The Zimbabwe of Memory, Eroded by a Deluge of Troubles

By Neely Tucker

Zimbabwe, how it was before:
The smell of millet beer, the smoke from cooking fires, Oliver Mtukudzi singing at a club downtown, the grasses of the veld waving in the breeze. Drone of ceiling fans. Sadza meal, rolled up in the palm to eat. Rain, driving down so hard it explodes in the dust, sending up tiny showers of droplet shrapnel. Farms stretching for thousands of acres, people walking alongside the roads at first light, tourists drinking gin and tonics on safaris, elephants flapping their ears. Termite hills as tall as your head. Women going across the border into South Africa and bringing back things to sell in street markets. Lots of children with no parents, and lots of 42-year-olds dying after a “short illness,” a “long illness,” a “sudden illness.”
This was 1997.
Zimbabwe, how it is now:
Life expectancy is 36, the lowest in the world. Annual inflation at an unofficial rate of 4 million percent, which is, you might have guessed, the highest in the world. Grocery store shelves are empty. There are power failures every day and water shortages most days. There are roadblocks on most main roads, many of them run by armed thugs who will steal your food and remind you that the West is the enemy. There aren’t any tourists to speak of. There was a presidential election the other day that doesn’t really mean anything because the old man running the country has made it clear that he will kill any number of black people so he can spend the few years he has left in a deranged version of comfort. (There aren’t enough white people left to make any difference.) The nation is one of the world’s AIDS epicenters, a crisis that doesn’t even rate headlines anymore because so much more is so much worse.
I was one of the few Western reporters based there from 1997 to 2000, then I had to get out before I was expelled. I talked to Morgan Tsvangirai, the presidential contender who has taken shelter in the Dutch Embassy, as well as Robert Mugabe, the old man and president who has led the country over a cliff.
The main thing I remember about Mugabe is that his hands shook, at this conference when he talked to reporters, and you could reach out and touch him. I don’t think his hands shake anymore, and I know reporters are no longer able to get so close.
I haven’t been there in eight years and I miss it.
I miss the friends I used to know there. I miss the way the rains would come in a sudden monsoon, a deluge you just couldn’t believe, and I miss the fires I had to light in the dry season because Harare is way above sea level and it would get colder than you could believe possible in Africa. I went with the writer Sekai Nzenza-Shand to her home village and we all cooked over a bonfire, and neighbors materialized out of the dark and drank all the beer we had in the ice chest and everyone was talking and laughing. I looked up from the fire and there were so many stars you could actually see the outline of hills in the distance. This fact isn’t in the papers much anymore, but Zimbabwe is actually a beautiful place.
Mostly I miss the way it was then only because it looks good by comparison.
It was no paradise. It wasn’t romantic. I didn’t have soft-focus goggles on. White farmers owned way too much land and the government was corrupt and AIDS was catastrophic and there was a sense things were going wrong, something vaguely ominous in the sunlight. But the nation could sleep and it could dream and there was room for some sort of hope.
By 1998, when the Zimbabwean dollar fell to 15-1 against the US dollar, things were thought to have sunk to a new low. People talked about the nation’s “malaise,” about the way you couldn’t get a mortgage without passing an AIDS test.
Today, it takes one trillion Zim dollars to make US$100, and nobody bothers with words like “malaise” anymore.
“Every day is a real battle, just a grind of hunting and gathering, getting food, petrol, soap.”
This is Angus Shaw talking, the Zimbabwean reporter who heads the Associated Press operation there. I called him the other day to see how he was doing. Angus is white, and though he’s known the government leaders since the independence war in the early 1970s, they turned on him years ago, accusing him of being a spy and worse.
Angus is not easily scared. He was orphaned at 9. He was standing a few feet away when a fellow reporter was beaten to death in Somalia. He covered the Rwandan genocide and remembers Idi Amin’s death camps in Uganda, when “corpses had been bound with wire and pressed into grotesque bales forklifted onto trucks.”
When his home country slapped him in jail a few years ago, he wrote that the prison survival kit “should contain strong sleeping pills, lice and mosquito repellents, remedies for dysentery and money for bribes.”
He fled the country in 2005 to avoid another stay in prison, allegedly for practicing journalism without a license. (You have to have a license to be a reporter in Zimbabwe these days. Also, they don’t allow any more foreign reporters to be based there, and the ones who come in now do so undercover and at risk.)
Angus came back home in 2007. I asked him if he could say what things were like now.
“The last six months it’s been quite tense. I’ve had threatening phone calls, there are unmarked police cars parked outside my house, militia members in my car park. But I haven’t been in jail for two years.”
When I moved there in 1997, my wife at the time and I walked into an orphanage one day and there, in the second crib on the right, was the most stunningly beautiful child I had ever seen. She was 11 weeks old and had been left to die beneath an acacia tree on the day she was born. Ants were eating her right ear. Someone found her and called rural police. At the orphanage, the matron named her Chipo, the Shona word for “gift.” At three months, she weighed 4 pounds 3 ounces.
These days she loves to read and play basketball. She is still beautiful.
We came in the house from summer camp the other night, and there was Zimbabwe, the old country, right there on television. Here were pictures of Mugabe, smiling, waving to supporters.
“Is that the bad guy?” Chipo asked.
Yes, honey, he’s the bad guy. He is why we don’t live in Zimbabwe now.
Here were televised images of Morgan Tsvangirai emerging from a hospital, eyes puffy and swollen from being beaten.
“And that’s the good guy?”
Pretty much, yeah. He’s the good guy.
So now the election is done and things will go on like this until it all collapses. Until Mugabe runs out of money to pay his thugs? Until South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, decides Mugabe is too much of a problem? Yeah. Some time like that. Maybe it will even be on television.
This brings to mind a particular feeling. It is something like Fritz Kreisler’s arrangement of Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” the violin and cello slow and mournful, and the sense that there once was a time when you could turn to someone older and stronger and wiser for comfort and they would make it all OK. Except now that time is like e e cummings’ little lame balloon man, whistling far and wee, and it’s something you can’t even see anymore, it’s just a feeling you used to have.
Zimbabwe: uneasy its sleep, uneasy its dreams.

Neely Tucker is a reporter for The Washington Post.

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