Back to the start

Harare, 23 September 2014

There was no fanfare, no triumphant return; just a feeling of relief to be there at last, and tiredness in my legs from being cramped in a coach seat all day long. But there was Sam’s big, cheeky smile, his simple, easy hug. He’d been a stranger when I set off, just someone whose number I’d been given and told to call by a colleague; I did call and he’d been so kind as to take me out to the Lion and Cheetah park on my first weekend in Zimbabwe. I’m not sure what he made of me then, but I don’t think it’d be far from the truth to say he didn’t think I’d even make it as far as Marondera. In the time I’ve been on the road he’s become a friend. His text messages have made me smile, made me feel I wasn’t alone, made me feel I had someone I could turn to if anything went wrong. When I told him I was getting back to Harare at 9pm that night, he insisted on coming to pick me up, and I could tell at once that his opinion of me had changed, just as mine had of him, in the time I’d been away. He admitted, laughing, that he’d never been to Great Zimbabwe, or the Matopos, all these places he’d recommended I see, supposedly national institutions for all black Zimbabweans. He slapped me on the back and said he’d never dream of spending a night in a cave in the Chimanimani mountains.

It felt as if my journey had been his in a way too. Not just because he’d followed it, and helped me through it: it felt as if it had actually meant something to him too. I remember something he said, at the beginning, about our mutual friend in London, who like me has represented many Zimbabweans seeking asylum in the UK. Sam was awed by the level of detail in which she knew the election results in the country’s various constituencies, the places where voters’ allegiance had switched to the MDC, where intimidation and repression of the party’s activists had been the worst. He was impressed and I think genuinely moved by the tenacity and passion with which she fought for the protection of his countrymen and women. I remember him saying how much he’d love to show her Zimbabwe, but how he feared that she would never be able to see anything in it but suffering, danger and cruelty; all its many problems and none of its beauty. All things he knows all too well, and which still didn’t stop him coming home after almost ten years in the UK. I was struck by his sadness when he said that. Perhaps because he knew he would probably never get the chance to welcome his dear friend to his country, and sadness for her too, because even if he did, she might not see anything in it other than the worst that she already knew. Perhaps with my journey he’d seen that wasn’t necessarily true.

end6

Although I had two full days in Harare before leaving, I didn’t have time to do half of the things I’d been looking forward to doing. I’d wanted to go to the Botanical Gardens again, where on my first day I had spent an afternoon wondering what on earth I was doing there, and whether I hadn’t been a little bit too hasty and bold to think I could just get on a plane in London, get off in Harare, and cycle around Zimbabwe. I’d wanted to go back to the Book Cafe’, that oasis in the middle of the city, where I’d spent another afternoon listening to a live jazz band in the garden, chatting, and enjoying the feeling of being somewhere where people feel free to be a bit more different and a bit more themselves. I’ll just have to come back to see these places again.

What I did instead couldn’t have been better. I’d been thrilled to hear that Edone and Aubrey were still in Harare after coming up from Juliasdale the week before. I met Edone at the flea market behind Avondale shopping centre and she helped me choose local handicrafts to take back to family and friends.

end3

end2

Then she drove into town, excitedly pointing out places and telling stories of the city, all while negotiating junctions with near-invisible traffic lights and utterly chaotic traffic. “That’s the school where our grandchildren go…. There’s the house where Ian Smith lived… quite unassuming… And there’s the new Zanu PF headquarters, that’s their symbol, the cockerel… There’s Kopje… You can’t really tell but it is on a bit of a hill, it’s where the first pioneers settled, where the city was founded… It used to be a place were lovers went for a walk, in the ’60s, but now I don’t think it’s anything special… There’s the library… Oh look! Aren’t the jacarandas just so beautiful?”

end5

I sat next to Edone and breathed it all in. The city felt more familiar than when I’d left, as if seeing the rest of the country, which is actually so completely different to it, had brought us closer. It felt good to be seeing Harare through her eyes, with all the memories the city has for her, rather than revisiting mine already. There’ll be enough time for that after I get home. We visited the natural history museum, then drove to her daughter’s for lunch with Aubrey, and a couple of their grandchildren. It was all completely unexpected, unplanned, and felt perfect. I was touched again by how generous and welcoming they all were. After lunch I jumped back into the car with Edone and Aubrey and went with them on the few errands they had to run, driving around the low density suburbs, getting some photos printed, some shopping done, stopping for an ice cream, until the sun started to fall, and the time came to say goodbye.

end1

I’m ready to go home.

After living every moment of the past month so intensely on my own, I can’t wait to share this journey with the people I love. When I set off, my head felt crowded, crammed full of lists of things I wanted to-do, niggling doubts about what-to-do on difficult clients’ cases. I never had enough time. In the past week I’ve been amazed at how empty my mind has felt sometimes, the hours I’ve spent simply watching the sky at dusk and dawn, or vacantly staring into the bush. I’ve had more time than I’ve had thoughts to fill it with, and now I’m excited to see what might come out of this, what new directions this journey will take me in.

end4

The end.

PS. Although I will continue writing, quite possibly about Zimbabwe, almost certainly about my work and my travels, this is intended to be the last post in this series. Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I would love to read your comments, if you have any, which you can leave below.

Advertisements

The smoke that thunders

21 September 2014

Heading to Victoria Falls, I was well aware of the fact that I had more expectations than at any other time on the trip. Would the Falls be as impressive as people say? Are they really one of the wonders of the world? Would this whole detour, using up my last few days in Zimbabwe sitting on trains and buses rather than riding my bike, spending more money than I had in weeks, really be worth it? These thoughts bothered me. I don’t like to think of places or the whole experience of visiting them in such a calculating, rationalised way. I think there’s a danger that when you have such clear expectations about a place, the question of whether or not those expectations are met will overshadow whatever experience you actually have. Were your hopes fulfilled, or did reality disappoint? But what was the ‘reality’ of the place, again? Does it matter, or is travel just a journey through imagined places, a quest for wish-fulfilment?

So I was actually glad that the train derailed and was delayed for so long – longer than its scheduled journey time even. It made my attempts to predict whether seeing the Falls was going to be worth all the effort and expense I was spending on getting there seem ridiculous. I could never have predicted this. I should have been frustrated but I found it strangely enjoyable. The thought that I’d be lucky if I made it there at all, and that whether or not I did was completely beyond my control was liberating. I read my book, stared into the bush, chatted to my fellow passengers, and tucked in to a huge plate of fresh sadza and chicken in the dilapidated dining carriage. I would try to let the Falls be whatever they might be; without the burden of being world famous and having to impress me.

The train finally pulled in to Victoria Falls station, right by the grand colonial hotel where kings and queens and presidents have gathered, a few hours after darkness fell, over a day after we set off. I rushed to retrieve my bike from the luggage carriage, felt exasperated that the receipt that had laboriously been written out in Bulawayo wasn’t enough to reclaim it, and that I had to complete yet more paperwork and show my passport too, then walked to Shoestrings, where I planned to camp. The loud sound of music announced a party was in full swing. A sea of tanned bodies crowded round a bar, which I discovered acted as the hostel’s reception too, which was open onto a large garden set around an out-of-use pool, where more people stood and sat and danced. They were dancing the twist, the conga, the macarena, laughing and playing the fools with holiday-fuelled abandon. Everyone there, the whole party was connected to each another by one thing: the Falls. I caught flying corners of conversations in Spanish, German, Italian, French, in every English accent you can imagine… “….you gonna do the bungee jump, or rafting?” “…. the helicopter ride….amazing…” “…our guide said…better on the Zambia side….”  “..better now, ’cause it’s the dry season…” “…..did you know you can actually walk across the top?…”

The party was still going strong hours later when I headed to my tent and went to sleep, ear plugs in to try to distance myself from the noise. When I woke up early the next morning the music had stopped and the people had gone. All seemed still. Then I noticed a low, deep, rumble; constant. Was it? It must be… the Falls. The gentle rumble became a roar the nearer I got. I couldn’t see anything yet, but I could definitely hear them. The loudness growing drew me closer and my step quickened: I could sense the water in the air. In the middle of hundreds of kilometres of parched riverbeds and dry bush; thousands of kilometres from the sea; after entire months without a single drop of rain…Water…. It sounded like nothing I’ve ever heard before in my life. The ground underfoot changed suddenly, parched leaves and sand turned to lush, tropical green.

fallsbirds

fallsveg2

fallveg1

When the roar couldn’t get any louder, I saw the waters of the Zambezi river tearing round a corner in the cliff opposite, bypassing the rock, viciously wearing it away, rushing, crashing, tumbling and plunging into the depths of the gorge below. A drop that turned fearsome masses of water into refreshing droplets, sprayed across my face, that turned a torrential downpour into wisps of vapour, the sound of heavy thunder into smoke. Mosi-oa-Tunya, meaning ‘the smoke that thunders’ is the indigenous name for the Falls, and there is no other way to describe what I saw. There might be more water flowing there than I’ll ever see, yet strangely I couldn’t see water at all. It was as if the volume and the mass of water were simply too great for my mind to understand, as if in the very moment of being most water, it became something else. Smoke and thunder. A crashing force, an ephemeral trace.

falls1

fallsrainbow

falls2

fallssilhouette

fallsfisherman

fallswater

falls4

fallswater2

 

 

Night train to the Falls

The night train from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls derailed. Not that we, the passengers, were told that when it happened. Not that any of us noticed, even. The train had been stopping often, and without warning, ever since it had finally got going, two hours late on schedule; and each time it stopped it had felt as though we were travelling inside the belly of a gigantic elephant, whose legs crumbled like an earthquake, whose body collapsed on itself like a falling house of cards, whose insides screeched and thundered as it came to a sudden, jolting halt. Then came an empty, eery, silence. Each time though, the elephant heaved up its immense weight and came back to life, panting, and breathless at first, then finding a slow, clunking rhythm. This time the silence lasted longer. We peered out of the window and saw the carriages ahead lost in a thick cloud of smoke. Train guards appeared from their sleeper compartments and started to get ready to look officious. All of a sudden, there were as many officials as passengers in the first and second class carriages, perhaps more even, but none of them said a word, and so the more curious passengers climbed off to have a look, and the rest of us just carried on doing whatever we were doing, as the train refused to move and the time passed by.

This train was beautiful once. The first class compartments are spacious, elegant; the late 50s – early 60s design is of a kind that’s fashionable again now in London, where people would call it classic, retro, or vintage and pay over the odds for it. It’s full of thoughtful details like the stainless steel wash basin that folds up in the corner, the mirror engraved with the letters ‘RR’ which stand for Rhodesian Railways, the pictures of Zimbabwe’s major tourist attractions in the corridors. But the pictures are long faded, the mirror scratched, the beds broken. There’s no running water, and the toilet is nothing but a forlorn hole gazing down at the track. Some of the locals I’ve met didn’t even know this train was still running, and wondered why I would bother taking it. But there’s something about night trains that I love, and this train is no exception. Even though it is falling apart it is probably still the most beautiful train I have ever travelled on.

train2

train1

Being on this train makes me think of an old client of mine, who had worked for the National Railways of Zimbabwe, like his father before him. When I met him he was a shell of a man. His sadness was so deep that looking into his eyes I sometimes felt I might be overwhelmed by it, and I had to be careful to not look too long, and to remember what I was saying, the advice I was giving him, and to repeat it again, more clearly (“…you have a strong case…”), more confidently (“….there’s a good chance you’ll win..”), as if those words could strengthen and fortify us both for the fight that lay ahead. One day, he brought in a small wad of yellowing papers with ‘National Railways of Zimbabwe’ written at the top in grand cursive letters. A certificate acknowledging his long service, one recognising his skill and dedication, one about his pension, a few attesting his participation in training courses. He handed them to me, silently. For a minute I wondered why he was showing them to me: those pieces of paper that meant so much to him meant nothing at all to the rest of the world. Skills that were useless to him now, years of service that no one would recognise, a pension that didn’t exist. I knew he wanted to be able to work, to pay taxes and make a contribution to British society, but he wasn’t allowed to because he was an asylum seeker. In fact he was a failed asylum seeker, and all he could do now was wait for the High Court to hear his case, and, if that hearing was successful, wait for the Home Office to make a new decision. Realistically, I’d advised him, however good his case was, the Home Office was almost certain to refuse it again, but if he was lucky this time round they should at least give him the chance of appealing against their decision, and if that hearing went well, he might finally be recognised as a refugee. It could take years, I’d told him. In the meantime, he just had to wait. And try to stay strong.

When he handed me those certificates I felt more sorry for him than I did at any other time in the two and a half years I represented him. More than the very first time I met him, when he was detained in an immigration removal centre, and the Home Office were going to put him on a plane a few days later. More than the time I read the notes of his interview with the Home Office about his asylum claim before my first appointment in the office with him after he’d been released, when I read the account he’d given of when and where and how exactly Central Intelligence Officers and Zanu PF militia men had tortured him. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I didn’t feel sad when reading that. I remember vividly the sensation of tears prickling, emotion flooding my brain. I hadn’t been expecting it all… I had no idea he’d been treated so sadistically, so inhumanly… I remember forcing the emotion  to one side, and continuing to read, because I had a job to do. But there are things that those of us who are fortunate not to have suffered such cruelty cannot begin to comprehend. Although I had no doubt at all in my mind that his account was truthful, when I went downstairs to meet him, I could scarcely believe that the man stood in front of me, shaking my hand, had lived through that, that he could have survived such treatment, and look – at least on the outside, if you didn’t look too long into his eyes – just like the rest of us.

But when he handed me those old National Railways of Zimbabwe certificates, like an offering, or a plea, I really felt for him. I felt his pride in having worked hard, as he’d been taught to do, at having been able to support his family and live a simple, comfortable-enough life. He’d worked for a once great national institution, been a respected, productive member of society. I felt his sadness, his loss. Now he was a reference number, a case to be processed. He was provided with some accommodation and just enough money to cover his most basic needs. He had virtually no control over his life. His life, his future was in the hands of the Home Office, for whom he was just a failed asylum seeker with no permission to stay in the UK. Most people, including most politicians and most of the press, thought he was just an illegal immigrant who should go ‘home’. For many, like for him, going through the asylum system in the UK is like a second torture.

train3

train4

Mr Komo, the manager of the dining car is pessimistic. “We are in deep trouble now”, he says to me, nodding gravely. He sits down and undoes his tie, as if giving up any pretence that he is working, when nothing else on the train is. It is the middle of the day and the heat is becoming unbearable. The other officials have disappeared back into their sleeper compartments to lie down. They have an air of tired resignation about them, completely lacking in any sense of urgency.”So what happens now?” I ask one of the guards. “We will wait until they come with a truck” he replies “then they will tell us what to do.” “So when do you think they will come?” I pressed him. “Aah, maybe they will come in three hours. We will see.” he replied, smiling. They must be used to this. Every journey on this train must be like a leap of faith. Perhaps we’ll make it, perhaps we won’t.

Rhodes’ grave and a grandfather’s ashes

17th September 2014

“You can’t possibly cycle to Matopos!” she said bluntly. “Why not?” I asked, instantly worried there was something she knew about the roads that I didn’t. “Well it’s just too far…” she started, as if it was completely obvious and I was an utter fool for asking. “It’s ok, I know it’s around 30 or 40km to the entrance and I know I can do that” I said. “But the roads are not in good condition and it’s hilly” she retorted, dismissively. “It’s ok, I cycled from Harare to Juliasdale and from Chimanimani to Masvingo, I think I’ll manage” I said. “But there aren’t any shops, you know, there’s no water, no food” she continued, showing no indication of having listened to anything I’d said. I realised then that there was nothing she knew that I didn’t; that she was just one of those people who are possessed of an unwavering conviction that They Are Right, who are unable to even entertain the possibility that someone else who thinks differently might be right too. I wish I’d been able to diagnose the situation so coolly at the time, though. Instead I felt myself return her aggression, feeling a bit angry, a bit hurt. I mumbled something about how I’d only come to ask for some advice, not to be told what I could and could not do, to which she pointedly responded “Well, I was only trying to guide you”.

It was ridiculous really, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit rattled. Out of all the people who had questioned my idea to cycle in Zimbabwe before I set off – and there were a fair few among friends, family and strangers– no one had told me in such certain terms that I simply ‘could not do it’. No one had pointed out the obstacles and challenges I might face as if they were brandishing winning arguments against an idea that only deserved to be put down. Still, I had felt a bit crushed every time someone had pointed out why they didn’t think my journey was a good idea. Each time I rallied myself round, regrouped, and continued dreaming and planning. I would do the same now. But this encounter made me realise two things. The first bothered me a bit: I was clearly still capable, even after coming so far, of feeling unsettled, attacked by self-doubt, when someone challenged what I was doing. The second surprised me too. I realised this was the first time since I’ve been in Zimbabwe that I’d had an encounter I can only describe as unpleasant. It had come where I had least expected it, from an old white lady in the Bulawayo Publicity Association.

bulawayopark

After all that, the ride to Matopos turned out to be a delight. I breezed past the last gated and green-grassed suburban homes and was out of the city on an empty road far sooner than I expected. Far sooner than I wanted to be, in fact; and I had to turn back to the petrol station shop and fruit stalls I’d pedalled past to stock up on bread, eggs, bananas, biscuits and water to keep me going for the next couple of days. I was at the national park gates less than two hours later.

matopossign

The Matopos national park is in land that is sacred to the people who’ve inhabited the area for hundreds, if not thousands of years. They call it “Malindidzimu” or ‘place of benevolent spirits’, home to the cult of the High God Mwali, to whom there are many shrines across the area. It is also the place Cecil Rhodes chose as his burial place. An ambitious British businessman who had made a fortune from diamond mines in South Africa, in late 1888 Rhodes extracted a concession from the Ndebele king Lobengula that would allow his British South African Company exclusive rights over all the minerals in the king’s territories between the Zambezi and the Limpopo rivers, and full power to do anything necessary to further the mining operation. In 1890 Rhodes led around 200 people who had been promised land and mining rights, and trekked northwards in the Pioneer Column from the Cape to settle in the land that would soon become known as ‘Rhodesia’ after him, and which in 1980 became Zimbabwe.

It was from here in the Matopos hills that the first chimurenga – the Shona for ‘struggle’ – was fought, when in 1896-1897 the Ndebele rose up against the settlers’ exploitative rule, retreating to the hills from where they raided white farms, and laid siege to the flourishing Bulawayo. That struggle ended when Rhodes is said to have boldly come unarmed to the Matopos to meet the Ndebele elders and negotiate a peace. But the Matopos were also a site of resistance to white rule during the second chimurenga too, the long bush war from 1966-1979 between nationalist black guerilla forces and the predominantly white Rhodesian army. Modern Zimbabwe’s history is defined by these struggles. The narrative of a nation’s fight for independence from oppressive white rule is so powerful that many appealed to this history to characterise Mugabe’s programme of invasion of white-owned farms and land reform as the third chimurenga, the final chapter in Zimbabwe’s revolutionary struggle for freedom.

Rhodes’s grave, up on the spot he called View of the World, is one of the things that tourists come to the Matopos for, as well as to see the rock paintings that point to its history of 40,000 years of human habitation, to enjoy the dramatic landscape of balancing rock kopjes and massive granite boulders, and to track black and white rhino in the game park area.

matopos2

I visited the grave the next day with four white South African women I’d met at the campsite the evening before. They had just come from a week game-viewing in Mana Pools, after which they’d taken the ferry across Lake Kariba. This was the last stop on their holiday before driving back down to Cape Town. One of the women explained that her grandfather’s ashes had been scattered here, in the place he loved and where he felt most at home, and they had come here because she wanted to see the place that was so special to him. One of the others had been born in Zimbabwe too, but her family had been “kicked out” just after independence, because her father had been a policeman and the new government thought all white policemen in the Rhodesian regime were spies. We climbed up to the View of the World, and walked around in silence, contemplating the view.

rhodesgrave

worldsview

“It feels like a very spiritual place…” said the woman whose grandfather’s ashes had been scattered from here, and the others agreed.

I couldn’t feel it, though. I felt confused, unable to connect to whatever it was the others felt. Perhaps it was because subconsciously I was thinking about the many different histories, ideologies and beliefs that had collided here. I wondered why Rhodes’ grave was still here, open to all visitors for a hefty 10 US dollar fee, when Mugabe has made the narrative of an ongoing liberation struggle against Britain the very foundation of his rule, frequently attacking Britain in his public speeches, and rallying his ZANU PF supporters in the face of the ascendant MDC opposition by labelling them sell-outs to the former oppressor. It seemed to make no sense that the first colonial ruler of the country was allowed to rest in peace in the place of his choice, the very place in which he had overcome local inhabitants’ resistance, especially when it was a sacred place for them.  In fact many War Veterans, who’d fought in the second chimurenga and who are closely aligned to Mugabe’s ZANU PF, had and are still calling for Rhodes’ grave to be exhumed and his remains to be removed from the Matopos. So far, Mugabe himself has rejected those calls, saying that Rhodes is a part of the country’s history and his grave should just stay where it is, but their re-emergence every few years seems to show how present much of Zimbabwe’s history is, how much its past is being fought over still, especially when it comes to its real and imagined relationship with Britain.

Although every guide I’d read had talked about how the local community still uses shrines and sacred places in the area, there were no signs of the close relationship that the local people apparently have with the land. It felt as if that relationship was being flaunted in the ‘official’ narrative about the Matopos, yet in practice it remained invisible and unknowable to a visitor like me. Perhaps also the truth about that relationship, like the truth about Zimbabwe’s relationship with its colonial past, is a lot more complicated than most people recognise. In “Voices from the Rocks” the renowned Zimbabwean historian Terence Ranger looks at how political, religious and symbolic struggles have continued in the Matopos even after the beginning of black majority rule. The tensions caused by the resettlement of the local population to make space for the national park have remained unresolved, or worsened as funds that were supposed to be for resettlement have been misappropriated, and the government’s priorities of tourism and conservation have led to construction works that have displaced local farmers and destroyed some shrines. Ranger concludes that by the 1990s “the Mugabe government was as much at loggerheads with the people of the Matopos as the Rhodesians had ever been”. I wondered about this when we stopped at the curio stalls further along the road, where local people were selling baskets woven from elephant grass, wooden carvings, and trinkets. Were these goods really all handmade locally? What old ways of life have been adapted to what this place has become, a park where tourists come to connect – somehow – with forces that are bigger than they are, in the dramatic natural landscapes, the ancient rock paintings, the mysteries of spiritual practices, the battles of history?

matopos5

matopos3

rockpaintings1

On my second evening I camped at a site on the edge of the park, not far from the main gate. There was no running water, no electricity and no one else around. It felt very different from the evening before, when I’d camped outside the park office near Malede Dam, after being hounded away from the shores of the lake by swarms of mopane flies. Although I’d been annoyed at having to leave my chosen isolated camp spot at first, it had turned out to be an unexpected gift, as I enjoyed chatting with the park officer until sunset, and then met the South African women as they arrived to stay in one of the chalets. They invited me to join them, and it had been a fun evening, making friends with strangers so easily, exchanging stories by the fire.

I knew that this was going to be the last evening I spent like this. Next would be busy, touristy Victoria Falls, and then – after a day long cross-country coach journey – I’d be back in Harare. Back to the city. Back to where this journey started. I tried to savour every moment of evening-fall and daybreak knowing they would probably be the last in which I’d be able to follow the sun every inch of the way to the horizon and back up again. The air was fresh. I could hear the bells of grazing cattle and an unfamiliar sound of chanting in the distance. Matopos hadn’t been what I’d expected at all; it hadn’t moved me in the way I thought it would, but those moments were special. Ones I’ll never forget.

matoposdusk

matoposbike

matoposdawn

At home in Bulawayo

15th September 2014

“Banana rand, banana rand!” “Dollar! “Dollar!” cried the vendors passing through the bus when it stopped at Zvishavne, the only major town on the 300km stretch of road between Masvingo and Bulawayo. Cans of Coke, Fanta or orange dairy drink, packets of crisps and biscuits for one US dollar each, huge bunches of blackened bananas for a few South African rand. Their calls were echoed by the vendors outside the bus, who hoisted their baskets up so that passengers could reach them through the windows. “Airtime!” “Airtime!” “Dollar! “Dollar!” they shouted. Every street vendor here seems to sell mobile phone credit as well as the usual selection of drinks and snacks. I asked for 5 dollars-worth and rather than a single top up voucher, I was handed five tiny strips of paper, each one a one-dollar voucher, a sign, perhaps, of the scale the economy operates round here.

on bus 2

from bus 2

“Where are you travelling to?” I started chatting to the man in a police officer’s uniform who was squeezed next to me on the bus. “To the rural areas” he said, laconically “I’m going to visit my relatives”. “Oh, I see…and why are you travelling by bus?” I replied somewhat stupidly, not sure of what to ask him next. “Because a policeman in Zimbabwe cannot afford to have a car” he said, looking at me as if I really was stupid.

“Are you from UK?” he asked me. I nodded and he continued “I have a sister in UK. She is married to a white man. I would like to visit her but the ticket to fly is so expensive”. He asked me how much my ticket was, as if to have confirmation that what he was saying was true, and I felt a bit embarrassed to tell him the price I paid. I noticed that he wasn’t asked for a bus ticket when all the other passengers’ tickets were checked. I asked him why.

“It is the privilege of the police in Zimbabwe that we are not required to pay for transport by bus” he explained.

“Oh I see, and how long have you been a police man?” I asked.

“Since 2011.”

“And what did you do before then?”

“I lived in South Africa. I went there in 2009 because the situation was very bad in Zimbabwe at that time… there were no jobs, no money.”

I nodded sympathetically, hoping he would tell me more. “… so what did you do in South Africa?” I asked.

“I did whatever job I could find. I was a tailor, I had a sewing machine in the street… But in South Africa there is a lot of crime, you know, a lot more crime than in Zimbabwe”. I wondered whether he was referring to attacks on Zimbabwean immigrants, which I’ve read about, and whether that is why he came back.

“Why did you become a police officer then?”

“The government in Zimbabwe was recruiting a lot of police officers, and I managed to get a job.”

I remember hearing that the police, the army, and the prison service, all effectively under the control of  Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF party, launched a massive recruitment drive in 2013, to help the party secure victory in that year’s Presidential elections. The strategy was simple: employing people would secure not only their votes but those of their family members too, who probably depended on their income to survive. I don’t know whether that is true, but in 2013 Mugabe certainly did win, and his party won a two-thirds majority in Parliament, in a result that that saw support for the MDC collapse compared to the gains it had made in 2008. The elections were widely considered to be peaceful – at least compared to the state-sponsored violence unleashed against the population in 2008, which begged the question of how much the memory of that violence had played a part in the fall in MDC support, and how much its record of four years of power sharing government with Zanu PF, and the party’s own internal squabbles were to blame.

“So do you like living in Masvingo now?” I changed the subject.  “It’s alright” the policeman replied “but in the city you always need cash, that is the problem, everything you do in the city you need cash. In the rural areas my family have a cow and we grow vegetables; we grow maize and we make mealie meal. I prefer the rural areas because when you are there you don’t need cash…”

His words stayed with me after he got off the bus in a nameless place somewhere in that 300 kms of unchanging bush. I watched him walk away, his deep-red leather army boots treading on the dusty cracked earth, his smart uniform making him stand out, perhaps as a man to respect or fear, amongst the rural people. I thought of him arriving home to his family’s small hut, sitting down to eat his sadza with his hands, happy to be far from the city, to not have to spend or think of or need any cash.

on bus

I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket and smiled when I saw it was a text from Sam. “You can stay with my cousin Farayi in Bulawayo. Good young man, recently back from UK. Call him when u arrive” it said. That was a nice surprise! But I wasn’t sure whether to accept the invitation. It might sound ridiculous but I really wanted nothing more than to spend another night in my tent, lying close to the ground, cooking and eating in the open air, watching dusk, watching dawn. I stared out of the window. Then I reached for my phone and called Farayi. It just didn’t feel right to turn down such a generous and unexpected offer, an opportunity to meet someone new and hear their story, and to see  yet another side of this country.“I’ll meet you on the corner of Robert Mugabe Way and Fourth Avenue”, he said “do you think your bike will fit into my car?”

It was late in the afternoon by the time Farayi drove us back to the family home in the low density suburb of Hillside. He was kind and welcoming, despite admitting to being a bit tired as he’d been out late last night and had spent most of the day asleep. The thought of a night out on the town felt as remote as a foreign country to me, after the solitary days and early nights I’ve spent in the rural areas. Farayi is just a couple of years younger than me, a black Zimbabwean – half Shona, half Ndebele- who’s only been living in Bulawayo for 6 months or so, after 9 years in the UK before then. In some ways this means I have more in common with him than I’ve with anyone else I’ve met on this journey so far, which feels a bit surprising at first, but nice. He told me he misses the UK, and I sensed he really means it. “When I was in the UK I missed Zimbabwe, and now that I am here, I miss the UK” he said, smiling at the irony. “I was 20 when I went there, you know, so I feel like I spent my formative years there, that’s where I got to know myself. It’s a good country, it’s home, and I would have liked to have stayed longer… ”

“Why did you have to come back?” I asked.

“Oh you know…visa issues. They wanted me to have £10,000 or more in my bank account and wouldn’t renew my visa if I didn’t. My parents and sister are still there though, in Slough; my mother’s a nurse, and my father has started studying again, so it’s just me here”. Perhaps because I know so much about ‘visa issues’, immigration law and immigration problems, it didn’t feel right to ask more.

“Was it a shock to come back?” I asked instead.

“Well, not really, because I did visit from the UK, in 2011, and then in 2012, yes twice in 2012, and I had sort of been preparing myself for it… “. He sounded unconvinced. “I am getting used to life here slowly, but it is hard…yes, it’s hard ’cause most of the friends I had, you know, from before, have moved away, to South Africa, or the UK, and I don’t find it that easy to make new friends..”

I really felt for him. Caught between two countries, two worlds, two possible lives that were so different in the opportunities they offered. Where was home for him?

The family home is a big bungalow in a large compound, with a maize plot, a borehole and some cottages in the grounds. The house is a strange mix of over-the-top, kitsch furniture and decor in the living room and bedroom, and a very basic, almost run-down bathroom and kitchen. It doesn’t feel homely, perhaps because Farayi himself doesn’t seem quite at home here. As we chatted, he checked his phone nervously saying that his aunt should be back soon to cook us dinner, and was visibly relieved when she did get back and immediately got to work in the kitchen, while we sat around outside, chatting to the old man and young kid who rent out one of the cottages in the grounds.

Half an hour later Farayi and I were sitting down to huge plates of sadza, meat and vegetables in the overly-formal and ornate dining room. I felt slightly awkward as I wondered why his aunt and her children, or the uncle and other cousin who apparently also lived here weren’t eating with us. Farayi became more animated as he told me about the small business he is trying to set up here, printing logos on mugs, t-shirts and key rings for local companies. “In the UK you get those things everywhere, mugs with a logo on to use for marketing purposes, stuff like that, but here it is all really new, so I saw an opportunity for a business” he said, enthusiastically. “Come, I’ll show you my printing machine!” and we went into his room, where he explained how it worked and showed me his work. I was really impressed. There’s no support from the government for new businesses like his, and very little in the way of infrastructure – he has a 16 hour bus journey to South Africa to buy mugs and other supplies which aren’t available here, and most companies and potential clients don’t have a website or even use the internet, so the only way for him to attract customers is by making contacts one by one, by word of mouth. He works on his own, in his room, teaching himself as he goes along, adapting to this new strange life ‘back home’, because he knows he can’t just sit around doing nothing, because he wants to make something out of himself.

The next day I walked down into the centre from Hillside and immersed myself in the city streets, the people, the traffic, the shops, and the markets. I walked around until I was so overwhelmed with sights and smells, sensations, impressions, feelings, that I needed a quiet place in which to sit down, away from all the action. I found an oasis in the municipal park, where the giant jacaranda trees were just starting to flower and a few school girls sat on the grass reading their books, a few solitary office workers had their lunch. A text came in from Farayi saying he had had to get the coach to South Africa urgently that afternoon, because he needed to complete an order for a customer and didn’t have enough mugs. He said I was welcome to go back to his house and stay another night. I walked around some more and then headed back to Hillside. I felt sad I wouldn’t see him again. When I got home, folded on my bed, was a t-shirt he’d made for me.

“I love Zimbabwe” it said in bold black letters and a red heart.

Bulawayo1

Bulawayo2

bulawayo_butchery

bulawayo3

 

 

 

 

 

Internal relocation

 

I am in no hurry to leave Great Zimbabwe. Apart from the monkeys, it is quiet and peaceful, and I feel content here. Last night I lay on a stone bench until long after the sun set, spotting the stars appearing in the sky, and this morning I watched the sun rise again. I feel as if I have only just begun to truly settle in to the rhythm of life on the road. I’ve been rising and turning in earlier each day, like the light in the sky, with the ebb and flow of my body’s energies; moving on each day from place to place, with momentum and purpose, yet no fixed plans; living off the basic supplies I carry with me and whatever else I find along the way, spending little or no money. There’s still a lot I find hard, but at the same time I can sense something changing inside, and the pull of wanting to carry on for more. My body has started to adjust to the physical demands of riding for several hours a day, and my mind has grown more comfortable with the great expanses of time it has…time on a scale it hasn’t known for years. I have started to get a sense of how, if I continued living like this, time might become abundant again – weeks and months rolling gently by – rather than something measured in hours and minutes, always in short supply. I might even understand some of the mass of vivid, confused thoughts and feelings I’ve accumulated in six years working as an immigration lawyer, six years of settled city life, that I brought with me on this trip hoping to have the time to unpack. Or maybe I wouldn’t. Who knows how much time I need for that?

But I can feel time running out already. I’m beyond the half-way point on this trip, and I’ve decided I will go to Victoria Falls, which initially I had no plans to visit, because now that I’m here and I don’t know when – if ever – I’ll be back, it seems a bit senseless not to. So what if it is full of tourists? I am one too, and I’m here to try to experience as many different Zimbabwes as possible. Victoria Falls is one of them, almost certainly nothing like anywhere else I’ve been so far. To make it there I’ll have to sacrifice riding and take a bus to Bulawayo, which is my destination for today, from where I’ll probably take the night train to the Falls. This rhythm I’ve started to feel will be interrupted abruptly by my arrival in a big city. I know I’ll miss this quietness, the night’s darkness, my closeness to the earth.

This is why I am in no hurry as I cook some “Jungle” porridge oats with peanut butter for breakfast on my tiny paraffin stove, read my book and write my diary, and eventually pack everything up into my two yellow panniers. It is still only 9 o’clock in the morning by the time I’m ready to go, but I feel as if I’ve lived a whole day today already.

———————

Bulawayo….

‘You can internally relocate to Bulawayo’. This was often the reason the Home Office gave for refusing to grant my clients refugee status in the United Kingdom. To paraphrase an average refusal letter: ‘even if we were prepared to accept that your life may be in danger in Harare, Marondera, Chipinge or Chinhoyi [or wherever else my client happened to be from] which, for the avoidance of any doubt, we do not accept, we are refusing your asylum claim anyway because you can internally relocate to Bulawayo where you will be safe’.

I have read words like these so many times I may never be able to forget them. I have witnessed the expressions on the faces of my clients as I have advised them on these letters, their tears of desperation, their stunned disbelief. At times I felt embarrassed at what an official representative of my own country’s government was saying. I wanted my clients to understand the reasons why their claim had been rejected, but the problem was that too often the Home Office reasons were so illogical and perverse that I wonder if anyone could really understand them. Their formula was simple: to disbelieve everything a person said, for whatever reason they could think of, and then refuse their case on the basis that they were lying and had made it all up. So for example they would say ‘it is not accepted that you were arrested because you don’t remember the date it happened, and it is not credible that you would not remember the date of such an important event in your life’. Or ‘we do not accept that you are at risk of being tortured or killed on return because if the authorities had really wanted to kill you they could have done so while you were detained’.

Even trying to explain these reasons to clients felt like an act of violence towards them. It was as if, in those words, the Home Office superimposed their version of reality on my client’s. There was no subtlety about it at all. Two stories came into conflict and there was room for only one to survive. Their account of my client’s life story, their version of what things were like in Zimbabwe effectively substituted my client’s, and became the official – and only – truth. Perhaps that’s why, heading to Bulawayo, which I’ve heard the Home Office describe so often as a safe, MDC-supporting, gay-friendly city, I feel as if I am going to somewhere that may not even exist. Will the place I find be closer to my clients’ truth, or the Home Office’s, or be something different altogether?

bikeatGZ

Great Zimbabwe

13th September 2014

“Lake Kyle – scenic route” said the rusty old sign pointing to the dirt track that led away from the main road. Judging by the name, the sign pre-dated Independence, which surprised me as the track led to Great Zimbabwe, the country’s most important national monument. Oh well. I told myself I knew it was the right way really, and that it didn’t matter anyway if it wasn’t, and set off. As soon as I left the tarred road, I felt a rush of exhilaration. These dirt tracks reaching far into the depths of the countryside have taken hold of my imagination since the day I left Harare. Every time I’ve seen one I felt excited, and the pull I felt as I turned my wheel was visceral. It came from the earth, it was nonsense to my mind. It has taken me months to understand. togz2

bike

me2 The dirt tracks lead into vast expanses of land that on my map are simply blank, white space, punctuated occasionally by unfamiliar names where two tracks cross. At first they seemed to lead away from civilisation – away from the asphalt road, away from towns and cities, away from the country’s administrative, cultural and political centres – but later I realised that in fact the opposite is true. These dirt tracks lead to the heart of the country, and this heart, the rural areas, is where Zimbabwe is most foreign to me. I know that here life has a rhythm and structure that’s completely different to life in the cities, that it’s rooted in the land, and in traditional beliefs and practices I know little about, let alone understand. Anyone who has travelled a little will have noticed that there is a bigger difference between the city and the countryside in any country, than between two cities even if they are located in very different countries at opposite ends of the earth. The same is true here. However different life in Harare seemed to me when I first arrived, in truth it has more in common with life in London than with life in the rural areas that lie far down these dirt track roads. In Western Europe, where I’ve lived my whole life, the cities have been spreading into the countryside, changing it, developing it, building it up bit by bit and at times swallowing parts of whole over the course of centuries – to the point that now there are barely any real rural areas left. I have certainly never lived in any.

In Zimbabwe the majority of people still live in rural areas. They are tied to their home area even if they have to travel to or move to a city to make a living. They are deeply connected to the land. I realise this fascination with the land and with rural life might sound romantic, but let me assure you it’s not. I know that Western tourists often have a strange obsession with so-called ‘traditional’ societies and their customs, rituals and beliefs. I’ve been guilty of that too, just as I’ve been guilty, at times, of harbouring  an illusion that the countryside holds the key to a more simple and authentic  way of life. But these have not been my thoughts as I’ve gazed down dirt track roads on this journey. I’ve been thinking that that this is where the battle for liberation from colonial Rhodesian rule was fought; this is where Robert Mugabe’s power base is; this is the land once known as the bread basket of Africa that became unable to feed its people, the land to which people have returned in thousands from the cities in recent years, after the economy collapsed. There’s nothing romantic really about any of that.

As the soil gave way to sand I had to get off to push my loaded bike. At times there was nothing before me but the next turn in the road, nothing behind me but the tracks drawn by my wheels in the red earth; some strange animal’s paw-prints; silence. Then came a few thatched huts, women waving, and children running alongside me excitedly screaming “Give me sweets!”, and staring at me with disappointment when I replied that I didn’t have any. Unexpectedly, a rough, pot holed tarmac surface returned and a weather beaten white man stood in the middle of the road next to a traffic cone and a hand-made sign saying “ROAD CLOSED – BICYCLE RACE IN PROGRESS”. There were no other cars in sight. The man raised his arms in a victory sign, cheering me on as I approached. “You’ve won the race!” he shouted out jokingly, “fancy a beer?”  I pulled up next to him and gratefully accepted a cold can of coke from the boot of his car. “My son’s a member of Zimbabwe’s road cycling club” he explained “you’ve probably heard of him… he almost made it to the Olympics in London, he only just didn’t make it… Today they’re doing a 100km time trial from Masvingo. I’m just helping out as usual, there’s no one who’ll do it. This is the halfway point. The first ones should be coming in soon..”. Sure enough the first rider arrived and impatiently reached out for his replacement water bottle which the man handed him from the boot of his car. The man’s son came in second place, and was much more relaxed, stopping for a quick chat before giving chase. Soon I headed off too, digging into my pedals with new strength and enthusiasm as if I too were part of this race. The children by the roadside who shouted and waved probably thought I was. “Keep going, well done” a lycra-clad man said as he overtook me on a steep incline, his lean racing bike swaying from side to side as he pulled on the handlebars to make it to the top. As a thick, eerie mist descended I felt a pang of loneliness as the man in his car and then the last of the racers overtook me and disappeared out of sight in a matter of minutes. There was an unnatural chill in the air and the fog made me feel as though I was the only living creature left in the landscape. lakemutirikwe2 lakemutirikwe Luckily, it wasn’t long before Lake Mutirikwe came into view, and a few more kilometres after that I pulled up by the old man’s car at what was officially this time the end of the race. The old man, his son, and a few other riders were still waiting for the only woman among them, who I hadn’t realised had been behind me all along. Not fancying the idea of retracing my steps and cycling some of the hills I’d just climbed again, I turned down the kind invitation to join them for post-race beers and gin and tonics at the sailing club where they were staying, and headed instead to look for the campsite next to the Great Zimbabwe ruins. Despite the fact that Great Zimbabwe is a UNESCO world heritage site, trumpeted by my guidebook as one of the ‘highlights’ of the country, I wasn’t expecting much. I’m wary of the way the tourist industry sells places, telling you that you can’t miss them, and what to “discover” and “experience” once you’re there. And also, I suppose it was because I’ve been lucky enough to have already seen a lot of stone ruins and monuments in my life, ancient Roman remains, 2,000 years old, imposing and impressive old fortresses, temples, castles and cathedrals. I guess I wondered how Great Zimbabwe could possibly compare with all that. I’d fallen into the classic tourist trap of ranking places and experiences, as if everywhere in the world existed for our pleasure, to be seen and done, compared and classified. greatzim1 I was wrong. Great Zimbabwe was, at least for me, at least on this occasion, a magical place, unlike anywhere I’ve been before. I followed Rosemary, my local guide, up a steep stony path to the top of the hill complex. What from the campsite below had looked like a fairly uninteresting hill studded with large rock boulders and a few stone walls, turned out to be a disorientating labyrinth of walled pathways, enclosures and caves. What was most incredible was the way in which the dry stone walls, arches and gateways had been made to work together with the natural sheets and boulders of granite, such a perfect complement to one another that you couldn’t believe one had been there first without the other. Rosemary told me about every chamber and enclosure’s history in emphatic, theatrical tones, that reminded me of Shakespeare, and for some reason made me slightly suspicious of the historical accuracy of everything she said. But it didn’t matter if I learned nothing, as I enjoyed every word she said. And whenever Rosemary ran out of dramatic stories to recount, I asked her about her life. I learned that this had been the only job she’d been able to get after completing her degree at Masvingo university, and what she really wanted to do was work for a charity like World Vision, how she feels lucky to have this job even though it does not pay very much, and she has to help provide for her parents and younger siblings as well, who live in a thatched hut in the rural areas, not far away, where they grow maize and other vegetables on their small piece of land. greatzim2 greatzim3 I loved the freedom we had to pick our way around the site, climbing up onto the highest rocks, under the careful watch of the monkeys and baboons. In the United Kingdom your experience in a place like this would be carefully constructed so that you see things in a certain order, from a certain angle, take your photographs from a certain point, and leave through the gift shop. Your every movement would be constrained and controlled by health and safety regulations. greatzim4 greatzim6 greatzim5 I returned to the hill complex before dawn the next day, with two German backpackers who’d arrived at the campsite when I was already in my tent and almost ready to go to sleep, though it was probably not even 9 o’clock. Unable to get to sleep with the sound of their excited, beer-fuelled chatter, I got up and joined them. They were full of enthusiasm about their adventure which had only just begun in Harare the day before and which would take them to Bulawayo, Victoria Falls, Botswana, and Namibia. We set off from our tents in the perfect darkness of the starry night, head torches on we cut across the long grass to the bottom of the hill. But soon the electric beams were too violent for the delicate start of dawn, and as we climbed the hill we switched them off though it was still too dark to really see without them. Although not even a day had passed since I’d been up here, I got completely lost in the tall walls and multiple enclosures of the hill complex and couldn’t find the way up to its highest point. With daybreak close, we climbed up onto a large boulder and sat there as the kings may have done centuries ago, waiting for the sun to rise on the horizon, as the sky turned pink from blue, orange from green, bringing golden light from the night.

We call it Jerusalem…

Friday, 12th September 2014

At the Zion Christian Church

Peter, the Dutchman walking from Cape Town to Cairo who I met at Ann Bruce’s, told me about it. He walked/hitchhiked the Masvingo to Mutare road I’m now cycling a few weeks ago in the opposite direction. “You won’t miss it” he said “it looks like a giant spaceship or something, there is nothing else like it on the whole road”. He said they let him sleep there, and gave him dinner and breakfast the next morning, for 30$. This was expensive – almost double the price of anywhere I had paid to sleep anywhere so far – but the only alternative was camping out in the bush, which I wasn’t sure would be possible along this road, so I decided to make the Zion Christian Church my aim. Plus, I’m here to experience and explore as many different aspects of Zimbabwe as possible, and staying in a church seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. A Chinese backpacker I met in Harare had told me in wide-eyed wonder about how he’d ended up spending a night somewhere outside Harare with a group of worshipers, singing, chanting, dancing, and praying around a fire. “It is very interesting”, he said earnestly, “in China, we do not have the religion”. Here in Zimbabwe, there seems to be a lot of religion. From the moment I cycled away from Harare airport, I often noticed gatherings of people in flowing white robes, who I later learned were part of the Apostolic Vapostori church. I’ve seen countless signs to remote missions down dirt tracks in the rural areas, and I’ve been told that if you want to understand Zimbabwe, you really need to understand the role that these missions have played in its history.

roadtoZCC

roadtoZCC2

It’s been the longest day. I  was on the road by 7 am when there was still a trace of the night’s freshness in the air, after wrestling my precious peanut butter off a monkey while I packed up (the monkey did get away with my bananas!). For the first few hours I shared the world around me with only birds, thorn bushes, golden grass, and rocky kopjes, and I started to feel close to the landscape that yesterday I found so alien. Slowly, people and thatched-hut settlements started to appear. Goats and cows ambled across the road, their bones sticking out from their skin. People walked along the side of the road, or whistled to me from their huts some distance away from it. Cycle touring enthusiasts often talk about how seeing the world by bicycle is the best way to travel because it brings you closer to the way locals live, and to people you wouldn’t otherwise meet. You’re not sealed off behind the windows of a vehicle; you’re exposed to chance encounters and everything and everyone who crosses your path. This is true, but it is also true that many of the encounters you have can feel brief, superficial, and tiresome, or even irritating, and although you are exposed to everything around you, you are always in some ways just gliding through, skating on the surface, and it is only really when you stop that you feel you are completely in a place.

At first I tried to say hello or wave to every person I saw, even though I was really passing by too quickly to do justice to the full Shona greeting ritual, which demands a slow, purposeful exchange of: “Good morning, how are you?” – “Good morning! I’m fine, thank you, how are you?” – “I’m fine, thank you, how are you?” identical, each and every time, before anything else can be said. But after a while I started to feel rather less enthusiastic about these fleeting greetings. Perhaps it was just the growing heat, or my tiredness, or the fact that people often stared at me with a look of confusion, disbelief, and sometimes even fear, which there wasn’t time to dispel before I was already gone… Whatever the reason, aware that however slowly I was pedalling, I was still whizzing through far too quickly for the worlds of difference between me and the people I was passing to even begin to be bridged, I felt increasingly self conscious, and almost wished I were invisible. My clients used to talk about how, if they were sent back to Zimbabwe, they would not be safe anywhere because everyone in their home area would know who they were, who their family was, who their ancestors were; and even if they moved to a different part of the country, even in the city, people would ask questions and talk to other people and soon they too would know everything there was to know about them. I sensed that the anonymity of London often came as a relief to them, and today I too longed for it as I pedalled further, past so many incomprehending gazes.

I realised I was pushing myself to get to my destination for the day as soon as I could, so I made myself stop in Nyika, a lively collection of scruffy-looking bottle shops, butcherys, sadza joints, hardware shops and roadside fruit and vegetable vendors. I sat down outside one of the sadza joints and watched the world go by for an hour or two. With the music blaring out of the bottle shop, the air of daytime drunkenness, and all the Zanu PF t-shirts,  I didn’t feel particularly at ease, but I forced myself to stay, and after I while I got used to it, and began to relax. The people around me got used to me, and we all sat there, looking at the road, doing nothing. A lady came over to talk to me. “What are you waiting for?” she asked. “Nothing” I said, “I’m just resting. And you, what are you doing?”. “Nothing. I don’t have a job”, she replied. Was it me, or did I detect a slightly accusing tone in her voice? I didn’t really know what to say in reply. I felt sorry for her. There was something about the way she was behaving with the men around, the way her breasts were almost falling out of her dress, the way the beer bottle wavered in her hand, that made me wonder whether she sold her body. “Where are you from?” she continued. When I said I’m from London, she said “I love London” with exaggerated enthusiasm. I’m sure she meant it, though I doubt she’s ever been. “I love Chelsea, it’s my team! Do you like Chelsea?”. I almost wish I did, just so that we would have had something in common. Instead, our conversation petered out, and she went back to the small group of people she was hanging out with, and I went back to my solitary thoughts.  I watched the young children with bright smiles walking home from school in their broken shoes, satchels and worn out uniforms, and wondered what would become of them. Life here seems to offer people so few opportunities.

thornbush

baobab

kopje

The church was not where it should have been according to the cross Peter had drawn on my map. I was tired, thirsty, and running out of water. I began to panic I’d missed it, and started to ask people I saw how far I still had to go. “Twenty kilometers” someone said, “I’m fine” said the next person, “two dollars” said a third. I think they must have been so keen to help that they didn’t want to admit that they didn’t actually know the answer to my question. My anxiety at not knowing where I’d spend the night gave my tired legs new energy and strength and I continued to pedal west, the soil around me now rich red again, the flat-topped acacia trees dreamy as the sunlight began to soften.

Finally I saw it, and Peter was right: it would have been impossible to miss. An enormous round white building – probably the biggest man-made structure I have seen since leaving Harare- set away from the road behind tall, imposing gates, at the end of a long driveway away, flanked on both sides by vast, productive fields. The uniformed guards at the gates let me through readily and I came to a small building with an unlikely sign saying “Tourist Office”. I asked whether I could stay the night. As a gentleman started the lengthy process of copying my passport details into a large book, I sank into a chair, hot and sweaty, and hugely relieved to have made it here in daylight. I noticed this was the first building I’ve been in (other than people’s homes) in the whole country to not have a framed photograph of President Mugabe on the wall. Instead, there was a photograph of a Bishop in a military uniform. Very strange.

“Madam, do you have something to cover your head and your legs with?” my daydreaming was suddenly interrupted. “Err, I have my bicycle helmet, and I do have some trousers somewhere…. in my panniers..?”  I said vaguely, not quite appreciating the importance of covering myself. Before I managed to get up to start looking for them, I was handed a baseball cap and a large cloth, emblazoned with the letters “ZCC” and stars all over. I put on the cap and wrapped the cloth around me. I looked ridiculous. I was then given a guided tour of the entire complex, of which my guide was evidently very proud. “Everything is new as you can see” he said “we opened in 2011. Everything was built by volunteers” he said, “the church has a capacity of 23,000, but when we have our large gatherings we are more than this, so we use the fields;… and this is the conference centre, which can hold 15,000…” And so it went on. I was shown the accommodation for visitors, the administrative buildings, the huge kitchens, full of industrial sized pots and shiny stainless steel, all empty today, but apparently ready to hold and feed thousands. I didn’t disbelieve anything I heard, yet there was an air of unreality about it all. The brand newness of the buildings was so unexpected, so out of place compared to everything else I’ve seen on my journey. And where on earth did all the money come from, to build all this, between 2006-2011 when the economy had collapsed and half the country was starving?  The only ‘normal’ sight in the whole compound was a traditional thatched hut village out of sight from the road, on the other side of the hill which, I was told, was home to hundreds of people. The men and women work on the ZCC farm, the children go to the ZCC school, and there’s a clinic and a playground too.

After the tour I’m told to sit down while the Bishop’s secretary asks me some questions. At first its the usual, where am I from, what am I doing in Zimbabwe, where have I been, where am I going to next. But there’s more. “Where are you from in the United Kingdom?”, and “What’s your job?” I say I work in a law firm. “And what do you do exactly? What is the name of the company you work for? Where is it located?” Reluctant to say I’m a lawyer, in case that leads to further questions, I say I’m a secretary, and immediately regret it. “Oh, so secretaries from England like to ride bicycles, is that so?” the Bishop’s secretary asks me, raising his eyebrow and looking at my bike. “Oh yes, definitely!” I assure him. He starts to tell me that the ZCC has a large following in the UK as well, and I nod politely. The sun had started to set and I’m rather concerned no one has actually told me whether I can spend the night here yet, let alone shown me to a room. “We are waiting for the Bishop to approve your stay” the secretary says “You will meet him later, don’t worry”. I sat and waited. What else could I do? It was all very strange but there was something oddly beautiful about it too. I watched the twilight fall on the spaceship church, and the people coming in from the fields around it, filling pick up trucks with cabbages the size of footballs. Eventually, the secretary came back and showed me to a room. “And what about the Bishop? and do I have to pay for the room?” I asked. “The Bishop has to travel to Mozambique tomorrow so he cannot meet you today. No, there is no need for you to pay, you are our guest” he replied.

ZCC2

ZCC1

After an enormous plate of sadza, chicken, greens and tomato sauce on the step outside the empty cafeteria I sat on the balcony of my room looking at the millions of stars in the sky. There was a power cut. In the darkness I could just made out a steady stream of people walking past, chanting words in a language I could not understand, in rhythms I could not follow, a melody that seemed neither mournful, nor joyful, a strange, haunting sound.

In the morning a lady came up to me as I ate my breakfast (an enormous plate of sadza, chicken, greens and tomato sauce) on the step outside the empty cafeteria. Yesterday she’d told me how she used to be a teacher in a state school, and how she came to live here at the church a few years ago, when the government ran out of money and stopped paying teachers. Now she’s a teacher of God’s word. “Did you sleep well?” she asked. “Very well, thank you”, I replied.

“We call it Jerusalem” she smiled.

 

 

 

 

Into another country

Thursday, 11th September 2014

The sky is whitened by the unforgiving sun. The bush by the road side is low and sparse. There’s no shade, nowhere to rest, nowhere to hide from the heat. The earth is dusty and hard. This land makes me feel fear, and a strange kind of awe. It’s so extreme, so unsuited to humankind. It’s not beautiful, but it would be just as wrong to call it ‘ugly’ or ‘unattractive’. These words simply have no purchase here. This land is not made for us to gaze upon and enjoy; it will not allow itself to be put in a picture frame and admired. Try, and its essence will escape you: it will look bland and boring, when really it is breathtaking. It is fierce and alive, every creature is fighting to survive. I am hot, sweaty. No matter how much I drink I am still as thirsty as the cracked earth in the parched river beds I see rhythmically cutting across the thorny bush. I can feel the boils on my wrists from where I caught too much sun up in Chimanimani, and, worried about sunburn and sunstroke, I hastily stop in the middle of the road to strip off my t-shirt and change into a long sleeved shirt. There’s not a soul in sight. I feel as though I have crossed several countries since this morning.

tobbridge4

I made an early start knowing that I had 100km or more to cover today, and that I might struggle to keep going through the hottest hours of the day. Tempe sat with me while I ate her homemade yoghurt and cereal for breakfast. The early morning sunlight streamed in to her home from the mountain-view veranda, bathing us in a beautiful, gentle golden-pink light. I like Tempe, her kindness, her natural openness and almost naive sincerity. Perhaps that’s why, when she asked me whether I have a boyfriend, I didn’t just give the short, discreet answer (“no”), but I told her about my partner instead. “Oh! I feel sorry for your parents, because it means they won’t have any grandchildren!” she exclaimed, before almost catching herself in slight embarrassment at her own words and adding something about it not necessarily meaning that these days, or it not being so bad after all. I don’t mind her reaction at all; and it warms my heart to have spoken of the person I love for the first time since I’ve been in Zimbabwe.

That guileless reaction is typical of Tempe. Initially, after she realised she’d double booked the Farmhouse for last night, and said I could stay at her house instead, she showed me to the guest room in the annex above the garage, before immediately saying that I would be much more comfortable in the house with her and Doug, and insisting I stay in one of their children’s old bedrooms. When I arrived back to her house after my night on the mountain she cried out relieved “I’m so glad you’re back safely! After sending you off with those directions I really worried about you!”. As she prepared dinner she told me how lucky she feels to have been able to run the Farmhouse almost as a hobby for the past couple of years. Doug has had a good job so she has been able to care for it with the same love she gave her children as they were growing up, without having to worry much about making a profit. But that might be about to change, as Doug has had some bad news about his job. I couldn’t tell how serious it is, but they both seemed unsettled last night at dinner. There’s a million questions I would have liked to ask her, about all the changes Chimanimani has seen in her lifetime here, why she and Doug didn’t leave when almost all of their friends did, about Roy Bennett the former local white MP for the MDC, and about what’s happening now, since Zanu PF won such a clear majority in the elections last year…. but I knew it wasn’t the right time. I can tell there are troubled waters on her mind right now, and as she bids me goodbye, I feel a strange combination of closeness to her and awareness of how little really, I know her at all. What I do know though is her deep love for this place, and that the attachment I too now feel for it, is thanks in part at least, to her.

At Skyline Junction, after half an hour of exhilarating freewheel descent, followed by half an hour of steep steady climbing, I stopped to catch my breath, have a snack, and take a last look back towards Chimanimani. Then I turned to where the sky was a more intense shade of blue, and set off on into unchartered territory.

tobbridge1

tobbridge

The almost deserted road wound its way up and down, through forests in which I could hear the sound of monkeys, wild pigs and the wind rustling through giant-sized trees. I tried to store the memory of every shade of green, knowing or fearing that this may be the last I’d see of the colour until I get back to Harare, and I wondered what the Africa of people’s dreams, my own included, would look like.

tobbridge3

I lost height steadily as the sun rose and the heat intensified. The few people I passed stared at me curiously; the ladies washing their clothes in a stream, and selling potatoes by the road side didn’t appear to speak much English when I asked them anxiously whether I was close to the Chipinge junction. When I asked one lady whether the strange-looking food she was selling is an animal or a vegetable, her reply was simply “yes”. When the road finally levelled out, I found myself in a wide flat valley full of plantations of bananas, coffee, tea… foods I consume on a daily basis back home, never giving a true moment’s thought to the places in which these plants actually grow. This was my first glimpse of agriculture on a more intensive scale than the subsistence farming that surrounded each mud thatched hut, where food for an entire family was grown on a tiny plot of land. The plantations looked like another world, but my journey through it did not last long. Soon, they came to an end and I reached the point I’d been looking out for for miles, where the tarred road split into two. The usual congregation of women sat on the dusty ground, with their onions, potatoes, avocados, and tomatoes laid out in neat pyramids all around them. Lively local music drifted out of the bottle shop where the men played pool and drank beer. Aware of being completely out of place, I wondered into the general store and scanned its cavernous half empty shelves for something to eat or drink. Cooking fat, soap, biscuits, loaves of highly processed sliced white bread, crisps. “Can I buy some water?” I asked. The boy behind the counter gestured outside. I bought some of the biscuits sold everywhere in Zimbabwe, regretting it as soon as I tasted the artificial lemon cream, and stepped out to find the water tap in a clearing behind the shop. I asked some young men where we were, as the map didn’t show any kind of settlement. “Joba” was the sound of their reply; but when I asked them if they could show me where we were on my map, just to double check I was taking the right road, they took one quick look at it, smiled and walked away saying “it’s OK..”.

A police officer motioned me to stop. “Where are you from?” “Where did you stay last night? Where are you staying tonight?” he asked. Reluctant to say where I planned to spend the night, I just say I was going to Birchenough Bridge. “Why are you going to Birchenough Bridge?” he wanted to know next, “Why don’t you go to Chipinge? I invite you to my place”. It was abundantly clear that this was not the kind of invitation I should accept. I looked to the two female officers beside him for some kind of support, but found only expressionless faces. I wondered what else their silence had made them complicit in, whether they were always like this, and what part of themselves they might have shut down in order to keep this job. Six years ago the police were involved in coordinating and directing, or at the very least condoning, the violence that was inflicted on the population to punish them for having voted for the ‘wrong’ party – the MDC. Were these officers at work then? Although the road block made my mind wander back to all the violence, intimidation and lack of protection my clients had experienced at the hands of the police, I knew, thankfully, that they had no real interest in me, as they were unlikely to consider a cyclist, even a white one, sufficiently wealthy to bother demanding a bribe from, and that although their attitude was unfriendly and unpleasant, they were essentially harmless to me. With great politeness I therefore declined the officer’s invitation to go to stay with him in Chipinge, got back onto my bike, and bade them all goodbye, turning the pedals slightly quicker than usual to get some distance between us before they changed their mind.

Soon after that the land around me became parched, bare soil. My heart leapt when I spotted the first baobab tree, recognising it instantly despite never having seen one before in my life, as it stood wide and bare like a monumental column, its smooth bark folded over in layers like the skin of an old elephant. I really was on a different planet. It felt incredible that in the space of a single day the land has changed from this ….

chimani3

to this….tobridge7

tobbridge8

At the next fork in the road I saw a sign pointing towards “Tongorara refugee camp”, down the road I wasn’t taking. It struck me as incongruous, non-sensical almost. How can a land so poor it cannot feed its own people also host a refugee population? All I know of are the thousands of people who have left Zimbabwe as refugees over the past 15 years; but who are these refugees living here, where have they come from, why have they sought sanctuary in this unlikeliest of places? I later found out that the camp was originally established in 1984 to house refugees fleeing the civil war in neighbouring Mozambique, and that it now hosts over 2,500 people mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Botswana, Somalia, Ethiopia, Angola, Uganda, who – with little prospect of being self sufficient – survive on UNHCR food rations, clinging on to the hope of resettlement abroad. In Fortress Europe we are so used to speaking of refugees as peculiarly ‘our’ problem; we assume that all refugees want to reach western Europe in order to find work and enjoy the support offered by the welfare state. But this ignores the reality that in fact the vast majority – 86% according to UNHCR – of the world’s refugees live in other ‘developing’ countries, mostly in countries neighbouring ones in which conflicts are taking place.

tobbridge5

tobbridge6

Birchenough Bridge rose like a mirage in this bare landscape. A beautiful single arch steel suspension bridge, the third biggest in the world when it was built in 1935, it crosses the Save river to provide a 150 mile shorter route between Chimanimani and Masvingo by avoiding Mutare. In these surroundings it looks almost futuristic; a remnant of a colonial past full of energy and promise of progress gone astray. I stopped at the Birchenough Bridge Hotel where I finally found some shade, drinking huge glasses of orange crush and munching on crisps until 3.30 in the afternoon, when finally the sun started to fall in the sky.

bridge

tobbridge9

I’m writing this from a campsite resort near the Devuli river, which feels like a run-down oasis. Everything from the plastic chair I sit on, the toilet blocks, the reception with its empty bar, is worn down, tatty, and tired. The men’s toilet block was cleaned especially for me on my arrival (there is a problem with the ladies’ one, I’m told), yet there’s no lock on the toilet door, no door at all on the shower cubicle, the taps are broken, the paint work is chipped, the sink is cracked and stained.  Still, I feel immediately better after washing off the day’s crust of sweat, sunscreen and dirt. My tent pegs sink into the soft pillowy green grass, and I sit back to watch the sun go down to the sound of a deafening chorus of frogs. By 6.12pm it is completely dark.

bbridgecamp

Chimanimani

Wednesday 10th September 2014

“After Chimanimani you will be entering the hot areas of Zimbabwe” Sam’s text warned me. Sam’s a black Zimbabwean friend of a colleague of mine in London, and the only contact I had in Zimbabwe on my arrival. On my second day in the country he took me out to the Lion and Cheetah park outside Harare, and since then he’s quite unexpectedly and happily become a remote guide and friend through the messages he sends me every few days, checking I’m OK, suggesting places I should go to, giving me bits of information about his country. He’s making me feel there’s someone looking out for me, and I am grateful for every single message I receive.

I’m seriously tempted to stay in Chimanimani for a bit longer. I like it here; perhaps more than anywhere else I’ve been so far. I feel there are many more walks to do, hidden pools to swim in, and interesting people to talk to. I’d love to help Tempe with the animals at the farmhouse, perhaps ask if I could milk the cows, take a good look at the pecan and macadamia nut trees that grow in her garden, sit on her veranda and watch the sun set over the mountains that now feel so close to me. The climate up here is wonderful: fresh, clear blue skies every morning, the sun probably about as hot as I can comfortably manage in the middle of the day, and deep, cooler evenings. After Chimanimani, I will be descending into the low veld, the arid savanna, an area apparently so inhospitable it was deemed unsuitable for habitation by the Europeans who settled Zimbabwe at the end of the 1800s. I can already feel that mix of nervousness and excitement bubbling up inside me at the prospect of being properly on the road again, for several days in a row, not knowing each morning where I will be spending the night. I know it won’t let go of me until I get onto my bike and start riding, so I better make a move early tomorrow morning, as planned.

Perhaps it is just these clear blue mountain skies, but I think I can feel something special in the air here. A sense of optimism, perhaps, after all the problems of the recent past. This is the only place in which I’ve seen MDC slogans painted on a wall. It might seem like something small, insignificant even, for those of us who are used to basic freedom of expression, but here I know it means a lot. The soil is rich and fertile; and tourists are starting to come back. There was even a truck of overlanders from Britain in town, staying down the road at Heaven Lodge last night, which has managed to have some kind of refurbishment after becoming “pretty much uninhabitable” in recent years (according to the guidebook, at least). The potential for tourism here is huge.

I had a long chat with Stanley, the National Parks officer, after coming back down to base camp. We sat under a tree for a few hours, chatting about everything from the park, to Zimbabwe’s economic implosion, his experience of hyperinflation, the recent political turmoil, the relationship between black and white Zimbabweans, and the exponential rise in membership of evangelical churches. I thought it such a shame that there is not more for someone like him to do here, other than book the dribble of tourists in each daily, slowly writing all their details in a big book for some bureaucrats in Harare. He told me that the government stopped funding National Parks when the economy collapsed, and for years now there hasn’t been any investment. When I tell Tempe later on about my conversation with Stanley she mentions someone else in the village saying that he is overlooked and could do so much more. It don’t know whether this feeling has much foundation in reality, but it is nice to think of the local community – black and white – who share such a deep attachment to this place, working together to bring out the best in it, so that others may enjoy it too. Some of the things Tempe and her husband Doug say over the home-cooked dinner they offer me later make me think it will take some time, but things seem to be on the right track. I hope that one day I will be back.

chimanimani1

chimanimani2