Snapshots of Harare: A City on Edge

Published in two parts in The Zimbabwean newspaper on April 13, 2008 and April 17, 2008.


On April 3rd, 2008, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvanigrai declared victory in the Zimbabwean presidential elections. On the same day, I boarded a bus in Johannesburg and barreled through Limpopo with Harare on the horizon.

The first Zimbabwean I encountered outside the Beit Bridge border station moved like a broken toy. He wore a red sweater, frayed and filthy, with rolled up khaki pants that drooped to the square of asphalt he squatted upon. He appeared to have some sort of nerve ailment, twitching his face and contracting his neck involuntarily while rolling a can of Coca-Cola repeatedly along the ground in jerky twiddling motions. He paused in this strange routine only to scratch at the lopsided tuft of hair on his scalp and scan the buses unloading their human cargo, as though waiting for someone, gesticulating to phantom listeners.

A Zanu-PF campaign poster for Robert Mugabe in Harare.

A Zanu-PF campaign poster for Robert Mugabe in Harare. / MATT MEDVED

Harare was also on edge, yet the residents were still rooted in their daily routine. Those whose salaries could outweigh the exorbitant transport costs made their way to work. The children whose teachers were not on strike went to school. The daily churn of life went on, as deliberate and repetitive as the man’s nervous Coke can ritual. But Harare was also anticipating the arrival of something, though the residents seemed unsure of what form it would come in. A Morgan Tsvangirai victory and an end to the 28-year reign ofPresident Robert Mugabe? Or another rigged election, the most blatant one yet by Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party? Harare, too, was scanning the crowds with an ear to the cold asphalt. Harare was waiting with bated breath.

* * * *

On the afternoon of April 4th, I am met at the bus station on the corner of Robert Mugabe and 5th street by my friend David Matongo, a Harare resident who has offered to host and drive me around the city during my stay. It is a searing hot day in Harare’s bustling streets, which are still dotted with election posters five days after the vote. Currency dealers hawk huge wads of Zimbabwean currency, hoping for Euros and US dollars in exchange. There is also a heavy police presence, with large groups of officers in light blue uniforms and riot gear making their rounds. But news has just broken of a possible runoff vote that morning and Harare seems abuzz with excitement.

“There should not be more than 21 days before the rerun,” says Matongo, as he kicks his truck into gear.

“Delays can only mean that he is rigging the election.”

We drive down a heavily guarded street in Borrowdale, Brook, past the looming white gates of Mugabe’s personal 30-bedroom mansion. Guards with submachine guns stand alongside signs stating that the street is closed from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am. Matongo tells me that whenever Mugabe drives anywhere, the security guards shut down traffic on the entire street until his convoy passes. By the same token, if Mugabe travels by air, via the national airline Air Zimbabwe, the route must shift to accommodate his stop before continuing to its previous destination.

Turning back towards the heart of downtown, we find ourselves caught in a traffic conundrum. The traffic light does not appear to be working, resulting in multiple cars crowding the intersections in a free for all.

“They ignore the laws because at times there is no power,” says Matongo.

“But you can see people are excited.”

We pass empty petrol filling stations where the advertised prices have been left blank because they change daily with the inflation and limited availability. Matongo says that government officials are given preferential deals on petrol, creating a shortage. He says he never lets his tank fall below a quarter full because he is not always sure where he will be able to fill it up next.

“You have to get things through connections. I must keep an ear on the ground and know what is happening here,” says Matongo.

“Some can afford petrol but for others the cost of transportation alone is higher than their salaries. You cannot tell people when you plan on meeting them anymore if you don’t have your own car.”

Empty shelves at a Harare Spar supermarket.

Empty shelves at a Harare Spar supermarket. / MATT MEDVED

Passing an abandoned roadblock and a rock with “Vote MDC” scrawled in red paint, the next stop is a local Spar supermarket. The prices reflect the abject state of Zimbabwe’s economy. Z$75 million for toothpaste. Z$40 million for Zambezi, the local beer. Half the shelves are empty and the supermarket is sold out of meat products. Instead, Matongo says, people have taken to using dried soy and fish to replace beef in their diets.

As we leave the Spar, Matongo’s wife Laura is just entering.

“There are no vegetables, there is nothing,” she says to me, laughing.

“You have to eat grass here.”

* * * *

The house of Gibson Tandare is well guarded. It takes almost five minutes for him to unlock the doors, barbed and electric wire gate and hush his barking security dog before inviting us in.

Tandare, a friend of Matongo’s, is a schoolteacher who ran one of the urban polling stations in the past weekend’s elections. Although his modest home looks respectable, Matongo informs me that schoolteachers are now the lowest-paid civil servants in the country.

“After independence in 1980, schoolteachers could afford to buy houses here,” he says.

“Now they can’t even afford 10 litres of fuel on their salaries.”

Tandare describes the results at his polling station as “overwhelmingly” in favor of Tsvangirai. While he did not personally witness any irregularities at his own station, he says there have been multiple reports of voter intimidation over the weekend. Many civil servants voted for Mugabe out of fear of being removed from their posts or relocated to the rural areas.

“My brother-in-law is an educated man,” says Tandare.

“But when he came to vote, the policemen at the polls told him he was illiterate and so they would have to accompany him to vote. He told me he was scared so he had to vote for Mugabe. There is no arguing with them.”

* * * *

We stop at a one-room bar that looks like it may have once been used as a storage garage. The walls have been colorfully painted with advertisements for drinks, condoms and cigarettes. At least thirty-five men lounge in the torn up couches, passing around brown plastic jugs of a rice and corn beer called Chibuku and playing draughts, a game similar to checkers, with bottle caps on a scratched up board. A television hangs above the crowd enclosed in a barred metal cage, displaying the national channel ZTV, which cheerfully alternates between cartoons and a speech by Mugabe.

They are eager to discuss the unreleased election results. The general consensus seems to be a mixture of excitement and uncertainty about the future.

Movement for Democratic Change campaign posters for Morgan Tsvangirai in Harare.

Movement for Democratic Change campaign posters for Morgan Tsvangirai in Harare. / MATT MEDVED

One of Matongo’s friends tells me that he believes it will be more difficult for Mugabe to rig this election because the votes are counted at the polling stations now, unlike in 2002 when army trucks would pick up the boxes and count them at an undisclosed location.

Another man says he thinks the delay in reporting the election results can only mean that Tsvangirai has won. He is adamant that Mugabe will not dare take part in a runoff vote.

“If he tries to run again, he will be humiliated,” he says, taking a gulp from his cup of Chibuku and passing it to me.

“He will lose and he will be embarrassed.”

Matongo agrees with him, on the condition that the runoff election is administered fairly.

“There are many people who did not vote in the elections because they did not think Tsvangirai had a chance, they thought Mugabe would just rig it again,” says Matongo.

“So these people will now turn out, and you must add in the people who voted for Simba Makoni. If he does not rig it, Mugabe cannot win.”

* * * *

The Matongos are fairly well off by Zimbabwean standards. Both he and his wife have decent jobs and although their family is large, they can afford food, a computer and DSTV, which allows them access to international media like BBC World.

But even their home does not have running water. Matongo shows me how they use the bathtub as a reservoir on the rare occasions that water does flow and how they store it in separate buckets for drinking and washing. The used bathwater is then conserved to flush the toilet with.

But they do have electricity, unlike some of the other Harare suburbs that have been without power for over three months. One of the men in the bar told me he had grown accustomed to using candles and had not even bothered to call about the service failures because he “knew nothing would get fixed.”

The Matongos have multiple children, including a young infant and Laura is very concerned about the quality of their education.

“The teachers are still on strike and the private schools are full,” she says.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do come the 29th of April, when school is back in session.”

The Matongos have not always lived in this house. She tells me that they once had a farm of their own that was taken away from them after a government minister expressed interest in it.

“I used to keep 2,000 chickens there,” she says, wistfully.

“We were given one week’s warning. We had to leave everything behind.”

* * * *

“There is something I want to show you.”

Matongo parks next to the Chitungwiza General Hospital outside of Harare an hour or so after the sun has set. Each ward inside is divided into seven sections, each of which is cluttered with six or seven beds. The hospital is at full occupancy and the families of many of the patients are gathered at their bedsides, holding hands and sharing prayers in Shona and Ndebele. Cardboard signs reading “God Heals” and wilted flowers are the only personal touches added to the stark ward walls.

“It is usually even more crowded and people have to sleep on the floor,” says Matongo.

A frail yet surprisingly young looking woman huddles underneath a blanket and reads the Book of Matthew. She says she was picked up a week ago after she was found with open wounds on her legs, which flies were eating at. However, she says she has still not received treatment.

Another woman lies very still on an adjacent bed. Matongo speaks to her and punches a number into his cellular phone.

“I am calling one of her relatives for her,” he says, shaking his head.

“They told her that tomorrow, even in the condition she is in, they will take her bed and make her sleep on the floor if she does not leave.”

Suddenly, the power flashes out, leaving the ward in eerie pitch darkness. After a moment, the luminescent squares of peoples’ cell phones appear and the room is filled with hushed chatter. I follow Matongo to a nurse’s table, where he uses his cell phone to help illuminate the patient files she had been going through.

“She says they cannot afford candles,” he says, a look of disgust seizing his face.

“There is no secondary generator. This happens frequently.”

As I follow him down the shadowed hallway back to the exit, Matongo’s anger is palpable.

“They are saying to her ‘you must go home and die’ because they can’t treat her anymore,” he says. “You saw the state she was in.”

“What about the patients in surgery?” I ask. “Or childbirth?”

Matongo opens the exit door, revealing a brilliant star rich sky. The smoky tendrils of the Milky Way Galaxy are visible behind the clusters of bright pinpoints, a sky that should never be seen above a city, let alone a nation’s capital. Matongo sighs and shrugs, looking helpless in the moonlight.

“Tough luck.”

Note: All names have been either changed or omitted for the protection of the individuals involved.

All pictures by Matt Medved.


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