Thursday, 12 January 2017

No 39 - Zimbabwe despatch: A walk through town

Pic: @kpczim
“I’ll walk home from here,” I say to my hostess.  She cocks her head at great steaming thunderheads looming over  Cecil Kop, rubs her throat in the morning humidity.  But okay.
            We’re in the middle of town, in one of the cul-de-sacs off the main street, which has lately been commandeered by a particular group of street- sellers – those who are making a few hard-won dollars from second-hand clothing.  Not the ultra-trashy, ‘zhing-zhong’ Chinese goods that have flooded most markets and destroyed Zimbabwe’s once-flourishing clothing industry, but clothes donated to charities in Mozambique, sold on in huge bales at US$250 a pop, smuggled across, or rather ‘negotiated’ through the nearby border post.  Now they lie in semi-chaotic piles on the sun-crazed tarmac, the vendors bawling their specialties and hoping the summer rain will hold off.  Here a heap of handbags and backpacks, there tiny-tots’ T-shirts, here packs of brand-new socks, there rows of sometimes slightly bent-looking shoes (one of each so you can’t run off with a pair). 
            My elegantly-built hostess likes rummaging through skeins of gossamery dresses and shifts and tops whose relevance to Africa has to be seriously questioned – but with a cry of triumph she comes up with a vivid Ralph Lauren dress, probably worn once by some Parisian deb and discarded: it fits her perfectly.  $4.  For my part, I score a couple of cool cotton shirts, one Malaysian, one English-made, and a pair of comfy Australian bush shorts with lots of pockets, just the way I like ‘em.  All in near-perfect condition: $2 apiece.  The insane profligacy of the developed nations meets the ingenuities of local economy.
            Not that these vendors are quite the impoverished who might benefit most.  My hostess chats amiably with some she knows well, not from the market but from her educational projects: these are teachers boosting their meagre government salaries during the school holidays, working ‘under’ another tier of entrepreneurs who actually get the bulk deliveries into the country, making middle-man (or often woman) profits that way.  We exchange our increasingly grubby and worn US dollar notes, getting a bit of change in the new so-called “bond notes”.  I ask some of the sales people what they think of them, and get that characteristic Shona clicking expression of doubt, if not disgust, “N-tskh-aahh”.  The notes are ostensibly backed by dollar reserves in the Reserve Bank, but if so how come there’s a shortage – or gold, but mining has died or been colonised by the Chinese and the Russians, so no one believes that.  The startlingly crisp bond notes  are ostensibly equivalent to the dollar, but within two days of their issue a fortnight ago they were being traded at alternative rates: they too are short in supply.
            In the main street, as I walk back across town, queues have built up at the ATMs: the amount of money one can draw at a time has been abruptly raised, possibly with Christmas in mind, but it’s still pretty meagre.  And the banks – some totally new, this year’s mushrooms and probably about as reliable as the sundry quasi-religious “prophets of profit” gulling the gullible everywhere – quickly run out of ready cash.  I go in to Barclays to see if I can draw some cash on my Visa card: No, that is no longer allowed.  So how am I supposed to get cash and spend my lovely tourist dollars?  Shrug: “You can swipe.”  That’s all very well at certain petrol stations and South African-based supermarkets, but most of the economy is cash-based – and the word is, or the fear is, that the “swipe” will soon not be allowed either.  Then what?  People are steeling themselves glumly for a repeat of the hyperinflationary madness of 2008, and all its ghastly consequences.
Pic: @kpczim
I am struck by how shabby this once-neat little town has become: the same tottering traffic-lights, sometimes on, sometimes blank, more potholes, fewer buildings being repainted.  Many firms and shops have closed up (more than 260 businesses have died this year): what used to be a gift shop is now Western Union (also backed up with queues of unusually quiet people hoping for money sent in from relatives outside the country); a long-standing restaurant is boarded up; a pharmacy next door briefly opened and then closed again.  What used to be my favourite bookshop now sells hair extensions, adorned with big flashy photographic panels of shiny grinning models.  The only shop in town selling books now is a narrow gloomy nook with a few dozen school text books (the same ones I taught from in the late 1980s) and some battered black-spined Penguin classics.  This government has comprehensively destroyed the public’s access to reading matter other than newspapers, whose literary quality is negligible.
            As always, street-corner vendors sell those papers, government mouthpieces alongside ‘opposition’ rags whose persistent vilification of Mugabe and ZANU-PF is tolerated as a sham of free speech: the government clearly doesn’t give a toss.  Though there is much trumpeting of the apparent in-fighting, the so-called G40 group against Lacoste (because its leader Emmerson Mnangagwa is known as ‘The Crocodile’).  It seems no less a mess than the equally split and hapless opposition. 
            As I walk on up the main street, the sultriness grows beneath the vividly clashing scarlet blossoms of the flame trees and the mauve jacarandas that line many streets – many of these trees must be older than I am.  When I lived here I didn’t think of the place as “tropical”, but after the thorny thickets of the Eastern Cape and the dust-storms of the drought-stricken Free State, it feels incredibly lush and steamy, uncut grass billowing into the edges of the minor side-roads, the hills dark blue-grey with shadows of approaching storm-clouds, promising the sudden warm runnels of drain-water I used to splash along as a barefoot child.
            I do not see another white person walking, just one or two passing in cars.  Being white here, whatever the luxury in which some continue to exist, is to be an irrelevance.  Rather like the old-age home in which my mother now lives, the community seems no less culturally closeted than it was in the 1970s: you relate to Shona folk largely in the form of aides, nurses, gate guards, gardeners, shop assistants, bureaucrats.  My hosts are seen as unusual in that they actually socialise with Shonas as parents and colleagues, and send their son to a school in which he is the solitary white boy in his year– with no ill effects whatever, so far as one can tell.  The alternative is – as many families do, white and black – to board the kid out to one of the ferociously expensive elite schools, whose obsession with sport is a constant topic of conversation.
From the old-age home I cut through a back street now all but impassable for potholes, even for my bakkie: only a skeleton of main thoroughfares is ever attended to nowadays.  I keep my eye open for a marvellous perky little caterpillar I’d seen earlier in the day: black hooped with yellow with two rear ‘antennae’ which bobbled along in charmingly comical fashion.  I’d debated briefly whether to lift it into the grass, but few people and almost no vehicles passed here; now, to my utter dismay, I find it half squashed.  I touch it; those little antennae quiver upwards.  Sick at heart, I kill it off.  A tiny thing, but it seems to me iconic of the whole mindless destructiveness of the natural world being carried out by humans everywhere: in Zimbabwe, the unchecked denudation of woodland to supply the drying-sheds of ‘emergent’ tobacco farmers, or the poisoning of a herd of cattle by arsenic leakage from an unregulated gold mine.
            I take a short-cut across the golf-course, which is obsessively maintained in the face of all economic challenges, the fairways fringed by dark dense alluring belts of indigenous forest harbouring melodious birds – Whyte’s barbets and Gorgeous bush-shrikes and clicking Puffbacks – and also an offputting ground-covering of human litter.
            At a street corner, shaded by jacarandas and figs, sits Tinashe at his little mobile stall, selling eggs and chips and single cigarettes that he gets wholesale and sells on for a small profit.  Friendly and chatty, he’s been installed here for a couple of years now.  He too is suspicious of the bond notes, and is hoarding dollars as much as he can: no use putting them in the bank.  Most people agree with him.  He is unconvinced the elections of 2018 are going to produce any benefits, but there is always that Shona laugh and little shrug that expresses hope: Well, maybe...
            I walk on, past a garden-plant nursery that seems still to flourish, a huge rain-puddle that no longer drains off the street, an ancient blue bus that has been broken down on an awkward corner for five days now, a man who in the absence of municipal attention has taken it on himself to fill some potholes with earth in the hope of a handout from motorists.  There does seem a surprising number of pristine 4x4s and double-cabs on the streets, in between the ageing smoking skedonks; I wonder if they care, shuttered like all suburbanites behind their rumbling automatic gates, their lawn-mowers and their outraged dogs.
            I am not far from my lodgings; I am drenched in summer sweat; a wind picks up; thunder humbles the hills; big lovely fat drops of rain spatter through the jacarandas; clutching their babies to their bellies, vervet monkeys run, and so do I...



  1. Wow Dan. You used to write letters like that.

    The inevitable boogalooification is no surprise.