Angus Shaw’s Harare
From the Air Zimbabwe in-flight magazine. I never got paid for it, not even a free flight to Bulawayo – due to circumstances beyond their control, they said.
Over a lifetime, the Harare skyline has changed beyond recognition. With notable exceptions – the High Court, the foreign ministry, the Munhumatapa building ( time on the clock tower has long been stopped at twenty past three) – most of the squat colonial buildings are gone, giving way to gleaming towers of steel and glass.
An old man on his first trip from deep in the rural areas marvelled at the new buildings and remarked that us the townspeople appeared to be obsessed with glass. “You even cover your eyes with it,’’ he said to a bespectacled me.
He wasn’t impressed at all by the Karigamombe Centre or the faded gold façade of the Rainbow Towers – “Golden Delicious” as it was known to taxi drivers before the elements of sun and storm took their toll on the then Sheraton. Nor was he impressed by the imposing edifice of the central bank.
On the bus on the main road from the west he could see the Reserve Bank from some 20 kilometers away. It is designed to be seen from all the city’s main approach roads. He didn’t know until I told him that the bank’s octagonal design is symbolic of an upended maize cob – maize being the once abundant staple food and the cob-like skyscraper represents the Horn of Plenty, the nation’s cornucopia. Inside, it has marble trimmings and suites and boardrooms to match the best in Frankfurt or London. Alas, as the economy took strain in recent times, the Horn of Plenty emptied soon emptied.
A few blocks away, across my home town, is Eastgate, a fine shopping mall and office complex behind Meikles hotel that has rows of rooftop chimneys. When the building is lit after dusk it looks like an old steamship ploughing into the night. It was Zimbabwe’s first really “green” construction project, based on nature’s self-ventilating anthill. Its designers insisted it saved 70 percent of the energy costs the central bank building would gobble up.
Walking on chill winter mornings in the multiple green belts and vleis of Harare, I have often watched condensation stesteaming from the conical anthills as the worker ants aerated the depths of their nest.
Beautiful Harare is much like other former British colonial capitals whose planners allowed for plenty of tree-lined avenues and open spaces, quite unlike the cities in former French or Portuguese territories. Late in the year, we are washed with the magnificent lavender blossoms of the prolific jacaranda tree. The main square, Africa Unity Square, has been a sight to behold for as long as I can remember at jacaranda time.
The flower sellers and curio stalls add their colour to the square but the central fountains don’t seem to perform their kaleidoscopic water dance anymore. I wondered in the 1970s why they pulled down the fine old fashioned Meikles hotel, but it was progress, we were told. The old Meikles had a Palm Court orchestra in the ballroomplaying jazz standards and tea-room waltzes.
The square on Meikles’ north side was where the colonial era settlers raised the Union flag right opposite The Herald offices of today. They hadn’t intended to set Fort Salibury here, but it was unclear where a better site for the catchment of natural water was to be found. By the time it was, it was too late to move the settlement. So Harare is actually in the wrong place.
An underground water course runs along Seke Road and Julius Nyerere Way up to Harare Gardens and the Avenues district of apartments and townhouses. When I lived in the Avenues, my uncle, a water diviner, believed one reason I slept uneasily could be that my bed was placed east-to-west, against the flow of the water beneath. I was in its negative field. I moved the bed north-to-south. It worked. But it might have been a psychological thing, I suppose.
Back then, the dormitory township of Chitungwiza was mushrooming 25 kilometres to the south of the city centre and it was proposed by various armchair engineers that the underground river could be excavated and made into a canal for commuter barges. We could become the Venice of Africa…The idea, of course, never got beyond the armchairs.
In any city, there is always a dividing line between the ritzy executive offices and the hugger mugger of real life. Ours is Julius Nyerere Way. Cross it going west and enter a bustling tumult of wholesalers, shoe shops, stores for cheap clothing, haberdashery and aromatic spices, cafés, take-aways and liquor marts blaring loud Afro-pop over the pavement. And beyond that, of course, there are the “high density” suburbs, once the segregated townships where colonial planners put the workers needed for Harare’s factories and businesses.
Harare’s political nationalism has its mother lode in Highfield township where as young reporters many, many moons ago, we enjoyed the bars, shebeens and hotels – notably the Mushandire Pamwe hotel _ and listened to real township music at the Saratoga nightclub.
My own “low density” suburb of Eastlea awakens with the surround-sound of the dawn chorus that no iPod could ever match. An artist friend of mine advises the best way to start the day is to listen to the birds for five minutes before switching on news programmes or beginning other stressful activities. The dawn chorus today may be accompanied by the rumble of petrol generators.
I regard Harare, even though it’s worn, littered and horrifically potholed right now as my town and I love it. I and journalist colleagues of my vintage knew almost all the nationalists after whom streets were renamed after independence. In my travels over the years, I met Jason Moyo and Herbert Chitepo, both later to be murdered, and after 1980 I lived in a flat on Herbert Chitepo Avenue.
I had met Josiah Tongogara, I had befriended George “TG” Silundika, I knew Josiah Chinamano and I had spoken with or interviewed Nelson Mandela, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, Samora Machel, Sam Nujoma and – it should go without saying – President Mugabe.
The museum at Heroes Acre displays the old VW beetle in which a bomb killed Herbert Chitepo. We as reporters had dealings with almost all the fallen who lie at Heroes Acre. What’s more, if you have lived as a journalist in a city as long as I have there’s hardly a block of flats or an office building I haven’t been inside at some time or another, nor a bar, school, hospital, church, courthouse or even jail. You can’t say that about many capital cities of the world.
That’s where my father’s remains rest, there are the offices where the corporate vipers lied to us, that’s where my pension evaporated in hyperinflation, that’s where we held the wake for dear but tormented Frank Moore, a school friend, after his suicide 35 years ago. That’s the cemetery where Frank’s bones sleep, that’s where Catherine lived … reminding me whenever I pass it of John Le Carre’s words: there were some women who carried their bodies as if they were citadels to be stormed by only the bravest.
Maybe it’s a small town thing. Indeed, we are comparatively small and my Harare roots may well be comparatively shallow. But my dictionary defines: Roots, pl, n, the close ties one has with some place or people as through birth, upbringing, long association etc. I don’t care what anyone says. Harare, my birthplace, is home and, God willing, I’m not going anywhere else.