2015 – SOUTHERN AFRICA JOURNAL – 8

DAY 52. THURSDAY JANUARY 29th 2015. HARARE, ZIMBABWE

Harare feels like a real city. I know this is an odd thing to say, but in Africa so many cities are hectic, decrepit, derelict over-crowded places, like vast market places of informal traders and crazy traffic. Harare is relatively calm, quite western in its style and filled with friendly, quiet people. Today I left the bike locked up in the Hotel Elizabeth yard and took to my feet, which is pleasant in this city, although a few major road crossings can be a bit hairy. But Harare has pavements, proper pavements, albeit with some deep elephant trap holes and missing manhole covers, broken here and there and puddled in the afternoon rains. But generally, I can walk without having to walk in the traffic lanes as in many African cities. There are wide avenues and lots of bustling shops. The are gardens and a very good park in the centre with bright flowers and trimmed lawns where people sit quietly minding their own business on concrete benches in the shade of fine spreading trees.

There are a number of South African chain stores and also some old fashioned department stores of the sort I remember as a child, their windows filled to bursting with antique 1950s ceramic dummies (curiously pink coloured with sculpted brown hair and grim expressions) dressed in slightly out of date dresses and very modest lingerie. There are a LOT of shoe shops, all rather faded, and many busy beauty parlours weaving intricate hairstyles. There are a few smart modern malls (one of them the ugliest I have seen) with escalators and lifts, marble and tile – with the incongruous sight of elderly women walking through with their shopping on their heads. For although it may look like America, this is truly Africa! All day I have spotted five other white-skinned people.

There are improvements since last March. I get the impression that things are settled at present. The traffic lights generally work now, which gives pedestrians a chance in the afternoon. The city is oddly calm and quiet in the mornings, a pleasant time to meander the streets. The street lights work now here and there and there is a semblance of order that wasn’t visible only ten months ago. The park, for instance, has had some investment even if the fountains haven’t played in years.

*

I found my breakfast in a shopping mall up the street, a decent cup of coffee and a croissant. I was feeling stupidly cheerful thanks to Amigo, a smart young man who fixed my iPad in minutes for me. For some days now I have been without email, not that I have found any wifi anyway. There was an electronics dealership on the first floor of the mall near the coffee stall, as good a place as any, I decided, to seek assistance with my technological problem. “Is there anywhere in the city that I can find someone who knows about Apple iPads?” I asked. Amigo, as I later found he was oddly called, pointed at his own chest. “Yes, but do you REALLY know..?” For Africans, on the whole will tell you what you want to hear instead of disappointing.

Amigo knew. I pulled out my device. “Ah, an iPad One! That’s when they made them strong! All metal bodies.” He instantly recognised my machine as the first, and now elderly, generation (I mean, almost five years: its antique!) In a few deft dabs and swipes over the next ten minutes he fixed the problems and made it all work again. Sometimes I feel so inadequate! He was visibly delighted with my gift of ten dollars. It was worth it to me. I have come to think of my iPad as part of the journey. I still dare not switch it off until I need it no more, however.

*

All day I have chatted with Zimbabweans: itinerant booksellers – of whom there is one on just about every street corner, sometimes more, selling mainly text books and inspirational and quasi-religious literature, but also secondhand novels, for Zimbabweans love to read; with staff in shops and with street traders. Everyone, even the meanest informal trader seems to have education beyond their calling. Typhos, a smart young man selling phone accessories – probably statistically the most common street traders – had five O levels and discussed world politics. I am surprised with the alacrity with which people will talk Zimbabwean politics too, generally with a certain scorn for the incumbent and always with the hope that his death will bring changes that are just impossible while he clings to office. His wife Grace, only turning fifty this year – I hadn’t realised she was so young – is thought of as the disruptive power behind the crazy dictator, a gold digger who is aspiring to succeed to the dynastic throne, with her new three month PhD and a ruthless ambition. “Huh, if the first wife was around he would have retired years ago. In the beginning he was strong and good for us all. Now…” On the whole, he is seen as a slightly farcical cartoon character, the elderly uncle at the party who always embarrasses.

*

As I left the hotel this morning, James, the manager who greeted me so warmly yesterday, called me back and presented me with a bag of wire and bead animals as a gift. So began my acquisition of craftwork, for Zimbabweans are very creative and innovative. I couldn’t resist purchasing a couple of candlesticks made entirely from old tin cans and the curved tops of paint spray cans, such a clever design that they made me laugh as I complimented the maker by his collection on the pavement, using his skill and ideas to make ends meet like so many others here. Educated people, despite the aspirations that good education brings, have no false pride about their activities and seem to enjoy and take a pride in the informal economy they have all created together.

Later I walked out to the Avondale Centre, an area of smart shops in a nearby suburb, a mile or so out of the centre. That is where I met Richard and Philemon and their colleagues last year. It was Philemon who made the wonderful wire and bead model of my red motorbike that gives me so much pleasure. It was a delight to meet them again. Richard, the stall holder, is a quiet man of integrity, unpushy in his salesmanship and very charming. We have exchanged emails over the year and I wish I was more entrepreneurial myself that I could set up some sort of partnership to promote the goods he sells at home. I received another warm welcome as I walked through the craft market. Philemon arrived later, another kind, clever man from whom I have already commissioned one gift that will be made tomorrow, his 41st birthday as it happens, and discussed the commission of making me a copy of my old African Elephant. For this I intend to leave him with $80, about twice his asking price and have him send it on in a couple of months, after I send him detailed photos from which to work. No one knows better than I do the problem of valuing your own work, and Philemon is worth much more than he asks. I would like to set him up with a few more commissions from my friends to create models of their motorbikes.

*

Heavy rains this afternoon again. When the skies open, it’s like being doused with water. I chatted about one minute too long with Typhos and made it back to the shelter of the hotel drenched in a moment, running with half Harare for cover. Africa does nothing by halves.

It’s ten o’clock now and things are quietening down outside at last. Thank goodness things get relatively peaceful once all the pirate CD sellers and the minibuses go away.

DAY 53 FRIDAY JANUARY 30th 2015. HARARE, ZIMBABWE

The iPad died again tonight. I am writing this by hand for later transcription: writing by hand as I did all those millions of words, every day of my travels for so many years. Now, since the advent of ‘word processing’ (such a mechanically dull word for such a creative art) my hand writing – never very good – is illegible, sometimes even to me…

*

It’s been a tiring day – surprising how tiring walking and talking can be! For that’s how I spent quite an enjoyable day, hiking round Harare, talking at length to all and sundry, especially at the Avondale Craft Centre, with friendly, intelligent Zimbabweans.

You walk in Harare dodging traffic that is uncompromising. I wonder what it is that turns most Africans I have known into willing aggressive pedestrian murderers? They really do appear to drive to kill, already protected inside lethal wheeled weapons, covered with ‘Bull Bars’, proven to kill rather than maim. They drive with no consideration for pedestrians all over this continent, except, perhaps, South Africa which has better controlled crossings. It can make for stressful strolling and you can’t even trust the rights at crossings. I think it was a regardless driver who just outed my iPad, hitting my bag as I crossed the hectic street.

Here and there are reminders of Zimbabwe’s colonial past as Rhodesia. I found a gas lamp standard erected to the memory of King Edward in1913, and here and there you step over gratings stamped with ‘Salisbury’. There are King George Road, Rotten Row, Prince Edward Street and indeed my Elizabeth Hotel, probably named after the Queen Mother, maybe the Queen. There are road names and district names redolent of Empire, but increasingly renamed in honour of African independence heroes and later despots.

Zimbabwe has a rich colonial heritage, on which it has built its systems of education, justice and much infrastructure – until the collapse of the economy in 2008 and its ideological move away from things empirical and European as it swung to the East – an alarming misadventure in the minds of the people, who have little love for, or respect for, the Chinese. It appears that many of the Chinese workers sent to oversee the building of roads and construction are prisoners given the option of Africa or continuing sentences. This, at any rate, is the perception here – and seems quite possible to me, looking at the Chinese government’s real interest in Africa as a mere source of wealth, with no interest in the social well being or advancement of its population…

The British education system is still used throughout the land, probably rather an old fashioned version of it, like the one that educated my generation. People talk fondly of Cambridge (always pronounced Camm-bridge), presumably the seat of their O and A levels. The English language, without any American overtones, is used everywhere and children as young as seven or eight can converse. This of course gives Zimbabweans the edge in the international employment market. Most Zimbabweans, despite – of course – being thankful for and proud of independence, even if it came so late and so uncomfortably, admit that the British systems they inherited have left behind a lot of benefits.

*

I walked out to Avondale again to see Phillimon (as he spells it) and Richard and also to chat with others, notably Godfrey Zhande, a loquacious elder gentleman who has seen regimes come and go in his time. It’s intriguing how much people like to talk politics here – even now. They are so well informed and politically aware that one wonders how the country could have been so successfully hijacked by Mugabe. The majority of people are just waiting for him to die. He has, absolutely everyone I speak to agrees – with the notable exception of Garikhyi, the motorbiking policeman in Chimanimani – outstayed both his welcome and his usefulness. They know that the only way he will relinquish power after his – so far – 35 years in office, is by dying! What a bizarre situation…

*

From Phillimon I have ordered a model of my old African Elephant. I am to send photos when I get home. He will mail it to me in due course. It is a testament to the honesty of these people that I had no qualms about paying him the £50 in advance. He told me last year that he makes about US$250 (£170 odd) a month. My African Elephant will probably only take him a couple of days. I’m happy to help such a clever craftsman.

By chance while at Avondale, obviously a white residential area of Harare for there was a gathering of white Zimbabweans in the restaurants and coffee shops of this smarter mall, I spotted an Authorised Apple Dealer. I asked advice about my dicky iPad and the answer was to carry on as I have been doing and keeping it switched on and charged. Then tonight it has failed me again. Lucky I found that store here in Africa. I shall be there when it opens tomorrow.

*

I asked James, the tall cheery hotel manager, who gives me a handshake whenever I come and go from this tired, just slightly seedy hotel with the thinnest sheets intact on the continent; gossamer thin, they are: “Tell me, James, is there EVER any hot water in this hotel?”

He frowned and thought for a moment, apparently turning the concept over in his mind. “Errr, nooo….”

“OK, I was just checking in case I am missing out, maybe by getting up at three in the morning to shower or something…”

He chuckled and carried on mopping the lobby of the footprints and fruit peelings brought in from the mud of blocked drains in Robert Mugabe Road outside.

Harare, with its altitude somewhere about 1500 metres, is just cool enough except in the bright sun to make the cold water uncomfortable. But cold water it is in the Hotel Elizabeth… What do I expect for £20 a night at the heart of a capital city?

DAY 54. SATURDAY JANUARY 31st 2015. BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE

What a bit of luck I had spotting that Apple Dealer in the smart shopping centre yesterday. Pure fluke. I was there soon after nine this morning with my inoperable iPad and, with a bit of judicious enlargement of the truth about having to leave Harare today, within ninety minutes they repaired the device to my great delight. Worth every cent of the $60 (£40) and the expensive coffee and excellent croissant while I waited nearby. It was a loose connection on the logic board, whatever that may mean. My iPad lives again, for a while at least. I sometimes wonder if the justification for all my restless, footloose travel is actually the recording of it all here in this journal every night… And now I am able to share it with a handful of stalwart readers and I enjoy that thought too. The iPad has added a dimension to the creativity of writing it all down. Without the discipline of fountain pen and ink bottle I can change and adapt, add and erase as I go. I never thought that it would become such a part of my journey.

*

Today’s was a long ride: almost 300 miles; further than I like to ride in a day, but this was a pleasant day, cool from the altitude, sunny and with a thousand white puffy clouds floating across the huge blue African sky. It took some time to get beyond the suburbs and satellite villages of Harare but eventually I was out into fertile agricultural land full of sugar cane and maize, and later into heavily wooded bush country on a good road – doubtless the cause of huge debts and obligations to The People’s Republic. All day I rode on good roads, most of them toll roads between the two main cities in Zimbabwe. Sensibly, as in Britain and much of Europe, but not in South Africa, there are no toll fees for bikers. It makes sense: by the time we have engaged neutral, taken off gloves, burrowed through waterproof layers, unzipped jackets, found pockets, extracted money, handed it over, replaced change, zipped back up, straightened riding clothes, put back the gloves and set off there are fifty cars waiting impatiently behind! These may be toll highways but they are still only single-carriageway and the ever-present African threat of wandering cows – ‘Road Masters’ as Wechiga calls them in Ghana – is only slightly reduced, but the speed limit increases to 120kph (70mph).

About half way to Bulawayo the landscape changed completely. In a few miles it went from dark tree-covered bush to open grasslands dotted with trees, with an almost park-like look. It was about here that I passed into Matabeleland, that most sonorous of names that conjures the Africa of Edwardian fiction, of Rider Haggard or John Buchan. It’s also a tribal division in this country of two main tribes, the Mashona of the east and the Ndebele of the west.

*

I have been looking forward to returning to Bulawayo, a place I invested with the accolade of my favourite African city. But tonight I am less sure… The progress I saw in Harare is not replicated here. The street lights still don’t work, making moving about after dark very difficult as there are holes in most pavements. But more than the physical faults, I am seeing some other changes. I have been begged from by at least six or seven street children tonight, and a number are sleeping rough on the pavements. This I don’t recollect from the previous two visits when I was so impressed that I was greeted and accepted in a friendly manner but not hassled at all. Returning to the jaded Berkeley Place, more hostel than hotel, just now I almost fell over a group of young men dossing down for the night on the pavement up the street and was immediately accosted for money. This is new in Zimbabwe. I wonder what is causing it? I shall ask!

*

The Berkeley Place, guest house or whatever it is, is a scruffy place in the heart of town. It feels more like a YMCA or hostel. The rooms are old and faded but clean and some of them house small businesses. Candlewick bedspreads sort of set the tone and there’s a shower corner and washbasin with peeling ceiling above from the same arrangement upstairs. The floor is of lavishly red polished parquet and it all looks stuck in about 1960. It’s £13 for a twin room, probably the cheapest in town, and built round a small courtyard where my bike now stands beneath a tall palm tree. It serves its function quite adequately – a cleanish bed for the night, a door to lock out the world for a few hours and a place to relax and review the journey and regain strength for tomorrow’s activities, whatever they may be…

DAY 55. SUNDAY FEBRUARY 1st 2015. BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE

Sunday brings raucous singing from hundreds of churches of all classifications and TV evangelists screaming into microphones on every screen – except those showing endless football, of course. Ranting religious TV entrepreneurs – for religion is Big Business in Africa – yell and pontificate to vast black audiences somewhere, often in South Africa – and are broadcast in all the English speaking lands. In local halls and ‘churches’ similar slick-suited, self-proclaimed ‘pastors’ exhort huge congregations with antique Old Testament nonsense. I stood outside an Abundant Life Revival Mission across the street and listened for a few minutes – until the exploitation and manipulation irritated me. I’d gone over to listen to the enthusiastic singing, loud gospel songs in high pitched African rhythms, but hit a long tirade instead.

New cults spring up in this fertile religious atmosphere. One of the most visible is a growing informal ‘church’ that gathers its adherents to worship out of doors, dressed in white. It is said to be causing a lot of harm and deaths as it (of course) advises its fervent congregation to give away its money, not to attend hospitals and to leave medical matters to ‘God’s will’. Naturally, this means a lot suffering, deaths in childbirth and so forth. But then, the followers probably don’t have the money for medical fees as they’ve given it all away to the ‘priests’.

And why all this stuff about God’s punishment and retribution that they rant on about? Why are religion and fear so closely bound unless it is a wonderful historical plot to manipulate and control mankind by a small elite? Sorry, call me cynical, but…

Enough of that.

*

The Bulawayo museum was surprisingly interesting, and very surprisingly well maintained. Last year I visited Harare’s museum, a dire experience of dusty fly-blown cases with greasy glass, moulting taxidermy and some exhibits that had fallen over so long ago that the dust had settled where they once stood. Most of the illumination came through dirty windows high in the 1950s structure, for the light bulbs were broken and lights trailed frayed wires.

Bulawayo’s museum is also somewhat old fashioned, built in the 1960s I guess, with dark stained wooden panelling and bulky old dioramas set in dark plywood on dark parqueted floors. It is dated, but informative and well kept. The quality of the displays is rather good, especially for their period, the diorama paintings really excellent, with a lot of stuffed game everywhere and large galleries of stuffed birds and thousands of poor pinned butterflies, insects and reptiles. There’s even a coelacanth, that rarest of reptilian fish thought to have been extinct for thousands of years until one turned up deep in the Indian Ocean off the Eastern Cape in 1938, and a very few more since. I saw the original one, or what was salvaged of it, for the preservation didn’t happen quickly enough, in a museum somewhere in Eastern Cape some years ago.

There are displays, too, on the history of Bulawayo, most of the captions carefully changed from ‘Rhodesia’ to ‘Zimbabwe’ in slightly different hands. There’s a display on the charismatic Cecil Rhodes and many of the early colonial fortune hunters. There’s also quite an intriguing gallery with collections of ethnic artefacts and the history of man in southern Africa.

The museum stands in a large park. Those old colonials again. How the British loved their parks and gardens, botanical gardens and formal spaces. The Empire was littered with them. But by the time it came to wandering round the park I had ‘museum feet’ and there was a huge thunderstorm brewing away to the west, and I’d left my washing hanging over the bike in the hotel yard some blocks away.

*

Masimba, the museum receptionist, bemoaned the lack of opportunities in Zimbabwe. “We have degrees but these are the best jobs we can get. We want to be paid like our bosses,” she said, scratching hard at the furrows of her carefully woven weave-on hairstyle, an action that was oddly distracting. “We have the same degrees…”

“How is it in your country?” she asked. “Are there any unemployed?” So we talked of graduate unemployment in Europe and of the unachievable aspirations of qualified young people, and how high levels of education leave a shortage of people willing to do manual work. “One day I’d like to go to your place…” So many Africans dream of the money trees elsewhere. It’s difficult to convince them, without sounding unsympathetic and protective, that we all suffer the same economic problems and that they will be surrounded by very real ignorant prejudices at the same time they realise that autumn has come to those imaginary trees. Of course I am wealthy, in relative terms, for my money buys so much more here in the African economy… I often quote the price of a pint of beer at £3.50 to incredulous listeners (here £1.00) as an example.

*

In mid-November 2008 inflation hit its highest rate in Zimbabwe. At that time it took just 24 hours and 42 minutes for prices to double! The biggest note produced then – and they were printing banknotes at a tremendous rate of course, was a one hundred trillion Zimbabwe dollar bill: $100,000,000,000,000! Soon after that the nation abandoned its own currency and adopted the US dollar – and the South African Rand, the Botswana Pula, the Pound, Euro and almost anything else anyone brought in…

*

My waiter tonight, as the rain scythed down outside making my return very difficult in this city with so few street lights and so many – now water-filled – man traps, was called Never Khumalo. A tall, broad-shouldered man with a friendly smile, I had to ask…

“Well, it was given to me by an uncle. It came from scripture, he said: ‘Never-the-less the foundation of the Lord stands firm’; so it’s really short for Never-the-less!”

In recent days I have met a couple of ‘Innocents’ and ‘Blessings’; a ‘Knowledge’, a ‘Memory’, a ‘Special’ and the unforgettable ‘Curiosity’.

“Haven’t you met an ‘Ability’ or ‘Wonders’ yet?” someone asked the other day.

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