What's so Special About my Hometown?
Harare, capital city of Zimbabwe in southern Africa, has been my home since 1985. Because I live here, I think I probably take Harare for granted; I spend too much time complaining about our deteriorating municipal services and our kleptocratic and authoritarian government and not enough celebrating all that is good about Harare.
In my current portfolio as editor of a new Zimbabwean travel magazine, I recently decided that travel is more than exclusive luxury lodges and photographs of wild animals. What about our cities and people? I was born in Chinhoyi, a small town north of Harare, and I spent the first ten years of my life in the bush – my father was in the police force, so our family was transferred to a number of small places in rural Zimbabwe – we call it “the bush”. I am always much happier in small towns and the bush than I am in cities and among crowds of people.
However, I digress. Having made the decision to explore my hometown the way any tourist would, I recently embarked on a couple of tours of our city. I learned a lot during those tours, and I certainly appreciate Harare far more now than I did a few weeks ago.
The first tour took me to Mbare, the oldest suburb in the city. Built in 1907, Mbare was then called Harare, which is a variation on the name of the local tribal chief in the area. Mbare was constructed to accommodate black indigenous workers who came from the rural areas seeking employment in the town called Salisbury, which was built by the first white settlers in the then Rhodesia.
Today Mbare is home to around 200,000 people. It is a vibrant, exciting and interesting place to visit, but is probably one of the best examples of the government’s total disinterest and lack of concern in and for its citizens. Water (and probably sewage) flows down a number of roads, the apartment blocks built as accommodation have not been painted in years and there is refuse and trash everywhere. The stench of burning plastic was evident, but as burning is the only way Mbare’s residents are able to dispose of their litter it is impossible to criticize or condemn their actions.
I was asked if I would like to visit Columbia City. Excitedly I agreed; Mbare is renowned for its massive flea market where designer clothing brands are sold for very discounted rates. Alas, Columbia City had less to do with the clothing trade and more in common with the country’s most illicit export. The Rastafarians gathered around the snooker table told me they could sell me any drug I desired: from marijuana and cocaine to meth and heroin! No wonder my guide and his companions laughed at my excitement about colourful Columbia shirts!
We met a Sangoma – an African traditional healer. She lives in a pretty little house with vegetables and herbs in the front garden. As we chatted in her lounge I could see into her bedroom, and admired her brightly coloured bed clothes and the fluffy teddy bears on her bed – so at odds with her profession! I wanted to take her photograph, but was concerned she might feel offended. Only after we left did my friend DJ remind me of the huge photographic portrait in a bright golden frame overlooking the lounge. She wanted to tell our fortunes, but was waiting for some of her followers to return from a ritual that they had conducted that morning at the Mukuvisi River that runs through Harare. We declined, asking to return in the future when she wasn’t too busy.
A visit to The Studio was a real eye-opener. A well-maintained building in pristine grounds, the artists recycle products to make incredible “sculptures”. Hundreds of discarded computer keyboards resting against the back wall are stripped of their keys, which are cleaned and threaded onto wire to make African animal sculptures. I was attracted to a beautiful curtain of tiny gold bottle tops; updated versions of the beaded curtains synonymous with the hippie generations. The golden tops looked familiar, but I couldn’t really place them… until the artists told me children living in Mbare collect insulin bottles and other discarded medical products the government hospitals dump in Mbare. The children are paid for the hospitals’ “garbage”, and the curtains and other artistry are exported to Europe. An excellent soup kitchen was preparing delicious soups and sadza (ground and cooked maize meal, Zimbabwe’s staple diet) for some of Mbare’s most underprivileged residents.
I was speechless as we left The Studio. And angry that our government has done nothing to help this incredible part of Harare…
The following week I did a tour of our city centre, which also took in the National Art Gallery. Incredibly, August 2017’s display was a collection of paintings belonging to the Spanish Embassy, one of which dated back over 400 years depicting a truly gruesome decapitation. There were also three fine sculptures by Auguste Rodin. Neither myself nor any of my companions had any idea this exhibition was being held, and as we admired the eclectic blend of old European paintings, wonderful sculptures and bright, vibrant African art I kept thinking of The Studio, and the fantastic modern art produced by those artists.
We went to the Anglican Cathedral, located on one side of Africa Unity Square, a garden in the centre of Harare. Once upon a time, the gardens were named Cecil Square, after Cecil John Rhodes, the man who claimed much of Southern Africa for the United Kingdom. Cecil Square is designed resemble the Union Jack, and was apparently the first place that flag was raised by the white settlers in Harare.
I am an Anglican, and I am ashamed to admit this is the first time I have ever set foot in the cathedral. It has the atmosphere of reverence I’ve always felt when visiting a place of worship; the same feeling I experienced when visiting churches in Greece. I was fortunate to visit the beautiful, peaceful back gardens of the cathedral where stones of remembrance commemorate people who played a big role in Harare’s and Zimbabwe’s history. One bench bears a plaque to commemorate a group of nuns who walked through “one hundred miles of lion-infested areas” to set up a clinic to treat the local people. Two sadder plaques commemorate the victims of the Hunyani and Umnati Viscount disasters – two of the darkest days in our country’s history. Having recently found how much of our country’s history is being wiped out by the government it is refreshing that some memories remain in situ.
Seven kilometres from the city lies Mukuvisi Woodland, approximately 265 hectares of preserved bush land. It is a haven for a wide variety of birds and animals, including giraffe, zebra and antelope such as eland and impala. Mukuvisi Woodland is a wonderful place for a walk; I have taken my dog Solo on several Sunday morning walks in the msasa-treed parkland. There’s a viewing platform overlooking the waterhole, and I’ve attended evening functions watching animals drinking at the waterhole as the sun sets on Harare.
Close to the Harare International Airport is one of my favourite places in Zimbabwe. Wild is Life is a wildlife rehabilitation centre and sanctuary, and is currently home to six of my most favourite animals – elephants. Four of these babies were rejected by the Chinese zoo that made a deal with the government a couple of years ago for 30 baby elephants. The other two are abandoned orphans, and I have been lucky enough to watch these babies grow into a little herb over the last two years. They are due to be released in a group near Victoria Falls – that will be a very sad day for many Harare residents.
My house is in a suburb called Mount Pleasant, which is an older suburb not far from the city centre. My shopping trips are down at three shopping centres; Borrowdale, Arundel and Groombridge. All are relatively close, and I don’t have to travel far for grocery shopping – not something I enjoy! Borrowdale Shopping Centre offers world-class 3D cinemas and excellent restaurants, perfect for watching films like “Guardians of the Galaxy”, which are wonderful on a big screen. We also have many great restaurants all over Harare, and a wide choice of menus. Thai, Greek, French, Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants are among my favourites.
Harare is my home, and my friends and family live here, and are a great support to me. I bought my home in 2000; it was being built off plan, so it truly is my house. It is exactly the way I want it to be, and I feel safe and happy here. My garden is a tonic for my soul, and a haven to at least twenty different bird species. Today I discovered a hive of bees has moved into a house I installed last year in the hope I would attract some owls. My gardener tells me this is a sign of good luck… I believe him!
Zimbabwe’s current political climate has led to the shocking deterioration in living standards all over the country. It is a desperate, depressing scenario. I hate to see what is being done to my homeland, but I have chosen to live here and I want to be here when the tide turns and my poor, broken hometown and country are able to rise from the dirt and destitution. Harare is full of wonderful, happy people. It is an interesting, exciting place.
And it is home. My home.
Word count: 1603 words