||"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there", says LP Hartley in his book The Go Between , and also Salman Rushdie in Imaginary Homelands. It became real to me when I recently journeyed to my troubled homeland up north, Zimbabwe. Years of studying in South Africa had insulated me from the problems of my nation. I had been caught up in the immigrant trap, where homelands exist in the stratosphere of nostalgia and old dusty photo albums; where they are romantic, unchanging, and transcendent; yet to be kept at arms length, only worn as badges of identity in adopted countries.
I arrived in a country I now hardly knew, connected to it only by language and by virtue of having spent all but four of my there. I crossed the Limpopo but I four years away made it impossible for me to be at one with these resilient people, whose greatest strength is, I believe, also their greatest weakness.
My intention is not another incisive exposť of the economic woes of Zimbabwe. Much has been said about the shortages of bread, milk, petrol and even cash. However, the daily battle of living in Zimbabwe was what astounded me. Hardships (the government prefers to call them challenges) have reshaped an entire society, from the conservative white class, to the black professionals and the new "indigenous" bourgeois and finally to the urban working class.
I had been warned though. Not by the media that I always suspected were prejudicial to any events out of Dark Africa. Not by news from fellow compatriots who I thought just wanted to sponge a few bucks off me. No. It was my loving mother. "There's no need to come if you don't have anything "she said when I called to tell her that, I the apple of her eye (she told me so) was on his way home after a three year absence. She knew, of course, that I was a scholarship student, living from hand to mouth.
A clearer picture began to form when I arrived at the border town of Musina. Here Zimbabwean shoppers could be seen carrying sacks filled with rice, flour, cooking oil and other essential commodities necessary for a decent living in a modern society. My luggage then increased, by 23kg to be exact, although travelling light has always been steadfast rule to me. But who was I to question their wisdom ?
Touting women besieged me on arriving at the border. They carry luggage across the five hundred or so metres that separate the two sides. Flash with cash I employed one. She was tall, thin and had a desperate expression that I could discern from the tired look in her eyes. She told me she was from Bulawayo and had came to Beitbridge seeking work after her husband ran off to work in South Africa. But it was more likely that she was from the rural hinterland of Bulawayo, and in better times, would have been married and looking after her children in the comfort of her home. She was to pass the numerous border guards who wouldn't even ask for her passport. She told me she had paid them. She carried the sack on her head the whole way, I would have had difficulty carrying it just a few metres. It reminded me of Zimbabwe - long-suffering, uncomplaining, compliant, carrying the crushing burden of her greedy elite, who took and took. I paid her twenty rands.
I arrived home, in Harare on a Saturday morning, exhausted from the ten-hour journey in a bus. I was happy to see my family and the safe comfortable feeling of being home infected me, here was where I belonged.
Nevertheless, my country has a way of reminding you wherever you turn, that grim reality rather than abstract imaginations governs life. I had arrived on DD or "Dry day". There was not a drop of water from taps. The Harare municipality (controlled by the Opposition), rations water because there is a shortage of water treatment chemicals which need to be bought using foreign currency. The government says it need forex for more vital things.
Therefore, in the first full day in the country of my birth I stank of sweat and unwashed underwear. But then I was never much of a washer.
The days that followed taught me how to survive in a hyperinflationary economy. It turns your whole concept of money upside down. Cash becomes a commodity to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. This first occurred a couple of months before I arrived, when like all commodities in Zimbabwe, there was a shortage of cash. Banks began rationing withdrawals and some enterprising tellers would charge a commission to issue more than was permitted. Some I heard made quite a bundle. A cash shortage is understandable considering that, because saving is virtually useless, people spend all the money they earn as soon as they get it or else it won't be much the following week. When I was last home a taxi fare to the city was twenty dollars, this year it's a thousand dollars. A five thousand percent increase. You learn to work in big numbers were a million dollars in the price of two pairs of school shoes and a teacher's salary is two hundred thousand dollars.
When the very fabric that makes society is ripped asunder, the meeting of otherwise unlikely people is not a strange phenomenon. My mother made a friend who I happened to meet, an old white women in her late sixties. Her life was heartbreaking. It is the story of immigrants. A husband and wife came to a country full of hope, worked all their lives for a farm owner who lived abroad. They never owned land; just glorified labourers. They contributed to the growth of the country they had come to love. Yet the maelstrom of Mugabe's Third Chimurenga, swept them from the only home they had and left them with quite literally nothing but the clothes they wore that disasterous day. My mother told me that the woman's husband had died recently, from anguish maybe, and friends found her a small home to rent a few blocks away from our house. There she lives alone and comes every week to have a cup of tea. My mother always packs her some food to take with her. She needs it. She's just another statistic; stories like that are galore in my country.
It's the middle class I felt most sorry for. When everything around them is falling to pieces they still hang on to the idea of fancy luxuries like fresh milk. Fresh milk for cereal! That was yesterday's country. Bathing soap, toothpaste, perfume, in fact all stuff that would distinguish them from the smelly working class is too expensive and only available at black market rates. To continue "keeping up appearances", the middle class (doctors, lawyers teachers) have to augment their salaries by trading in anything from tomatoes to pirated software. Teachers provide extra lessons.
My mother was selling "guava strips"; she is a teacher. As I said a teacher's salary is about two hundred thousand dollar. This is a pittance when monthly travelling expenses are in excess of forty thousand dollars. Doctors, nurses are all not in better shape. My brother summed it up best when he said that Zimbabwe had broken new ground, where you could live under the poverty line on a professional's salary.
Life in the townships has not changed at all. The roads have been falling apart since Smith left, the public phones have never worked and the official unemployment rate is now soaring at 70%, up from 40% in the last twenty years. I visited Tafara (a township on the eastern side of the capital). It has a carefree, easygoing attitude. The nightclubs are as dangerous as they are fantastic. So there I was sipping my beer, looking around to see if I could recognise any faces from years back when I patronised this outfit with a passion. I was lucky to meet an old friend. The conversation got around to girlfriends I had dated before. It was disappointing to find some had chosen prostitution. It was then that I noticed that the female patronage had grown considerably younger. It's a hard world here, no one wants to keeping sending daughters to school when they can contribute to the household income.
I did not want to, but with the evidence before my eyes, I could not resist. Is there still hope, what would the future bring? Where is hope
when daughters are prostituted for an extra piece of bread? I was foolish enough to ask questions like these. I later asked my mother. She had no answer at first. Then she turned to Zimbabwe's predicament in general. "We are nation of survivors, we adapt that's our greatest strength" was my mother's answer. She said it with stoic pride.
I should have told my mother that a nation should never learn to adapt. This might just be mistaken for a tacit condoning of any government policy. It says we do not expect the best; even the worst will not hurt that much.
"It's their choice man, we all have choices", my friend said. I shook my head and gulped down my beer. I had nothing to say to my friend.
Zimbabwe has a way of silencing you and all well thought out answers seem inconsequential; it strips you bare of all hope and only the tatters of despair remain exposing you to the scorching African sun.