Saturday, January 8, 2011

The last time in Zimbabwe

It was at the beginnings of the country's current troubles. The economy was showing the first signs of unraveling. The political situation was deteriorating into the pattern of confrontation and manipulation with which we are now all too familiar.

But my principal observation was how unaddressed the past was; and, how the confrontation between white and black remained a hidden wound. One that was soon to burst forth in land occupation and the terrorizing and killing of farmers.

I stayed at the Hotel Bronte and vividly recall: Sunday lunch. First in its culinary offering, it was a perfect replica of England in the 1950s (including the Yorkshire pudding as tough chewy object of dubious origin). Second how all the customers were white (and Zimbabwean, except for me) and all the waiters black and how one very robust strand in the overheard conversation was that of complaint about the current state of the country, expressed in terms that took no account of the sensibilities of the waiting staff. It was as if they were not there.

I remember going to the highest point in Harare where there is a park and a colonial monument and it was untouched by any transformation (or contextualization) after independence. It stood there celebrating conquest in a 'timeless' Salisbury.

But the most disturbing moment was going, on my last evening, with a colleague to a restaurant. My colleague was black (and thoroughly middle class and professionally successful) and the owner white. The restaurant was spacious and had room (though it was a Friday night) and there was no conceivable problem in our not having booked. However, we went through the most elaborate (and to me disconcerting) pattern of apology (for no possible reason) and to the embarrassment of the owner. It felt so improbable that at home I asked a mutual colleague and he confirmed undergoing a similar ritual of apparent obeisance.

Finally I recall visiting one of the new shopping centres on the edge of town with another colleague (Ethiopian) and his wife (Finnish) and realizing that we were the only mixed race group I saw that afternoon: separate worlds, moving in parallel. I remember Makonen, my well-travelled, exiled Ethiopian colleague, describing it as by far the weirdest and most disturbing country he had lived in.

What will I see this time?

The countryside as opposed to the city (unlike last time when my visit was confined to Harare). A country whose problems have multiplied. A country through the lens of both friends and colleagues.

One great pleasure last time was my fellow evaluator, a wonderful Zimbabwean woman, whose sloth of movement and speech belied a wonderful quick mind, and humour. I remember her coming into the office after an interview, sitting slowly down, and saying, "Nicholas....Nicholas... everyone...in this office...is so busy...busy..busy...(long pause)......But what do they do?" It could have been the whole of our report!

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