My Zimbabwe awakening began one day in November, the Southern Hemisphere's spring, when the limbs of the royal poincianas, a tree with a broad canopy, were bursting with red blossoms along the streets of the Murambi district of Mutare, a city where I lived for more than a year, from September 2019 to December 2020. On that November day I was taking in the beauty of the poincianas, the surrounding mountains, and the azure blue sky as I was making my way to the ninth tee of the Hillside Sports Club golf course, where three men, all wearing the blue pants and jackets that are common attire for workers, were using trowels to dig out weeds from the tee box. (The British colonizers built the club, and the first nine holes of the course, in 1912.) Two of the men had on well-worn athletic shoes etched with brown creases, while the third was barefoot. His wafer-thin flip-flops lay on the grass beside him. He looked up at me, and I said, "You need some new shoes."
His eyes were bloodshot, his frame skeletal. He could have been thirty or sixty. It was impossible to tell. He certainly looked older than his age; of that I was sure. Most Zimbabweans, affectionately called Zimbos, do.
"No money, sir," he said.
I had expected this answer. The inflation rate at the time I wrote this was over seven hundred percent; most Zimbos, if they could find work, found it in what is called the informal sector. They were black market money changers, or they prowled the streets, selling bananas, popcorn, peanuts, phone charging cords, miner's headlamps (blackouts were daily, lasting twelve hours or more), telephone air time, about anything they could to make some money. (While waiting in a petrol queue one day, a man tried to sell me diamonds he had, well, stolen from the Chiadza diamond field, southwest of town, which has some of the largest diamonds in the world.)
A few weeks before that insightful November day on the golf course, I bought a pair of Chinese knockoff Crocs for less than three U.S. dollars, the default currency. Wanting to put shoes on this man's feet and, of course, feel good about myself for having done so, I said, "I'll buy you some shoes."
The other men stopped their work and looked up at me dubiously. I was naive then. I had come to Zimbabwe as an English Language Fellow in a program sponsored by the State Department to teach at Africa University and practice what is called public diplomacy, saying thank you to the woman who sells fruit, we were told at an orientation.
The shoeless man's name was Gift. (Zimbabweans' first names fascinated me: I had met a Precious, a Marvelous, a Clever, a Sweetman, a Forget, a Not So Much, a Lovemore, and, even a Mona Lisa. Most of their names, though, are taken from the Bible: Esther, Amos, Emmanuel, Mary, Isaiah, Jacob. Others are the names of British monarchs: Charles, Edward, John, George.)
I hit my drive and walked off down the fairway, where my caddie, Charles, was standing beside the ball. I said to him, "Do you know Gift?"
Charles has been a caddie for more than forty years. Caddying, too, is one of the few ways to make some money. Charles is a small man, has a broad face and gentle demeanor. He always dresses neatly, sometimes in trousers that are pleated, and long-sleeved shirts. He has a wife and three children. With his earnings from caddying he's built a red brick house outside town on land he inherited from his father.
"He's one of those guys?" Charles asked.
"He doesn't have any shoes," I said.
Charles, who had always shown patience, tolerance, and kindness, seemed hesitant to hear what I was going to say next, but I could not stop myself. I said, "I told him I'd buy him some shoes."
Charles's face hardened a bit. I had never seen him look this way, even after I had yanked a ball into the bush, where mambas and cobras lurk. He'd go into the bush to look for my ball, even when I told him it was not necessary, and usually find it, to my amazement.
He said, "A white man bought him some good shoes, and they were stolen from him when he was asleep on the street, drunk."
I had learned to expect the unexpected in Zimbabwe, but this still took me by surprise. My response was reflexive: buying shoes for a drunk was not practicing public diplomacy. I could buy a ten-kilogram sack of maize meal for a family with the money. Maize meal is used to make sadza, the staple food.
I turned my attention to the task at hand--my second shot to the green of a testing par four, the green near a deck of the clubhouse, where people were having lunch, as they took in the vistas of the Eastern Highlands: granite-faced mountains, a few as sharp as needles, and a red arid plain.
"What do you think," I said to Charles, "a seven or eight?"
"Take the seven," Charles said. "The wind is against."
It was not long after this that I was walking along one of Mutare's potholed side streets when I noticed a crushed plastic bottle, about the size of a flask, at my feet. On the label there was a Popeye-esque sailor in a striped T-shirt flexing his arm, his bicep bulging. Remembering what Charles had told me about Gift, the bottle piqued my curiosity. I picked it up and had a look. It had contained two hundred milliliters of cane spirits and was forty percent alcohol; because of the color, a bit tannic, it was passed off as Brandy. I dropped the bottle and walked on and saw that there were quite a number of these bottles littering the ground, fake whiskey, gin, and vodka; evidence, surely, that there were a number of drunks about. Among these bottles there were Panther condom wrappers as well. (Zimbabwe has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world.)
Since arriving in Mutare, I had not seen any public drunkenness--and, of course, no public fornication--and only a few people smoking. I felt safe, had no fear of being robbed, even at night. By nine o'clock the city had shut down. People were always neatly dressed. Men's shirts were ironed and tucked in to their trousers. Women, often with a baby strapped to their backs, balancing a ten-kilogram sack of maize meal on their heads, walked with dignity and pride. Mutare had seemed amazingly normal for a city in a country which is at the bottom of about every economic and health category list there is. There are DIY stores, computer, stationery, and coffee shops, a public swimming pool (built by the colonizers in 1957), even a Holiday Inn, and, of course, the Hillside Sports Club, which also has tennis and lawn bowling. I had simply been too naive, too overwhelmed by the beauty of the surrounding mountains and friendliness of the people, to be aware of the ordinary vices, political oppression, and social strife that went on there.
"Sometimes white farmers had only a few hours to pack their bags and leave the farms that they had developed for years, building irrigation systems and buying expensive tractors and harvesters. These land seizures also meant that 400,000 farm workers, Africans, lost their jobs, as those who had taken over the farms knew little about farming and had no interest in learning how to become farmers."
Before coming to Zimbabwe I did know something of the country's history, that during the middle of the late twentieth century it had been known as Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes, the diamond mining baron who founded the De Beers Company. I had also known about an absurd conspiracy theory involving James Earl Ray, the killer of Martin Luther King. The conspiracy advocates believed that Ray had received money from the Rhodesian government--or some white supremacist group there--to kill King, an inspirational black man who posed a threat to post-colonial white rule. An insurgency, called a bush war, against this rule had been on the rise.
In return for killing King, the Rhodesian government would grant Ray political asylum. But he was arrested in London at Heathrow Airport before boarding a flight to Brussels on a fake Canadian passport, all of which only contributed to the conspiracy theory: someone, or some group, was financing him, the conspiracy theorists asserted. The known facts, that Ray was a swindler, cheat, and fraudster did not account for the money required to get to England from North America, stay there for weeks, and buy the ticket to Brussels, and his confession before he died of liver failure in the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility in Nashville in 1998, that he had not acted alone, only fueled this conspiracy.
The conspiracy might have made for a somewhat interesting movie script, but I did not buy into it. I did what conspiracy peddlers do not usually do, read A History of Zimbabwe by Alois S. Mlambo, a professor of history at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. What I learned was that no conspiracy could compare with the reality of Zimbabwe's history in the nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries, which was one of white deceit, religious proselytization by Christian missionaries, the immigration of white settlers--mostly farmers, miners, and fortune seekers from South Africa or England, and also a few Dutch farmers, Boers, who all took possession of African land, because it was simply there for the taking. (None of the blacks had deeds for the land, an absurdity, of course, considering they had been living on the land for who knows how many years.).
Colonization often takes the form of deceit, and this is how whites gained control of black land. Cecil Rhodes got the king of the Ndebele, King Lobengula, hooked on morphine, as a treatment for his gout; Lobengula signed a treaty with Rhodes to continue his "treatment," which allowed Rhodes to exploit the diamond and gold reserves. The white colonizers later ruled the Ndebele and Shona, the two main tribes, under a charter granted to the British South African Company by England in 1923, more than twenty years after Rhodes's death. (Zimbabwe was called Southern Rhodesia at that time, and it had legal ties to Britain.) Then in 1953 Southern Rhodesia entered into a confederation with Northern Rhodesia, present-day Zambia, and Nyasaland, present-day Malawi. The confederation lasted until 1963; Southern Rhodesia became Rhodesia, a British colony that only lasted until the following year, when Ian Smith, the governor of the colony, declared independence from Britain, an illegal act that resulted in United Nations sanctions. The bush war became the Bush War, fomented by the unequal distribution of land between the races. In 1960 the number of white farmers was 8,600, and they owned forty-five million acres of fertile land. The African population, three million, farmed about the same number of acres, though the land was less arable and also malaria infested.
The Bush War gained momentum, ironically, because the British themselves were in the process of decolonizing, encouraging democracy in their former colonies. India, the Jewel in the Crown, as it was called, had gained independence in 1947. But Ian Smith, the prime minister of an independent Rhodesia, and most whites, feared democracy, as it would most definitely lead to black majority rule. Smith famously said that "I don't believe in black majority rule ever in Rhodesia—not in a thousand years. . . If one day it is white and the next day it is black, I believe we have failed, and it will be a disaster for Rhodesia." This kind of talk, certainly, encouraged the Bush War, with weapons and military advisors supplied by the former Soviet Union, Cuba, and China--and safe havens for the guerrillas in neighboring Zambia and Mozambique--to become a full-blown civil war. The war claimed the lives of more than thirty thousand people, most of them subsistence farmers whose allegiance to the cause for independence was gained by fear: They risked being tortured and possibly murdered by the insurgents if they did not offer them sanctuary. Really, all these people wanted was sufficient rain to grow maize, and not much more.
In 1979 the three parties involved in the war, the Rhodesian government and the two black parties, ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union), and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People's Union) signed the Lancaster House Agreement, which ended the war. The two African parties were allowed to stand candidates in the next election. The infamous Robert Mugabe, a member of what became ZANU-PF (Patriotic Front) became prime minister. He, at first, beguiled whites, who were fleeing the country, heading south to South Africa, for the most part, with promises of forgetting about the past and working together to forge a cooperative future for the new country, Zimbabwe. This was a lie that was manifestly revealed in the early 2000s when Mugabe ignored court decisions that were contrary to his rule; he proceeded to threaten judges, forcing them to "take early retirement." The government would not ensure their personal safety, he said.
Mugabe, a duplicitous, deceitful man, described himself as "a Marxist–Leninist of Maoist" thought. His allies were North Korea, the Soviet Union, and China. But he, and his inner circle, were not guided by a political ideology. They were guided by the ideology of personal wealth. Mugabe and his kleptocrats pilfered millions of dollars from government coffers, stashing it in foreign bank accounts. His political agenda was to eliminate, through physical threats, torture, and genocide those who got in his way. Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe's then Minister of State Security, now the current president, known as "the Crocodile," used the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, Mugabe's SS, to murder an estimated twenty thousand Ndebeles in Matabeleland, a province in the southwest, from 1983 to 1987, in what became known as the Gukuranhundi, in Shona "the cleansing first rains after the dry season," because they were seen as political enemies. Bodies were dumped down mine shafts, perhaps the mine shafts dug by Cecil Rhodes's De Beers company.
In the early 2000s, Zimbabwe's economy collapsed when Mugabe declared in his incendiary speeches that "Africa was for Africans, Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans," a green light for war veterans, whose pensions had been plundered by Mugabe's kleptocrats, to run white farmers off their farms, often at gunpoint. Sometimes white farmers had only a few hours to pack their bags and leave the farms that they had developed for years, building irrigation systems and buying expensive tractors and harvesters. These land seizures also meant that 400,000 farm workers, Africans, lost their jobs, as those who had taken over the farms knew little about farming and had no interest in learning how to become farmers. They just wanted the property, to lease it out to subsistence farmers, basically sharecropping, or to sell off the equipment. Agriculture had been the major economic engine of the country before 1980. (Rhodesia had been known as the breadbasket of Africa.) As the bottom fell out of the economy, inflation increased, reaching over two hundred million percent as the central bank kept the printing presses running, churning out banknotes. Merchants, rather than counting a customer's bills, weighed them. The highest value note, now a collector's item, was one hundred trillion dollars. From what I was told, a trillion dollars would not have bought you a loaf of bread. "Just a figure," someone at the golf club told me once, a very insightful way of looking at the value of money, I thought. But that loaf of bread that cost one trillion one week might cost more than twenty trillion the next and who knows how many trillion the week after that. This trillion was often followed, absurdly, by a decimal point: 1,234,567,891.23, for example.
It is with a great deal of irony that Mugabe's rule came to an end in 2017 in a military coup engineered by the Crocodile, to prevent Mugabe's shop-aholic second wife, nicknamed Gucci Grace, from succeeding him as president. Mugabe later died in Singapore at the age of ninety-five, where he had been seeking medical treatment. His family owned a mansion worth a few million dollars there and others in Hong Kong and Dubai.
The Crocodile's photograph is, by law, on display in banks, schools, universities, hotels, car dealerships, supermarkets, and, of course, government buildings. In the photograph, Mnangagwa, who has a broad, square face, and a malevolent grin, comes across as a sort of caricature of an African dictator. He is an African Big Brother leering down at a mother with a child strapped to her back standing in a queue to buy a packet of milk. To keep people in poverty is to stay in power. Political thought is a luxury.
One of the Crocodile's party slogans is on a billboard that no one can miss when coming down Christmas Pass into Mutare. It perfectly captures the political atmosphere and successful proselytization of the Africans by the Christian missionaries. On one side of the billboard is the Crocodile, attempting to strike a benevolent, avuncular pose. In the middle of the billboard is ZANU-PF's slogan: "The voice of the people is the voice of God."
The first time I saw the billboard I thought it was humorous, something kitschy that an African dictator would say. I stopped to take a selfie of myself standing in front of it and sent it to friends. They made jokes about it. And then, gradually, as I got to know Zimbabwe, and its people, the billboard was no longer humorous. Zimbabwean friends told me of critics of the Crocodile who had disappeared. (I once asked the principal of a school if I could take a photo of him, with the school over his shoulder, and he refused, fearful that the photo would be posted on the internet and be seen by someone in the government, whom he would have to answer to.)
I did not see Gift for another month or so, and during this time I had gained a reputation around town as the white guy who could be overcharged or hit on for a handout by laying on him a sob story: "I can't afford my children's school fees"; "My family doesn't have any maize meal"; "I can't pay my rent in U.S. dollars." All of these things could have been, and probably were, true, the economy was in such distress.
In a city that seems to be 99.9 percent Shona, it was impossible for me to blend in. (This feeling was not new to me. I was used to it. I had lived for more than twenty-five years in East Asia, Japan and China.) Another reason I was easy to find was that I had bought a 150cc off-road motorcycle soon after arriving in Mutare. It was blue and had a boot. When I had parked it at the curb, the sight of it was a sure indication that I was nearby. When I returned to it, there was usually someone there, waiting for me, usually a bleary-eyed glue sniffer or someone made brain-numb by codeine, about to fall to the ground, who asked me for a handout for looking after my bike, a form of extortion, really; or a man or woman struggling to get by by selling whatever fruit or vegetable was in season--bananas (always), avocados, pineapples, peaches, tangerines--was there. I did buy these, if I needed them, for a dollar or two. Much of this produce, and the fruits, are grown nearby in the Bvumba or Honda valleys, where there is a reliable supply of water from streams and wells, or from small reservoirs that white farmers had built before being driven off their land by Mugabe's henchmen.
One day my black market money changer, an affable Shona born and raised in Mutare, not wanting me to be victimized, had a shouting match with an avocado vendor, running him off. The vendor been charging me maybe fifty cents for one avocado, when the going rate was half that. (I was too dumb to know this, that avocados were so plentiful and cheap.) My money changer then expressed his regret that I was the target of cheats and swindlers and said two things that widened my vision even more to the realities of life in Zimbabwe. The first thing he said was, "James, you've got to stop helping these people or you'll have all of Africa following you around." The second was, "It embarrasses me what my people have done to this country."
Colonial rule is in evidence in the buildings and layout of the city. There are the once beautiful homes that have carriage houses, where black servants lived, that are falling apart. Walls are cracked. Roof tiles are missing. Paint is flaking off. The gutters have rotted. And then there are other homes, ones dating back to the turn of the nineteenth century--hidden behind concrete walls topped with razor wire--that are little island paradises, gravel drives leading to garages, red tile roofs, verandas, and, in the gardens, bougainvillea, palms, and fig trees. There are other colonial reminders as well: a large train station, though there is now only one passenger train a day to Harare. (The line terminates in Mutare. It had once continued on to the Mozambican port of Beria on the Indian Ocean.) There is a custom house not far from the station, a landmark with a clock tower--the hands of the clock missing, the building vacant, the paint on the shutters flaking off; and, as unbelievable as it seems, perhaps the most telling legacy of British colonial rule, the city water, which is actually drinkable. I drank it. It is better than any city water I have had in Florida.
But there is, of course, the darker aspect of colonial rule, a township, or high-density area as it is called, Sakubva, which is a few kilometers from the center of town, down the long grade of the main thoroughfare, Herbert Chipeto Street, which crosses Robert Mugabe Avenue. Sakubva is literally on the other side of the tracks, separated from the more affluent neighborhoods by the decrepit railroad line. Sakubva was built by the ruling whites during the nineteenth century to house African single men who worked in white-owned factories. Now Sakubva is bursting with people. As many as six people might live in one drafty, unheated room. Many of the homes are the same design, as if stamped out: small, made of brick, with corrugated metal roofs. In an odd way, many of these homes reminded me of the old homes I had seen when living in Japan, though these are mostly in disrepair, the bricks crumbling, the wooden doors, probably the originals, rotted away at the corners, the hinges rusted. Many of the windows are patched with cardboard or plastic. Rats dart in and out of holes in the walls. A few homes, though, have been kept up and have security walls, even a used Japanese car parked nearby. (Used cars and trucks are imported from Japan.)
But despite the evident poverty, Sakubva has life. Along the narrow streets, usually dirt, women sell tomatoes, bananas, onions, peanuts, and a spiny African cucumber. There are barbers and cobblers and medical clinics and, most noticeably, hives of children playing in the dirt. The most popular toy seems to be a couple of bottle caps connected by a wire, the wire to a stick, which a child holds and uses to race the bottle caps along through the dirt, the caps spinning as if they are the wheels of a model car. And, sadly, there are young children, perhaps only seven or eight, who have already become adults: a baby sister or brother is strapped to their backs, which allows for their mother to tend a garden or do the washing. Sakubva is a very real immersion into the Africa I had imagined before arriving in Zimbabwe--people, lots of them, who struggle to get by and stare at a white man when he walks by.
I never felt threatened in Sakubva, however. People were friendly. The children laughed, or even seemed frightened of me, something I always found amusing, the role reversal--black children fearful of a white man--but their mothers often pushed their children toward me, urging them to speak to me in the English they had learned at school, if they were fortunate enough to attend school. School is prohibitively expensive for many, the school fees and textbooks, maybe ten U.S. dollars a term, when I was there, but the cost increases each term, as do rents and about everything else in Zimbabwe.
It was sometime in March, when the weather was turning cool, that I asked myself a question that truly did get me to see things in Zimbabwe as they are: Why is it that other blacks do not help their black sisters and brothers? Whenever I went into town I saw late model Mercedes, Audis, or BMW SUVs. The answer to my question came from three sources: a fruit vendor to whom I was loyal to, the manager of the golf club, and those who were on staff, all Shona, at the lodge where I lived. It was built during the colonial period and is managed by former Rhodesian whites who stayed during Mugabe's reign of terror.
The fruit seller's answer to my question came in the form of something he had experienced. A woman who had walked out of a medical clinic not far from where he was standing on the sidewalk collapsed in the street. He ran over to help her return to the clinic, but he could not manage this by himself and stopped a man who was driving past. He asked for his help. The man answered, "I don't have time," and sped off. After relating this story to me, the fruit seller told me that blacks were "selfish" and that I was his "Jesus." Truly, he said that. A white man who buys a bag of tangerines from him for a dollar now and then was his Jesus. I told him I was no Jesus. (I am not even a believer.)
The manager of the golf club pointed out to me something I had seen but had not attached much significance to, that many of the new cars had paper, temporary plates taped to the insides of the windows. One reason was that the government did not have the metal to make the permanent plates, he said, but there was another reason as well. These temporary paper plates announced to others that the owner of the car was rich, that they had gotten theirs, and certainly not through legal means, because few people had jobs that paid enough to buy a new tire, much less a late model Mercedes.
The staff where I lived, though, had an answer to my question which was the most damning. None of them wanted to work for a Shona. This was shocking to me, a white American, whose country's news cycle was at that time all about the murder of Mr. Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. The reality in Zimbabwe is that black employers very often do not pay their employees for months at a time, if at all, though they have the payroll to do so, or they might accuse a worker of theft, as a pretext to firing them.
On walks through Murambi I thought of these wealthy blacks who lived off the earnings of--or kickbacks from--their brothers and sisters (or executives of Chinese or Russian mining companies) and apparently shared little of their money with those who did not know where their next meal was coming from. They would have described themselves as God fearing Christians. The Crocodile's party slogan, "The voice of the people is the voice of God," is one they would agree with. But I do not think they understood, or probably did not care, how it kept their brothers and sisters in check, frozen in place, relying on God to save them from the misery brought upon them by poor governance. George Orwell could not have written a party slogan that more effectively achieved the Crocodile's goal of staying in power.
I had never lived in a place where there are so many churches. There seemed to be one on every block, and of so many denominations. There are Seventh Day Adventists, Anglicans, Methodist, Baptist, Roman Catholics, Apostolics, who worship under a tree, the women all dressed in white, and even Greek Orthodox. (Mugabe, born into a poor Shona family, was a Roman Catholic.) There are churches run out of sheds, from which I heard hymns being sung on Sunday mornings. The congregants sit on roughly hewn benches made from logs. One man who started a church, I was told by a former landlord, used donations from his followers to keep his trucking company solvent.
The next time I saw Gift he was barefoot, walking past me near the first tee. He was more bone than muscle and walked with a sort of jangle. A cigarette was dangling from his lips. I asked him about the shoes I had given him.
"They're buggered," he said.
I asked him to show them to me. He took me to a shed behind the golf shop, where the caddies hang out, waiting for a player to hire them. A few caddies were clustered around a fire fueled by wood they had gathered from the course. A metal grate was over the fire, and on the grate there was a pot in which they were cooking sadza. Gray smoke from the fire was curling up to the roof and slipping out from one edge of it into the blue winter sky.
Gift showed me the shoes. The soles had separated from the canvas; holes lay along the bridge of the toes.
I thought he might ask for another pair, but he did not. He just tossed them down onto the dirt, in resignation to his station in life, it seemed to me, and walked off, puffing on his cigarette.
"God will save us," one of the caddies then said.
I went to practice my short game.
James Roth is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His work has appeared in several magazines and journals, most recently the two hundredth edition of the South African journal, New Contrasts. His first novel, The Opium Addict, set in Meiji era Japan, is forthcoming. A second novel, A Prayer for My Daughter, is a noir/literary mystery due for release in 2024. He has lived in Japan, China, Jordan, South Africa, and Zimbabwe and likes to say he was "Made in Japan." His parents lived there during the American occupation but he was, to his and his mother's lasting regret, born in the U.S. Check out his website, www.jamesroth.org, as well as this video, which complements Roth's article.
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