As a child growing up in Harare, I believed there was a Whitney Houston song that went: ‘Oh! I wanna dance in Zimbabwe, wanna feel the heat in Zimbabwe.’ It seemed entirely reasonable: Zimbabwe was, and remains, more beautiful, more richly green and blue and growing, than any other country I know. It’s a country in which grace is written into its daily greeting:
‘Maswera sei?’ ‘Are you well?’
‘Taswera maswerawo.’ ‘I’m well only if you’re well.’
‘Taswera.’ ‘I’m well.’
I was back in Harare, visiting my grandmother, when the riots began.
My grandmother is in her nineties, and lives in a cluster of cottages in a northern suburb which used, once, to be one of the smartest in Harare. It’s now so rundown that the roads, unlit by streetlamps, are booby-trapped with potholes deep enough to bury a mid-sized treasure chest, but still African tulip trees bloom by the roadside. The other inhabitants of the cottages are, like my grandmother, white, un-rich and quite spectacularly old, and, unlike my grandmother, liable to refer to themselves as ‘Rhodesian’. The complex has a garden surrounded by a rusty electric gate, but, unlike many such complexes, no guard, because we are so far from any possible happening. This diary is not an account from the heart of the action: it’s an account of how possible it is to be sure of nothing but rumours, as brutality goes on only miles away; of how life goes on, against the backdrop of a dictatorship.
I arrive in early January. Frustration has been building up in Zimbabwe since the brief burst of anticipation that followed Emmerson Mnangagwa’s assumption of the presidency in November. As the months went on and no obvious changes took place, as unemployment failed to fall and the currency swung wildly, the urban areas in particular grew increasingly angry. My father, who works for an international organisation in Harare, said riots were predicted before the end of the rainy season. The rainy season ends in April. The city didn’t even make it close.
Zimbabwe’s currency is a fairground ride: but the kind of unhinged fairground ride that kills people. In 2008, inflation reached 79.6 billion per cent. I still have a few trillion dollars in a drawer somewhere. For several years, the country operated on US dollars; then, in 2016, the government started introducing bond notes into the marketplace. Bond dollars are not, technically, a currency; rather, they’re ‘legal tender quasi-money’ (how often is quasi-anything a good sign?) officially pegged to the US dollar. The problem is ‘officially’: one bond dollar is officially equal to one US dollar but the actual black-market rate is around 3.6 to 1, and may have changed by the time this goes to press. In October, for a single week, inflation rocketed and people with bond cash rushed to spend it before it became worthless: there were runs on alcohol in the supermarkets, and shoppers were limited to a single can of beer per brand per person. My mother went to buy a TV for $900 bond; she said she would come back that afternoon with someone to help her carry it: by which time it was $1500. Then the currency settled at around 3-1, leaving many people with cupboards full of breathtakingly expensive beer. Menus are printed without prices, to avoid the need to print them again in a week’s time.
Inside the complex, all is quiet. I sit with my grandmother, who seems older than last year, but still beautiful: my family bloodline is not marked out by extraordinary aesthetic achievement, but she’s always been the bombshell anomaly. She’s one of my favourite people; she was once head nurse at a hospital in Harare, and I used as a child to believe that she could summon people back into good health through sheer force of personality. She is one of the old school Zimbabweans: she likes men to be men, women to be bold, occasions to be risen to.
Every evening at 6 p.m. we have happy hour: we draw the curtains against the mosquitos, put on a movie, and drink the available wine, which tastes either slightly like floor polish or a lot like sugar, depending on the vintage. If you have it with plenty of ice, it is not undelicious.
My grandmother, one hour and 14 minutes into 2001: A Space Odyssey: ‘Has it started yet?’ This seems to me a cogent piece of criticism.
The volatility of the bond dollar means that some places will not accept it. A man who used once to work for my mother as a gardener knocks on the door; his son has had his leg mauled by his dog. The clinic charges US$200 for the necessary injections. The average monthly wage of a gardener is less than $300 bond. My family smuggles US dollars into the country sewn into our trouser pockets, and so my mother is able to give him the money; but for people without access to foreign currency – the vast majority of Zimbabweans – the only possible option is to lie in the dark in the heat of the night and hope or pray or both that your child won’t start showing signs of a rabies infection.
There is, too, a petrol crisis. Petrol itself is very cheap – the equivalent of £0.97 a litre: the difficulty is that there isn’t any. The government argues that this is because people are hoarding and smuggling fuel, about which Zimbabwean Twitter, which traffics largely in good jokes and good music, is incredulous and ironic. It’s widely known that a small number of people with good connections are making a vast profit from importing petrol. Getting a licence to import means you can buy US dollars from the reserve bank at the official 1-1 rate. The trick is very simple: you buy enough US dollars to import, for instance, two tankers of petrol; and then you either buy only one, and make a solid threefold profit on your leftover US dollars, or you buy two tankers and sell the other for a profit across the border in Mozambique. So petrol, and where to find it, becomes a central subject of conversation, in the same way Brexit is in the UK: all conversational roads lead to the service station.
Every morning I sit outside in the shade, watching the purple-crested turacos and working on a laptop, and occasionally bellowing small talk at the inhabitants of the complex. My grandmother notes in passing, not unkindly but with the interest of a medical practitioner, that I have unusually fat arms for a thinnish person. As old age has given her a tendency to repeat herself, she notes this in passing a few dozen times. It has at least the advantage of being true. A Giant African Land Snail makes its way into the house and halfway to my bedroom before I notice. My ankles grow so bitten by mosquitoes that I appear to be wearing purple socks. There is nowhere in the world I would rather be.
An acquaintance is given a petrol tip-off, via someone’s friend’s cousin: she arrives in a queue, which already spans six blocks, at 2 a.m., and receives her petrol at 10 a.m. She is jubilant.
Because there’s no petrol, you have to be more than usually careful not to burn your house down, because it’s very unlikely that fire engines will be available. This has happened before: in the 1980s, my father had a small fire at the bottom of the garden. He called the fire service, and they asked if he could come and pick them up. When he asked how they could help if they had no fire engine, they proposed to sweep at the fire with brooms.
Most people in Harare travel to work by commuter omnibuses, known as kombis. These are white vans, many of them Toyota Hiaces patched together with duct tape and hope, designed to hold around 16 people but into which 20 can squeeze: the drivers tend to go like Lewis Hamilton, if Lewis Hamilton was in a hurry to avenge his father’s death. The rear windows almost invariably have slogans splashed across them; these slogans fall into four broad camps: reverently theistic, football, advertising and sassy. ‘The Devil is a Liar’ stops at a traffic light behind ‘Oh Mama.’
On 12 January, we wake to find that the government has tripled the cost of petrol. Kombis are forced to raise the price of a journey to $10 bond, which means that for many commuters, including many nurses and teachers, going to work means a net loss. This is the final spark.
Riots break out across the country. Protesters, liaising via WhatsApp and Twitter, set fire to tyres and cars, and pile rocks in the middle of the roads. A three-day stayaway is planned, starting on Monday the 14th: schools, shops, offices close, and kombis stop driving.
Inside the complex, there is a long-planned 95th birthday party. There are doubts about safety for the people coming from out of town, but we are so far from the centre of Harare, which is the only place that is burning, that they decide to go ahead. A small group gathers, with a combined age of roughly a thousand years. An eighty-something-year-old man brings out his guitar, and everyone sings: as they sing, they sway towards each other, and their hearing aids clash and buzz with feedback. They sing ‘Daisy, Daisy’ and ‘Waltzing Matilda’: not everyone is singing the same verse or even the same song at the same time, but everyone is singing.
In retaliation to the planned stayaway, the government shuts down the internet across the country. It takes me some time to realise: I blame my computer, and spend half an hour optimistically plugging and unplugging cables into the router, because I foolishly didn’t imagine that Mnangagwa would take such an open and unambiguous leaf from the dictator playbook. But then Econet, the country’s primary internet provider, sends out an erratically punctuated text to all its customers:
Further to a warrant issued by the Minister of State in the President¿s Office for National Security through the Director General of the President¿s Dept, acting in terms of the Interception of Communications Act, Internet Services are currently suspended across all networks and Internet Services Providers.We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control. All inconveniences are sincerely regretted.
On the Tuesday the deputy minister for information, Energy Mutodi, appears on Zimbabwe Today saying that the shutdown was not due to government interference; rather, he says, ‘the internet is congested.’ He suggests users double-check their data bundles to make sure they have enough credit. I imagine the Twitter reaction would be raucous and funny and bitter and caustic, but I don’t know for sure, because, even when the internet returns, Twitter remains on lockdown.
In the complex, one of the spectacularly old men brushing his teeth at the sink suddenly feels dizzy; he falls backwards, trips into the bath, and hits his head on the porcelain. He wakes to find himself lying in the bath, unable to get out. He strains, but is not rescued for several hours. He is, in telling the story, extraordinarily cheerful. He decides to fill his bath with anything he can find – pillows and blankets, vast family-size yoghurt pots – to stop it happening again.
The weather turns to thunderstorms, coaxing out the yellow slugs as long as your forearm that multiply in the rainy season. E. coli is found in the drinking water, so we boil it and add chlorine tablets. Then it tastes like a swimming pool, so I add a teaspoonful of spiced gin to each litre of drinking water. It presumably doesn’t disinfect the water, but the taste is much improved. I vow to add gin to all my drinking water on returning home.
My grandmother, as the music swells over the final minutes of Death in Venice, and Dirk Bogarde lies, dying and alone, on a deckchair on the sand: ‘Didn’t we used to have chairs rather like that?’
My grandmother, watching a protracted sex scene in a gangster film: ‘And to think I used to enjoy all that sort of thing.’
Because of the internet shutdown, rumours have to be passed by word of mouth, and there is a Chinese whispers effect. But, when the dust has settled, these things I do know to be true: soldiers unleash tear gas into crowds. A friend of a friend takes a video of a young man, not in uniform, walking down the middle of a road, ignoring the cars, carrying what looks like a carving knife. Many hundreds are savagely beaten by security forces. Nobody will ever know the exact number, because many of the injured are too afraid to leave their homes. At least 12 people are killed. A police officer is stoned to death by protesters in Bulawayo. Over the week more than a thousand people are arrested, many of them with broken bones, some of them children as young as 14, and thrown into jails in which neither clean water nor food is provided. The tollgate at Mbudzi is burned to a shell.
Another friend of a friend was visiting family in Budiriro, a high-density suburb south-west of Harare, when he was seized by soldiers and made to crawl on all fours along the road while being beaten. He’s the finance director of a small company: not a subversive, not known to the army personally, just a guy in the street.
There are night raids; soldiers go from home to home, officially looking for protesters. Several women report being raped by multiple soldiers. This is new. It wasn’t reported in the last bout of unrest, and the people who tell me of it shake with horror.
My grandmother’s gardener, Tendai, goes home to his smallholding in the countryside, and reports chaos; even the army seems incoherent in its brutality. Half the soldiers in the area are threatening to beat people who have closed their stores for the stayaway; the other half are threatening to beat those who open for business. He is surrounded, his bag is searched, he is threatened and, eventually, let go.
People, including children, in a queue for bread are forced by soldiers to lie down in the dirt, head to toe, in a line. No reason is given.
These things are rumours I can’t substantiate but which, because of the source from which they come, I did believe and do still believe to be true:
Two young men are shot dead. A young man at the top of the youth wing of Zanu-PF is found with a car full of guns. He is arrested for the murders and taken to court, whereupon a senior government official issues an order that the charge be torn up, the guns restored, and the young man driven to his mother’s door in comfort.
These things are rumours that I do not believe to be true:
The streets around my grandmother’s cottage are not safe for a woman walking alone. In fact, they are exactly as they always are: people greet each other in the road, as they always do, with that same glorious, lilting: ‘Maswera sei? Taswera maswerawo.’
Protesters are stoning the stores in the shopping centre in Borrowdale. Borrowdale is a sleepy suburb a long way from the city centre, and on any given day its shopping centre is mostly full of women having quiet cups of coffee. One of the shops is called, ambitiously, Little Harrods. It is not an obvious attack point. When I go with my mother some days later, everything is untouched.
I receive many kind and panicked texts and calls from friends in England. I’m not afraid for myself, not out of bravado but because it’s not white women in the suburbs who are being targeted; I’m of no interest to anyone. But there is a fear nonetheless; terror that the violence will escalate and a people who have suffered so overwhelmingly much will suffer again. Those fears turn out to be justified. I have nightmares: everyone I know has nightmares.
Life goes on. Tendai’s son is planning his wedding, and there are logistical questions of how to freeze a hundred chickens until the big day. (We eat everything in our freezer to make room.) I need shoes for the wedding, having come out to Harare only with trainers. The only shoes in the whole shop that fit me are bright red fake leather, with pointed toes and golden studs. They will make my feet bleed like miniature Victoria Fallses, but at no point will I regret the purchase.
A ninety-something-year-old man, once Zimbabwe’s foremost neurosurgeon under whom my grandmother worked, goes limping into the jails with his Zimmer frame to tend to the broken and bleeding. The army use the tailgates of their Ford Rangers to shatter arms and legs. Hundreds of men sit in prison, awaiting trial on invented charges, as their bones set at right angles to themselves.
Tendai’s son’s wedding takes place when the unrest seems to have calmed, but the traces of it are still visible: transport is still difficult across the city, the logistics are still a mission of Noah’s Ark-like proportions, and the wedding starts several hours late. But the couple kiss under a kingfisher-blue sky; the bridesmaids and groomsmen perform choreographed dances; we all whoop and ululate until our lungs throb. The dancing is what makes the day a triumph: at most Zimbabwean weddings everyone, or almost everyone, is called up to dance, singly or in tranches. A girl dances with gold rings around her neck and the feet of Ariadne.
The city grows calm enough to hold a meet at the racecourse. I go with my father on a baking hot day, and watch a small cluster of horses gallop, moderately slowly, into sight and set a gang of storks by the finish line flapping furiously into the air. Once, thirty years ago, there were tens of thousands of people on race days; now, we count fewer than ninety, many of them children tussling on the lawn. It won’t last long: I’m told by the course photographer that there are only five racing colts being bred in the whole of Zimbabwe. But for now it’s still going, and it’s free to enter: you can just wander in. A man cycles into the stadium, his excited four-year-old son in a cardboard box in front of the handlebars. His son squeaks in joy at the sight of the horses, the chipped yellow paint on the iron stools that line the course, the dispersed but deadly serious cheering.
Zimbabwe doesn’t need to be poor; that’s what’s so devastating. It has copious minerals, well-managed water resources, an educated and ambitious population, a safari park the size of Belgium, and some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. It’s poor in part because of theft on a grand scale: Zimbabwe is being looted by its own government. Small numbers of elite Zimbabweans feel entitled to wealth, and the only way for them to get as rich as they feel they should be is to plunder the parastatals and the public purse. Uncertainty about the current regime and how long it will survive makes for extreme myopia; people are making golden hay while they can. Zimbabwe’s fiscal deficit is around 12 per cent of GDP; you can’t run a deficit that size without stealing from the future. (For comparison, in 2017 the UK’s deficit was 1.8 per cent.) As my economist father says, ‘the temporal discount rate is anomalously high.’
The other reason Zimbabwe is poor is that running a regime on fear is formidably expensive. Mobilising the army, of course, costs money; tear gas doesn’t come free. There’s the emigration cost: the brain drain of young Zimbabweans Dick Whittingtoning on a wide scale. There’s the cost of the loss of life – of young men like 29-year-old Noah Sahombe, who was beaten by soldiers and died of renal failure. And, leading from that third cost, the fourth: despite the spit and guts and endurance of Zimbabwe’s population, people living in fear are, inescapably, less productive, less confident, not sure whether it’s safe to stay late at work, less able to take creative risks. Fear affects the economics of everything from graphic design to farming: if you have a piece of land, you could grow maize or tomatoes; tomatoes are worth more on the market, but if everything goes to hell and the markets collapse, you can store and eat your maize whereas you can’t store tomatoes. So you grow maize, and remain poor.
But it seems that, for the first time in a long time, the rate of return on fear is declining. Areas of the country that were previously assumed to be the solid Zanu-PF heartland, rural areas with Zanu-PF MPs, were suddenly up in arms: that’s new. As far away as Nyanga, a district 165 miles east of Harare, they laid out burning tyres on the road like wreaths for the past.
My grandmother’s body is slowing. An old family friend, a handsome man in his sixties, comes by, kisses her cheek, and she laughs and makes a pantomine of batting her eyelashes, despite the fact that we now know she is dying. This, I think, is what valiance looks like.
A guard minding the cars at the supermarket car park stops to talk. The situation is, he acknowledges, bad. But, he says, it’s different this time. ‘Little by little, they are making us courageous.’
My grandmother died the night before I flew home. Her courage was legendary, and her last days were testament to that courage. When I was young, I found journeys with her excruciating: she could sit next to someone and within four minutes have discovered their life story, have undug their hidden dreams. When I was young I found it hideously embarrassing. Now I consider it miraculous: that warmth and energy, exploding outwards.
She spent most of her life in Zimbabwe, and loved it too much to leave. It was more richly beautiful than any other place she knew.