branches of tree

Zimbabwe

A portrait in words, by
Steve Gamble, Gillian Jaravaza
Mordecai Mahlangu, Gamu Murerwa
Andrew Robinson

RE | Issue 15 | 2019

 

The stars. The sky. 
It’s a sea full of stars.
You get to see absolute black. 
The moon is big : you see it rise.
You lie on the grass at night and look up. 
It's a thick stream of stars, shooting stars. 
A big bright moon.

 

 

Sunrise is busy, everything’s busy. 
The birds get going first.
The sun comes patiently : it eases up. 
Birds come out a bit like the stars.
They don’t all come at once, they come in bits.

In the early morning you hear crickets and the like. 
Then mostly it’s quiet :
Just the little zing of some beetle rubbing its wings against its legs.

Have you ever seen a jacaranda tree?
When the petals fall, it’s like a row of velvet down the street. 
In the valleys you get fever trees :
Dark yellow trunks, bright greens almost lime-y green leaves. 
They offset each other beautifully in the sun.

Today, we don’t have any cloud cover. 
None at all.
We won’t until late October. 
The skies are bright blue.
You’ll not see a clearer sky anywhere in the world at moments like this. 
It’s one of the wonderful things about having no industry.
It’s all just bright blue.

 

 

Baobabs are upturned trees
They are the funniest trees in the world 
And one of the oldest trees in the world

They absorb the light, they almost glow

Everywhere, baobabs are dying, of old age
They happened all at the same time
They seem to all be going at the same time

 

 

Just before the rains come, people burn their grass. 
At night you’ll see fires on the roadside.

You can smell the rains coming.
The raindrops are massive and when they hit the ground 
They smell wonderful.

The sound, in the bush—when there's a storm—
Goes around and around and around. It cannons about. 
You see the rain coming and the thick slanted
Shaft. Cumulonimbus. Streams created out of nothing.

You see birds on the water 
Dead still
They’re looking for movement :
Cranes, and the herons, and the storks

You can walk past and not know the little blue crane is there 
Standing absolutely still

 

 

You get elephant crossing from Zambia into Zimbabwe
With their trunks sticking up
They walk on the bottom of the river and stick their trunks up

Everything’s larger than life

You get rocks balancing on each other 
Massive boulders, thousands of years old
They change, cast thick shadows, take on the hue of the sun

 

 

Big, blue-necked lizards come running

 

 

If you wash in the river, you wash where the water flows quickly. 
You always have someone on hippo control and croc control.

We were going to the watering hole to look at hippo. 
Along the way, we sat down, under a bush
Just sitting, getting some liquids into our bodies.
That was when the first of about a thousand buffalo came down. 
We sat under this bush for a good hour as these buffalo
Eased past, moving towards the watering hole.

We were sitting round the campfire and next thing an impala 
Came rushing through, jumped over our fire.
We sat there looking, what was that...

Then along came these wild dog, jumped over our fire.

 

 

I grew up on a farm in the Low Veld 
There was a big river a kilometre away 
And a big mountain two kilometres away
During the rainy season everything was green

It’s hot in the Low Veld
We spent a lot of time in the river, cooling down 
Our parents didn’t know :
They’d never have allowed us near water

My mother and my father have passed on 
I own the farm now
It passed to me because I am the eldest boy 
That’s the tradition

 

 

My dad died when I was ten
She started farming full time then

She farms tobacco and winter wheat 
She farms barley
She farms maize
She keeps a few cows
She’ll sell a cow to the butcher if she needs to

Cash flow can be difficult for a farmer :
Your money only comes at the end of the season 
Anything can happen during that time

She looks like me—but stronger
She looks like she can take a lot more than I can 
It’s as if she doesn’t have time to be gloomy
She has things to be doing 
She’s thinking things through

It’s almost as if she’s not there.

 

 

People are looking out for each other 
That’s part of Zimbabwean culture 
It’s Ubuntu

It’s a peaceful country
A deeply religious country 
Very God-fearing

We choose to be here

Family and friends : everyone’s close
People don’t go around saying, 'I’m Shona, you’re Ndebele' 
They say : we are Zimbabweans

Time will change, as it does everything 
‘Ah, but’, people say : ‘it never changes’
You hear that a lot

 

 

I was a small child many years ago :

We walked to school along the footpath.
It was quite a challenge because we were very small. 
We walked up to five kilometres to get to school.
It took almost a full hour, unless you ran.
It was a tiring walk, sometimes cold in the morning 
But very hot in the afternoon.

We didn’t have any shoes then.
We just walked barefoot all that distance out in the bush. 
Not easy. But everybody did that.
It didn’t feel that you were alone in that.

Nobody kept time.
You just looked at the sun.

 

 

Girls dropped out of school early. 
Some got pregnant. Some got married.
In the end it was mostly boys going to school. 
It’s changed now :

Everything changes, including that. 

A woman will have a family.
A man will need to take care of his family.
If the money for the school is tight
The family will continue to send the boy.

 

 

It’s all right in the suburbs but the city centre :
It’s a whole different territory

On this one occasion she wore shorts
To go into the city centre 
She came back in tears :
‘They pulled me out of the minibus 
‘They said they weren’t going to take me 
‘They called me names’
She was ten, eleven—just a baby

I call it an African mentality
Of what a woman should be like, very African

 

 

One son is settled in the UK, one is in Australia. 
There is a girl : she is in South Africa.
The two youngest boys are still in Zimbabwe.

I started as a Rhodesian and became a Zimbabwean 
I am of the Ndebele tribe
This country is the only home I know.

I grew up in Harare : my mother is still there. 
My siblings are in Canada.
We are part of a diaspora.

The young bright guys go off to university outside Zim. 
Seeing them again : well, that’s a different thing.
It’s rare to see people coming back to Zim.

 

 

Zimbabwe is becoming a poor place 
It’s actually quite disheartening 
Some effort has been made

But it’s slow : it’s going to take forever

I’ve had no water for fifteen years 
The roads are full of potholes 
There’s no fuel in the cities

We’re not in the place where we should be

 

 

We have no clean water coming out of the pipes.
‘You can't blame the government for a drought’, people say. 
No. We can’t.
We can blame the government for not being prepared.
They know we have a drought every ten years. That kind of thing 
Breaks our hearts.

My childhood home was on a hill.
We didn’t get any water : it didn’t go up the hill.
We opened the tap and it spat out a little bit of dirty water.

Then it shut down.
We tried to dig a borehole : but we were up a hill. 
We couldn’t reach the water table.

We took buckets and we drove to my uncle. 
He had a borehole.
We drove home and we stored the water in 200-litre drums.

 

 

My mum was hooking power to our new house. 
At that time we had daily load shedding.
She was going to hook it from the power line closest to us. 
The people at the power company said :
‘We recommend you spend a little more.
‘We recommend you hook it to a line a little further away. 
‘This is a line that feeds to the President’s house.’

From that time if the power ever went
It was for fifteen minutes and that was probably a mistake.

 

 

In the village, my grandparents, they had no electricity at first 
They had solar panels : enough for a radio, a bit of light
At night, they had a paraffin lamp

You would buy your groceries in town to take to your family 
They’d hang the meat over the fire to smoke it
They’d cook on the open fire in the kitchen 
You’d smell of firewood when you came back

The men have their communal bowl of food
The women have their bowl 
The men sit along the sides 
The women sit on the floor 
The men congregated together
The women congregated together

 

 

People were hopeful that Mugabe would wake up one day 
Have a brilliant idea, turn things around.
Mugabe was a ninety-year-old man. 
You can’t blame Mugabe for everything 
Even though it would be nice.

It was the people he surrounded himself with. 
Those people, they’re still there.
It’s the same bus, different driver.
People were hopeful when we got rid of Mugabe. 
When we had our coup that wasn’t a coup.

I can’t see that a lot has changed. 
We’re waiting to see these changes.

The people in power once made sacrifices for Zimbabwe. 
It’s as though we owe them for the sacrifices they made.
My father made sacrifices. He was a political refugee, an exile. 
He’s got four sisters : he missed every one of their weddings. 
They had to bury my mum's brother without her being there.


There was hope. 
There is still that hope.

 

 

At that time
There was nothing on the shelves, nothing in the stores. 
We’d go down to South Africa to buy bread.
You could pay South Africans : put your order in. 
Within five days it would be delivered to your family.

Now, you can’t walk on the pavements freely 
For fear of stepping on somebody’s produce. 
People selling tomatoes, onions, mazhanje 
Selling eggs from their car boot
People doing shoe repairs, selling shoes, selling watches 
Anything you can buy, somebody’s selling it.

A graduate with a first-class mathematics degree has to apply 
To be a driver. To be a gardener.
They are standing on street corners, selling airtime, laughing.

zimbabwe

 

Give it time.

That’s what people say.
Give it time.

 


Words by Steve Gamble, Gillian Jaravaza, Mordecai Mahlangu, Gamu Murerwa, Andrew Robinson. Edited by Nicola Liu.