Category Archives: ZIMBABWE

RECENT READS #8 : AWFUL BOOKS


Feeling a bit down? Post-Silly Season blues? A bit fed up with your life?

Read one of the following books and realize just how very lucky we all are. I don’t know where some of my readers live, but be glad you don’t live in any of the countries I’m writing about.  Reality check coming up:

What happens after Mugabe?  By Geoff Hill

A thoughtful, well-researched book by one-time South African resident, now Africa correspondent for the Washington Times. Published in 2005. Hill tells a grim tale, with a grim prognosis.

Apart from the grassroots total reconstruction of every aspect of Zimbabwe – health, education, government, infrastructure, agriculture – there is the spectre of 3 million expatriate black Zimbabweans living in South Africa (and I suspect in the intervening 6 years since publication of the book, there are a great deal more; every other waitron in Cape Town is a dark black, skinny, beautifully spoken Zimbo). According to Hill some of these expats are upfront about exacting revenge on the ZANU/PF soldiers/militia/Youth League thugs should the political scene change and assist their return to their country ……   oh boy. ‘Nuff said.

Half way through the book, I stopped reading.  I could not take any more harrowing statistics. At this point, I wished I was a drinker because I really needed a good, stiff drink.

***

In December 2011 I had the pleasure of a quick flit around the Kloof SPCA Bookshop, while on a family visit to Durban.  I bought  Travels Without my Aunt by Julia Llewellyn Smith . This was travel with a difference. JLS wrote her book based on travel to Mexico, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Cuba, Haiti, Paraguay and Argentina,  and the criteria for this odd assortment of countries was that British novelist Graham Greene travelled to all of them and used his experiences as material in his novels. For example, Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene, set in Cuba.  Greene often used exact details, literal locations, buildings, and streets as setting in his novels. Years ago I tried to read Our Man, but abandoned it; I don’t think  – after the JLS account – that I’m willing to try again.  She’s very clued up about GG and reveals him as a complex, religion haunted,  sleazy man, (wherever he travels, he always visits the local brothels).  I’m glad he was never my travelling companion.

Most of the countries he/she visited are corrupt, unstable, and in the case of Sierra Leone beyond brutal – unspeakable, horrific – there are not enough words to describe the mayhem generated by the drugged-up, homicidal, child soldiers – Africa at its very terrible worst.  Haiti was just as horrible, not one redeeming feature.  No surprises there.  Dictators, paranoia, voodoo, civil unrest – it all goes on and on, country after country.

Suddenly the woes of South Africa don’t look so bad. Both books thoroughly deserve to be labelled AWFUL BOOKS*, not because of their literary style but because of their dreadful contents.

Julia Llewellyn Smith gets my medal for intrepid travel, and also for good writing.

*I should add that the idea of  AWFUL BOOKS comes from the recurring phrase in Alexandra Fuller’s newest book Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness  but I’ll report on that another time.

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VISITING CLOUD-CUCKOO LAND a.k.a. ZIMBABWE


A subscriber to this blog asked why it had taken me so long to return to
Zimbabwe? Thirty years is undeniably a long, long time: a third of a century.

I thought about the question and replied that because all my family and friends had
emigrated, there was no reason to return. It’s not, after all, that the
Rhodesian scenery, life-style and food were so unique as to be unobtainable  elsewhere.  In many ways the life-style “down South” (i.e. in the Republic of South Africa) was/is very similar to Rhodesia/Zimbabwe.  An active, open-air,  sports orientated lifestyle – braai, beer and boerewors. When I emigrated, the  big differences lay in culture and politics.  In the late 70s, South Africa was firmly in the grip of the apartheid government; Rhodesia about to change over to a black, nationalist government. Galaxies apart.

And in the intervening years of the 80s and 90s and early 00s, Zimbabwe went through very very hard times economically and politically.
No fuel, hyper-inflation, empty shops, ethnic cleansing in Matabeleland – the infamous Korean 5th Brigade. For those who are interested, Douglas Rogers wrote a book which perfectly reflects the difficult years experienced by Zimbabweans, The Last Resort. It was published in 2009 and truthfully relates the surreal facts  of living in Zimbabwe.   It’s not an easy or comforting read, especially for those of us  living in Southern Africa, but by golly, its truthful.  So that’s why I had no desire to return or re-visit.

Now, in the second decade of the 21st Century ? Things appear to have vastly  improved. Up to a point.  While driving around Bulawayo we passed a smart new filling station, bounded by a high brick wall, and painted a very distinctive shade of blue.  The stout metal gate at the entry to the station was closed.  We were told it was
a Libyan Petrol Filling Station, erected about five years ago, and always
stocked with plenty of fuel, even when there was no fuel elsewhere, but available  only to card carrying members of the ruling ZANU-PF party …….

The toll roads in Zimbabwe caused mirth amongst our convoy.  After the modern, heavy duty concrete toll road structures in South Africa, manned by staff in booths, with electronic  card readers, flashing lights, precautionary road markings and signage, entrance booms, we stared at our first Zim Toll Road in disbelief.
Followed by laughter.  A battered metal sign, propped up against the ubiquitous empty 60 gallon drum proclaimed TOLL ROAD. I looked around and asked: Where?  No concrete structures, lights, booths, booms:  just the modest single thread of  tar, with fading road markings, jagged edges and sandy verges.  There, in the distance up ahead, a small structure spanned the road: a green, corrugated iron roof supported on metal uprights, two men on wooden kitchen chairs.
One man was a policeman – his uniform made this obvious – and the other  guy had a clipboard.  He sauntered up, greeted us politely, asked for one US dollar, issued us with a small, printed ticket that agreed this was, indeed, a toll fee, and waved us through. We handed over US$4 en route to Bulawayo. None of the roads had been maintained or improved in the last thirty years, and it was always my understanding that toll fees were levied to maintain and improve the roads. Not in Zim.

And then there is the conundrum of the brand new hospital, in Bulawayo, built by an  overseas Aid Agency.  It has been completed and is fully equipped.  It has an  efficient perimeter fence, guards at the entrance, and a boom.  But it is empty. No staff, no patients. It has never opened.  The project was finished a couple of years ago, but due to some unhappiness between the Zim Government and the Aid Agency, about which nobody is very clear or prefer not to comment, there is an impasse and the hospital has not opened.  What a crying shame.

Which brings me to the vexed question of land ownership.  I was told by a reliable source of a white farmer who bought a farm, owned it legally, but then his farm was taken from him and given to a black “War Vet”.  The black guy decided, after a year or so, that he didn’t like farming, and suggested to the original owner, the white farmer,  that he pay him, the War Vet, rental on the farm and carry on with his farming activities. Which the white farmer did.  Being a pragmatist, and wishing to continue farming, he pays.  Welcome to property owning/farming  in Zimbabwe.

Can you see  now why I titled this post as I did ?

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MAJESTIC MATOPOS – WORLD HERITAGE SITE


Despite all the political nonsense that goes on in and around Zimbabwe, the beauty of the land remains largely unchanged.  We spent a happy day visiting one of our favourite spots close to Bulawayo, the Matopos . Nothing much had changed over the years, apart from a smart new entrance gate to the National Park, and the request for a payment of US$10 a head, to enter.  In days gone by we simply hopped into our cars and drove out there. I’m happy to say it was designated a World Heritage Site in 2003.

Our first stop was at the M.O.T.H. shrine, which was in reasonably good nick.  On our drive up to Bulawayo I noticed that the M.O.T.H. cottages (a retirement home for old soldiers) still seemed to be in operation just outside of the small town of Essexvale / Esigodini.

Alison at the gate to the MOTH Shrine, Matopos

The MOTH Shrine has huge trees in the gounds:

The beautiful shady patterns of the giant fig trees

Part of the pleasure of visiting the Matopos is “just being in the bush”.

Dry river bed, with neat piles of thatching grass piled on the roadside

The pale blonde winter grass is harvested everywhere for use as thatching.

The ranges of hills, with their jumbled rock formations, seem to go on forever.

Typical koppie in the Matopos

Balancing rocks can be seen everywhere

And of course, we paid a visit to World’s View, the burial place of Cecil John Rhodes.

He chose to be buried in the actual rock, atop a giant whaleback formation, deep in the Matopos.  The ascent is steep, to say the least.  I was hauled up by John and Helen, and levered down with the help of Eugene and John – thank goodness for big, strong men!

Boulders at the top indicate grave site

It doesn’t look so steep from the pic above, but believe me, it is!  When I left Zim in 1978 I could whisk up to the top in a flash, barely out of breath; thirty years and one hip replacement later, it was quite an effort.

Alison & Laura next to the grave

This must be one of the most dramatic burial places in the world.

Brilliant yellow, orange & ochre lichen on the rocks at World's View

Lichen covers many of the rocks at World’s View, in brilliant acid yellows, ochre, and orange.

And then there are the brilliantly coloured lizards that dart under the boulders

What a beautiful day it was – the Matopos is one of my favourite places. I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a bit of the world, and I think the Matopos equals the American Grand Canyon – not in size, but in inspiration, and the grandeur of its natural beauty.

Many thanks to Laura van der Merwe for her photographs.

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LIVING IN BULAWAYO: HOW TO GET BY


We were accommodated  in a relative’s spacious house in Burnside, enjoying the magnificent thatched  verandah, the swimming pool, the resident maid.

The beautiful thatched verandah looking on to the pool

Although our stay was brief, I  gained some fascinating insights into daily life in modern Zim.

There are  bizarre anomalies. For instance: a big, flat screen TV in the lounge, connected  to DStv (satellite) television, but in the back yard the maid is washing clothes  in a zinc bath, parked on the dusty earth, with a green hose pipe delivering  water onto the laundry……  from high tech to basics.

You need to  be resilient and inventive to live comfortably in Zim.  You definitely need your own generator,   because there are regular daily power cuts that are arranged on a wildly  complicated timetable.  A local explained  the system to me, but it left me baffled. There was a gas stove in the kitchen,  in addition to the electric stove, and we had to use the gas daily, when the  power went off.

To my  surprise there is now a SPAR store in Leander Avenue, a new addition to the  area. It provided us with good Portuguese rolls, and one of the best croissants  I ever ate in my entire life.  Further  down the Hillside Road was the newish TM Supermarket, a big store, in a new  shopping centre where all the shops were filled with merchandise. As opposed to  the tatty, bedraggled, old shopping centre at Bradfield, where more than half  the shops were closed, or empty, and those that were operating were grubby and  third rate.

No more empty shelves, and anxious shoppers  clutching kilogrammes of useless Zim-dollars, queueing on a rumour that there  might be fresh supplies of cooking oil, or mealie meal. Those days appear to be  over. I walked round the TM Supermarket looking with interest at the  shelves.  About 75% of the goods were  South African imports, while dairy products, fresh produce, biscuits, cereals,  mealie meal were local brands.  I saw no  convenience frozen foods, and only one small freezer compartment offered a  selection of frozen peas.  No Woolies  ready-meals here!

We compared  the food prices and they were much of a muchness, even taking the US  dollar/rand exchange rate into account. However, diesel and cigarettes were  cheaper than in SA.

You need to  be on your toes when driving as there is often a happy disregard for road  rules, especially in the city centre. Not to mention the traffic lights, some  of which are not working.  I commented on  the number of dented and bashed up cars driving around, and a local explained  that panel beating was just too expensive. Fortunately the climate is so dry  that rust damage is not an issue. I suppose if you are a local resident you  learn to avoid the suburban roads that are dangerously potholed, or where the  tar surface has worn away leaving dangerous little islands of black amidst the  corrugations. No doubt you learn which culverts to avoid, where the guard rails  are dented, broken or missing, where the vegetation has choked the storm-water  drains which must lead to flooding in the summer. Roads and public buildings  are just not maintained. If you don’t like this, then you’d better go and live  in another country.

I commented  on the random patches of olive green pain I kept seeing on electrical  sub-stations and walls around the city.  Someone dryly informed me that although no government buildings (e.g.  hospitals & schools) had been painted in over 20 years, the olive green  paint disguised MDC political anti-government slogans, and the blotting out had  occurred within two or three days of the slogans appearing.  To my amusement I saw a whole rash of pro-MDC  (opposition party) / anti-government slogans decorating a long stretch of wall  that bordered Bulawayo’s one and only mental hospital, Ingutsheni.  It seemed appropriate somehow.

Nothing about Zimbabwean politics or  government makes much – or any – sense.
Once you have grasped that the country is run by a cabal of despotic,  greedy, corrupt people and that outraged Western bleating is not going to make  any difference, then you have begun to grasp the realities of life, politics,  and the bottom line in Africa.  Westminster style democracy? Don’t be silly. Get a grip. Take a reality check, and then swallow a very large chill pill. You’re going to need it.

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JUST THE SAME, ONLY DIFFERENT …..


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.

Preece & McKenzie bookstore building a shadow of its original beauty

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.

Bulawayo Public Swimming Pool

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!

Helen looks into the classroom where she, Laura and Tony were taught by their Grandmother

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!

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