I’m sure you know what I mean. When you stroll around your home town after an absence of over 30 years, it’s just the same, only different …. You see familiar buildings, but now they’re shabby with faded paint, peeling fascia boards. The building that always stood next to them has vanished completely.
Many of the street names have been changed, and where you do find an old, original street sign, it is rusted and buckled – something heavy having rammed it.
Bulawayo only had two bookstores when I lived there, and here is a pic of the Preece & McKenzie building, tatty and neglected, and no longer selling books.
Several of the old stores have closed down, but Bulawayo still has one department store left over from the old days: Meikles. We went inside for old times’ sake. The kids used to love going to tea in Meikles tea-room, where you could order cream cakes, and listen to a man playing the piano – the height of luxury in far off 1969.
The lighting inside was dim and it was obvious that the merchandise was geared to a different market, but the glass counters of the Beauty Department were still in place, opposite the entrance. Helen commented that at least, this time, there was some perfume – a few scant bottles – in the display units. On her last visit, many of the shops had been semi-empty with very little goods on sale.
I was relieved to see the solid Bulawayo Public Library building was still there although we didn’t go inside. The Bulawayo Post Office stood firmly on its corner, unchanged, but the big bronze statue of Cecil John Rhodes, which stood at this intersection, has been removed. No surprise here. The venerable Bulawayo Club was in its usual place. I wonder if it still maintains its Edwardian regulation about sending lady visitors through a side door, because women were forbidden to use the steps to the front entrance – men only, don’t y’know.
We strolled around the streets for two hours. I picked my way cautiously over the broken paving slabs, not wishing to fall. During this time, I saw only two other white people. The streets were busy, people moving purposefully about their business.
I was surprised to see how well dressed the crowds were; not smartly or
fashionably dressed, but neat and clean – after all the negative media
reporting I suppose I had subconsciously expected to see a population in rags, begging on every corner. This wasn’t the case.
I did notice, however, how thin the people were. No big fat mammas here, no swelling beer guts, common sights on South African streets. And no groups of men just hanging around, with vigilant eyes, that are seen in South African suburbs.
In fact, we all agreed, that we did not feel threatened in any way. We felt perfectly safe as we wandered in the city centre. Perhaps not terribly welcome, but safe nonetheless.
Although there was no rubbish in the streets, they were grimy. At the end of a long, dry winter there is certainly no water to spare for street washing. The fountain in the much loved Centenary Park was not working either. However, we saw a lavish wedding party posing for photos by the dry fountain, framed by the dusty palm trees and brittle brown grass. Dry, dry, dry. Including my skin, which turned into crocodile hide, itchy and flaky.
We visited the Bulawayo Public Swimming Pool, where we had spent so many idyllic afternoons – the facade was dingy and run down, but when we peeped through the gates we were relieved to see the same old magnificent trees in the background, the water was chlorine blue, and people were swimming, so that made us feel better.
We did a tour of the suburbs visiting the kids’ old schools, some of which were run down, neglected, no more surroundings gardens – just dust and dry grass. However Eveline School was neatly painted and a signboard proclaimed its Centenary Year.
Eveline School (portion of) in all its painted, centennial glory
Milton Junior School wasn’t so fortunate: every window was broken, and to all intents and purposes it appeared to have been abandoned. Woodville School, where my Mum taught for over twenty years, wasn’t too bad, all the windows were intact and there was teaching material stuck up on the walls. It was school holidays, so we could roam around freely in the school grounds. The toilets – which we used – were filthy and smelly; no water to flush. We’d have been better off behind a bush!
We drove past Brady barracks, where I spent three years working for the Rhodesian Army, as a civilian. I was shocked to see how run down and unkempt the camp looked. In the mid-70s it was spic and span, and anything that didn’t move had been whitewashed! Now the camp appeared deserted, although ragged curtains fluttering at a window indicated some human presence.
On a brighter note we went to drop off a charity onation in Suburbs, one of the older, posher, long-established residential areas, and found well maintained houses, neatly painted, with handsome stone walls (in bygone days people usually had hedges or diamond mesh fences) and – oh joy – neatly trimmed grass, or a rockery, or a flowerbed flanking the entrance. What a difference gardens make to a street – my spirits lifted, after seeing all the neglected front gardens reverted to bush, or
filled with the stalks of last year’s mealie planting.
As the poet said : A garden is a lovesome thing …. He was so right!