Wednesday, 10 March 2021

No 114 - "The Cannons" - a true story


 It is when a lanky soldier in crisp camouflage and black beret lopes up behind me that I know I’m in trouble.

            ‘Did you just take some photographs?’ he asks politely.

            ‘Oh, I took a couple of photos of those little cannons on the street,’ I say, blithe as wind.

            ‘What about our building?’ he asks. He is tall, smooth-faced, faintly embarrassed.

            ‘Your building?’ I am not wholly innocent: the building behind the two little cannons was labelled ‘1898’; it is tattered, streaked with neglect, the curls of the Victorian plaster embellishments blackened with mould.  Some ragged fencing and barbed wire offers a paltry defence; some low cabling, which might once have been supported by wooden posts, show here and there through long grass: signs that this is an ‘official’ building – and I know well enough that a police station occupies the far side of this block.  But hey, it’s a public holiday, there was not a soul in sight, there were no signs or guards, and the two little possibly only ornamental cannons tilted sadly on the street side of all barriers...

            ‘You are taking photographs of a military cantonment,’ the soldier says.

            ‘Oh.  Look, I’ll just delete them if you like, it’s no problem.’

            ‘No. no, you can’t delete them, they are now evidence.’


            ‘Please, you must come and speak to my boss,’

            We walk back down the main street –  Robert Mugabe Way – to where another soldier, a sergeant, waits.  ‘This is my boss,’ says the soldier.  We greet cordially, shake hands.  I am maximally cheerful.  We turn into the side street and walk back past the cannons.

            ‘You were photographing these?’ The cannons are less than a metre long each, no embossed marks.  They are probably of little importance, even for an aficionado.  Which I am not.  ‘Let me see the photographs.’

            I bring them up on the viewer.  ‘You see, this is the problem,’ says the sergeant. ‘In this one, you are taking the building.’

            ‘I am not interested in the building,’ I shrug.

            ‘Please come with us.’

            We walk around the corner, past the hulk of some rusted water-tank of some kind. ‘You see, we put this here to show that this is military.’  I suppose there are the faintest traces camouflage patterning still visible.  We go in through a farm gate hanging off its hinges.  The buildings inside the cantonment look like the beginnings of a shanty town, the gravel entrance deeply rutted, a wrecked pick-up without tyres shoved to one side, a decrepit water-bowser, black doorways without doors.  A couple of men in civvies standing about.

            The corporal fetches a school-type chair and invites me to sit, under a jacaranda tree just inside the gate.  The corporal takes possession of my camera.  ‘We just need to find the commander.  He needs to make a decision about this.’

            I begin to remonstrate mildly, surely there’s no need, I’ll just delete the photos and be on my way, I meant no offence...  But the sergeant, it seems, cannot make this decision.  He leaves me with the tall young corporal, taking the camera with him.  We fall a little hesitantly into conversation.  I explain to him why I was taking the photos. I have this friend, you see, at my university, who is interested in old weapons, I just thought they would interest him.  But the corporal is not the one who can make the decision.  We exchange some inanities, and really, he seems a very pleasant young man, but I don’t ask him too many questions: I might be accused of spying.

            ‘Are you married?’ he asks.  No, I reply.  He looks puzzled.  Is he?  No, but he is still young.

            ‘Are you a Christian?’ he asks.

            ‘No,” I confess, ‘but I respect Christians.  Are you?’

            ‘Oh, yes!’  His face crumples a bit.  ‘But I don’t go to church often enough.’

            The sergeant reappears.  A couple of other men emerge from doorways or wander in from the street, and together they pore over my camera.  I think most of the photos are of tiny plants sprouting from cracks, or of my cat: I wonder what they will make of them.  I hope their hefty military thumbs won’t break anything.

            Some time passes.  They have apparently contacted the base commander, and we just have to wait.  There is a lot of cellphone activity – everyone has a cellphone – but I can’t tell if any of it concerns me.  After twenty years living outside the country my Shona is rusted almost to nothing.  It is threatening to drizzle.  I hang my head in my hands, thinking, Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The sergeant wanders over.  ‘Don’t worry, Mister Man.  We must just follow our procedures, you understand.’   But he still wants to know why I took the photographs.  My explanation of historical curiosity doesn’t impress him much.

‘How do we know you are not taking photographs from each side so you can then make a map of our base so you can attack it?’  I don’t say, haven’t you heard of  Google Earth?  I don’t say, I’d be a lousy spy to do it so openly.  I don’t say, can you think of a single government encampment that has been attacked since 1980?

I reiterate that I couldn’t tell what place this was: it looked abandoned, the northern direction I’d approached it from, the fences rusted into the grass, no guards, no signs whatsoever.  I explain how I actually spent my childhood here, how I’m just up to visit my mother, how I taught in a bush school near Cashel, how I came to be a professor of English.  All of which I hope will paint me in a wholly innocent light.

The sergeant seems happy enough, he doesn’t seem to think there will be a problem, but we must still speak to the commander.  The commander has been called. The sergeant starts without much prompting to talk of himself.  He has been in the army five years, he tells me.  Before that he was a teenager grubbing in the infamous Chiadza diamond fields; he explains how they used to dig down into the red clayey deposits, ‘just like digging a grave’, then sideways into the earth.  Diggers got buried; often, they found nothing.  The luckiest made fortunes.  They had to run from the army; they bribed the police.  The sergeant was not so lucky in finding the little grey stones; he joined the army instead.  I do not ask him about the role of the army most recently, slaughtering seventy diggers from helicopter gunships, now themselves paying smugglers a pittance to get diamonds across the Mozambique border for personal benefit. 

He shrugs at various points in his narration; it is clear that even now he is not entirely happy; that he still struggles to make ends meet.

Some passing soldiers just glance curiously at this white man on his lonely chair. Others wander over to talk.  One, his lower lip blotched with pink from some childhood burn accident, is particularly talkative.  He asks me a lot of questions about life in South Africa.  When I mention that food prices have been rising, he presses me to supply my theories about why this should be so.

‘Hey, I’m a literature professor, I don’t really know.’

‘But you are a well-read person, you must have some ideas.’

‘Well,  I suppose a lot of imported components have been going up, fuel and so on...’

‘Isn’t it maybe just a matter of supply and demand?  Or maybe because of the strong rand retailers are losing in some ways so they hold back supplies so they can push up the prices...’

Or some such argument which I can’t quite follow, but clearly he has a better grasp of economics than I do; it turns out he recently did Economics for A Level, but couldn’t pay to go on to university, so here he is.  I get the sense he thinks he deserves better.  He is cheerful and curious, and offers to buy me a Coke.  Optimistically, trusting I’ll be out of here shortly, and feeling incipient pressures on the old bladder already, I decline.

            The sergeant ambles back and says the commander is on his way, he is just ‘juicing up.  He is putting some juice in his vehicle.’  He takes evident pleasure in playing with metaphor, this one.

            After some more waiting, a battered dark green pick-up rattles in through the gates.  Three men in front, two in the back, all in civvies.  I imagine them furious that their public holiday has been disrupted by this miscreant white interloper.  They are affable enough as they are introduced and shake my hand in turn.  The base commander is a short, paunchy but powerful-looking man with a black leather cap perched on a bald dome.  His second-in-command is a slighter man in a dark-blue shirt and a jaunty attitude.  They, a third, heftier man, and a fierce-looking fellow with bulging eyes and massive biceps shown off by a tight black vest, take command of the camera.  They pore, converse in Shona, laugh, deliberate.  I explain again who I am, what I do, why I was taking them, how sorry I am I’ve wasted everybody’s time.  They find a scrap of paper and I write my details down.



            ‘Wally, oh.’

‘Where is your ID?’  Of course, wandering round town in my shorts ands slops, I am not carrying it with me.  ‘So how do we know you are who you say?’  The muscle-man takes the piece of paper away.  They tell me to take my seat on the rickety chair again.

The sergeant and the corporal sit with me.  The jaunty second-in-command comes over, too.  He asks me once again about my background. 

‘You are not married!  But why not?’

I supposed it had just never worked out.

            ‘But what about the Weelie line?  You have no brothers?  The Weelie line will just die out!  But this is tragic!’

            Maybe there are too many people in the world already.

            ‘But you are clever.  The world needs more clever people.  What about children outside?’

            Outside marriage? I laugh.  Not as far as I know.

            ‘You should.  You must take a Zimbabwean woman with you and make many Weelies.’

I figure I’m too old now for fatherhood.

Horror all round.  ‘No no no!  Never mind, the woman must look after them.’  He waves across the potholed street, where two young women are emerging from a small block of discoloured flats.  They swagger in ridiculously short skirts and gaudy unstable shoes. ‘You like black women?  You can take one of those, they will give you strong children.’  Hilarity all round.

Mr Jaunty spontaneously unpacks some of his own life.  He has been in the army twelve years.  One of his first assignments was in the Congo.  How was that?  He does not want to divulge details, clearly, and I don’t probe: it had to have been on one of Mugabe’s misbegotten mineral-plundering ventures.

‘The main thing is that the army should be non-political.  We are just here to protect the people of this country.  This is why we must protect our bases.’  He sounds apologetic.  ‘I’m sure everything is fine, we must just follow our procedures, you understand?  We have to protect our country.’

Protecting the country now involves Mr Biceps and another fellow with a patchy moustache taking me into a gloomy side-room for proper questioning.  They sit behind a wooden table while I have to squat on an empty jerry-can: a calculated diminution of stature, no doubt.  The camera sits accusingly on the table between us.  They take down the same details I gave them before, now on a more official-looking form, and there are some official-sounding questions.

What is your address?  What is your District?  Makana Municipality, I suppose.  Who is your chief?  (This is delivered with utter seriousness. I have to bite my tongue not to say something facetious.)  No chief as such, I reply.  What is your tribe?  (Was this form concocted in the 1950s, or do people still live by these categories, so long disparaged by the anthropologists?)  I can confess to no tribe – and suffer a keen pang of displacement, of hanging detached in space.

Why did you take these photographs?

I explain myself again; really, I was taking them for a friend of mine, Professor Irwin, he is interested in old cannons.

‘Professor Owen?’


“Why did you not take photographs of the cannons in the Museum?’

‘Well I did actually, last year.’

‘Where are those photographs?’

‘I gave them to him and deleted them, I didn’t want them myself.’

‘So you can’t show us those photographs?  Hm.  Did you ask permission at the Museum for those photographs?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘So why did you not ask permission to take photographs this time?’

‘These are on the street.  They are broken.  I didn’t think it necessary.’

‘But this is a military cantonment.’  And once again I explain why I could not possibly have known this.

‘But you say you lived here.’

‘Many years ago, as a child, I haven’t lived here for twenty years or more.’

‘But you must known this town very well, you lived here many years, so how can you say you don’t know this?’

‘Things have changed in twenty years.’

‘Have you had military training?’

This time I feel obliged to lie outright, looking straight back into Mr Biceps’ bulbous staring eyes – knowing that all they have to do is a quick Google search to uncover me.  They do not pursue this, but are clearly unconvinced by anything I have had to say.  I can see why, and I can feel myself sweat a little.

We go outside again, and there is further animated discussion.  My avowed lack of knowledge of what I was doing is a particular sticking-point.  Meanwhile the burnt-lipped economist appears to be having a complex discussion about the date of the building itself, whether or not this makes it a national monument, and therefore whether it falls under the jurisdiction of National Museums, or of the Army.  It is getting hot, and Mr Jaunty offers to buy me a Coke; this time I accept.  There is no sign I am about to be released soon, despite all my apologies and shrugs and protestations.  Quite the contrary.

The bald commander says, ‘We have to hand this over to the CID to decide.’  I groan; surely this is not necessary, I’m hardly a criminal needing investigation...

‘Get in the truck, please, Mister.’

I climb into the open back of the battered green pick-up, along with Mr Jaunty and Mr Biceps (still holding the camera) and Mr Patchy-tache, and we rattle around the block to the main police-station.  In the CID wing the explanations fly back and forth, until we – myself and the four army men – are crammed into a small office, along with a black bicycle, to await an authoritative individual.  This inspector, I am told, is very pissed off because he is involved in another job.

We wait.  After some time I begin to get really concerned that my poor mother, back at her retirement village, will be wondering what has happened to me and my casual morning stroll.  Mr Jaunty has been chatting on his cellphone, and I ask him if I can call her.  He hands it over willingly: ‘You have thirty-eight seconds of airtime!’  I persuade my mother that it is not necessary to come racing to the rescue, I just took some silly photos, I’ll be back in no time.  Then we wait some more.

‘Silly photos, eh?’ says the bald commander, and chuckles.

The CID authority turns out to be a thin, smooth-skinned man who watches me with one eyebrow arched as if in determined cynicism, but there is just a hint of possible playfulness or humour hovering around his upper lip.  I cling to that possibility like a lifeline.

I go through the whole story again.  I apologise for wasting everybody’s time.  His eyebrow does not come down.  I repeat my offer to delete the offending pictures and get out of their lives.  But they need me to verify that I am who I say I am: they will accompany me back to my mother’s cottage to see my passport. And one other thing: they want prints of these photographs.

‘Can you help us?’ asks the bald commander.  ‘We need prints, but we have no money to pay for them, we would like you to help us in this matter.’

This seems to me grossly unfair and exploitative, but I don’t feel in much of a position to refuse.  Nor can I refuse to take them back to my mother’s, though I am now seriously worried that she is the one who could be in trouble: she will be staying here, whereas I will be leaving the country again soon to go back to work.  I hope.

So we rattle around to the town’s public square, seeking out amongst the patchwork crowd and the stalls selling mostly vividly cheap Chinese goods, a photographer who can do the prints for a few US dollars.  We leave the camera’s memory card with him and rattle over the severely rutted side-streets, a few blocks further to the retirement village which is sandwiched, like an Edenic dream, an almost all-white haven between a military hospital, a petrol-station, a brothel, and an unkempt park.  None of the soldiers had ever even suspected its existence.

My mother, at 81, is fabulous; she jokes, looks honest and respectful, and charms them all as they peruse my documents.  My passport is British, and this is not likely to count in my favour either.  They poke desultorily in my travelling-bag and beneath the camp-bed I sleep on whenever I visit.  She gives them apples (I feel there is something a little colonialist and patronising about this, but they seem pleased).  I tell her I’ll be back after getting the photo prints handed over, half an hour max.  I hope.

We rattle and shake back around to the market-place, find the photographer, pay him and collect the prints, two copies of each of the two photos.

‘These are good photos,’ exclaims Mr Jaunty.  ‘You are an expert.  Very good camera.’

‘So I can go now,’ I say.  ‘This is all over, right?’

‘No,’ says the thin CID man.  ‘We must make copies of your passport at the police station.’  I try to breathe away my frustration.  We all get back on the truck.

As we lurch through the potholes on the way round the block, Mr Biceps is busy with my camera.  He leans over suddenly (he has become quite open and cheerful since the scowling interrogation), ‘Is this your photograph?’

On the camera viewer appears a shiny black man in a suit beside a resplendent bride in flowing white wedding-dress and trousseau.  ‘No, I never took that!’

‘Ah, komana, wrong memory card!’  He leans back and yells at the driver, and we do yet another circuit of the market block, shudder to a halt, find the photographer, exchange memory cards, make sure we now have the correct one, and set off again, my escort chattering and laughing uproariously all the while.

Back at the police station, my army contingent finally hands me over to the CID.  They seem regretful that it has come to this; they assure me that everything will be all right, but there is an undertone of concern that almost for the first time has me more seriously worried. They drive off, wishing me well, and I feel genuinely bereft, as if of the staunchest friends, who have been almost all along polite and friendly and conversational, and have now been obliged by their own ‘procedures’ to hand me over to the devil himself.  This may be an illusion, I tell myself, as I follow the thin CID man back down the yellowing corridor to his pokey office and the bicycle.  Here he asks me a few more questions, but it seems that not even he can make the decision about what to do with me.  I have to wait for someone else.  He leaves to attend to the case I have presumably distracted him from for the last two hours or so; and I wait in the office with a tall, moustached junior colleague.  People come and go, borrow a chair, discuss something or other, look at me curiously, greet me gaily, ‘Hello, Mister Man!’  A woman, braided and made up to the nines, comes in with a shy little girl, extracts a glossy handbag from the single cupboard, talks to Mr Tall, leaves.  He looks at me gloomily.

‘My daughter.  How many children have you?  You are not married?  No?  Why not?’

About this I am now genuinely wishing I had lied; some bullshit story about a divorced wife and three kids would have satisfied everyone immediately.  But my singleness, at the age of fifty, baffles my questioners entirely; it seems to them philosophically and ethically beyond belief.  It is probably not aiding my case in their eyes; it is too strange.  Perhaps it goes along with being a spy.  Perhaps they even suspect me of impotence, or of homosexuality, and have imbibed the hatred of their President.  I stress whenever I can the fact that I do have a girlfriend of several years’ standing.

Mr Tall and I talk about literature.  He enjoyed it at school, he says.  Macbeth. The Mayor of Casterbridge.  Then he says, ‘Do you read the Bible?’

‘I have read it.  Right through, a couple of times.’

‘No, but do you read it?’

‘If you mean, regularly, no.  I’m not a churchgoer.  Are you?’

‘Of course,’ he says mildly.  He opens the cupboard behind him, and from a cardboard box at the bottom extracts a tiny Gideon New Testament in untouched blue covers.  ‘I think maybe you should read it,’ he says.  ‘Take it.’  I have no idea whether he is concerned for the state of my soul, or whether this portends a lot of time stuck in police custody.

The thin CID man eventually returns and summons me forth.  I tuck the little Bible in my shorts pocket and follow.  In another office he talks earnestly to a big man who does not deign to look at me as he sets his desktop computer to playing some local pop music.  He shrugs off the thin man’s explanations.  I try to explain myself, that this is insignificant, that the Army didn’t really seem to have a problem.

‘If the Army didn’t have a problem they wouldn’t have brought you here.  We are going to charge you with disturbing the peace.’  I protest I didn’t disturb anyone, the streets were completely empty.  ‘You think you have not disturbed the peace of the Army?  You are disturbing my peace.  What will you photograph next?  You will be coming to my gate and photographing my house.  Then you will be disturbing my peace.  I can deduce that you will be doing that.’

This reasoning leaves me almost speechless, but I manage to say something about not being charged for something I hadn’t done yet.  But he waves his hand dismissively in the direction of the next floor up.  Evidently he can’t or won’t make the decision either, and I am to be passed still further up the chain of command.  On the way up the stairs, the thin CID man seems to hesitate, as if wants to find a way out of this as much as I do.  I remark that the situation is now ridiculous, surely we can make an arrangement to call an end to it; I have deleted the photos, and I can stop bothering him.  But he decides nevertheless to proceed upstairs.

At the top of the stairs a youngish muscular man in a green T-shirt sits at a desk behind a barred booth.  The thin man vanishes, and this feels like another severe loss.  I must write down my details on yet another piece of anonymous paper, then wait on a bench beside the booth.  Occasionally someone passes and greets me – ‘Hello, Mister Man!’ – or the young Mr Greenshirt wants to ask me something.  To him I explain my situation yet again; and groaningly, because I can no longer contradict anything I’ve said before, endeavour to explain and defend my awkward marital status.

Finally Mr Greenshirt takes me through to another office.  The desk here is occupied by a portly, bespectacled man with a certain gravitas whose English seems better, his demeanour more reasonable and calm.  Mr Greenshirt launches into an animated speech in Shona, as far as I can tell arguing for the inoffensiveness of my actions; but the officer cuts him off sharply; he is the one who will make the decision.  He peruses the photographs, asks me a few brief questions, in between adjusting the music on his desktop.  He smiles a little, and says he doesn’t think there’s a problem, but wants someone else, the ‘weapons people’, to just check.

The lithe Mr Greenshirt escorts me back downstairs; it turns out that the ‘someone else’ is the dismissive tall man we’ve already confronted;  he is now standing outside in the parking lot, talking to other policemen.  He does not deign to look at or speak to me; orders a policewoman peremptorily away to get him a Fanta; shares an uproarious jest with Mr Greenshirt.  I wonder if it is at my expense.  Another policewoman sitting on a Coke box at the nearby entrance-gate and cradling an FN rifle is staring unblinkingly at me with what I can only interpret as unreserved loathing.  The sun is warm on my shoulders, but I am not comforted.

Finally, at a shouted order, a constable in the customary pale blue-grey uniform of the ordinary police saunters up; the dismissive man dismisses me, ‘Go with him.’

‘I am going to take you to a very nice place,’ says the constable, languid and lanky and with a broad smile, but I do not believe him.  Being handed over to the regular police is not a good sign, and asking whether I am being charged, or what, elicits no more than a shrug and a wave forward into the hectic charge office.  This section is being run by a massive-breasted woman in her pork-pie uniform hat whom everyone, bizarrely, addresses as ‘Medem’ in old colonial style; she directs me behind the long counter and I am ordered to sit on the dusty floor against the grimy rear wall.  At this point I begin to wonder when meekness needs to cease, some resistance and assertion of rights needs to happen, but I have no idea what my rights are, am grimly conscious of my status as a solitary white man in an ex-colonial state in which, all the government’s racist hype notwithstanding, to the vast majority of the people I am utterly insignificant.  Nothing could have brought home to me more firmly than the peremptory order to squat in the dust, the reversal of power dynamics in the country that was once so comfortably, delusionally, ‘mine’. 

I decide there is nothing here to fight against, so breathe myself into accepting calmness, and distract myself from my bursting bladder by taking out the Gideon Bible.  I open it up randomly at Jude, a book I am not especially familiar with, but it says little to me.  I flick over to the Psalms, and happen to light on Psalm 10:


Why do you stand afar off, O Lord?  Why do you hide in times of trouble?

2. The wicked in his pride persecutes the poor; let them be caught in the plots that they have devised.

3  For the wicked boasts of his heart’s desire; he blesses the greedy and renounces the Lord.

4  The wicked in his proud countenance does not seek God.  God is in none of his thoughts.

5  His ways are always prospering.  Your judgements are far above, out of his sight; as for all his enemies he sneers at them. ...

7  His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and oppression; under his tongue is trouble and iniquity.

8  He sits in the lurking places of the villages; in the secret places he murders the innocent; his eyes are secretly fixed on the helpless. ...

11  He has said in his heart, ‘God has forgotten.  He hides his face.  He will never see.’


Christ, I think, this is the last kind of thing I need to read right now.  The afternoon is creeping on; constables, in the dark khaki with navy trim of a uniform not much changed from pre-independence days, glance idly down at me as they stride past, but no one seems that interested in what must in fact be a singular aberration in their lives, a captive grey-haired white in shorts and slops reading a little blue Gideon Bible.

            I flick on through the Psalms; verse after verse the whining of this lost and hapless writer continues, desperately placing his faith in a god who clearly is not going to turn up.  Psalm 69:


            2  I sink in deep mire, where there is no standing; I have come into deep waters, where the floods overwhelm me.

            3  I am weary with my crying; my throat is dry; my eyes fail while I wait for my God.


In some corner of his miserable being the psalmist must have known he was on his own. As I am.  No god is going to relieve the cold pressure of my bladder; and, as the psalmist so obviously realised, being virtuous might only make things worse for him.  Nevertheless, there seems little alternative to remaining virtuous; one might as well wear one’s sackcloth with whatever dignity one can muster.  The psalmist might almost have been heroic were it not for the unremitting whinging at his abandonment.  I determine not to whinge, to exude a polite and unruffled calm.  If the flesh will allow.

            A plain-clothed bulky man with an exceptionally heavy, shiny jowl enters the charge office, shouting, waving his arms, exuding seniority but exaggeratedly aggressive, sweating with arrogance.  One of the constables shows him the prints of my photos, and I get up and approach, greet him politely, but he yells at me, ‘Sit down there!’  I make a gesture of conciliation, of offering to explain myself; after all, as far as I can tell I am not officially under arrest, though what is official or not is entirely moot here.

            But Senior Arrogance is turning away from me and a string of people is being shepherded in, evidently miscreants of various kinds, some dusty and tattered, their shoes falling off their feet.  I retreat against the wall; we are all told to sit and take our shoes off.  To prevent easy escape, I suppose.  I wonder again how far humiliation needs to go, can go, how far I should permit it to go.  Were Europe’s Jews not like this: passive in the face of uniformed authority and weapons, stubbornly themselves, hoping that somehow it would turn out all right?  This is different, of course: my companions on the grubby concrete floor are, it appears, petty thieves, border-jumpers, traffic offenders.  The companions of Christ, it might be said, but precisely the people the police ought to be prosecuting.

            Now Pompous Pilate, Senior Arrogance, turns and begins to question me fiercely in Shona.  It is too fast and complex for me to follow, I have to plead ignorance, though I suspect he is asking me why I am there.  The prisoner next to me, who should have enough of his own affairs to worry about, finds my bemusement funny.  Senior Arrogance throws out more Shona; I shrug and apologise; he throws his hand up in the air and snarls, ‘If you won’t speak to me in Shona we cannot help you.’

            And he moves on to rail at the others lined up.  One individual, evidently a Portuguese-speaking Mozambican, gets similar treatment, Senior Arrogance being obliged to shift to English: ‘How do you come to my country and not speak my language?  Who do you think I am?  You come here and you disobey my law and you cannot speak my language?  Do you think you are so important?  Do I look like someone you can just walk on?  What makes you think I will just let you disobey my law?’  And more in this vein before he devolves back upon me.

            ‘I am indigenous!’ he shouts.  ‘I am not English, I am not American.  My country wants nothing to do with you people.  I am the indigenous one here.’  I make an expression which I hope conveys that I do not dispute his indigeneity but also that it is not entirely relevant.  He stamps out.  The rest of the miscreants are herded together and out the back, presumably to cells for the night; I refrain from joining them.  I am uncomfortably aware of the many stories of police brutality, of how they tie your hands and feet together over a pole, hoist you to shoulder level and beat the soles of your feet until you can’t walk, your back until you can’t lean against a wall.  And it’s getting to the time of day when everyone is liable to knock off work and just lock up the unfinished business of the day to languish unnoticed and unfed until the morning. 

After a few minutes Senior Arrogance blusters back in and rants at the constables at the counter, waving his arms furiously, and I hope that I am correctly picking up the gist that he can’t believe his beloved police force is wasting its time on a non-offence like mine.  Then he is off, and a short while later, on the heels of a security guard in green uniform who is brought in handcuffed, interviewed in a side-booth, and sent away looking chastened, I am called up.  I sit at the desk, and yet another policeman hears out my story, which I have now honed to a fine and economical narrative of easy self-exculpation.  He writes down my essential details on yet another scrap of torn-off paper which one can’t imagine, thankfully, ever finding its way into any coherent file.

            ‘You realise we will have to keep these photos,’ he says.

            ‘Fine. I don’t need them, honestly.’

            ‘They are good photos.’


            ‘Next time you want to take photos, ask permission.’

            That’s it?  It has taken all day to get to this?  I walk out into the parking-lot and the slanting, dusty, anticlimactic afternoon sun.  I wave cheerfully to the guard full-of-loathing.  A total stranger who is locking a gate on the other side of the street greets me, ‘Hello, Mister Man, how are you?’ 

‘Fine,’ I say.

 I still have the pressing need to pee, but feel like I could hold it in forever.



PS. When I went back to Mutare a year or so later, I walked with nonchalant insouciance past the army base gates. They had rescued the little cannons from obscurity and mounted them rather smartly on stone plinths either side of the entrance. So some good came of it!


  1. Brilliant. Kafka would have been impressed - even jealous.

  2. What a tale, what a telling! Both chortling and horror-struck.

  3. Reminiscent of an experience I had in Harare soon after Mr Mugabe came into power walking down the street past his palace to see where he lived and my Zim friend almost being detained for her curiosity.

  4. A beautiful piece if a bit chilling, I had butterflies in my stomach after reading it.

  5. My uncle from USA visited Mutare in 2008 and despite my dad warning him not to, he took pics of a sugar queue in town. Police took him, my dad and stepmom and a Shona friend to the police station where they spent the entire day answering accusations of being with BBC or CNN or the CIA. Then they accused them of being diamond smugglers and produced some kind of scale presumably used in their trade. Dad spoke fluent Shona and that may have helped them eventually get released. They also had to agree not to sell their story to any news outlet.

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