NJT in the Matopas, Zimbabwe
The Africa Diaries
1995 August: Tuesday
Arrived at a restaurant called the ‘Cape to Cairo’, presumably named after the British attempt to control a continuous archipelago of colonies that straddled Africa from the Cape in the south to Egypt in the north.
Jim was already sitting at a table with five other locals. As I walked up, I overheard one of them say: “God. He’s a shirt-lifter.”
Well, with the long Wildean hair and the remains of mascara still on, I suppose it was a fair assumption. It did not endear them to me, though.
It turned out they were all shoe-trade colleagues of Jim and, as none of them had seen the show, the apres-performance buzz was missing. Three of the group were called Bruce (I was getting Monty Python flashbacks at this news) and the lone woman was called Ronni.
I started on the meal which turned out to consist of crocodile tail segments and chips. Like most exotic meat in my experience, crocodile turned out to taste like scampi. The alcohol continued to flow and the conversation shifted from the usual muttering about Mugabe to the telling of increasingly filthy if ancient jokes. In an effort to dispel my apparently effeminate image, I cracked one of my own:
“There was a guy in London who had a very frustrating sex life. He was a fan of necrophilia but he was too lazy to dig.”
The silence was palpable. Two of the Bruces looked shocked while Ronni asked the third Bruce what necrophilia was. Oh dear, I’d overdone it. Retreated back to eating crocodile.
‘10 30pm: Returned to Burnside with Anne. As we drove along one road, several dark figures loomed up by the kerbside. Anne said that this was the main pick up spot for prostitutes.
“They’re all HIV Positive, you know. The government reckons that by the year 2000 one in seven of the population will be dead from Aids. The African attitude is that with so many other diseases that can kill you today, why bother about one that might kill you in ten years. The reason why F.W. de Klerk has allowed majority rule in South Africa is because in ten years the whites will be the majority.”
Back at the house, Jim offered his cigarettes around.
“Most people smoke in Zimbabwe. It’s because during the bush war, we had sanctions on the country and we couldn’t export our tobacco. So it seemed like smoking was the patriotic thing to do.”
It turned out that the use of marijuana was banned but that it grew everywhere.
“The law’s a bit stupid, really. It’s like banning daffodils.”
Anne answered the phone and turned to me.
“It looks like the show’s been a hit. Everyone wants to meet you now.”
A woman called Margaret had sent an invitation to dinner tomorrow, and another woman called Carol wanted to take me to see some nature park called the Matopas.
‘Midnight: It seemed I’d thrown the Zimbabwe 9pm bedtime schedule out a bit. Felt a bit drunk tonight. Crashed out at 1am to the howls of the canine population.
1995 August: Wednesday
‘8 30am: Woken by the maid to take a phone call from Martin in Harare. He said that he’d decided to leave for Australia tomorrow but was leaving instructions with Gil about my intended return. Felt slightly bereft at the loss of my one genuine friend in Africa. I also decided to abandon the return train journey – the coach trip was six hours faster.
‘10 30am: As Anne and I drove into the city, three policemen stepped out from the pavement and signalled for her to stop the car. She pulled over angrily. They peered in the windows and around the interior. Then, for no discernible reason, one of them wrote out a ticket and handed it to her. She snatched it and threw it on the dashboard to join another dozen tickets already lying there.
“Oh, stuff it. I ignore the bloody things. They do it just to annoy people.”
As she parked in the centre, an African approached the car and held out a begging hand. She shook her head:
“No, I’m sorry. I’m too poor.”
The African laughed, then walked over to a nearby stall. He returned and presented her with an apple: “For the poor lady.”
As we walked on, Anne chuckled: “I like the Matabele. They’re real comedians”.
The streets of Bulawayo were laid out in the American grid pattern. According to Anne, a few years after independence the people of the city woke up one morning to find that all the central road names had been changed – Churchill Road had become Leopold Takewira Avenue, and so on.
No one had been told about the change and the result was chaos. The only Anglicised names that survived were the obvious First Street, Second Street, etc. The exception was Fife Street – this only remained because of an oversight by the new authorities who thought it meant Fifth Street.
‘6 30pm: As I walked into the theatre bar there was a mutter of welcome from the row at the counter. It appeared that I was now officially OK.
The show itself was worse than last night, mostly because I was feeling tired. Although the ‘jail’ bit was good, I messed up the ‘Narcissus’ story and oddly mis-timed the end section.
The audience, on the other hand, were very good – double that of yesterday and at least one hundred people. A wonderful laugh on the last line, a load of applause, and a good curtain call.
Afterwards, in the bar, I was introduced to the Bulawayo Chronicle theatre critic who described the performance as ‘masterly’. That seemed like one review worth looking out for. Roy told me that five of yesterday’s audience had returned to see it again tonight. The atmosphere was vibrant – the show was obviously working and it looked like a hit.
Jim introduced me to Margaret, my dining hostess of the evening. Margaret was about fifty, blonde, and very friendly. She drove me off to a French restaurant called ‘Les Saisons’, which turned out to be owned by Anne’s husband, the Baron. White Bulawayo seemed to be quite a small world. We joined three of her friends there.
The conversation yet again revolved around politics and race. One of them declared that:
“The African is incapable of thinking in a long term manner, of planning. Oh, I was a bleeding heart liberal when I first came here, but you change.”
Well, I supposed that they must know more about this situation than I did, but I still thought I’d prefer to have a bleeding heart than a curdled one.
They told me of a particularly bloody incident during the Independence War. An airliner was shot down by ZAPU ‘terrs’ while flying between Harare and Livingstone. The pilot managed to land the plane and about half the passengers survived. The ‘terrs’ arrived at the crash scene, then tortured, raped, and killed the survivors. The resentment hadn’t faded.
I sensed a heartfelt pride about the bush war and the fifteen years during which they defied the world. The British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was still the arch demon, also the American Henry Kissinger for ‘betraying us’.
But I also got a sense of another side of war, one that is not often spoken about. It was the sheer exhilaration of the danger, the inevitable comedy (even if it was black comedy), the comradeship, and the fact that, with its edge of the cliff transience, even the sex was better. There was something about killing that sharpened life. War was a drug just as much as heroin.
Margaret joked that I must be making a lot of money at the theatre – the audiences were increasing. “Don’t spend it all at once.”
I replied: “Well, as I can’t take it out of the country, it looks like I’ll have to. It’s like a rehearsal for death. You can’t take it with you.”
‘12 30am: Margaret dropped me off back at the house and I fumbled my way through the locks. As I walked into the darkened kitchen I was almost knocked over by a heavy shape crashing into my shoulder. It was not until I felt the hot breath on my face and the wet tongue in my ear that I realised it was Tandy. For a Bull Boer, she was a surprisingly affectionate dog. Read in the bedroom and slept about 2am.
1995 August: Thursday
‘9am: My next guide arrived. She was called Carol and was a charming woman in her mid-thirties who used to work in the police. We travelled south from the city for about 20 miles towards our destination, the Matopas. The sun beat down on the sparse bush country; there was very little motor traffic, just the occasional bullock cart and a few donkeys.
The Matopas National Park was an area of about 2000 sq kilometres spaced around a range of hills sacred to the Matabele. We stopped at the entrance to the Park, a dusty shack by the side of the road. Carol obtained a cheap ticket for me by claiming that I was a Zimbabwean citizen.
The Matopas Hills themselves consisted of a granite escarpment roughly the height and shape of the Malvern Hills in England. One difference was their bare, sandy peaks, and the gravity-defying rocks precariously balanced on top of one other. Another difference was the sight of monkeys swinging from tree to tree, and impalas bounding away through a dust cloud. A sight not often spotted in the Malverns.
We circled up a hillside road to a ridge known as the World’s View. This was the site of three prominent graves – Cecil Rhodes, the founder of Rhodesia; Dr Starr Jameson, the leader of the eponymous Raid; and Major Allan Wilson. The latter was less famous than the other two, but had gained his place in this highly exclusive cemetery through the manner of his death.
During the ousting of King Lobengula from Bulawayo in the 1890s, Wilson led what became known as the Shangaan Patrol ahead of Rhodes’ main army. They went so far ahead that they became cut off on the wrong side of the rapidly-rising waters of the Shangani River. The patrol of 34 soldiers were left facing 30,000 warriors with the predictable outcome that they died to a man. This event became embedded in local history as a sort of Rhodesian Alamo and Wilson’s body was brought here for burial. Neither Carol nor I fancied the scramble up to the hilltop graves themselves though – too damn hot.
As we drove away, Carol pointed out another rock formation and told me an odd story about it.
The Matabele had dedicated this area to ‘Selous’. Fred Selous was a renowned white big game hunter and a friend of Rhodes, who was killed in the First World War during the attack on German-held Tanganyika (modern day Tanzania). In the 1890s, he was present during an incident when Rhodes had carried out a confidence trick that led to a massacre of Matabele tribesmen. Selous had strenuously and publicly objected to what had happened.
His support for fair dealing plus the Matabele admiration for his hunting skills had resulted in their having such respect for the man that, on his death, they named this area of sacred ground in his memory.
Sixty years later, during the Independence War, the Rhodesian equivalent of the Special Forces were named the Selous Scouts also in his honour. Apparently, they were responsible for some particularly brutal behaviour during the conflict. As a reaction to this news, Camden Borough Council in London, which had a thoroughfare named Selous Street within its boundaries, renamed it Mandela Street.
So the net result was that Fred Selous’s name is revered and perpetuated by the Matabele, and expunged from memory by Camden Borough Council.
To add irony upon irony, the man that the London street was named after in the first place was not Fred Selous at all but the Victorian artist Henry Courtney Selous.