Harare and some painting
4 February 2013- Harare, Zimbabwe
We are on the outskirts of Harare leaving the city, after staying here longer than we expected. Arriving a week ago after a brilliant time in Mana Pool NP we found a place to camp in the car park of the Small World Backpackers. The drive to Harare took us through a few a small towns and plenty of road blocks (most of them we were just waved through). At one we were stopped when the policeman had a quick glance at landy and solemnly informed us we would need to pay a ten dollar fine for having a very dirty car. We were directed to pull off the road and another officer came over and there was much umming about the state of landy. We agreed it was dirty (it is!) told them we had been in Mana Pools and we would wash it. Of course we had no intention of paying for a dirty car! After a few minutes of discussing the state of landy and being told she is unsanitary and should be washed we were allowed on our way.
We’ve had a great time here and a combination of things have kept us longer than intended. The city drew us in, but more so has the atmosphere of where we have been staying. We’ve met some really interesting and nice people and have felt part of a community of sorts which has been good. Everyone goes off and does their own thing (work etc) but we casually meet up at various points for chats, a cuppa and a few games of pool. There is a real mix of people, there are only two other tourists (a Dutch journalist who lives in Uganda and his mother on holiday here) and all the rest are from other parts of Zim in the capital on business, a uni student from Windhoek and a few people who live here for longer periods (either locals or Europeans doing research for various organisations). Apart from Vic Falls, Zim just doesn’t seem to have any tourists, we have literally only seen a couple of others.
We have had some good conversations and its been really interesting to get some insight from some locals (one of whom lived in Melbourne for years) talking about things in the paper (the government ones and the independent ones you can buy on the street) I was trying to be diplomatic and asked if the government paper is soft and she exclaimed with a chuckle “Soft?!, its lies! I will read it the day they pay me to!” Some of our best chats have been with Steve and Vilen an unlikely pair (who only just met at the backpackers sharing a dorm). Steve is a middle aged man from western Zim in Harare for work and Vilen is a really lovely uni student from Windhoek here visiting mates. We had some great chats with the two of them and they are really good fun. Meeting Vilen was one of the highlights for me in Harare, he is such a bright interesting boy and we had some great conversations. He has stars in his eyes about the future and would love to travel, we hope he makes it to stay with us one day!
One night a few people were going out and we thought why not? About ten of us stuffed into two taxis and sped (!) through the suburbs to arrive at a bar. As soon as we walked in it felt surreal, a trendy place that could have been in Sydney or London (besides the $3 drinks). It was not what we were expecting! We haven’t been somewhere like that for so long (not that we go places like that very often anyway!). Since we have been travelling our base level expectation of what people have has changed and walking in there and seeing that so unexpectedly was strange. There was so much money and glam walking around the room and people so obviously wore it on their sleeves and seemed to want each other to know they had money, it was both expats and locals. It confirmed to me I couldn’t lead an expat lifestyle like this! We must have been the strangest group in there- us, a Danish researcher, 2 locals, a Namibian law student, a Norwegian football coach (works locally), a Slovenian researcher and a Dutch journalist who lives in Uganda. We did some people watching, had fun dancing and then went back to our landy in our car park!
Harare is a city of contrasts. We have heard Zim goes in cycles, having little in shops and no fuel to having fully stocked shops and plenty of fuel- we have found the latter. When we arrived we intended to stay a day or two and have a look around as well as do our city things- internet, washing etc. Our first impressions were of a safe (and have been told over and over its safe during the day), attractive city with tree lined streets and plenty of shops and restaurants, very obviously a city in a developing country, but could be one of any number of cities. We really were not sure what to expect, the only thing you really hear about Zim is the chaos and violence of elections and sadly outside of southern Africa its prob best known for its leadership. After a day or two we soon saw through our first impressions and began to get a glimpse of the layers that Zimbabwe has. We started to notice a few things- mainly the power is out more than it is on, only about half the traffic lights work, they regularly run out of water, we heard on the radio that Harare only has the capacity to supply half of its water requirements and of that 60% is lost through broken pipes (which are evident everywhere when you are walking the streets). It is strange to see potholes overflowing with crystal clear water rather than muddy rain water. The roads have huge potholes which people repair themselves by filling them with stones and none of the railway crossings anywhere in the country have operating warning lights. When chatting to people we say that Harare is a nice city, a consistent reply we hear to that is “thank you but it used to be so much nicer”. That ties in with something its taken us a few days to put our finger on- in many ways Harare is like many other developing cities but it also has things that give a glimpse of former prosperous times- wide tree lined streets (which the taxi driver told us every time it rains one or two fall down!) and infrastructure – bus shelters, street lights- all bent, battered and forgotten long ago. Aside from a few private buildings (and the president’s office we walked past the other day) things seem in general disrepair and very run down.
Generally speaking outside of Harare Zim seems a little time-warped, the smaller towns look and feel like a snap shot from the 90’s. We have seen a number of big hotels that look empty- maybe people used to have more money to travel or maybe there were more international tourists? The main roads are ok in Zim, large stretches of highway in relatively good condition. Since ‘dollarization’ (when Zim stated officially using the US dollar as its currency) when the Zim dollar became worthless and inflation was nuts we have heard things are more expensive but now more available. So I guess it’s both good and bad? You can buy as a ‘souvenir’ a one trillion Zimbabwean dollar note that were actually in use! Despite all of this and the many tragic hardships its people face and have faced, Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with the friendliest people you could ever meet as well as some incredibly talented artists selling their pieces here and there. We have had many people welcome us, shake our hands, wish us safe travels and even thank us for coming to Zimbabwe.
The elections are coming later this year and the papers are full of election related things- the gov papers have different stories from the independent ones! There are still some faded old peeling political posters from the last election in 2008 on some walls around the city, they say “Vote for Robert Mugabe – consistent principles and fearless leadership”. It’s difficult to get a sense of what people think. The media is controlled by the sate. There are a few independent newspapers for sale on the street, but its hard to talk about things when its illegal to criticise the government and especially RM and you don’t know people beliefs nor want to make them feel uncomfortable or compromised. They have not had a peaceful election since independence so time will tell how this one goes. Generally we could tell people were very aware of what they said.
One of the things we have enjoyed has been getting out of Landy, we walked to the Botanic Gardens (just for the walk) through tree lined streets in the area of the city where most embassies seem to be, to the pleasant but obviously underfunded and seemingly forgotten gardens, we were clearly the only visitors and were kindly invited to join some of the workers for breakfast. as we wandered past! As we headed for the city centre we accidentally walked past the presidents offices (a very plush looking compound we had heard is was best to avoid and save the hassle). Given that we didn’t have ID on us and I had a camera in my bag (not allowed to take photos of much here!) we just wanted to quickly get past. As we approached one of the many army men posted around the property waved at us assertively to cross over and to walk past on the other side of the road, he then gave us the thumbs up when we did. There was no mistaking it for a political building- it was very very nice and very heavily guarded with CCTV and a large sign saying NO PHOTOS and NO STOPPING. We walked sheepishly by avoiding anyones eye. When we got into town we spent the rest of the morning at the National Gallery, which is small and very simple but good to have a look around, and came back a couple of days later to attend a presentation on pre and post colonial influences in African art- very interesting. One day we found a gem of a cafe and some great food, the best we have had for ages, heaps of salads with so many yummy things- noodles, fresh veg, nuts… so so good. It really is really weird to think not long ago we had easy access to so much variety of foods and just so much access to everything. We took a taxi back to the hostel and had a nice chat with the driver, who, as with most people we have met, seemed desperate for us to have a favourable view of Zimbabwe. He was delighted when we told him Harare is nice and thanked us as if it was a personal compliment. He also assured us its safe (during the day).
The backpackers we stayed at supports an orphanage in a rural area a few hours from the city. We talked a little about seeing if there was anything we could support them, as we were interested in the orphanage but didn’t want to just visit to look around. We really only wanted to go if it was genuinely useful and meaningful. I had a chat with the project co-ordinator (whose office is on the grounds of the backpackers) and asked her about the program and how it runs etc. After chatting with her for a while we agreed they would love if we could paint some of the rooms to freshen them up, we asked if the kids could help paint and she said of course! So we went shopping at a hardware store up the road and got paint, rollers, brushes etc and made plans to go yesterday. Caroline (the project cord) was not able to go so she gave us directions and we left early yesterday morning. After about a three hour drive through lovely countryside we were greeted by a few small shy faces and the two ‘mamas’ who run the place, they gave us big smiles and ushered us inside. Mavis and Margaret (the mamas) showed us around and decided they wanted us to paint the kitchens as they really needed it (one was mostly bare concrete).
The orphanage is on a property about 12 km from a small town in northeast of Zim. They have a farm to grow veg for their food and sell the excess for income. There are 14 children, ages ranging 7-17 living in two 3 bedroom buildings (one room for boys one for girls and one for each mama). All of the children have lost their parents but most have extended family that do not have the resources to care for them. The property has electricity but it goes off regularly and was off for four days by the time we got there. We went around the room introducing ourselves and asked who wanted to help, slowly we got a few smiles and nods and in a few minutes most of the children were clamouring for a paint brush! Of course the kids just wanted to paint straight away but we had to spend a few minutes sanding the walls and setting up. Within a few minutes there was bushing and rolling going on everywhere! We were hoping the kids would do a lot of the painting as its their home but we painted too and kept a general eye on the whole messy thing. The kids got stuck in and were really great, most of the paint ending up on the walls! There were a few sneaky ones who tried to paint their shoes so we had to keep an eye on them! We spent all day painting the two kitchens and cleaning up. The older boys had fetched water that morning from about 800 metres up the road. The kitchens both have sinks but no running water and we both kept going to turn the tap on to clean a brush before remembering we had to go outside and get some from a leaking tank on an old trailer.
In the afternoon we hung around with the kids and they were intrigued by landy and laughed and laughed when we showed them where the bed is. They simply couldn’t believe we have a tap with water in our car! Mavis was delighted to sit inside and see the photos we have of family and where we have ‘our pantry’. We spent a few hours just mucking around with the kids, them taking turns with the camera and taking photos of each other and us. A bit later Mavis was washing sheets in a broken plastic bucket and Margaret was waiting for the bucket to wash the sheets for the other house. After chatting for a while we asked it we could get them a new bucket and were guided into town by Munasha, a lovely shy 14 year old (who we both thought was much younger until he told us his age). We stocked up on some buckets, rice, cooking oil, bread and biscuits. We didn’t want it to be weird or patronising offering to help them or to just be the rich white people coming in and trying to fix things but it came together in a natural low fuss way that felt right. After tidying ourselves up a bit in the shower with no water (apart from a bucket of water) we had a great evening. The children get up at 5 to get ready for school so it’s an early night. We sat around eating our sadza (staple maize meal the consistency of a firm dough rolled into a ball of sorts and eaten with your hands) with vegetables and chicken in the candle light and were entertained by some exciting singing that we tried to join. Then Mavis put her foot down and said its study time! So we both helped with some homework. One of the older boys asked Olly for help with geography and was truly enthralled by Olly’s enthusiastic explanations and drawings of plate tectonics. I don’t know who enjoyed it more, Olly or the boy. I had a look at a small booklet one of the boys got from school on HIV/AIDS and was interested to see how it was presented to children (it took the approach the childs parents had died from AIDS and their sibling was HIV positive, an all too common story here) as well as disturbed by some of the things in it- that you may be approached by an adult offering to pay your school fees or to give you things in exchange for sex and how this put you at greater risk of getting HIV and how to protect yourself. It also stated that sometimes girls are forced to have sex and gave advise on how to protect themselves in that case as well. Great they are trying to educate children about these things but heartbreaking it is necessary. HIV is the scourge of this continent. We said goodnight and fell into bed exhausted but knowing the kids have to get up at 5 for a 7 km walk to school! We were up at 5 this morning to see the kids off and to say thank you. The children are so polite and just gorgeous and we could see all their different personalities coming through, Mavis adores them (and has a def mix of love and firmness). We really enjoyed spending time there.
L and O