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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.