It’s midsummer in Zimbabwe, and the trees should be fully in leaf, the maize crops in the roadside farmlands at least waist high and beginning to tassle. But it looks like the middle of the winter dry season: many trees almost bare, the grasses on the verges grazed to stubble by ribby cattle and donkeys, the patchy fields naked and red. Almost no water in the many river courses I cross as I drive from one side of the country to the other.
Yet what is it about this Zimbabwean countryside, that so affects and invigorates me? After the almost suffocating dullness of Botswana, its banal flattened architectures matching the low expansiveness of its terrain, this is so different. Immediately after the border-post at Plumtree, hills heave up; the brachystegia woodlands breathe greenness, even now; there are clusters of rock, many-hued, each individually fascinating. This, at various scales from miniature balancing conglomerates through the great domelands of Ngundu Halt and Nyika to the long limber ranges of Chimanimani and Bvumba, is what Zimbabwe is for me: tree-covered hill-slopes, from loosely rolling to dramatically steep, overlooking the variegated farmlands and ochre-coloured homesteads, punctuated with bouldery domes of friendly rock.
I’ve always felt rather at a loss as to how to explain the literal lurch of the heart, a flummoxed tightening in the chest, on spotting the contours of a particular kopje. It’s the way it catches late afternoon sun, or the contrast of textures of mopane bark and rusty granite, or how leaf-shadow falls across a lichen-coated curve, or an irresistible mystery in the dark bend of a transverse crack. I’ve read a fair bit of landscape aesthetic theory, and nowhere have I found this emotional effect really adequately described. It’s not just familiarity from childhood, as a prospect wholly new to me can have the impact. It’s not just the effect of landscape art, though I’ve studied and practiced some of that, too, and know about Burke’s theories of the Romantic sublime – but some of the scenes I thrill to are two metres high. It’s sometimes, but not always, a matter of pattern or shape, since often the distribution of effects seems entirely random. It’s partly, perhaps, the way my mother taught me to observe and enthuse, since many people I know don’t respond in quite the same way.
And all of the above.
Stop trying to explain! I trundle in my pick-up along the spanking new Chinese-built road between Plumtree and Bulawayo, exulting in this or that view, shocked at the dryness of fields between their collapsing fences of mingled thornbush and wire, dodging donkeys and ruminative cows and multiple police road-blocks. After Bulawayo – passing the Mater Dei Hospital, scene of my birth – I turn southwards briefly, recalling a mantra of my younger journeys: Turn left at Balla Balla. It’s Mbalambala now, of course: opposite the army training camp languish several acres of stacked metal railway sleepers and rails, whether abandoned to economic downturn or awaiting prospective use, is impossible to say.
I turn left for the east, my ultimate destination. A policeman in dark blue denims signals for a lift. Policemen are always interesting to talk to, and this one is no exception. He has been in the ZRP for 17 years, he tells me, mostly because it’s one of the few jobs available these days, though even then inadequately paid. Like most working men, he has many family members dependent on him; he didn’t get his bonus last year, and the buying power of his salary has nearly halved since 2008. “I don’t want to say I blame the government,” he says, “because I am the government, I work for the government. But I don’t want to say I work for the government, I work parallel to the government” – and he illustrates his ambivalence with big gestures. Like everyone else, he hopes for some sort of change – more jobs, more industry, more investment – though quite how that is to come about he can’t specify. “Here I am, getting lifts – but I should be having my own car!” he almost shouts. We discuss the Chinese presence; he dislikes them intensely, they are exploitative, and “they have no love,” he says. And of course we discuss the drought, and the parlous state of the dam nearby that supplies Bulawayo city; and he insists with some vehemence that one must distinguish clearly between weather and climate, the short-term and the long-term. “We must just pray,” he concludes.
I drop him off at the Filabusi turnoff – he commutes some 80 km almost daily – and immediately pick up a lanky Rastafarian-looking man, his dreads tucked away in a yellow woollen turban, his ivory fingernails grown long, his skin tawny as an Ethiopian’s. He commutes a similar distance between Filabusi and Zvishavane – he calls it by its colonial version, Shabani; perhaps he thinks my whiteness won’t accommodate the buzzing Shona sibilants. He is eloquent and affable and curious; he turns out to be a driving instructor, and we discuss the odd fact that in these straitened times two minor industries seem to flourish: hairdressing and driving schools. We discuss fuel consumption rates and his desire to move to Namibia, since it is becoming intolerable here. The political future is deeply uncertain, to say the least. He notes a truck turning out ahead of us, loaded with rough pale ore from a mining claim, going to a Chinese-owned mill to be crushed for its gold. We discuss the depressed state of Zvishavane due to the closing of the asbestos mine. We discuss the drought, of course, and he informs me that in nearby Chivu people are already slaughtering livestock and selling it off at rip-off prices to the abbatoirs, since they will soon be too thin to sell at all; but what prospect then of restoring the herds? “We can only pray to the Most High One,” he concludes. “He is punishing the nation.”
I decide to refrain from engaging this sweet man in discussion of why God’s punishment seems to descend disproportionately on the meek, the weak, and the impoverished.
East of Masvingo that impoverishment is stark. There are simply no crops: stubble, here and there ploughed in again, as if hoping for another season to begin. The farms taken over by war vets look abandoned; even the Zionist Church lands, fronting their massive green-roofed temple, which are usually the best-advanced and organised on this stretch of road, are bare. Livestock is thin, both in body and distribution: where South Africa’s road-kill often includes wild animals, and Botswana’s is almost exclusively donkeys and dogs, here there is none at all. Traffic is sparse, and generally comfortingly (sometimes infuriatingly) sedate in pace. There thunder past, however, quite a few burnished new buses – ZUPCO and other new companies – alongside the rattletraps, little better than modified flour-tins, that I once used when I was a rural teacher.
At a favourite baobab near Birchenough Bridge I stop for coffee. Spaces between the lovely rocks are crammed with discarded drink-cans. I’ve noticed – especially with the bush and grasses so thinned by drought – not a single kilometre of this journey is unmarred by a greater or lesser density of litter: long streams of broken glass glittering in the sun, plastic bags and cans and KFC packaging and bog-roll. This despite the President’s call a while ago to clean the country up, and recently some litter-bugs being prosecuted, named and shamed. Yet just thirty metres from the verge, again and again you’ll see a neat cluster of huts and byres, all ochre mud and uneven wood fences, the surrounds swept down to the raw dust, but clean as dust can be, not a scrap of trash to be seen there. If only that ethic extended to modern motorists and their careless civilised junk.
Turning north from Birchenough Bridge and the worst stretch of broken-up road surface on all the journey, I am on the home run – 123 km to Mutare. Here you pass, as elsewhere, the Zim equivalent of the American strips: rows of shop-fronts set back from the road, most of similar architecture, with verandas tacked on to the flat shopfronts, leaving enough space above their roofs for the business name: Big Pees Enterprises and Muchadza General Dealer and TV and Butchery Investments Ltd. Some are derelict, others flash with garish new lime-green or deep purple paintwork; rather like traditional huts, perhaps, buildings are established, deteriorate, and are abandoned, rather than being continuously maintained, and new ones spring up alongside. So there is this kind of continuous archaeology of enterprise, an air of decay simultaneous with hope and vigour.
Rutted communal forecourts are gently busy with battered cars and loose goats and donkey-carts and minibus taxis colourfully emblazoned: King Shaddy or The Hardworkers or Roasted Wire or Psalms 23. In the shade of great mango or acacia trees, knots of seated people: small-time vendors of tomatoes and mangoes and baobab pods – unusually, no roasted maize-on-the-cob, a staple the drought has rendered unavailable – their fruit arranged in little heaps of such symmetry, perhaps inadvertent artistry, that is touching. It’s midday and clusters of tiny school-kids are prancing home, irrepressible as the goat-kids alongside them, all gangly and cute in crisp uniforms too big for them and wholly unsupervised – a freedom and insouciance that has been largely leached from Western societies.
Nyanyadzi is one such ‘strip’ I recall convoying through during the war in the late 1970s; and I can safely say that, whatever the hardships of the present moment, it’s a hundred times better than it was then, when there was virtually no life here at all, when the derelict buildings were not just abandoned, but blackened by fires and pock-marked with terror. And here is Wengezi Junction, where I used to turn off to the school I taught at for a time. Ugly memories; fond memories.
At last, north of the beautiful blue granite dome of Rowa, not far from the notorious Chiadza diamond fields, truly familiar batholiths and ridges are coming into view beyond the curving road, and I both settle and buzz in my nerve-ends with my impending arrival at what was once home. Despite whole decades of absence, in some sense it remains so.