A Boabab Tree
The Africa Diaries
1995 August: Friday
‘4.30pm: The road going east from Bulawayo was surprisingly clear of traffic, considering this was the main link to the capital. There were just a few cars and trucks, while cattle and donkeys meandered along beside their owners. I relaxed back in my seat until the stewardess made a speaker announcement that roused my never-long-dormant sense of paranoia.
“Do not be alarmed when the coach stops at the halts. These are scheduled stops.”
Presumably any unscheduled stops meant highway robbery? Also I was worried about whether my Harare friend Gil had received the message about meeting me at the bus station. Late evening in central Harare was reputedly a tricky spot, especially lumbered with luggage.
The hours slipped by as we passed on through the townships of Gwero and Chivlu, and the sudden nightfall. Thoughts of the last few weeks washed over me – triumphs, disasters, and cascades of memories. Harare and South Africa ahead and then the grail at the end – the ice cold lager in London.
‘10pm: The coach pulled up near the Meikel Hotel in Harare. Amidst a large crowd of Africans, I could spot Gil’s burly figure – felt a wave of relief. Climbed down and we shook hands. He led the way to his car, then spotted that he had been hemmed in by a taxi. Angrily, he banged on its roof. The cabbie bounced out of his driving seat and a real shouting match began.
A crowd gathered to watch. Then I realised that Gil was fairly drunk, the cabbie was angry, and the insults started to turn heavy. This was getting embarrassing and potentially nasty. The cab driver did eventually move but Gil was still parked awkwardly by the coach.
The stewardess approached – I think it was to help guide the car out. Gil snarled at her:
“I can do it! Christ, I’ve driven in Europe!”
He swivelled the car round, then half climbed out to shout at the silently watching crowd:
“We’ll show you who still rules this fucking country!!”
We drove off. Oh Gawd – welcome to Harare. Gil had a generally benign nature but could veer towards the irascible. The very irascible.
We continued on around a couple of blocks then halted again. Gil explained that he was in the middle of a formal dinner at the Harare Club, one of the most exclusive venues south of the Equator. After borrowing a tie from the reception, he led me into the main dining hall. It was filled with well-dressed but raucous whites who had reached the liqueur and brandy stage of the banquet.
I received a welcome from Jackie who was sitting with a group of her friends. Ordered some booze – it seemed I’d got a lot of catching up to do. This was a hard drinking crowd – so much so that the almost obligatory beer bellies on the men were known as ‘the Rhodesian Front’.
‘10.25pm: A round of applause broke out as a formation dance group suddenly shimmied into the hall, dressed in very odd costumes.
Jackie explained: “It’s the celebration of Portuguese National Culture Night.”
I took another drink and began to shake with suppressed laughter. Partly tiredness but mostly the sheer incongruity of it all. Within the space of thirty minutes, I had been lounging in an African bus, been an unwilling participant in what could have turned out to be a race riot, and was now sitting in the middle of one of the smartest clubs in Africa watching Portuguese folk-dancing!
One of Jackie’s companions had passed the politeness stage of the evening and tried to tease me about my trade.
“Oh, you actors are a slippery lot, aren’t you? What did they use to say – vagabonds, tramps, and actors, ha, ha, ha.”
Well, last night I was ‘the Toast of Bulawayo’ – I was in no mood to take this challenge quietly. I sipped another drink and launched in.
“Let me tell you a story. There was an old actor – I think it was Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree – who was called on to be a character witness for a friend in a law case. The prosecution lawyer tried to rubbish his testimony and sneered:
“You are an actor, you say?”
“And I believe that it is an everyday occurrence for members of your ‘profession’ to indulge in untruths, is that not so?”
Sir Herbert took a deep breath and replied: “That is indeed the common prejudice. But I feel that I must remind you of the old adage that an actor is a liar in search of the truth. As opposed to a barrister who is a liar in search of a fee.”
That certainly squashed the opposition in the court case, and it was gratifying to see it working again here. Downed a smug whisky.
‘Midnight: Gil and Jackie dropped me off outside Martin’s empty house – he had indeed left for Australia. It took twenty minutes to work my way through the serried ranks of locks but made it. Blessed him for his generosity – even in abstentia. Finally crashed down in bed at 1am.
1995 August: Saturday
‘8am: Had a breakfast of bacon and beans with Gil and Jackie.
During it Gil talked about his life – it was an insight into his attitudes and explained a lot.
“During the war against the Zapu I used to have breakfast each day and then have to go out and defuse landmines. When the war ended, out of the eleven men who started with me on the bomb disposal course, I was the only one left.”
Gil had moved here from the UK in 1961 and fought with the Rhodesian Army until 1980. Unusually, he then had joined the new Zimbabwean Army and stayed on until 1989.
“But I got fed up with it. What finished me was that a squad turned up at my offices one day, took two of my majors out to the back of the building and shot them, just because they belonged to the wrong tribe. The guys who killed them didn’t even bother to hide the murders from me. It was a take it or leave it attitude. Life here is savage and you have to remember it.”
“Then in the middle of the savagery you get the plain ridiculous. I met an Angolan Admiral last year in Windhoek. He was only twenty-four and his chest was loaded down with medals. There are only three coastal boats in the Angolan Navy and he’s never been on any of them because he gets seasick. He’d started off in the Army but they had too many generals already, so they made him an Admiral. He was the President’s nephew.”
Gil said that he knew seventeen ways to kill a man bare-handed. I got the impression that he might have road-tested several of them.
Gil: “I regret missing out on the real world though. From 1960 onwards I had no real contact – none of the Sixties or that sort of thing. My time was spent with the army and coping with terrorists.”
‘3pm: Gil drove me out to the northern hills to have afternoon drinks at the home of a German friend, Karl and his wife Pam. Karl showed me around his rambling house – the walls were lined with his ancestral portraits. A Bismarckian grenadier, a World War One officer, then, more disconcertingly, an SS colonel giving a full Hitler salute. However, Karl and Pam were possibly the most pleasant people I’d met so far. Five large dogs gambolled around their swimming pool.
Over vodka and tonics, Karl said that he had recently taken a trip to Beira in neighbouring Mozambique:
“The civil war has stopped but the country is a wreck. Every place that I saw was bullet-scarred. To get to Beira, you need to take ten gallons of petrol, twenty cartons of cigarettes, and twenty loaves of bread. Every village you pass has what they call a police road block. At each one, you give them some cigarettes and a loaf of bread and then you’re allowed to go on – to the next road block. It’s just their method of survival – the only method really.”
The conversation turned to Aids. I got the impression that it often did.
Karl: “It’s the start of a massive death explosion. There are at least 500 dying every week. They’ve started to use pantechnicons to move the bodies around, and the graveyards which were planned to last another twenty years are already full. The very old are having to look after the very young, as their parents are dead.”
Gil: “A jail sentence is effectively a death sentence because of jail rape. And the blood transfusion service won’t accept blood from the army or police any more – or from schoolgirls over the age of twelve. They use schoolgirls for sex because they think that the younger the girl, the less likely she is to be infected. But with any luck, Aids will kill off the city fat cats and leave the rural areas alone.”
‘7pm: We returned to Avondale and settled to watch TV at Gil’s place. It has always been my belief that one can tell a great deal about a country from its television. Zimbabwean TV was state controlled and the news was dull beyond satire. The main report was about a prize-giving for nursing qualifications, listing the successful applicants. Gil said that they would broadcast anything so long as it was cheap and didn’t upset the status quo.
He added that on one occasion there was a news report about two corpses who were in transit when the hearse crashed. The bodies slid out of the rear and were run over by a following car. They were declared dead twice in the coroners’ court. The news announcer reading this report was overcome by laughter – as a result he was sacked on Mugabe’s direct orders.
Later, the channel was dominated by a two-hour broadcast by American Protestant evangelists live from Houston, Texas. The preacher had a southern states drawl, small piggy eyes, a hideous yellow tartan suit, and a grinding, hypnotic voice. His hour long speech employed the trick of a ranting repetition of the words ‘forever, forever, forever’, emphasised by emotive music to reinforce the message. This was propaganda on a major scale, and there was a large audience out there with nothing else to watch. Orwell, your nightmare has come true.
1995 August: Sunday
‘6 30pm: After a day of lounging around Martin’s house, it was a relief to arrive at the show tonight. It was taking place at the Alliance Francais building, and was indeed right next door to the home of Mugabe’s mistress. Nothing appeared to be stirring there though.
The Alliance Francais was the French equivalent of the British Council, and it was remarkable that they had decided to allow me to perform on their premises for free. Not only that, but they had provided me with a technician for lights and sound. He was a tall Shona youth of about nineteen and was called Rodwell. Gil and Jackie were acting as the front of house staff. The theatre was in a circular room that gave a slight echo to every sound – rather disconcerting when you could hear your own words returning to you.
‘7 30pm: There were about thirty in the scattered audience, and a surprisingly good response considering how few. It was a generally easy place to play (echo aside), but in one sense it was tricky because it was so intimate. There was no leeway at all. Still, there were a lot of laughs and a good round of applause at the end.
Afterwards, I felt quite cold about the performance – there was no real buzz – tonight was just a job o’ work. Maybe the last night in Bulawayo had spoiled me.
Gil said that tonight covered the expenses and we were now in the black, but no more. He suggested that the best way to increase audiences would be to contact the British Council. However, he knew that they had cut back a lot of their activities due to financial pressures from London – they’d even sold off their library. The French over the same period had increased their arts budget, which was presumably why they were helping me now.
All the same, I should get some aid from Britain. So far I’d had no help at all from them. After all, I was a British national bringing a British cultural experience to the people of Zimbabwe, completely under my own steam. The very least they could do was to provide some local support. It looked inevitable.
1995 August: Monday
‘10 15am: Gil dropped me off outside the British Council offices in central Harare. After a short explanation to the blank-eyed security guards standing on the steps outside, I was directed through to the main information desk. The receptionist seemed mildly irritated by having her coffee break interrupted but condescended to hear my story.
She twiddled with her biro: “So what do you want, then?”
“Well, could I speak to an official about Council involvement?”
She nodded and retreated into a rear office. Two minutes later she returned.
“There’s nobody really available, but you can leave some information if you like.”
“The problem is that things are urgent. The show is actually running right now.”
She retired again, then returned after a further two minutes.
“No, sorry, our staff don’t really deal with outside events. It’s just core activities. It’s the cuts, you see. But I’ll pass on your message.”
“Well, could I leave an advert with you?”
She accepted some leaflets and took them to the rear. On her return she gave me a bright smile:
“That’ll be twenty dollars, please.”
“To put your adverts in the window.”
Bloody hell! I handed over the money and crashed back through the doors. So this was the British Council at work, was it! First the experience in Ethiopia – ‘Is this Oscar Wilde chap black?’ Now this.
I marched over to Gil’s car fuming with anger.
“It’s this bloody under-funding! The undermining of morale! This attitude of public bad, private good! When it’s bloody obvious that certain things can only be done by a competent government, not a bunch of cretinous profiteers. Bloody Thatcher!!”
Gil was a bit taken aback by the outburst. Tirades against Thatcher were rarely heard in white Africa.
As we drove back, I stopped off to book a reservation at a restaurant for tomorrow night. It was a French restaurant. A French restaurant, a French club, a protégé French lighting man, a French theatre, and a French cultural exchange programme! I’d got the bit between my teeth. If that was how my own lot were going to treat me – Vive la France!
‘7 30pm: About the same size audience as last night – thirty odd. The first half of the show was too fast – fairly zapped along. But I slowed it right down in the second. ‘Jail’ went well tonight, but slightly fluffed the ending. Good applause though and two curtains.
Some people stayed behind afterwards to talk. One woman was very congratulatory.
“I SO enjoyed that show. It’s SUCH a pity more people didn’t come to it. Have you contacted the British Council?”
‘11pm: Returned from the show and slumped down back at Martin’s house. Decided to demolish some of the stored lager. I was fed up after 48 hours of sobriety. Listened to the only record I could find – Welsh choirs.
Three hours later – sitting half smashed in an empty bungalow listening to ‘Cwm Rhondda’.
Outside, the dogs began to howl.