give one to me. But I need extra large!” She indicated her very generous bosom with a candid laugh. “Yes, we are friendly people and literate.”

“…and honest!” I chuckled, eyeing her large curves.

It seems so odd that such a cultured, informed and intelligent people can be so successfully politically hijacked. It is a peace-loving nation and I suppose the control of the military is all important in suppressing the population. Maybe there is just little they can do except call upon their exemplary fortitude and hope for change for the better. I shall certainly take more interest in the machinations of Zimbabwean politics after this happy visit. I intend to return…

*

Philemon is progressing well with my motorbike model. I rode out there to show him the real thing and he was busy stringing beads and wire together in a very clever interpretation of the red BMW. It will be ready for collection tomorrow morning before I leave Harare.

Then I should have known better: I visited the city museum. For £6 entrance (for non-residents) I was treated to a dismal collection of fly-blown cases, peeling captions, dusty taxidermy and broken light bulbs. Some of the stuffed animals had even fallen over and others were eaten away by time and insects or worse. The glasses were grubby and several areas quite indistinguishably dark. No money has been spent for at least twenty years. And with the present economy I doubt it will be spent in the next twenty.

*

Every third person I see is fiddling with a mobile phone – texting, talking or just obsessively checking the screen, drivers as prone as anyone. It has been such a revolution all over this continent, has the mobile phone. It has brought technology to everyone from street sweeper and market trader to businessman and woman, and it obsesses them all. Advertising is dominated by rival networks and there are phone stores at least three to a city block, plus countless vendors of top-up time, one every few yards. It is the biggest business in Africa, I reckon, for the revolution overran this continent leap-frogging the whole business of landline infrastructure. Irritating though it is to be always dodging people diverted by their phones, it has brought a positive change to African life. It is reducing the concept of ‘Africa Time’ as people are no longer willing to wait upon the whims of others.

My till receipt for my meal tonight tells so much about an economy that does not even have its own currency. It is in no less than five currencies: US$7.60; South African Rand 83.60; Pound Sterling £4.94; Euro €5.70; Botswana Pula P64.60! Incidentally, that was for a plate of chicken strips and vegetables stir-fried with spicy Portuguese sauce and rice and a bottle of water. Coin change is given in Rand and sometimes just ignored altogether, the sum being rounded to the nearest dollar. There was a recent announcement that the Chinese Yuan and the Japanese Yen will be added to the list of acceptable currencies!

Another day happy amongst this charming nation, no one person of which has so far broken the magic in nine days. Quite reluctantly I will move on tomorrow, eastwards initially, then eventually southwards back – even more reluctantly – to South Africa. I now have only twenty days left of this trip and I am still a long way from Durban with decisions to make about the bike. Still, I can squeeze a few more days in Zimbabwe.

And I know I shall come back. It is just too good not to.

DAY 37. WEDNESDAY MARCH 26th 2014. MUTARE, ZIMBABWE.

Zimbabwe continues to beguile me. Another most enjoyable day of charming people and good scenery. It is so relaxing to travel amongst so much good will.

Mutare is on the far eastern side of Zimbabwe, close to the border with Mozambique and today’s was another great ride. About 150 miles, the temperature was ideal – probably about 27C or 80ish Fahrenheit; the road was good – as I have found most of Zimbabwe’s roads; and the scenery handsome, almost parklike as the hills rolled by with long grasses shaded by a million trees. The roads are generally unfenced, enhancing the feeling of limitless space under an African sky. I bowl contentedly along at fifty miles an hour, alone in the African veldt. Oddly shaped balancing rocks are a feature of various parts of Zimbabwe: huge house-sized granite boulders split apart in sculptural forms with giant rocks precariously balanced one on another as if by some playful giant hand. Early afternoon is always fun as groups of well dressed primary school children walk the red dust road shoulder home, swinging sticks at the long grass and turning to watch and wave at the passing white man. Motorbikes always attract children – and so many others in Africa. I am uniquely approachable, unthreatening in my open face helmet, the smile being sunburnt onto my face.

To think that last year as I struggled through the border from South Africa at Beitbridge (a ghastly experience actually, especially getting out of South Africa) I anticipated that my next days would be full of difficulties, restrictions, hassles and frustration. Such were my preconceptions: a country in political and social melt-down; a land in turmoil and internecine conflict. Huh! how wrong I was. I soon realised that there was something special about Zimbabwe, even on my brief four or five day visit last year.

Just a moment ago, returning from supper in town, I was about to sling my leg over the bike when a young man came up. “You are from Eastern Cape!”

“No, I am from England; the motorbike is from South Africa.”

“One day I wish I could travel like you! I have been to South Africa but you know things are difficult now. But I remain positive! One day things will be better and then I can see other places. I believe in being positive! Even the blind man can hope that maybe one day he will see! My time will come, even maybe when I am old!”

It is an attitude I witness so infrequently anywhere else on the world: an acceptance of the now and a fortitude about the future. Here it is everywhere and in everyone. It makes for such joyful interaction; people without envy and filled with my two most highly respected human attributes: compassion and curiosity. I do hope that my enthusiasm is not becoming tedious to read! I am constantly reminded that this is a very special country, despite all the impressions I harboured before coming last year. There are so few tourists that I know these are the conceptions of the world. Thanks to the media I had such a one-sided view of Zimbabwe, just its bizarre political shambles; nothing of its inspirational people, or even its handsome countryside. Zimbabwe, limping along – you look at its recent history, and don’t forget, there was the UDI/ Ian Smith debacle before a late independence in 1980 and the rise to power of the present extreme incumbent – and it is difficult to understand how hope triumphs here despite everything thrown at these universally charming people. In my days here not one person has been rude, angry, pushy, aggressive or unkind. Every person I have met has appeared to wish that they could make my day better in some small way: a friendly smile, a few words of warmth, a small service openly given – welcome to a stranger. My faded hotel tonight, a couple of rambling bungalows around some pleasant gardens (where I am sitting with a beer to write, entertained by a harangue from a Charismatic priest and cheerful singing from a nearby church meeting) is in a suburb of the small town of Mutare, called Utopia. Well named for me tonight.

*

Philemon, the craftsman whom I commissioned to produce the wire and bead model of my BMW 650F, is another very charming personality, warmly gentle and quiet. So is Richard who operates the excellent craft market stall where Philemon and the others work. Such educated men, so warm and welcoming. I received cheery waves from afar as I crossed the shopping centre car park, and warm handshakes of old friends. Richard tried to give me items from his stall, almost embarrassedly trying to refuse my payment as if it would be insulting to charge a friend. When I asked Philemon how much I should pay him for his wonderful interpretation of my motorbike, which he worked on for a day and a half, he shyly suggested $25 (£15). I gave him $35. It was deal between us two: Richard was not acting as an agent and generously instructed that I should negotiate directly with Philemon. No one appears to be driven by greed or tries to cheat me or one another despite their pitiful financial situations.

I will have to find another box! Zimbabwean handicrafts are now filling my small luggage again. A trip to the post office in the next day or two I think. I am very impressed by the craft heritage of this country. My friends in Harare are so skilled and have such a well developed sense of space and form to be able to so confidently bend wire around fresh air in three dimensions and produce elephants, flowers, butterflies, chameleons, warthogs, cars, bicycles – and motorbikes.

*

The Utopia Country Guest House is my usual faded level of habitation but I seemed to have arrived in the middle of a spring clean for the whole place. What hotel would upturn all its rooms at the same time? Then I opened the French door into the garden and found people shampooing carpets on the lawn. It is a contract job and all the carpets are being cleaned. I went out to talk, knowing that I would find intelligent conversation. And I did. Young Blessing (his sister, now doing A levels, is called Mercy) is 24 and another Zimbabwean charmer. He is studying architectural drawing, something his family wants him to do, but he wants to make music (like most 24 year olds) and write scripts for films. He tells me that Zimbabwe has a reasonably healthy film industry. Meanwhile, he is helping out on the carpet cleaning contract, happy to be enterprising. He tells me that A level is now the required standard for school leavers and that families will do all they can, even in rural areas, to ensure that their children get as well educated as possible. It is often down to donors to pay the fees of rural children for all schools are fee paying and officials are assiduous in tracking down non-attenders.

It is my custom when talking with people for whom English is not necessarily their first language, to pronounce my words more clearly, speak a little more slowly and restrict my vocabulary to relatively simple words and avoid abstract concepts. In Zimbabwe I find myself talking – and, importantly, joking – just as I would with intelligent friends in England. Comprehension and articulateness is so high here. Blessing has two more O levels than me. I’d bet the fellow with the shampoo machine has too…

Most of the street lights don’t work; the traffic lights don’t work, as did not many of the lights at major junctions in the capital. Town roads are dangerously potholed and the road signs rusting. There’s no money about yet so much positive energy, determination, hope and good will.

Harness all the dreams and energy and this country could fly.

DAY 38. THURSDAY MARCH 27th 2014. MUTARE, ZIMBABWE

Another day in Utopia! Haha! I can’t believe that this country just goes on getting better.
Eleven days now, and absolutely nothing to break the spell.

I was woefully ignorant of this country, like, I suspect, most of my countryfolk, despite our strong connections, now mainly forgotten. Each day brings discoveries. Today it’s the Eastern Highlands, the most glorious scenery imaginable under the great dome of African blue sky strewn with powdery cotton boll clouds.

*

I slept badly, a troubled night with some bad dreams, forgotten the moment I wake, but leaving an unpleasant discomfort in their place. It’s usually a feature of my African travels that I sleep soundly and long: after all, hours of sunshine, fresh air and mild exercise and not a lot to stress or concern me. Who wouldn’t sleep well? Tossing and turning, imagining vain things, the sheet twisting beneath me, a distant dog irritating with every occasional bark; at last I made it to morning and slept. I am now certain that it is the malaria tablets. Last week I suffered an anxious day, most unusual. This week anxious sleep. These are a different pill to the ones I normally take – Lariam – which give me no problems. I suppose I have to keep taking them now I have started but I am glad I withdrew from buying enough for my next Ghanaian or malarial African trip while I was in the chemists. They are less than half the iniquitous price if you buy them in Africa.

So I was a bit sluggish in the morning. But my mood soon began to change as I rode over the Christmas Pass out of Mutare, a low pass with fine views back across the wide valley with the town spreadeagled below. It’s a somewhat alarming piece of road building: a bumpy dual carriageway with the incoming half in some places raised ten feet above the opposing traffic. All very well, but there is no barrier, just a wall that ends at the edge of the upper tarmac! Coming back into Mutare left hand bends concentrate the mind.

A few miles out, a rusting sign directed me off to the right towards Nyanga, fifty or sixty miles away. From then on I forgot my mental state and began to enjoy another grand day in Zimbabwe. Mountains ahead promised new delights.

So it proved. The road was empty, except for the usual African phenomenon of so many people walking the dust shoulder; standing waiting for tomorrow or a rattling minibus to somewhere else or just sitting beside the tarmac in the hope that one of the infrequent vehicles will stop to purchase potatoes, tomatoes, firewood or some other commodity scavenged from the countryside or laboriously tended and harvested from unrelenting patches of red dust and stone – usually just when everyone else harvests the same crop and prices drop accordingly. The conundrum of subsistence farming in Africa. Soon the mountains came closer and the road began to weave into fine scenery with expansive views of ranges of softly blue-green mountains, closely dusted with trees. In the foreground were the small thatched rondavels and maize fields of the villages.

Then I was amongst extensive stands of Douglas fir plantations, cloaking the rolling mountains in a European manner. It was as if I had the Highlands of Scotland to myself on a peerless midsummer’s day. All for me; all alone, but with the added romance of the pointy thatched earth houses and the fact that this is Africa, not Inverness. It was lovely scenery and I understood the call of Africa for those colonial settlers who saw this familiar beauty and wanted to tame it, carving a new life out of the natural wealth of these tropical mountains, even if they did belong to someone else by right…

At the end of the tarmac road, by now past the plantations and back to enormous vistas of valleys and green mountains stretching into the far distance, I reached Nyanga, a small scruffy town in the midst of a large national park. Eventually I found the entrance to the park and paid my fifteen dollars to ride the rough dirt roads across the empty mountains. I was the only visitor to the park of hundreds of square miles, except for a local school party in a small bus that had gone in a couple of hours before. Yesterday two people registered with the park attendant. In the last week I doubt there had been twenty visitors. I set off across the slopes on a narrow red dust track.

I must be getting old! Twenty kilometres in, discretion overcame my usual state of utter foolhardiness… The road was scratched across the open moorland under the highest mountain in Zimbabwe and I was heading far from the main road. And my bike has to get me back to Durban – before the shock absorber goes, preferably. Any problem, or any small tumble on the rough track and I would have a very long walk or wait, the only person who had entered the park today, for I had passed the school bus on its way out already. Feeling tame but sensible, I turned about.

The afternoon was on the wane by the time I was back on the tarred road, drinking a bottle of water and eating a probably rather old meat pie (Thank god for stainless steel guts) in a village store and chatting with the owner about Hull, where her daughter is a nurse. Then I rode away and took the only tarred turn off the road back to Mutare, which would lead me into the Honde valley, a spread of lowland that borders with Mozambique. A few miles on and suddenly the view exploded before me, a breathtaking plunge over the edge of a mighty escarpment two and a half thousand feet high, scarred by great bald domes of granite topped by strange formations and over which pours the second highest waterfall on the continent, presumably after the one in Lesotho for which I blistered my feet a few weeks ago. This sudden revelation was almost as dramatic as that greatest theatrical reveal in Africa: the moment you arrive at the lip of the Rift Valley in various parts of Kenya and the earth falls away beneath your feet, a mile of vertiginous rock. I rolled down the escarpment into the broad green valley, the vast wall now in shadow as the sun curved away from its tropical height. My shadow had stretched out from beneath the wheels and I know that when it touches the road verge it is about four o’clock. At the small town of Honde I turned in the road and wove my way back up the curls and twists to the high plateau. A thousand people waved again as I passed them going the other way, faces breaking into wide, engaging shiny smiles.

Finally back at my guest house I needed a shower to wash away the dust and sun. The shower unit gives only cold water (I haven’t had a hot shower for some days). Typically, instead of suggesting getting the electric head mended, Caroline, the receptionist, found me a large bucket and showed me the outdoor hot laundry tap! Mind you, I had looked at the odd contraption on top of the shower head, with its leaks and dribbles and electric wires, and feared electrocution…

The cook made me bream from Lake Kariba with sadza, the customary maize meal stodge that is the national dish, similar to most of the starchy porridges and heavyweight meal bases of Africa, and Jackie, the manager came and sat with me. It is so refreshing, everyone’s open and engaging eagerness to talk. She actually talked about politics, wondering how things ever came to the present situation and praying, as do most Zimbabweans, that change will come soon and be peaceful. She too believes in hope, as I have noted in many others. “We just have to have hope in this situation. What else can we do? He is 90 now. He should be a mentor and example, a wise elder! How can he still be there at that age?” She also talked about the Apostolic ‘churches’ that are causing so much suffering. These are ‘churches’ set up by ‘prophets’ that fleece the gullible of their little money – ‘giving it to god’; encourage polygamy and do not allow adherents to attend hospitals, or allow medical intervention. It was one such prophet that I was listening to last night as I wrote in the garden. Children suffer, education cannot be afforded for most offspring and wives and babies die unnecessarily. The Apostolic worship in the open air dressed in white. I saw several services last friday and sunday unwittingly.

Some weeks ago I made a rough programme for my remaining journey. That was before I discovered the delights of Zimbabwe. Now I am trying to reappraise my tour to extend my time in this great country. Unsurprisingly, South Africa will have to suffer. It will be so difficult going back to that rectitude and blankness after all the smiles, friendliness, welcome and warmth of this very special nation.

Undoubtedly number one.

DAY 39. FRIDAY MARCH 28th 2014. MUTARE, ZIMBABWE

‘Zimbabwe economy in danger of collapse!’ shouted the newspaper hoarding for one of the independent, opposition papers this morning. That seems like old news and rather late! It collapsed a long time ago…

“Everyone I talk with expresses such extraordinary hope, even in the face of this mess!” I was conversing with one of the hotel guests in the car park. Everyone comes to greet me, asking after my night, and actually caring that I did have a good sleep. It is not a mere formal rote.

“What else do we have? Hope is all we have left! Without that what would we do?” My informant works on behalf of an NGO, checking on the distribution of funds for rural schooling, for this is the only way that many children can be educated: by the provision of donor funding.

“Is there corruption at that level?”

“Well, yes!” He smiled. “That is our job, to check that the money reaches the families that need it and to educate that it is in everyone’s interests to make sure it gets there. But our contract ends in August… And then we join the 90% unemployed of Zimbabwe!”

“NINETY per cent? And you are still laughing!”

“Hah, what choice do we have? But these are the last laughs! Haha!”

This is a bankrupt country. Zillions of dollars are required just to restore the infrastructure. The street lights, the traffic lights, services – those are just visible things that are broken – everything is in need of investment. And since the Western powers withdrew support for Mugabe’s regime the only source of loans is China, who don’t care a monkey’s for culture, infrastructure, social welfare – only cash return and influence in Africa. A bankrupt land with not much economic future (despite such a rich financial past…).

*

“We have learned to cope without the government. Ironically, the government has lost control of the people. It is an irrelevancy with very little influence.” Tony is a fourth generation white Zimbabwean running a coffee shop in the mountains. “When everything was falling apart – and the shops were empty…”

“They still are! I have been in some rural shops with very little stock!” I observed.

“No! I mean EMPTY! There was NOTHING on the shelves. But as things devolved everyone learned that if the government can’t do it for me I must be self-sufficient. Somehow we just learned to help ourselves. It completely disempowered the government. Now He has little influence on the people. We just get on with life in our own way. We don’t pay attention to the government any more. We are well educated and enterprising so everyone took their own destinies in hand! We have an ethic of hard work and initiative. Most people live outside the official economy. After all, who can believe in such elections! There was a story at the last election that you should take your own pen to the polling booth. It was said that if you voted for the Changirai’s opposition with the pens supplied the cross faded but the alternative cross was printed on the form in ink that didn’t show until later! I don’t know of it’s true… No, the present government has very little power over the minds of the people…”

“So what do you think will happen when Mugabe dies? I mean, he is 90.”

“I believe the right man will rise when the time comes. Look at South Africa. When Botha had the heart attack and F. W. De Klerk took over, he released Mandela and things changed. I think the same will happen in Zimbabwe. We are peaceable, intelligent people equipped with good education.”

I wonder? I’ll certainly take a lot more interest in Zimbabwean politics now I realise that the basket case government has so little influence on the population and is just a few errant, corrupt men and the army looking after themselves without any real mandate. The president and his coterie of corrupt cronies may be ruling, and ruining, the country but he has lost control of the hearts and minds of his people who just get on with life despite him.

*

Cloudy and much cooler today, I did a few necessary maintenance jobs on the red bike waiting for the cloud to lift, chatting to friendly hotel staff and guests. I am never alone for long, people’s curiosity and warmth makes sure of that. “Can I help?” they all ask. “Do you need anything?”

Then I rode out of town via the post office and another package home – full of wire toys. Filling out the forms took time that would have irritated me beyond belief had I been waiting in the post office queue, but the other customers demurred at my embarrassed apologies, smiling patiently and politely. Filling up with petrol I was greeted by young Blessing, for within just a couple of days here I have become everyone’s friend. People fend for themselves but there seems to be strong mutual support – maybe it’s that wartime resolve and fortitude of which my parents’ generation talk, all for one: one for all.

The Vbumba and Burma valleys are nearby, huge deep valleys filled with indigenous tropical forest. Potholed roads corkscrew and spiral down but all end eventually in mud-bath tracks. I explored several, wanting to believe that there was a destination to be found but realising that they led to remote farms; in two cases ending in school yards and in another a smart hotel. Faces split with wide welcoming smiles. Palms raised in cheery waves. Children waved and shouted excitedly and chased my motorbike down forested roads in glee.

At the botanical gardens – in need of hundreds of thousands of dollars for maintenance – I was the first visitor for three days and the first foreigner since the middle of last month. Tourism, once the second earner for Zimbabwe, is dead.

Tony has converted a colonial bungalow amidst a lovely garden into a coffee shop of considerable luxury and expense. I ate a slice of chocolate cake containing more chocolate than I have eaten in a month, or need to eat in another, and a pot of excellent – locally grown – coffee. It cost £10.50, this in a country with no currency of its own and 90% unemployment! I was too embarrassed to mention it to my new guesthouse friends! But that’s the spirit of enterprise: you make what you can, how you can… Dinner and breakfast in my friendly guesthouse, meanwhile, cost £3.60.

I am so much enjoying this experience. My return to South Africa is a reluctant necessity that I keep putting off. I reckon I can have another three nights at least in delightful Zimbabwe. Despite the inequalities of which I am so aware, I sense no envy or that I am seen as a source of wealth, merely a guest to be generously welcomed.

My own smile is a fixture.

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