The knees of the soldier from the Presidential Guard are pressing against my spine through the driver’s seat. When he shifts his position they roll across my back like the mechanism of an airport massage chair. It’s ten years since I first came to Zimbabwe. Back then I was on the trail of my great, great uncle, a maverick missionary called Arthur Cripps. For the last week on this return trip I’ve been staying in the Eastern Highlands with Arthur’s granddaughter, Betty Roberts, a retired British paediatric nurse who’s come to Zimbabwe to set up a children’s home. We’re making the three-hour drive back to Harare in Betty’s car, a white four-door Toyota Starlet. Betty sits in the passenger seat next to me wearing a baseball cap, white T-shirt, combat trousers and bright red lipstick. Smoking a Winston cigarette out of the open window, she talks excitedly between draws about her plans for being back in the city – chasing down a hairdresser who owes her a haircut, being able to Skype and email again, having drinks with friends at the Book Cafe.

 

Road Trip - Owen Sheers

 
The road ahead of us, straight and undulating, hazes into the distance between a scrubland veld scattered with msasa and acacia trees. Occasionally we pass an ancient bus offloading its passengers or an expensive-looking Mercedes or BMW will overtake us to speed away between the bottle stores and kraals of mud and brick rondavels. Mostly, though, the road is empty. Sometimes we see a man carrying a sack of mealie meal or a woman with a child swaddled to her back, walking down a track to somewhere deeper in the veld.

 

Road Trip - Owen Sheers

 

In Wales we’d call Betty’s Starlet a ‘cut and shut’. In Zimbabwe, Betty tells me, they’ve been calling it a batani – two halves of two different Starlets welded together to make a ‘new’ car. The mechanic who’d Frankensteined Betty’s Starlet into existence had done a good job. The surgery only shows when one of the back doors needs a good slam to close it within the off-kilter frame. Knowledge of the Starlet’s genesis, though, makes the already small car feel especially fragile. For much of the last week Betty and I have been house-hunting, looking for a suitable place where she can establish her orphanage. Many of the houses we’ve viewed lay at the end of rain-gouged dirt tracks, most of which I felt scraping under my feet through the Starlet’s low undercarriage. More than once, as we revved and pitched up a slope, I expected the car to split back into its two halves like an egg cracked on the side of a bowl.

But the Starlet didn’t split and this morning, on the smoother asphalt of the Rusape to Harare road, it almost feels like a normal car again, even with the weight of the two extra passengers sitting in its ‘other’ half. The first, behind Betty, is a woman we picked up at the side of the road just a few minutes earlier. The second, sitting with his knees pressing into my back, is a soldier from Mugabe’s Presidential Guard. Like Betty, he holds a cigarette at his open window, occasionally blowing plumes of smoke into the oncoming air.

 
The woman’s hand had been so subtle, slow-waving at hip height, we’d almost passed her before we realized she was asking for a lift. Even then I’d waited for Betty’s own flapping hand and exclamation – ‘Yes, yes, it’s a woman! Stop, stop!’ – before slowing and pulling over. A car-jacking in Harare some years ago left Betty with strict rules about who she will and will not pick up at the side of the road. ‘Women, children, old people, a man, if he has a child –Yes. Men on their own – No.’

I watched in the rear-view mirror as the woman jogged towards us, a bag of shopping and her handbag juggling in her arms. As she opened the sticky back door she was smiling and already thanking us. But then she saw the uniform of her fellow passenger, the distinctive yellow beret of his unit folded into an epaulette on his shoulder, and her grateful expression dropped. ‘Give it a good bang. Slam it shut, slam it. That’s it!’ Betty said, twisting in her seat. The soldier moved to make room for the woman to get in. As she did so she squeezed her shopping bag, nudging up a cellophaned issue of FHM between some mealie cobs and a bag of potatoes. ‘What is your name?’ Betty asked the woman, cupping a lighter in her palm to light another cigarette as I pulled back out onto the road. ‘Happiness’ the woman replied, speaking quietly and pulling her shopping bag closer to her chest. ‘My name is Happiness.’

 
The soldier had been waiting for us. We’d been packing all morning, ferrying boxes, bags and jerry cans of petrol up to the Starlet, but we’d only noticed him as we’d pulled out from the grass track that leads up from the back door of Betty’s house. He was standing beside the gate, tall with dark black skin, wearing a camouflaged uniform with high-ankle, lace-up boots and a striped belt. His yellow beret was angled at an extreme slant above a finely sculpted face. Just behind him stood Michael, Betty’s neighbour and the caretaker of the house she rents in the rolling hills of the Eastern Highlands.

The road closest to Betty’s house runs along the head, and then down into a valley between the town of Juliasdale and the highland village of Bonda. Thickly wooded, its mornings are filled with birdsong and its evenings with the high static of cicadas. Eagles slow-tour its skies and constellations of butterflies flit through its shrubs and bushes. Even at midday the mountain breeze takes the edge off the sun’s heat. Lower down, the valley is planted with fruit orchards and in the spring these trees cut a swathe of blossom along the valley floor; peach, apricot, apple, pear. The view from Betty’s veranda towards the mouth of the valley mists into the distant peaks of the Nyanga mountains on the Mozambique border. When thunderstorms roll in from the East the towering clouds are often lit from within by lightening bolts, illuminating the valley in long flashes of white light.

When we see the soldier and Michael waiting by the gate I stop the car and wind down my window. ‘You are going to Harare?’ the soldier asks, somehow making the question a statement.

‘He is wondering,’ Michael cuts in, bending down with a strained smile, ‘if you would be able to give him a lift?’

Every morning this week Michael has joined us for coffee on Betty’s veranda. He comes over after his children have left for school and he’s already farmed some of the terraces below his house. Using pine cones and Betty’s old packets of Winstons as kindling, Michael lights the fire in the old Rhodesian boiler before joining us at a glass-topped table, folding his long body into a fraying wicker chair. Because Betty has a short wave radio and Michael does not our conversation usually gravitates towards the previous night’s ‘pirate’ broadcast of the Voice of America Zimbabwe bulletin. The bulletin is transmitted three times nightly from Washington, first in Shona, then in Ndebele and finally in English. Wearing a shirt, jeans, cowboy belt and flip-flops Michael nods gravely as we relate its content the morning after, before softly but firmly offering his own opinions, often rounding his observations with a home-spun proverb. ‘When the rat has its nose in the peanuts, it forgets its tail is out sticking’; ‘You can wrap up thorns but their spikes will always show through.’ Watching Michael now, shifting his feet awkwardly beside this soldier, I remember another of his sayings. ‘In Zimbabwe,’ he told me standing outside his welding shed with his arms outstretched. ‘You must balance with him,’ he dropped one palm, as if catching a feather, ‘and then also with him.’ He dropped the other palm. ‘But,’ he continued, tipping the scales of his arms further to one side. ‘If you go too far with either, then you will fall in the water.

Betty leans across me to address the soldier through the driver’s window. ‘Well, yes,’ she replies. ‘Of course we can give you a lift. But,’ she continues, using the more annunciated sing-song voice she employs when speaking with black Zimbabweans, ‘first we must get some fuel. When we have the fuel, then we will come back for you.’

 
The largest house in Betty’s area of the Highlands is called Jones’s Place. For the past week Betty and I have passed it at least twice a day on our way out and back from looking at houses for her children’s home. Judging from the length of its perimeter wall, stone-clad like a fifties fireplace and topped with looping coils of razor wire, the grounds of Jones’s Place must stretch into the tens if not hundreds of acres.

Like most of the houses in the area, Jones’s Place hasn’t been visited by its owner for a long time now. According to what a local man told Betty, it’s been over four years since he was last seen in the valley. His, though, is an interesting story, and one which parallels that of Zimbabwe itself.

As a boy growing up in the rural areas north-east of Salisbury, the man who owns Jones’s Place was a lonely child. His family say books, more than other children, were his friends. A gifted scholar at the local Catholic school, the owner of Jones’s Place soon fulfilled his childhood ambition of becoming a teacher, eventually travelling abroad to lecture at a teaching academy. It was at one of those lectures he met his future wife, a strong-willed, intelligent woman with whom he came to share a passionate belief in African independence.

A few years after his marriage, the owner of Jones’s Place, now a father, was imprisoned for holding true to those liberation dreams. When this happened his wife also held true, waiting for him through the eleven years of his imprisonment. While living in exile in the UK she spent hours in a library in Ealing copying out notes from textbooks in miniature handwriting which she’d paste to the inside of toothpaste and biscuit boxes, to send to her imprisoned husband. With the aid of these notes he gained five more degrees while in prison. He also organized lessons for his fellow inmates so that many left their incarceration with qualifications they hadn’t even known had existed when they’d entered it. They were preparing, he told them, for independence; for when they would no longer be the prisoners but the governors of their country.

After he was released from prison, having been refused leave for the last eleven years, even to attend his toddler son’s funeral, the owner of Jones’s Place was given the opportunity to put his words into action. A fortnight into his freedom he and a colleague were selected by their banned liberation organisation to be driven east in a battered Peugeot 404 to Rusape. At a rushed, fire-cooked meal in the bush a traditional healer urged them, in the voice of her long-dead ancestor, to leave as soon as they could. The two men trekked under cover of darkness into Mozambique, taking a path over the same hills now framed in the windows of his mountain home on Valley Road. Once in Mozambique, along with other Nationalist leaders, he participated in the resistance movement against the Rhodesian government; a quiet, besuited individual among the military fatigues and fighters in the guerrilla camps of the jungle. Five years later, the owner of Jones’s Place, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, was sworn in at Harare’s State House as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe. Eight years later he created and became the first incumbent of the role of President of Zimbabwe which is why, unlike the other vacant houses along Valley Road, Jones’s Place isn’t watched over by a caretaker and a dog, but by a thirty-eight strong standing platoon of the Presidential Guard, of which the soldier sitting behind me in Betty’s Starlet is one.

 
As the garage attendant fuels the Starlet, rocking the car back and forth to ensure its tank fills to the brim, Betty and I discuss the implications of having our new passenger on board. We agree that, given his job, we’ll avoid any talk of politics, the economy or anything else that might be interpreted as the criminal offence of ‘insulting the President’. ‘We won’t be able to stop for lunch either,’ Betty says as we drive back to collect the soldier. ‘It wouldn’t be fair on the owners,’ she explains, ‘taking him into a place. And we can hardly leave him in the car can we?’

Despite being denied the meat of most conversations in Zimbabwe, Betty’s well-honed bedside manner means she’s soon chatting with the soldier in the back of her car. At first, it’s something of a one-way street. Most of his replies are no more than a slow nod of the head, accompanied with drawn out ‘ahhs’ when he agrees. As the road begins to wind down through the forested hills, though, the trunks of the trees scorched by bush fires and the damp asphalt steaming in the early sun, the soldier begins to offer some fuller answers. His name, he tells us, is Joseph Muridzi. He is twenty-five years old and he is travelling back to Kadoma, south-west of Harare, to see his three-year-old daughter. He wants to go home and see her now because over Christmas he’ll be back here in the Highlands again, guarding the vacant rooms and empty corridors of Jones’s Place.

As we emerge into the more open landscape of the lower veld, punctuated with the whale backs of massive boulders and balancing rocks piled on each other like the aftermath of a child’s game, something seems to open in Joseph too. Shifting position on the back seat, he starts asking questions of his own. With his legs wide and one arm resting along the back shelf, he asks Betty what she is doing in Zimbabwe. She has, she tells him, visited the country many times, ever since she discovered that her estranged grandfather had lived most of his life here. Now she’s come back to start her own children’s home. ‘Because there are a lot of orphans now, aren’t there?’ she says, looking at Joseph in the rear-view mirror. ‘Too, too many orphans.’ He looks out of his window and nods a slow nod. Catching a glimpse of his profile in my wing mirror I can’t help wondering what Joseph thinks of us. His uniform, I know, is no guarantee of anything. I remember a story I read on a news blog before I travelled here, about a group of Presidential Guards who shot up State House with machine guns, protesting over lack of pay and the army’s inability to feed its soldiers. Like so many stories in Zimbabwe it’s impossible to know if this one was true, but it still makes me wonder where, beyond the insignia of his unit, Joseph might stand on the choices the man he protects has made for Zimbabwe.

When Joseph looks back from the window his attention turns to me. ‘And you,’ he asks, lighting a cigarette, ‘where are you from?’

‘Wales’ I tell him. He looks unsure until, as usual, we identify the country through it’s most famous footballer, Ryan Giggs.

‘And why have you come to Zimbabwe?’ he continues, winding down his window and pursing his lips to blow out a thin stream of smoke.

Because I know nothing of Joseph beyond his uniform I tell him I’m in Zimbabwe to help Betty find a house for her children’s home, and that we first met through a shared interest in her grandfather, Arthur Cripps, who is also an uncle of mine. But this is all I tell him. I do not mention that I first came to Zimbabwe to write a book about Cripps or, because working here as a journalist without permission from the Ministry of Information is an offence, that I am a writer at all. I tell Joseph enough of the truth, but not all of it.

Over the last ten years, from both within and beyond its borders, I’ve watched Zimbabwe become a country honey-combed with silence. Often what is unspoken is obvious – the daily hardships missing from stories in the state media, the denial of events, the unacknowledged criticisms of other countries. What has been more damaging though, is the spreading infection of smaller, more intimate silences; words not said through fear, complicity or personal gain, either replaced with gestures or just left shadowing the few innocuous enough to still be spoken. Although there have been many more immediate traumas for Zimbabweans, these silences have created a particularly consistent low-grade anxiety; the internal erosion, minute but sensed, that occurs each time the real or the true is denied. But what makes the unuttered words, the anxious glances, even more wearing is the shared knowledge of the source from which this surface tremor of omission emanates; the deeper fault lines riven through the country by a government that’s chosen to punish its people more than protect them. For many the violence is another silence, another absence, known but not experienced. But it is still seen and heard, on camera phones, on the internet, through the echoed stories filtering from the edges of towns or distant rural places. The images of flayed flesh where a young woman’s buttocks should be, of beaten feet and skin burned by melting plastic cast more shadows behind conversation in Zimbabwe and this is why people weigh their words.

Apparently unwilling to take his half-hearted interrogation any further, Joseph falls silent again as Betty talks on instead, sizing up the pros and cons of the houses we’ve seen over the last week and trying to work out how best to contact their absent owners. Suddenly she breaks her flow as we pass a woman carrying a bag at the side of the road. ‘Yes, yes!’ she tells me, flapping her free hand. ‘It’s a woman! Stop, Stop!’

 

Road Trip - Owen Sheers

 

‘I’ll see your five billion and raise you another three billion.’ Howard, our host, licks his thumb, counts out a handful of pastel-coloured notes and throws them onto the pile at the centre of the table. We each consider our own cards in response, billions of Zimbabwean dollars stacked before us. There are six of us in the game, five men and a twelve-year-old boy, a mix of white Zimbabweans and British, playing poker in an open-sided rondavel on Howard’s tobacco farm outside Bulawayo. Beyond the rondavel’s thatched roof a guiti, a sea mist blown in from Mozambique, gauzes the night air, making the oil-drum braai spit and sizzle even more than usual. From across the lawn I can hear the drone of Howard’s generator working against the blackout and the faint chatter of the cartoons his kids are watching inside the house.

I look down at the stack of notes before me, their rows of zeros printed across designs of elephants, balancing rocks and waterfalls. Some of them are crisp, unused. Others are bleached out and, literally, reused. Holding one up to the light I see the watermark of a previous value ghosting its present one, the memory of better times floating beneath the surface of the larger figure. At what point, I can’t help wondering, did the designer at the Reserve Bank anticipate his bosses and begin work on the next-highest denomination of billion or trillion dollar note as soon as the last one was out of the door?

Zimbabwe’s national currency had broken all records, reaching eighty-seven septillion per cent inflation when the opposition MDC’s Tendai Biti recently took over the reins at the National Reserve Bank and announced that the US dollar would become Zimbabwe’s legal tender instead. Almost instantly the Zim dollar had value again. Not as a currency, but as an object, a financial freak. ‘You know a thirty trillion note goes for twenty US on eBay now?’ Howard told me earlier that night. ‘Twenty?’ someone else said. ‘They’re selling them for five at the airports.’

Dollarization has meant Zimbabwe has gone back to being an expensive country. With no US coins in circulation, the lowest denomination is the one dollar bill. The only place you’ll get change for a dollar, I’m told, is on a Harare ET (emergency taxi), the crammed minibuses that shuttle commuters through the city. Even then it’ll be in Zim dollars. Purchase a one-way ticket on an ET and the conductor will dip into the pouch slung on his hip and give you 50 million Zim dollars in return.

There’s no doubt this blood transfusion of US dollars has kick-started both the country’s financial and psychological economies. Despite the frequent power outages, the political wrangling, intimidation and murders, there’s talk of things starting again, of returns rather than leavings. The country, it feels, held so long in suspended animation by these notes piled on the table, is being allowed to inhabit a more concrete concept of the future beyond just the next day or week.

I’ve always been as surprised by what continues in Zimbabwe as much as by what has been lost; the shards of ‘normal’ life that survive in such a frayed society. But the sudden optimism fuelled by dollarization feels less like a continuation in the face of adversity and more like a return, a strange resemblance of better times. But it also feels shallow, a too-sudden veneer enjoyed by too small a proportion of the population, as if everything and yet nothing has changed.

 

When Betty and I go shopping a couple of weeks later in a supermarket in Mutare we find the shelves are not only full of produce but are also decorated with tinsel, cut-out Santas and inflatable snowmen. As Betty weighs up a couple of frozen chickens I watch through the shop’s open doors as a team of Majorettes in blue and white sequinned costumes parade down the sunlit road outside, so pot-holed in places it looks as if it’s been shelled. Their leader tosses her baton high into the air between the blood-red crowns of Flamboyant trees as above me the shop’s tannoy plays a medley of Christmas songs. ‘Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?’ ask the artists of Band Aid. The answer that morning in Mutare was yes, they do.

But then out in the car park, as we unloaded our shopping into the Starlet, the other Zimbabwe approached us; a young girl, five or six years old, holding the hand of an old man whose eyes were two marbled lumps of scar tissue. He said nothing and as she held out her own hand, neither did she. Betty took a loaf of bread from the boot, tore it in two and gave the girl half. ‘Thank you, ma’am,’ the man said as the girl pressed it into his palm. As she led him away, a dark-windowed SUV drove between us, obscuring them. When it passed they were gone, and there was just the busy supermarket, its speakers crackling into the opening of ‘God Rest You Merry Gentlemen’.

 

Sitting at Howard’s poker table, listening to how the new currency had re-energised the lives and businesses of those around it, I realise that another consequence of dollarization has been to heighten the sense of Zimbabwe as a ‘cut and shut’ country. Zimbabwe has always had to live with the colonial residue of two versions of itself, the different ways of living, European and African, defined first by race, and then by class and money. Through the last decade of the country’s decline it has been the middle classes that have had the mechanisms to minimise their suffering, to survive and continue. Cars, gardeners, cooks, international bank accounts, overseas connections, the generators and bore-holes to outflank power cuts, the satellite dishes and TVs powered by car batteries through which to escape Zimbabwe’s borders in watching Top Gear or Strictly Come Dancing as the night bugs ricochet off the brightness of the screen. Dollarization has thrown these Zimbabweans another lifeline. But what about those who live in that other ‘half’ of the country? How, I asked Peter, Howard’s father sitting next to me at the poker table, does a subsistence farmer miles from the nearest town, find enough new currency to travel into market or pay school fees for their children? He looked at me blankly for a moment, before pushing out his lower lip and shaking his head. ‘I have no idea,’ he said. ‘But I’m sure they do. Somehow. I’m sure they do.’

A few miles before Marondera, just over half way on our journey back to Harare, we start to see food being sold at the side of the road. A woman holds up an yellow star of carrots, men lie in the shade of trees, small pyramids of lemons on the verges in front of them. At one point we hit an avenue of honey sellers, rows of deep yellow jars balanced on planks of wood nailed to the tops of single poles. A few minutes later Happiness leans forward and gently touches Betty on the shoulder. ‘Just here ma’am,’ she says, indicating towards a dusty lay-by. I pull over and, thanking us again, Happiness gets out of the car, slams the sticky back door and lifting, her bag onto her head, walks away down a foot track into the veld.

 

Betty has spent her life caring for children. Now, having retired as a nurse and with none of her own, she doesn’t want to stop. To have a children’s home in Zimbabwe, where her grandfather made his life, has long been her dream. The first house she was offered fell through, so when I visit Betty she is still searching for a new place for her home. Luckily for Betty, now is a good time to be looking for empty houses in Zimbabwe.

For the week I’m with her in the Eastern Highlands, Betty and I settle into a routine that shuttles between the extremes of domesticity. In the mornings and evenings in her rented house we talk with Michael on the veranda, read, cook big dinners or sit with a glass of beer either side of Betty’s radio, listening by candlelight to the static-washed broadcasts of Voice of America. In the hours in-between we spend long afternoons driving around the area in the Starlet, walking through vacant houses and meeting people who live in homes that aren’t their own.

On my second day with Betty we visit a local official, the District Administrator for Rusape. Wearing a bottle-green suit and sitting at a large desk with a faded map of the region covering the wall behind him he nods his head while listening to Betty’s case, each of them smoking one of her Winstons. He is sympathetic and would like to offer her some land on which to build. ‘But now,’ he tells her, ‘all those plots have gone.’ He turns to glance at the map on the wall behind him. ‘There is some more land that will be annexed on the edge of town soon. So let us wait for then,’ he continues, turning back with a smile. ‘And then we will see.’ It’s only as we’re driving away that we realise we’ve been offered land from the imminent confiscation of a farm.

 


Road Trip - Owen Sheers

 

A few hours later we’re having tea with Geoffrey, a farmer whose own farm was confiscated through a land invasion and is now house-sitting a Protea plantation in the hills instead. ‘I used to fly missions in the war you see,’ Geoffrey explains from under a wide-brimmed safari hat as he pours the tea. ‘Got all sorts of stories from that,’ he continues settling in a wicker chair. ‘That’s why I thought I’d have a go at writing my memoirs. Got to keep busy with something up here haven’t I!’ He laughs as he swings his arm out over the wide view of hills, mountains and thick forest. The next day we’re looking over a similar view with Ralph, a landscape painter in his thirties who happens to have stayed over at the vacant house we’re visiting after attending a friend’s wedding. ‘It’s in good condition,’ he says nodding down at the wire perimeter fence from where we sit on the step of the veranda. ‘It was built for the war, so it’s solid.’ Ralph didn’t know we’d be coming and although it isn’t his house he still takes on the role of impromptu estate agent, showing us through the rooms. He pauses at a montage of photos of the owners who have moved to Harare now. ‘Ah, they’re a great couple,’ he says, rubbing at the hangover in his temples. ‘It’s sad they can’t stay here, but you know, this place.’ He opens the French windows and leans against the frame to look at the view again. ‘It’s gone to shit. It’s a tragedy man, you know? A real tragedy.’ As he shows us around the grounds Ralph gives us a simultaneous whistlestop tour of Zulu history, then tells us how he was beaten up by war vets when they found him painting up in the hills. As he talks, his conversation swinging between love and disgust for Zimbabwe, the housemaid still living at the property watches us with a frown from where she sits on a stool outside her annexe, washing potatoes over a bucket.

 

Most of the houses we visit are either second homes or belong to owners who are wealthy enough to have left the country. Some have been completely abandoned. Large curtainless windows lay down slabs of sunlight across smudged carpets, the flues of leaking ‘jetmaster’ fires spread black stains across ceilings and bathroom sinks hang above the ground, suspended by twisted pipes. Other places have been vacant long enough to have been invaded by baboons who leave smeared prints on the walls and footprints in the scattered bat droppings on the floor. These houses seem to hold an even deeper silence than the quiet of the secluded valleys in which they sit, and are already derelict enough to have been denuded of the lives lived there. The houses which still have the taste of a home about them, as if their owners have just popped out a minute ago, are stranger to walk through, eerily present as they are with the ghosted impression of their former owners.

One of these houses is a place called ‘Top-Rock’, which we reach down a steep red-earth dirt track that leads into a clearing on a hillside wooded with msasa trees. We’d been told it was a good prospect so Betty has brought George, who will be the manager of her orphanage, along with his wife and young son to see the place too. As is usual in Zimbabwe, there is a fenced gate to be opened, and the barking of dogs to greet us. The dogs belong to Williams, the caretaker of ‘Top-Rock’ who lives on the grounds in a small kaya, a wooden shack, along with his wife and five children. Wearing purple jogging bottoms, a grey shirt and a blue baseball cap, Williams, eyeing George suspiciously, opens up the house and shows us around. Most of the rooms are empty, the kitchen cupboards holding nothing but a few pieces of crockery. In the living room there is the familiar fireplace of choice, the angular ‘jetmaster’, its tall flue staining the ceiling. In the hallway a lady’s wide-brimmed straw hat hangs above a blown-up photograph of a young fighter pilot standing beside his plane, one hand on his hip, a stinging wasp painted under the open cockpit. This man, Williams tells us, was the owner of the house. The hat belongs to his wife who, following her husband’s death, moved to Johannesburg. As I go into a room off the hallway I hear Betty ask Williams how long she has been away. ‘For five years mam,’ he answers quietly. ‘I am not a happy man, mam,’ he continues. ‘They pay me too small and I have a family.’

The room I’ve entered is a teenage boy’s room, posters of Bruce Lee and Pamela Anderson on the walls. A pair of drawn curtains cast an yellow light over the contents; a bed, a table, a mini-motorbike, piles of books, the Gun Digest 2000, some bagged clothes, a chest of drawers, a standard lamp and an ornate candle stick. A cartoon alien smoking a spliff has been drawn in marker pen on the far wall and there is more graffiti on the door into the room. ‘W.A.S.P.s only’, ‘Skinheads’, a Germanic cross drawn in felt tip below a cutting of a Nazi eagle and a newspaper cartoon about the BNP. Above these is a photograph of soldiers on a troop ship draping a Union Jack over its railings, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ painted across its surface.

 

Road Trip - Owen Sheers

 

When I come out of the house I find George’s wife, Anna, testing the taps around the garden. As she turns each one on, she can’t help smiling as a stream of water falls onto the dry soil beneath. Tendai, her son, also smiles as he points to the electricity wires strung between a pole on the hill and the roof of ‘Top-Rock’. Sitting beyond them beside an old wooden playhouse, I see Williams, also watching Anna and Sekayi from under the frayed peak of his cap. Perhaps sensing my gaze, he looks away, gets up and walks back towards his own kaya tucked into a copse of nearby msasa trees.

 

On the outskirts of Harare the roadside food sellers begin to segue into sellers of mobile phone ‘juice cards’ instead. Each holds a long stick split down the middle into which they slide rows of top-up scratch cards, proffering them to the passing traffic like lollies held out to children.

As the city grows around us it begins to rain. The traffic slows and then thickens at an intersection beneath some broken traffic lights. A vintage sky-blue Mercedes has driven under the flatbed of an articulated truck, caving in its shattered windscreen and crushing its bonnet.

Betty asks Joseph where he would like to be dropped off and he names a street in the centre of town. As we near it, he sees an open Land-rover parked at the side of the road with soldiers wearing yellow berets sitting in the back. He waves to them as we pass. ‘They are my friends,’ he tells us as we drive on into the city centre. ‘They are from the same unit. They are guarding the President.’

When I pull over to let Joseph out he asks me if I have a pen. I give him one and he crouches with it over a piece of paper which he then hands to me.

Muridzi Joseph,
2 Pres Guard
02 Harare
0915024441

‘Perhaps I will come to Britain one day?’ he says. ‘Or my brother. He is studying English at Midlands University in Gweru. He is very clever.’ He pauses, before asking, ‘Can I have your phone number? If we come, we can call you.’

Joseph waits in the back seat of the Starlet, its sticky door open, while I tear a strip off the piece of paper and write out my mobile number. When I get to the last digit I hesitate for a second before writing a 6 instead of the correct number, 5. There’s no logic in this. I don’t know what Joseph or anyone else could realistically do with my UK phone number in Zimbabwe. But for some reason, perhaps because he’d just put his yellow beret back on, or because I’d remembered that in theory what I was doing in Zimbabwe is illegal, I write that 6 and not a 5, making a disconnection of his offered connection. I hand the piece of paper back to Joseph and he thanks me again before getting out, slamming the back door and shouldering his rucksack to walk away through the rain to find another lift that will take him south to see his three-year-old daughter in Kadoma.

Betty and I drive on towards the north of the city where she will be staying for a few nights with a friend. When we arrive at her address, a side street off an avenue of embassies and consulates, a chained gate is opened for us and two dogs come barking out of the house. I drive through and immediately we are back in that other Zimbabwe again.

Betty’s friend is a piano teacher. She has a pupil about to arrive, she explains, so would we mind if we have tea without her while she gives him his lesson? The pupil arrives, a nervous looking white boy of 8 or 9, tightly holding his mother’s hand. Betty and I sit on the veranda, drinking tea, listening to the nursery rhyme tunes of the lesson and watching the rain drip off the veranda’s sloping roof. Inside the house, through a window meshed with mosquito netting, I can see a wall covered with paintings. One of them is a portrait of Robert Mugabe, a re-painting of the same Presidential portrait seen all over Zimbabwe, hung in houses, above mirrors in barber shops, on the walls of bottle stores. This painting, though, is in negative. Mugabe’s skin is white, as are his pupils, while his pristine shirt is black. I look at the painting and its bleached pupils return my stare as I listen to the boy’s fingers run another tentative scales, regretting already, the other small silence I’d added to the honeycomb by writing that 6 instead of a 5.

 

In text photography © Owen Sheers

Feature photograph  © Jude and Mark

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