Finding out too late that what was marked as a main A route was in fact a dirt road – this can happen only too easily in Zimbabwe, where the roads have decayed along with everything else – I continued grimly across increasingly rough terrain until I heard a stone fly up against the underneath of the car. The power cut off that instant. As I learned much later, the impact had damaged the fuel pump and the electronics within it, shorting out the ignition fuses.

I glanced around. This was a back road and I hadn’t seen a car in half an hour. The fuel crisis which has gripped Zimbabwe for more than a year has reduced traffic even on major roads. Here I might wait two, three days and not see a car. So it was no good sitting still. About a mile away on a hill I could see a farm building, so I locked the car, took my briefcase with my passport, money and other valuables in it, hoiked myself over the barbed wire fence and walked up hill through the thick African bush. Within a minute I could feel how tough this was going to be. It was only 2 p.m. and the late summer sun was merciless in a cloudless sky.

As I approached the kraal, dogs began to bark, children ran out and an old woman emerged, threw me an inquiring glance and shouted something in Shona over her shoulder. Eventually several well-spoken women came forward, grinned and asked what I wanted: their mothers would once have been used to white men striding into the compound with briefcases but such sights are now too far in the colonial past to be entirely believable. I told them my problem. ‘We can’t help you,’ they said. ‘We have no vehicle to get you to Chivhu. You need Mr Bhunu. He has a vehicle. You go back to the road, across it and through the bush on the other side for about three kilometres. This child will take you.’

The child was only about seven and spoke no English, so we walked in silence. Truth to tell, I’d been hoping they’d say I needed Mr Smith or Jones or Van der Merwe: that would have meant serious help – 4x4 vehicle, farm radio and all the rest. But, I reflected, it would also have meant having to walk through land occupied by potentially homicidal war vets. After a few more kilometres in the burning sun the child pointed downhill, turned his back and ran off. I soon saw women washing clothes in the stream and drying them on the warm stones in the valley below. When I asked about Mr Bhunu, they pointed over the next hill, so up again I went, this time through a field of maize taller than me and burnt hopelessly dry and brown in the sun, a clear sign of approaching famine.

Mr Bhunu, a wizened man of middle age, came out of his hut, shook my hand and introduced his two sons. ‘I have a vehicle but no fuel,’ he sighed, pointing to an old pick-up. ‘I’ve got jerry cans of petrol in my boot,’ I said. He shook his head: ‘I need diesel. But let’s look at your car.’ He and his sons then marched at astonishing speed back to my sadly marooned VW; at times I was almost running to keep up. Despite my assurance that it wouldn’t roll-start, they insisted on turning it round and pushing it down the hill. When this failed and we had been joined by several more young men – you’re never as alone as you think in the African countryside – there was a general pow-wow about the state of my engine. I was still clutching my briefcase, and thought how easy it would be for them to rob me of what was, in their terms, a considerable fortune: given the lawless state of the country they would run no risk even if they murdered me.

Nothing, it seems, could have been further from the minds of my new friends. ‘We’ll stay here and watch your car for you,’ Mr Bhunu offered. ‘And my son Solomon will take you to Mr Samugula who lives only five kilometres away. He has a petrol vehicle.’ Another hot hike. As we walked, Solomon told me there were only small black farms round here. The area had been a popular hide-out for guerrillas during the liberation war, and had seen a lot of violence, but now it was peaceful. His neighbours may be predominantly Zanu-PF, but Solomon eagerly took a copy of the anti-Mugabe Daily News I had with me. ‘I love this paper,’ he said. Before the fuel crisis, he told me, there might have been ten or more vehicles a day along the road where my car was. Now there were far fewer, making it hard for country people to get hold of newspapers or anything else that came from towns. He told me that he’d inadvertently reversed a truck over his dog, breaking its leg. He took it for granted that the dog had to heal itself (it had – it was now following us) and that sick people would have to do the same.

Solomon had been away to secondary school, but didn’t have a job other than helping a bit round the farm, which produced mealies, grew some paprika for the market and had a few goats and hens. A Natal upbringing has made me look out for snakes as I walk through long grass, but Solomon assured me there were very few. The real problem was leopards, which were always taking the goats and hens. Later I saw something that could have been a large cat melt into the long grass, but it’s in the nature of leopards that you’re never quite sure if you saw one.

When we got to Mr Samugula’s compound his wife and children told us he was in an outhouse on the far side of the farm, where, another two kilometres later, we finally found him. He, too, was extremely friendly, but said he was still charging his car battery. There’s no mains electricity, of course, so this was done using solar panels. ‘Really, you’d be better off with my neighbour, Mr Minyata,’ he said. Again a guide was provided and the three of us struck out in a new direction.

Mr Minyata had a large extended family in his compound, including many visitors, all of whom greeted me and chatted and joked in excellent English. By now it was close to sunset. I had covered just over twenty kilometres through the bush and met more than thirty people, and I was beginning to despair of getting anything done before nightfall. It was finally agreed that Mr Minyata’s sons, Josiah and Jeremiah, would tow my car to Chivhu. I would provide petrol and pay them something for their trouble. They made no attempt to bargain or even to mention a price: what I paid was left up to me – if I’d said I had no money, they would probably still have helped me.

The family’s grubby 1977 Datsun – a truck older than Zimbabwe – was somehow revved into life. We drove through the bush back to the road and then along it for quite a while to my car, which was still surrounded by members of the Bhunu family. The Datsun often stalled and found starting difficult. The ignition system sat in the driver’s lap, the headlights worked only intermittently, and the windscreen was spattered with roughly patched-up holes. It would be a miracle if the truck managed to tow me the 85 km to Chivhu.

Back at my car I distributed money, newspapers and other small items which were received with much surprise and gratitude. A towbar was produced which had once seen duty as a telegraph pole. It was dark by the time we set off, Jeremiah sitting beside me. He was a teacher. ‘In Zimbabwe there are no jobs. It’s our only industry.’ He told me how his family was related to all the others I had met, and how they were all Seventh Day Adventists. Nobody drank or smoked and there was, he said, no crime.

I had to concentrate pretty hard to negotiate the frightful road and not run into the back of the tow truck in the dark. I didn’t dare put my lights on for fear of exhausting the battery and the tow truck’s lights kept going off, so at times we drove only by the light of the huge orange moon. We had to stop occasionally because the road ahead had such huge shady hollows in it that you didn’t know till you walked up to them whether they were so deep you wouldn’t get your wheels out. The tow truck kept stalling and hasty repairs had to be effected by torchlight. Several times we had to roll-start the truck with my car still on tow, all by moonlight.

In between all this, we talked about maths – which, Jeremiah said, was his first love and which he taught – and how Einstein had done much of his best early work in his spare time when he was a clerk in a patent office. Overhead, shooting stars plunged across a staggering night sky, unobscured by clouds, city lights or industrial smog.

Our final breakdown came only five hundred yards from the tarred road. One more push-start through the craters and we were on it, rolling into Chivhu after nearly five hours. I paid Jeremiah, had to give him and his friends my address, shook hands, embraced and finally said goodbye. They drove off the way they’d come and I retired to Chivhu’s only hotel, which had all I needed – cold beer and clean sheets. Otherwise, it was the sort of place where not long after you went to bed the hookers would come knocking at your door: the struggling flowerbed outside my window was littered with empty condom packets. On the walls hung mouldering portraits of lost Rhodesian glories. Opposite was the Nice Time Supermarket (‘The People’s Choice’) and not far away you could sample the pleasures of the Hey-Hey Bar.

I wrote the story I had to file to the Sunday Times in London while waiting for a burly mechanic called Shepherd to repair my fuel pump. He was expert at keeping vehicles going that had no right even to hang together. He mended plastic parts with a soldering iron and made a fuel funnel out of a plastic Coke bottle. It all worked beautifully. He could have mended anything, given time. I spent two days waiting.

The problem was, Chivhu is the centre of Hitler Hunzvi’s constituency and his war vet torture squads are active in the area. Only the day before, Tawanda Hondora, the chairman of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, and his assistant had been badly beaten up by Zanu-PF thugs, who then made them toyi-toyi to the police station singing Zanu-PF songs. At the police station they were interrogated and further tortured. The lawyers sent to get them out were immediately arrested, too. It had all happened very close to where I was staying and I had written about it. Hunzvi and his men don’t take kindly to critical journalists, and I knew it wouldn’t be wise still to be in Chivhu when my story came out.

The good Shepherd’s soldering iron had still only got the car to do a maximum of 40 kph, so I could only creep away and was hooted at in disdain by even the heaviest lorries as they roared past. But when you have to make tracks dignity seems unimportant, especially when you’ve discussed Einstein under the stars with a Seventh Day Adventist, and maybe even seen a leopard.

R.W. Johnson

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Vol. 23 No. 10 · 24 May 2001

What a brilliant pastiche by R.W. Johnson (LRB, 10 May) of a Daily Telegraph journalist visiting post-independence Africa in the 1960s. The unfortunate breakdown of the Volkswagen, the roads decaying ‘along with everything else’, the country ‘gripped’ in a fuel crisis, and a maize field burnt dry, a clear indication ‘of approaching famine’. When the intrepid reporter meets African women they inevitably ‘grin’ – everyone knows that the natives never smile. If only Van der Merwe had been around with ‘serious help’. Instead our man is obliged to negotiate territory occupied by ‘potentially homicidal war vets’ and ‘torture squads’. When some young natives eventually turn up to help, he immediately thinks ‘how easy it would be for them to rob me’. Later he is surprised to meet a Seventh Day Adventist who talks to him about Einstein, seeming not to realise that these sects have been expanding all over the Third World in recent years. Finally Africa reasserts itself, and our fearless correspondent arrives at the ‘only hotel’ in town to find that it is a whorehouse.

Richard Gott
London W11

Vol. 23 No. 12 · 21 June 2001

My car, like R.W. Johnson's (LRB, 10 May), broke down in a remote part of Zimbabwe. Like him I thought a white mechanic would be best able to help me. I was wrong. The black mechanic from the nearest town quickly identified the problem and set out for the Tribal Trust Lands to get a spare from an old car that had been abandoned there years before. A white mechanic might well have taken days to find the part. My mechanic friend saw Mugabe and his Party as a bunch of crooks and gangsters. This was 12 years ago, when the newspapers Richard Gott writes for were still largely ignoring what was going on in Zimbabwe. Perhaps they didn't want to sound like the Daily Telegraph? All of this makes me think that Gott's letter (Letters, 24 May) was foolish. Africa is not Scandinavia. Many of the hotels are little different from bordellos, or to use Gott's term, whorehouses. Aids is not spread by the wind.

Julian Burgess
Forncett St Peter, Norfolk

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