Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 2

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The suburbs of Harare look like Surbiton after a disaster. Large bungalows left to rot, gardens overgrown, swimming pools drained, empty double garages with the doors swinging open. The bowling green, tennis club and golf course are much as you would find in the Daily Mail heartlands of Britain, except that the bunkers are filled with the parched red soil of Southern Africa.

The city centre is grubby; the pavements are crumbling and cratered. Vendors lay newspapers out on the ground and weight them down with old car valves. The architecture seems stuck in a timewarp around the early eighties. But there are still a few colonial buildings, unloved and uncared for yet clinging on: the Art Deco Old Shell Building, the splendidly Edwardian Fereday & Sons on Robert Mugabe Road. The government owns the best buildings, though, and you photograph them at your peril. The journalist, Peter Godwin, wrote of a motorist pulled over and threatened at gunpoint for laughing. “You don’t laugh near the president’s residence,” said the angry soldier. “It’s against the law”.

The ordinary people hurry past – without laughing – in tired pick-ups and tiny hatchbacks towing clouds of smoke, while S class Mercs stand in a line outside. There is wealth in Zimbabwe for a favoured few; and, if you look down Julius Nyerere Avenue, along the line of jacaranda trees, as the sun sets and reflects in the windows of corporate towers, and children saunter home in uniforms evoking an old English school, and a businesswoman strides in patent heels towards the Ernst & Young building, you will struggle to connect it with the ruined country you have seen so often on the news.

We snarled up in rush hour traffic as we headed south out of the city. If the traffic lights worked, no one took any notice, any more than they did of the bewildered policeman blowing his whistle until he was out of breath. The cars rushed to do battle at a crossroads, inching and honking to bully their way through. A pick-up bumped up onto the pavement, churned up gardens and squeezed down an alley and back onto the road further down. An ambulance, hopelessly boxed in, wailed in exasperation.

© Richard Senior 2015

11 thoughts on “Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 2

    • Thank you very much! No I don’t. My background is in law, which is in many ways the opposite of creative writing, although it does discipline you to think about every word you use. I just write the sort of stuff I like to read. I have been influenced by reading people like Hemingway, Chandler, Orwell, HST and Kerouac and – in a negative way – by the mass of clumsy, adjective-heavy, cliche-ridden stuff there is out there. I re-read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language every year or so and it’s a good defence against bad habits. I think it’s important for writing to sound right, so always read my work aloud. I can tell which writers do and which do not.

      • My background is in biology, and in the sciences we are taught to be short and concise in the smallest amount of words possible. This doesn’t really help me when I want to write about a small event in a creative way. I’m trying to develop my site into a travel blog and I’m just waiting for the creative side of my brain to develop and eventually kick in.
        Thank you for the great advice and I will try and adopt some of your practices!

  1. From what I’ve seen of your site, you’re doing fine. Your first sentence above is good benchmark, I reckon. Too many people think writing is about using the most obscure word you know – “embark on a sojourn” rather than “go on holiday” or whatever – and describing everything to the nth degree – “he wore an old, scuffed, brown, three-quarter length leather jacket with the first three buttons open” etc. But then plenty of stellar names do both of those things so it’s totally subjective.

  2. Yes, Harare is in a rather decrepit state and again you’ve painted a wonderfully vivid portrait – For my part, I was especially struck by the dreadful condition of the otherwise beautiful, modernist, National Gallery….which now contains virtually no works of art! But there’s more to the city. I was bowled over by the friendliness of the people I encountered: hard though life is, there’s plenty of laughter! And, compared to South Africa, the city is incredibly safe – I felt equally at ease in the wealthy suburbs, the city centre and in the townships that I visited.

    • I agree. From the government pronouncements which get reported internationally, I was expecting some hostility but, yes, everyone was friendly. More so than in some of the neighbouring countries. I have only been to Cape Town in the RSA, which I know isn’t the most representative city, so it’s hard to compare it

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