From Beit Bridge my coach proceeded without further hindrance to Bulawayo, a city I do not know particularly well but a convenient way point en route to the Vic Falls. We arrived at about 1330 hours, 5.5 hrs behind schedule. Remarkably, Mrs Rajah was waiting for me at the Intercape city office where we were deposited. Being the only European on the bus would not have made it difficult to pick me out. She introduced herself as Lily and immediately apologised that she would’t be able to give me a lift to her house where I would be staying because her car was off the road. ‘A little Morris Minor’ she said with a smile, purchased from an elderly doctor. Not a problem I replied, but was there somewhere I could grab a bite? I was famished.
With Lily and her companion, Mafios, a local man called who shared a corner of her shop, we walked a few hundred yards to where a nondescript side-alley mechanics workshop stood. Sensing my confusion Lily explained that it doubled as a ‘cheap’ restaurant. Attached to the mechanic’s workshop was an office-cum-kitchenette where the smell of fried meat and stew wafted outward. Evidently that’s
all that was on the menu, with the addition of a good dollop of sadza, the staple starch of Southern Africa, made from cooked mealie-meal flour and water. It transpired that the deep-fried ‘steaks’ were incredibly tough. One was induced to swallow chunks of meat rather than cramping one’s jaw muscles through tedious mastication of the rubber-tyre-like cuts of meat. In the end Lily gave up with a sigh and asked for a doggy-bag. She had a pair of hungry hounds waiting at the house apparently.
From there it was back to her shop, a tidy little business tucked away in the courtyard annex to a much larger building which housed an Air Zimbabwe office advertising travel posters decades old. Lily was selling an assortment of items: ethnically-patterned shirts and dresses she had sewn herself; balls of wool from a defunct textile outfit; trinkets and other miscellaneous bits and pieces. Mafios had been trained at Swiss Jewelers, also defunct, and now worked for himself. He had a modest collection of jewelry. I asked him to size me for a ring and after several misfits, one worryingly tight on the ring finger, we succeeded. The silver band would cost me
US $70, a gold ring a fair bit more. I declined the offer but assured him that he was first in line for when I proposed to the ‘lucky’ lady. Never mind that I don’t have any intention of marrying anyone anytime soon. Business was slow but whilst there he did get one customer who expressed some interest in something or other.
Before closing the shop around 4 pm Lily’s mechanic appeared, a sprightly-looking geriatric coloured man (the term ‘coloured’ is not considered racist in Zimbabwe and denotes someone of mixed African-European ethnicity). He went on to explain at some length the considerable wear-and-tear on various bearings, couplings and seals and how very lucky she was that the gear-box hadn’t seized, considering that the oil was everywhere beneath the chassis other than the gearbox itself! Yes, he could fix it he assured her even though the parts were like hen’s teeth. After he left she looked across to where I was sitting with her eyebrows raised. 'Could she trust him?' she asked me. 'He sounded sincere', I replied. Lily told me that he had approached her some time before admiring the old Morris and confiding that although he was
retired he still enjoyed tinkering with the old engines as a past-time.
The long and the short of it was that we had to find another means of getting back to her place in Hillside, a few kilometres away. We walked a few blocks down a road named after our esteemed president, Mr Robert Mugabe, where we engaged what Lily called a ‘private’. As the name suggests it was a private individual using his car as an unlicensed taxi, something which seemed to be commonplace around town.
Lily’s house was an unassuming little place in suburban Bulawayo. She lived there with 3 of her 5 children and four grandchildren. She was herself of mixed-race (coloured) ethnicity. I asked about her name and she explained that her husband had been an Indian man from whom she was divorced. He now lived in Canada. Her son Eugene was the last born and still at Christian Brother’s College, a Catholic high school there in town. She was proud to have sent all her kids to private schools although it was obvious that she didn’t have much in the way of disposable income. The house had been built by a Scotsman in
the 1950s and was of a fairly characteristic suburban Rhodesian design. It was a double-storey affair. The two daughters lived upstairs. Neither of them had married successfully but the children seemed happy enough.
Lily herself was a thoughtful and philosophical lady who bore the marks of a hard life without acrimony. She seemed to have a steady faith rooted in the Catholic Church and we talked at some length on the state of the country, the tragedies that had befallen it and the eternal optimism that one has to entertain in order to survive in a country such as this. I had seen it in other women in Zimbabwe whose partners had left them one reason or another to fend for themselves – a slight melancholy that attends the passing of happier times but nonetheless an acceptance of the situation which, in contrast, men seldom seem able to attain.
With her daughter Margaret I attended Mass on the Sunday morning. It was a typically exuberant affair as they were celebrating both a large number of baptisms and the Feast of the Ascension - what Catholics would refer to as a High Mass. I was obliged to attend Mass
almost every Sunday as a teen with my brothers and parents in Harare. It had been a mixed congregation where local Shona-language songs were sung loudly to the beating of drums and the clapping of hands.
Looking around on this occasion I noticed only one other European in the congregation but the format and proceedings were as familiar to me as the reaquaintance of an old friend. The incense especially brought back memories of past Masses where my brothers and I had served at the altar of our local parish. Three swishes of the incense-bearing chasuble and then a bow, repeated to each section of the congregation. It all came back to me as I watched the young acolite follow the same protocol. The church was packed to the gills and no-one departed until the service finally concluded some 3 hours later.
The following day I made contact with Pete and Claire Einhorn, in-laws of my newly wed brother, Ivan. Well to be precise, Pete was the brother of his wife’s father. I had met him and his wife at the wedding in Cape Town and they had extended an invitation for me to stay with them if
I was to pass through the town. Now I was taking them up on the offer. When Pete picked me up from Lily’s he told me I was a fool for not making contact on arrival. I told him that I didn’t have a contact number but in truth I didn’t want to just assume I could stay, especially since I had only just met them. To their credit the offer was sincere.
Pete cast a skeptical eye across Lily’s backyard. “Was it OK there?” he asked. “Was it clean?” I assured him it was. Reading between the lines I could see that he disapproved. Fraternising with persons of a lower social standing was obviously not what Pete though of as ‘good form’ but I think it’s a hang-up many of his generation suffer from i.e white, Rhodesian.
There’s not too much more to say about my stay in the town other than that I walked a considerable distance around town and suburban Bulawayo. The town is known for its wide, spacious avenues, built in the days when a span of oxen might need to manoeuvre and do an about turn. It has a good mixture of architectural
styles but very little that seems to have been built in the last two or three decades since independence. Many people still seemed to view Harare as suspiciously large and foreboding. The ruling party is based there and for 7 years after the Lancaster House agreement which paved the way to majority rule, Ndebele separatists entertained aspirations for a separate state in which Bulawayo would be the capital.
Instead, Harare bares that mantle and it was the view of several pope I fell into conversation with that it was still the intention of the politicians there to starve the city of business and growth. “It is a dying city” I heard it said on more than one occasion. It’s hard to say whether or not this is the case. It is far quieter than the capital that’s for sure but the streets were still busy with pavement traders and pedestrians, the supermarkets seemingly busy and most of the shops stocked with goods of sorts.
I was most impressed with the national gallery, a beautiful double-story building which probably dated back to the 1920s if not earlier. In fact the building itself was the art piece rather than the
works on display which were mostly disappointing. The one gallery dedicated to the abstract contributions of the late Mr Marshall Baron, prior resident of the city, was worthwhile but the other galleries on the upper floor hosted childish works which I didn’t think deserved so much space. Only the lower gallery had anything that I would call engaging to the casual observer.
There were quite a few old colonial buildings dotted around the place with their characteristic balconies and wrought-iron railings beneath stylized gables. There were more modern constructions like the City Council offices built some time in the mid-70s according to the commemorative inscription near the entrance. That was the most recent I could determine. Across town near the quaint buildings constituting the railway station was a sizable coal-fired power station. While I watched, groups of young African men laboured in the autumnal sunshine, shoveling anthracite coal from the backs of lorries into great mounds. The Hwange coalfields to the northwest were renowned for the excellent quality of the coal mined there. The building itself looked not unlike a number of old decommissioned brick power stations I had seen in the UK. Battersea springs to mind. A line
of palm trees partitioned the road running adjacent to it, a bit incongruous next to the energy plant. A number of concrete cooling towers finished off the picture.
I found it interesting to see the pavement vendors selling wares very similar in nature to those I had seen in Turkey: multiple varieties of phone and tablet covers and cases; any number of cables and chargers and other accessories; pirated DVDs etc. I can only imagine that one can extrapolate across the intervening gap and find the same things being sold continent-wide. It was common knowledge that China was now the continent’s main trading partner when it came to material goods. Most of the department stores and smaller general dealers were crammed with Chinese products.
As for the ubiquitous fruit and vegetable vendors it was interesting to see the prevalence of imported South African apples on display besides the neat little pyramids of tomatoes and piles of onions. Two brands of cigarette, Everest Menthol and Madison Red, still seemed to be the most popular. They had been on the shelves for as long as I could remember. On the way back across town on my penultimate day I passed
the old city gardens, still maintained reasonably well it seemed, though Pete said they were a shadow of what they once were.
Pete is a partner in a distribution business, dealing with the south of the country. He used to work in the hospitality and tourism business which he confessed he missed. I noted this disposition in his general demeanour and insistence that I wanted for nothing during my stay. Claire was a dynamic lady too. Together, she and Pete had opened up a coffee shop and restaurant some years before. It goes by the name of Deja Vu and is situated right across from their house in the suburbs. Pete boasted that it was probably the most popular place around town during weekdays and I wouldn’t second guess him. It’s all run out of a domestic-sized kitchen but the food was excellent. At lunchtime the place was packed out.
Claire was obvious the ‘big boss’ but had another lady, Lydia, to help run the place and a couple of young white waitresses – all very friendly. When she wasn’t at the restaurant Claire was down at her stables where she kept a motley collection of animals, recovered
from abusive owners. She and Pete also had an assortment of hounds back at the house, all strays and recoveries. They all adored Claire and at the sound of her engine as she drove the gate they’d all go berserk. It seemed as though many had been brought back from the brink of death and their allegiance and loyalty were absolute. If I got too near Claire the one female would raise its hackles and growl menacingly. She would walk them out on the golf course which flanked her stables in the evening. During the day she was also very active in clearing the scrub and weeds between the fairways. All in all a very busy lady!
I felt the duration of my stay was just about right. Without any other business to attend to other than getting my foreign ID card issued (which would help greatly when I got to the Falls ITO paying local rates) I was done. I didn’t have anyone else to catch up with. An old teacher I had wanted to see had disappointingly gone to South Africa and the few other people I might have known were mostly acquaintances. Even there
in Bulawayo I bumped into one or two of them and chatted with others who knew one member or other of my family. In that sense Zimbabwe will always be the country in which my roots were anchored, even if the connection is tenuous now.
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