Zimbabwe. Impressions and Observations. July-August 2011

Zimbabwe. Impressions and Observations. July-August 2011

I have had the great pleasure of finding myself in Zimbabwe for a couple of weeks, and consequently have ended up taking note of certain things. Many are general, some are specifically through the eyes of an Armenian from Delhi. Regardless, I felt that it might be of interest to share my observations and impressions.

To those Zimbabweans whom I know, I hope you will forgive me if it seems that I have taken a strange view of your country at times. It’s just that I did not know what to expect exactly, so some of the reactions I have had were raw. I read a memoir before arriving by an American journalist who was kicked out of the country in the early 2000s, and I also did some research on more recent political and social developments. But, of course, that’s different than coming to live in a house in Harare, while also playing the tourist.

The very first impression I got was the lovely, lovely weather, and the lush greenery. The air is so light here, that’s the only word I can use to describe it. It is winter this time of year, so it can get chilly in the mornings and at night, but even so, the freshness of the climate, the trees and flowers are all very delightful indeed, even if it does get dark sooner than I would like (the country is not all that far from the Equator).

A constant feeling I am getting in Harare is that the country is in a time warp. It is stuck in the eighties. The buildings, the roads, not so much the clothing and the cars, actually, but just the feel of the place all hearken back to an earlier era. It doesn’t seem like any new buildings have been made since perhaps the early nineties, with one or two exceptions, and even now one hardly sees any construction anywhere. I noticed at least two clock towers in the city centre which were not working, further symbolism of a society that has stood still.

I love the eighties myself. Hearing eighties music in stores and on TV is nice and all, but I imagine the people of Zimbabwe would like to move forward. My own nostalgia for childhood days has been fulfilled so much that it makes me glad that, really, it is 2011 now.

Of course, the circumstances reflect the economic situation. It was much worse even as recently as a couple of years ago, with rampant inflation and lack of basic goods. Now the Zimbabwe dollar is no more. The old notes are sold as curios: one, two, and three Z$ bills are pretty, but one and ten billion Z$ are the funny ones, to say nothing of the trillion-dollar bills. It is shameful, though, for a country not to have its own currency in this way. The US dollar is used everywhere, alongside the South African rand and other currencies. It is almost all cash, and one ends up seeing the filthiest greenbacks ever. The old, worn-down notes are used to purchase goods and services that are generally, I find, on the expensive side (Can you imagine cherries at forty five American dollars a kilo?), a reflection again of the economic situation and how “dirty money” – literally and figuratively – has something to do with the way things are around here at present.

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I was expecting far worse driving, Middle Eastern-style, but, come to find out, the cars move in an orderly fashion. Perhaps there is a correlation between that and the fact that there are so many driving schools everywhere. It is quite incredible, actually. I have never been to a place where there are driving schools one block after another and so many cars with an “L” on them. Another fact that attests to how seriously people take driving around here are the drivers licenses: they are simply slabs of rectangular metal with the pertinent information and photograph engraved on them. It is really rather remarkable.

It isn’t hard to cross streets in Harare at the traffic lights, or “robots” as they call them around here. Isn’t that a cute expression? It would be interesting to look into it, whether it simply refers to automata or if it is a corruption of a word in a local language or Afrikaans from next door or something. Other cute expressions include “How are you?” as a greeting, being referred to as “boss” or “madam”, and “It’s okay” as the Zimbabwean analogue to India’s “achchha”, a catch-all, more or less non-committal phrase. The local accent for English is more British than anything else, but it has its own peculiarities, such as the particular way in which “yes” is said, sort of like a lengthened, diphthonged “yeah-es”. “Ya” is also prevalent in conversation.

The robots of Harare meet at streets with very, very colonial names. All sorts of Britishisms abound in the city in terms of its roads, avenues, lanes, neighbourhoods, and districts. It surprises me that more were not re-named to echo the local cultures or particular figures in the struggle for independence. Perhaps that’s because Zimbabwe did not become independent so much as revert to black-majority rule. But it wasn’t without a fight, both within what was then Rhodesia and between Southern Rhodesia and the Mother Country. The number of whites has decreased a great, great deal, however, since land reforms began to be forcibly implemented a decade or so ago.

One particular historical figure stands out, of course, his picture adorning very many walls all over Zimbabwe. He is referred to as “Cde. RG Mugabe”, which I thought might mean “Commander Rear-General” or some such title or rank, but it is, in fact, “Comrade Robert Gabriel” Mugabe. His movement was Marxist in its time, and it still has some socialist leanings. There is a lot of camaraderie of one sort or another in his circles, it seems.

And there are circles as well to direct traffic, just like in Delhi (as opposed to crossroads alone, I mean). And I love how buildings have names (“Rhodes House”, “Rhodes Mansions”, “Rhodes Court”… okay, so they are not all named after Cecil Rhodes, but you understand the designation), another colonial-era practice which I miss from India. It is interesting that addresses are often referred to as corners, so a building would be at “Corner Livingstone and Third” (exactly like that, and not “the corner of Livingstone and Third”).

Another aspect from life in Delhi which I had missed these nine years were newspapers. There are a whole different bunch of them, all pretty thick. Although they obviously have agendas and their articles can be a little childish, it is impressive to see how important the print media is in Zimbabwe, along with the radio, contrasting the situation in Armenia where print journalism is next to nothing and it is mostly television and increasingly the internet that are the main sources for news and information. There is something about the written word on paper which I find more appealing; maybe I am just used to it and the next generation will be just as comfortable with the written word on a screen or a tablet or an e-reader.

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The people of Zimbabwe, I find, are very spiritual, much more so than in the States or even Armenia, and more akin to society in India. Of course, poverty might have something to do with it. We went to an Anglican mass in Shona, a main native language, and it was delightful to see the participation of the people in the service. It was very reminiscent of the African-American gospel-choir-like church services (which, admittedly, I have only seen on TV and in the movies myself), with plenty of music and drums and people dancing and clapping along, that sort of thing. It was quite fulfilling, in a strange way, and I say that because I find religious services much more to my taste when they are solemn, serious, when the music is more “classical”. But this particular mass was very heartfelt. The a capella harmonies were actually kind of reminiscent of the Georgian Orthodox liturgy. What’s more, I took a road trip, and the bus attendant began the journey with a prayer. That was quite moving. And there are groups that dress in white and meet in public parks and under trees, cults that go by the name of “apostolics”, I believe.

The spirituality is also reflected in the people’s Christian names, and I mean that both as in “first name”, but also in terms of Christianity. Very often one comes across Western names with local surnames, and some of those names might be “Easter”, “Blessed”, “Shepherd”, “Thankful”, “Saviour”, “Innocent”, “Precious”, and also “Lovemore”, “Luckmore”, “Knowledge”, “Sugar”, “Welshman” (?), “Ocean”, “Simplicius”, and I even met a boy named “Bright”.

The people are also resourceful. A common sight is women harnessing their babies behind them. It’s often just a piece of cloth or a towel that bears the little one on the mother’s back and is tied or stuffed in front. I have also seen women balance loads on their heads, entire shopping bags or pieces of luggage very skillfully placed. As for the men, I have noticed that most of them have super short buzz-cut hair, and hardly anyone has any facial hair. I wonder if that has to do with the weather or if it’s just the current fashion. And they are kind of tall, for the most part (which might explain why urinals are higher here than anyplace else I’ve been!).

You know, I hate to say it because it will sound awkward, but I have never seen so many black people all together in one place. Sorry if it seems naïve and all, but it is an unusual sight for me. It reminds me of when I first came to Yerevan and thought, “Wow! All of these people I am seeing on the street are Armenian!”. It was certainly a strange feeling back then. There are few Armenians, for their part, in Zimbabwe, just some families who had come down here when things were better and who have remained. Actually, the US Embassy’s current location is a building known as “Arax House” which used to be Armenian-occupied, as can be guessed by the name. There is a substantial Greek presence here, though, as well as in neighbouring countries. There are more recently-arrived Cypriots, but many, I believe, came down back in the fifties, when Nasser kicked them out of Egypt. I guess this continent remains attractive for them.

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It is interesting for me to think about Africa in terms of being a single continent. I was wondering about that on my way here and I still think about it. There is a lot of rhetoric about Africa being one place and about “being African” as being something meaningful and substantial. That never really occurred to me, mainly because Africa is a vast landmass with immense diversity. How could all the people of Africa share in such a concept in any valid way? But it seems that, politically, at least, there is such a movement, and it is reflected in the advertising and things like that, to catch the public eye, I mean. I wonder how much real truth there is to it and how much of it is a reaction to generations of Western stereotypes. It would be nice if there were in fact a united front in the face of Western and post-colonial influence especially, but on what basis could there be so? The states of Africa are almost entirely artificial European constructs. The populations are not only mixed within and divided across borders, but there are also significant non-African peoples born and raised, living and working in Africa, something else I have discovered on this trip. I did not know that that was the case on any appreciable scale, besides in South Africa, before coming here.

In a similar vein, I wonder about the connection between blacks and black culture in the US, and the people of Africa. I have noticed a lot of black American movies being shown, plus local hip-hop music and music videos highly influenced by the music stars across the Atlantic. Of course, hip-hop is a global phenomenon, but I wonder how much and in what ways the people of Africa identify with African-Americans and their culture.

These African categories are probably not on top of the minds of the people of Zimbabwe, where water and electricity remain problematic, to say nothing of the poor phone lines and slow internet. The parliament building is laughably tiny and decrepit. I figured that, coming here, I would appreciate the good things about Armenia more, but I did not think it would be all that much more than it turned out to be. Our telecommunication systems, to begin with, are in top-notch condition, I would say. And our National Assembly is an impressive edifice. I don’t know how much more effective the parliament is in Yerevan than in Harare, but I would like to think that the state of the building has something to say about the state of the state. To give another example, I watched an episode of “Friends” on local television, and bits of it were censored. Well, they tried to dub “Friends” into Armenian once upon a time… but that’s a different story.

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I took a trip up to Victoria Falls. What a lovely place! It was truly delightful, pretty, enchanting. Just the setting was enough: green, green, green, and the Zambezi river, all kinds of animals, buildings with high ceilings and thatched roofs which really appealed to me. The tourism infrastructure could do with vast improvements in Zimbabwe, but the experience was well worth it. I couldn’t wash my hands at one point because the men’s room did not have soap, so I asked a lady in an office if she would check to see if the ladies’ room had any. It didn’t. Then a man from the office came and sprayed window cleaning liquid on my hands as a disinfectant. “It will at least be a story to tell,” he said. And so it is.

And then there was a delay in getting to dinner because there was a family of elephants between the exit and the parked car! I guess they were mom, dad, and baby. They hung out for maybe half an hour, munching on seeds shaken off a tree. At least someone was eating. But there’s a problem one doesn’t come across in big cities, as a friend said. “Sorry I’m late. There was an elephant in the way.”

The falls themselves were very impressive. It is a long, long gorge that stretches into Zambia. Visitors get to see the series of waterfalls from the other end of the gorge. But that does not leave them high and dry, far from it. In 1855, David Livingstone was the first European to have come across “The Smoke that Thunders”, as it is referred to in a local language; there is a statue to him at the entrance. When I told a local that the water was flowing down into the gorge while also flying up and drenching me, he said in broken English that I was “baptised by the Living Stone”. I cannot attest to the accuracy of that description, but I really liked that expression nonetheless.

We also went as a family up to Lake Kariba, further along the Zambezi river. It is one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, the river having been dammed in 1955, much to the chagrin of Nyaminyami the river deity, as per the tradition of the local Tonga people. But many in fact died in the process of the creation of Lake Kariba, and the lore continues with an angry god and some future plan of vengeance. Nothing untoward happened during our visit, at least. The lake is quite vast and also active, full of holidaymakers. We took a sunset cruise and caught sight of some hippos and elephants on the shore while enjoying the lovely Zimbabwe weather and watching the sun go down. It was very pleasant.

Now, as I get ready to leave Harare, I look back on these two weeks as being much more eye-opening than I had anticipated. Of course, getting to visit a whole new country is always exciting and educational, but I didn’t think that it would have all that much of an effect on some of my perspectives as it has, especially in terms of thinking about Africa as a whole. It seems like a far more immediately interesting continent to me now, not so surprisingly, since I happen to have made an immediate connection to it.

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