Africa, Media, Politics

Stories from the African Road: Fear and Paranoia in Harare

By Richard Poplak 11 February 2011

Our intentions were noble. This much, at least, we can say. Planning to make our way to a downtown Harare hotel, in order to enjoy a few libations at a journalist’s drinking hole that shall not be named, we asked the concierge—a term used lightly with regard to the front desk staff at Small World Backpackers—to call a taxi. Our truck, anyway down a front light, would remain safely parked in the hostel’s gated lot, and we would not be forced to negotiate Harare’s Brobdingnagian potholes with our senses blunted. In all, it seemed like a wise decision. BY RICHARD POPLAK and KEVIN BLOOM.

Harare, at night, is dark. And quiet. Many of the streetlights have become forms of urban sculpture, leaning this way and that like fingers on a broken hand, or twisted into metal pretzels by a succession of car bumpers—reminders of infrastructure past. Small World is in the exclusive suburb of Avondale, once Salisbury’s pride, and vast flamboyants and jacarandas loom above high walls. It’s eerie seeing Orion’s Belt blaze so brightly above an urban neighbourhood; nothing speaks so articulately of the city’s condition than the lack of light pollution.

We wait outside, staring up as the Southern Cross starts creeping over the trees. Finally the taxi arrives, a small Toyota sedan rattling up Ridge Road, its suspension screeching. In the passenger seat, a white man who appears to be in his fifties, grizzled, with grey hair and a grey beard. We clamber in, state our destination, and off we go.

The man in the passenger seat speaks with a shifting accent: he could be from Iran, Serbia, Russia. At first, it seems as if he might be the taxi company’s owner, offering the cabbie a constant stream of driving instructions. Then, when he urges his charge to run a couple of red robots, it becomes clear that we are in less salutary hands. This is the man we will call Mr. Weis, one of only two individuals from Kabul, Afghanistan, who make Zimbabwe their home. (The other is apparently Mr. Weis’s brother, while the demographic breakdown is his alone.) Mr. Weis is the casualty of an unending war on the other side of the world; Harare is for him a shadow city where Afghani rules of engagement are transposed onto an African setting. The tension in the car takes on a shape, and invites a name: Paranoia.

Kabul and Harare are not a precise analogue; the latter is in infinitely better repair. And yet, as we bump along dark, empty streets with an ex-Mujahedeen riding shotgun, one can be forgiven for making comparisons. Kabul is a shattered place; only occasionally does one find grace notes of the city’s glory days: a veranda in an unbombed home shaded by a chinar tree; Shar-E-Nar park and the adjacent movie theatre; TV Hill sparkling after the rains. The city is defined by an oppressive misery that comes from the violence, certainly, but also from a culture that even in the country’s one refuge from de facto Taliban rule, citizens consciously and unconsciously fall in line with the Islamist’s hyper-conservative ethos.

In Kabul, by dint of their absence, the Taliban rule the streets. That’s because their message is so blunt, clear and uncompromising. Freedom needs to be chartered, while oppression asks only for a bowed head. This is why, negotiating Harare’s dark downtown with an Afghani who imagined special branch operatives behind every tree, Harare feels shorn of the nuance and complexity that define it in the daytime, and is rather fully owned by Zanu-PF’s brutal and unnuanced Id. At no time is this clearer than when Mr. Weis urges our cabbie down a street perilously close to several official residences. Armed guards come to the window, and urge us in the opposite direction.

“They almost kill us,” exclaims Mr. Weis. “I know, I know. They almost shoot.” This was not quite the case, but it was enough of a wedge for Mr. Weis to insist that we abandon the journalist’s bar, which was sure to be lousy with Central Intelligence Organisation, for “his club.” His paranoia was a tinctured version of what many Zimbabweans we met have come to feel. A man who has lived under communist and then Taliban rule is well versed in the language of fear, and in the pageantry of obeisance.

While he yells obscenities at women standing on street corners, we’re free to contemplate the sort of club Mr. Weis would want to join, and would have him as a member. It turns out to be just the club we had in mind: cavernous; heaving to a rhythm that’s infinitely deeper than the music; more than mildly forbidding. He escorts us to a table behind the bar, his improbably powerful forearms cutting a swathe through the tight crowd, and sits us down. “You wait here,” he says. “I bring beer. And girls.”

And beer and girls he does bring. Four quarts of Lion, two reluctant “dancers” –which he leaves for us to savour. We’re not about to do what’s expected of us, but, if anything, the situation warrants courtesy. “You from Harare? You like it here?” Twenty minutes of that and we’re ready to make our escape; quickly back around the bar, down the stairs, into the same cab that had picked us up an hour earlier. “Mr Weis says you can take us to that place now,” we tell the cabbie. “Let’s go.”

If, as Woody Allen once said, paranoia is knowing all the facts, then we were clearly a few steps up on our self-proclaimed minder. He had been too in his cups to realise that he was creating the danger rather than ameliorating it; too enamoured with his drunken sense of himself as a survivor and a strongman to take in the larger significance of his actions. But Susan Sontag had an even better aphorism about the type. “I envy paranoids,” she said. “They actually feel people are paying attention to them.”

On cue, as the cab pulls into the flow of traffic, Mr Weiss emerges from the doorway of the club. He’s shaking a formidable forearm at the car – and smiling. As he opens the rear door and slides in, clutching in his left hand a chilli-smeared schwarma, he lightly admonishes us for trying to “run away”. The speech that ensues is a hummus-flecked discourse on the dangers of this town for people like us; we should not be so foolish as to think we could get around on a Friday night on our own. And so we are accompanied to the journalists’ bar by a person guaranteed to impair our credentials. A conversation with the local BBC correspondent, which otherwise would almost certainly have been edifying, is scuppered by the command to examine the bullet wounds under Mr Weis’s shirt. We leave, frustratingly, with less than nothing.

But did we? Our experience of Harare was certainly more nuanced than that one strange night; during the course of the week we saw a town that – in its paradoxes and juxtapositions – was the equivalent of the most fascinating on Earth. From Sam Levy’s Village in Borrowdale, where John Denver’s “Summer Breeze” bubbles from speakers while the rich white elite sip on mango and watermelon cocktails; to the outlying suburb of Marlborough, where a so-called military university is being built at breakneck speed by the Chinese; from violence-ridden Mbare in the south to the Zanu-PF headquarters downtown (where it is said most of the troubles in the former originate). Harare is a place that upends and falls back on itself again and again. Still, it wouldn’t have been the same without Mr Weis. He embodied the city’s truth and its lie at the same time.

In 2009, the Economist Intelligence Unit’s global livability poll ranked Harare as the worst place in the world a person could live in. Granted, the previous year had been a bad one for Zimbabwe, with election violence and hyper-inflation wreaking havoc in the capital. Newly dollarised, the city’s SPARs are flushed with produce. So it was, of course, with Kabul in 2007, which was enjoying a small breather from the brutality. It’s a breather that is resolutely over. This Mr. Weis knows, because he understands the language of violence and its particular rhythm all too well. Drunk as he was—and Lord, he was drunk—as we entered the enclave of Small World Backpackers, there was this sense that perhaps we had not given him the credit he deserved. Perhaps Mr. Weis knows truths we can only guess at, intellectualize, or otherwise dismiss as overblown or, worse, inconvenient. Between his Harare and ours there is an actual Harare. In the long run, it belongs to the man with the biggest gun, and the will to use it. DM

Photo of Harare skyline by Damien_Farrell.


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