We see it as we come into town on the Bulawayo road. Fifteen storeys up, in black profile against a white sphere. It nestles beneath the triangular apex of the roof, a dominant male crowing its intent. In the offices below, we guess, sit the people who ensure that the bird is fed. The people who preen its feathers and sharpen its comb. We slow down as we pass, to look for clues. What kind of person works in there? How do you dress if you’re an officer of Zanu-PF? Does it show on your face? But there’s nothing of interest at ground level, no great revelations. Just the rooster keeping watch in the sky; jongwe, the cockerel of the liberation movement.
‘We have to get inside,’ says Richard. ‘We can’t leave this city until we get inside.’
He does that, my friend. He informs me of the inevitable before I’m ready to acknowledge it. And my habitual response is not to say anything, to assess the implications and watch the road. I’m not saying anything now. I’m turning left towards the suburb of Avondale. I’m negotiating the potholes and reading the street signs. I’m ignoring Richard’s statement.
‘How?’ I ask.
‘We’re going to call up and book an appointment.’
Easily said. In the last three years, since the setbacks of the 2008 elections, the party of Robert Mugabe has intensified its assault on the media. Editors have been placed under electronic surveillance, and reporters have been beaten, jailed, even killed. While the ban on western journalists has been nominally lifted, the government has remained a committed enemy of free speech. Which is why, the day before, we’d filled in ‘researcher’ on the border control entry forms. ‘We’re here to investigate Mr Mugabe’s ‘‘Look East’’ policy,’ we told a junior border official. ‘We’re writing a book about the Chinese in Africa.’
True, but even so. ‘Journalist, journalist, journalist,’ the commander of that remote post had said, as he slowly thumbed the pages of Richard’s passport. The Libyan visa, the Iranian visa, the stamps from Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan – each entry added to his enjoyment. As Richard observed later, it was as if he’d been hiding an irresistible board game in his closet. In us he’d found his long wished-for opponents, and only after four hours of interrogative maneuvering did he hand the dice over, inviting us to proceed.
Our move. Now, in the room of the backpackers lodge in the affluent suburbs of Harare, we’re calling around. A young journalist at one of the country’s last remaining independent newspapers says he has the number we need. And he does. The direct line to the office of Rugare Gumbo, Zanu-PF’s secretary for information and publicity. ‘Comrade Gumbo can see you on Wednesday at 2.30 p.m.,’ a female voice offers.
‘Told you,’ says Richard.
On Tuesday evening, over dinner at a restaurant in the Avondale shopping centre, we are admonished by a woman who was employed once as the Reuters Harare correspondent. She has asked us who we have interviewed, and we have mentioned the names of key figures in the opposition party. She says that the Central Intelligence Organisation may be tracking our movements, that they have informants attached to most of the activists. ‘It works like this,’ she says. ‘You meet one activist, and then another, and another. Soon they are joining the dots. Then you need to leave the country. If you guys carry on as you have been, I give you one week.’
She thanks us for the meal. ‘Where are you staying?’ she asks, as she stands up to go.
‘Small World Backpackers.’
‘I know the place. Don’t be discussing your business in the bar. The owner is Zanu.’
There is a blackout that night in Harare. In the dark, sitting on the floor of our room, passing a bottle of Scotch back and forth, Richard and I indulge our terror. We have not been silent about our plans; we have made telephone calls and discussed strategy in the dining hall. What have we said? Does George, the owner, know we have been talking to the opposition? When we walk into Zanu headquarters tomorrow, will we be walking out again? And the final question: why is it that we have not stopped laughing?
Working with a co-writer is hardly ever done in the literary world – musicians and filmmakers collaborate as a way of life, artists do it occasionally, but the writer is destined to work in partnership with himself alone. To break the tradition, then, and to embark on a book-length project with another person who has also toiled only in solitude, is to risk much: voice, perspective, form. Still, Richard and I are so far reveling in the experiment. Our vehicle, a single-cab Toyota Hilux, has served as a traveling workshop. Africa’s infinite roads, the thousands of kilometres across floodplain, grassland and desert pan, have led us into metaphors and sentences that neither of us would have constructed in isolation. The writing of this book has become a conversation, the words in our notebooks a pleasing amalgamation of resources.
Although the idea to tell George that we are visiting Zanu headquarters is, I have to say, mine. On Wednesday morning the world appears a lot less terrifying than it did the previous night; clarity has returned. Instead of fleeing, we can assimilate – not quite the same as compliance, and keeps us in the country for longer. And George, as expected, is impressed. ‘You are?’ he asks. ‘Do you know I am a long-time member of the party?’
Despite the vicious assaults on his own people, despite the food shortages and the petrol queues and the hyperinflation and the broken bones, Robert Gabriel Mugabe is still loved and revered by many Zimbabweans. He is the Great Liberator, the man who delivered the oppressed from the evil of the white regime, the African hero without whom Bob Marley would never have been able to sing, ‘No more internal power struggle / We come together to overcome the little trouble.’
It is now more than thirty years since Bob Marley and the Wailers were invited to perform at the independence celebrations at the Great Zimbabwe ruins. But even then, like a wedding night that goes horribly wrong, the omens were ill. The first show was marred by tear gas and riots – the general population, on learning that the performance was to be restricted to an exclusive audience, became incensed – and the impromptu second show was overshadowed by the experiences of the first.
The following are Richard’s close-up impressions of the Zanu building: the rutted service road and tangled streetlights that resemble a set of broken dentures; the structure itself, a nightmare interpretation of Le Corbusier; the liberation dream that’s baked into each angle and line in the language of stark brutalism. For my friend, the metaphor in the building is clear – Zanu has become what it fought against, morphed its aspirations into one of the most heartbreaking declines in the continent’s history.
My impressions are not much different. Except, for me, it’s the keyhole-shaped portico where the symbolism resides: if your key does not fit this lock, it says, you are not welcome in this country.
Two unsmiling guards wand us down; we present our identification. Along with a dozen others, we wait many minutes for an elevator to take us up to the seventh floor. Fluorescent lights shiver as we inhale the mixed sweat of our uneasiness, their mid-summer torpor. The doors open onto what Richard calls ‘Terry Gilliam’s Brazil without the budget.’ In an abandoned office, unkempt files and broken stationery lies piled to the ceiling. In another office, four young men in ill-fitting suits play miniature snooker. One of the men looks up at us, poised to make his shot. ‘But it is our lunch time,’ he says, as if the very colour of our skin casts judgment on his productivity.
There’s something else that Richard notices as we wait – twenty, forty, sixty minutes – for Comrade Gumbo to return from an ‘emergency meeting’. He notices the British colonial traditions that permeate the place, the cucumber sandwiches and the ‘tea boy’ under his doily hat.
That day, as the newspapers make plain, any number of things could have delayed Comrade Rugare Gumbo – a vicious assault by Zanu thugs on reporters in the suburb of Mbare, the supreme court’s rejection of an activist’s constitutional challenge, another verbal attack by Mugabe’s main henchman, George Charamba, on an opposition member who was bidding for the deputy prime minister’s seat. Whatever it was, the meeting was rescheduled for the following afternoon.
‘The official position of the party is that we are doing business with our friends,’ Comrade Gumbo says, for the third time, as we finally find ourselves in his office, a plush affair with a coffee table and lounge suite, large mahogany desk and poster-size portrait of Robert Mugabe hung between two Zimbabwean flags on the back wall. He has been talking for almost an hour about his lifelong fondness for the Chinese: his early years spent training as a freedom fighter in camps around Nanjing; the post-liberation years, and especially the last decade, when China’s interest in Zimbabwe became purely economic.
‘Nobody can stop us dealing with these people,’ he continues. ‘If the West were interested in developing Africa, they would have done so a long time ago. Now the Chinese are here, and these former colonial powers expect us to deal only with them. It’s nonsense.’
It’s one of the few statements with which neither Richard nor I are inclined to argue. Still, there’s that television serving up images in the background – wide-angle shots of the protests in Tahrir Square, archival footage of Hosni Mubarak.
Richard beats me to it. ‘What do you think about that?’ he asks, as Gumbo gets up to guide us to the door.
The aging Zanu official turns around to look at his television. ‘That old man,’ he smiles. ‘His days are numbered.’
Photograph by Camilo Forero