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