Zimbabwean Hospitality

Willard Kambeva, with whom I first began collaborating in Cape Town in March 2012 during my residency with A Word of Art, and I reunited at the bus station in Joburg on March 6th to hop on a 20 hour bus to Harare.  We caught up on a year’s worth of news while the bus rumbled along across the Transvaal, blaring preaching and gospel music from the sound system.

Click the image for great articles about the Beitbridge Border Post crossing experience

We reached the border around 8 pm, but in true Africa Time fashion, we stood in a queue on the South Africa side for 4.5 hours while waiting for the border guard shift change.  Then on the Zimbabwe side, we waited for 3 hours for the guards to check every piece of luggage and provide adequate hassle to anyone trying to get a visa.  By the end of the 7.5 hour border crossing, all of us on the bus had bonded into a single frustrated and exhausted unit.

From the Harare bus station, we took a minibus out to the suburbs, chatting along the way about the inadequate rubbish collection that has left piles and piles of rotting garbage along the roads.  When we finally arrived at Willard’s nieces’ home in Highfield, one of the high density suburbs of Harare, we were greeted and then immediately informed that both the electricity and water were off.  This is quite common in Harare.  The government will just randomly shut off water and/or electricity to an entire neighborhood without warning.  So much for that nice long shower….  A bucket shower would have to do.

Willard and his family are Shona, and as they chatted while eating sadza and greens, I tried to pick out words.  Shona is certainly not an easy language, but Willard is a patient teacher.  I currently can remember mangwanani (good morning), ndep (hey/what’s up), and ndatenda (thank you) without prompting, but most other phrases are still a blur.

The next morning, we took a minibus into town to visit the National Gallery and to give me a sense of downtown Harare.  The sculpture garden at the National Gallery is quite lovely, but the lackluster curation of the paintings and photographs in the gallery leave the whole space feeling bland.  But no matter.  Zimbabwe’s passion is out in the streets and in the townships, not in a stuffy institution.  After lunch, we stopped by to meet a few of Willard’s friends who were handing out FreeZim Congress pamphlets about the upcoming referendum for a new constitution.

Click the image to read “Zimbabwe’s electoral commission seeks $104m for referendum” from South Africa’s Times Live.

On our way out of the city, I felt a body press against my bag in the crosswalk.  Before I could swing it around to check the pockets, shouts began ringing out across the intersection.  Several of the first pockets had been unzipped, but those pockets were empty anyway. {Traveler’s tip: Always keep everything of value at the very bottom of the biggest pocket of your bag.]

Before I could blink, a crowd shouting in Shona had formed around Willard, who was holding a man by the wrist.  A young man in the crowd touched my arm lightly and whispered in my ear, “We can’t let thieves go free.”  Before I could explain that nothing was stolen, I was being escorted by the police onto a nearby veranda.  Cowering on the ground and apologizing profusely was a thin, obviously hungry man.  Two stern looking police officers apologized sincerely for any inconvenience and asked if anything was stolen.  I said “No” but was still visibly shaken — but not for the reason they thought.  I was much more afraid of what the crowd was going to do to this poor man than I was about him going through a couple pockets of my bag.  “He has to be punished,” the police told me.  I just sat in stunned silence as he was thrown in the back of a truck and driven away.   I was grateful that the crowd had been watching out for me and thankful that he hadn’t been beaten [Willard told me later that the man would likely have been killed by the crowd if the police hadn’t shown up so quickly], but no part of me felt comfortable with him going to prison on my account.  As the crowd dispersed, person after person came up to me to shake my hand and plead with me not to be afraid, not to think that Zimbabweans are dishonest.  How could I be afraid when I had so obviously been protected by everyone around?

On Saturday, we met up with our friends from the FreeZim Congress because they knew about a group of sculptors who also worked in Highfield.  On the walk to the park where the artists were working, our conversations meandered from boxing to Malcolm X to the AIDS epidemic to how women are treated here to prostitution to corrupt politicians to the collapsed economy and finally to hope.

On every block, at least one neighborhood child would stop to stare at me, and then shout Mzungu, mzungu! to get everyone else to come stare as well.  Some would say, “How are you?” to practice their English, and when I would respond or wave, they would all scatter, giggling hysterically.

At the park, we met four elderly sculptors who have created the most beautiful pieces.  Some pieces were 5 feet tall abstract works; some were life-size busts of African royalty; some were 6-inch intricately detailed versions of the Big 5 game animals – elephant, lion, leopard, buffalo, and rhinoceros.  Although their work is top tier caliber, the bloody 2008 elections and global recession mean that international collectors have stopped visiting.  No gallery represents them, so now most of them sell less than $100 worth of work per month.  Their pronounced ribs and sunken cheeks divulge that they have lived for a long time with inadequate food.

While discussing how we can help these artists earn a reliable and appropriate income, one of the guys – Fundai – invited us back to his house, where his mother made rooibos tea for us and mothered over me for a bit.

On Sunday morning, I awoke early to wash all my laundry by hand.  I came back inside to find two families visiting Willard’s nieces after church.  Two of little girls inched closer and closer to me until they were sitting on my lap, rubbing my arms.  When we went outside to play, they just wanted to hold my hands and create new hairstyles with my fine blonde hair.

Later in the afternoon, Fundai, Willard, and I went for a long walk through the neighborhood and once again talked about all our serious topics.  When it began to rain, we ducked underneath an awning to wait.  Also waiting for the rain to stop were two chatty drunks who excitedly invited us to come listen to them play mbira.  So we wound through the quiet neighborhood streets and ended up on a patio stacked with broken furniture where we listened to surprisingly skilled musicians pluck ancient melodies.

We walked back to the house in silence, lost in our own thoughts and memories.
Back at the house, Willard’s niece had just finished preparing sadza and vegetables for dinner.  After polishing off my plate, I took a long shower [yes, the water was on for the time being], brushed the love-tangles out of my hair, and fell asleep early humming Shona melodies to myself.  Zimbabwe had certainly given me a warm welcome.

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8 responses to “Zimbabwean Hospitality

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