A Harare carving
The Africa Diaries
‘5pm: We left the Harare Agricultural Show, collected my luggage, and continued on to stay the night with some friends of Margaret called Laurie and Ellen. They had a vast and luxurious mansion in the northern suburb of the Borrowdale Hills.
Arrived at the front gate and Margaret tooted the car horn. As the sixteen feet high electric doors swung open, we drove inside the compound and the gates rebounded swiftly to shut behind us. Immediately, a vicious looking Rottweiler bounded on to the car bonnet and slavered at the windscreen. Margaret (who was a professional kennel owner) warned me not to open the door and added: “I’m terrified of that dog.”
She tooted again, and our hostess Ellen shouted from the house. The Rottweiler loped off to investigate the new noise and was electronically locked into a wire cage. The coast being clear, we quickly moved to safety in the house.
Ellen was a slim fifty-year-old with a kindly face; her husband Laurie was about the same age, with the stringy good looks of an older James Coburn. In his youth, Laurie had played international rugby for Zimbabwe. We sat on their terrace and sipped gin and tonics as the evening settled in. As usual, the African twilight came down like a bar shutter at closing time.
‘7 30pm: We all piled into Laurie’s Mercedes and headed off to a smart Indian restaurant about two miles’ away. He paid off three security guards to watch the car while we were eating.
The restaurant was obviously a popular one and quite crowded, with two separate birthday parties in full flow. It also offered an engineered but oddly optimistic sight in this divided nation. A group of Indian waiters lined up to sing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ – firstly to a white family, then to a Shona family.
The talk turned yet again to politics; it occurred to me that nearly all Rhodies were aware of their isolated position and were trying to justify it to foreigners – especially Brits. Laurie was involved with the tourist safari business (a profitable one, judging by his obvious affluence). He said that South Africa would be the economically dominant force in the sub-Saharan Africa of the future:
“There are too few whites in Zimbabwe to make a difference, but South Africa’s got five million and they’re not going to go away. The Boers have already started to trek north into Mozambique and Angola. Instead of oxcarts like the old days, now the trekkers use Range Rovers.”
He added: “I was out on safari and talked to one of my black guides over the camp fire one night. He said to me: ‘There was nothing much wrong with colonial rule. Your mistake was to not let us in on it.’ ”
‘12 30am: I sat out on the terrace alone, drinking lager, and spending the last night in Africa reflecting on the Rhodies. They were a strange crowd in the end, and it hit me just how difficult it was to judge these things from the outside. On the surface, of course, they were deeply racist and had ruthlessly exploited the country and its people for over a century.
But these days they were less than 2% of the population. They represented the last remnants of a civilisation whose political power had vanished and whose future was very uncertain. They were the defeated survivors of a bad war in which they had lost friends and family. Despite their apparent riches, admittedly beyond the dreams of the average black Zimbabwean, the wealth was dribbling away in fixed incomes and gathering inflation.
They could not escape back to Europe either; someone who could afford a palace here could not afford a bedsit in London. They had become trapped as financial exiles. They were also an aging group – their children were drifting off abroad looking for new prospects. Most of all, their day-to-day life was constantly infringed by the need for security. Every wall creates prisoners on both sides.
I was not sure that pity was the right word for my feelings and I doubt it was one they would welcome. But I couldn’t help but feel a certain admiration for them. They were hanging on with real guts and with a flourish of let-the-devil-take-tomorrow fun. They were all bloody romantics really.
From a liberal-London viewpoint they were still pampered aristocrats – but they were aristocrats who had heard the rumbling of the tumbrils. And that made them interesting.
‘1am: Oh well, what the hell. First Ethiopia, now Zimbabwe. I was travelling through Africa like a cat slinking through Battersea Dogs’ Home. Slept at 2am.
1995 August: Sunday
‘7 30am: Ate breakfast on the terrace and watched the sun rise over from Mozambique in the east. A servant walked out and laid today’s newspaper on the table. I turned swiftly to the arts section. OH, JAYSUS – the Wilde review was in it. Oh NO!!
Quite irrationally I thought that if it was a bad one they might go easier on the prison sentence. There might just be a Harare police chief who could sympathise with the recipient of a crap review? I feverishly scrolled down the text.
‘From the moment this somewhat blowsy, overweight character in grubby evening dress sauntered on to the bare set…’
Well, that looked very promising. But then:
‘…..a sparkling exhibition of Wilde’s wit…..an object lesson in stagecraft….the man simply WAS Oscar Wilde.’
And so on.
Oh hell! This was a disaster. Probably the best review I’d ever had, just as I was desperate for a bad one! Just when anonymity was crucial, I was festooned with garlands like a triumphal Roman emperor. I was about as anonymous as a lighthouse. HELL!!!
I pushed the paper across to Margaret. She read it and tutted in sympathy.
“What time does your plane leave?”
I scrambled to pack my luggage as she revved up the car outside. The Rottweiler yelped with rage as it watched its potential prey disappearing. A rapid farewell to Laurie and Ellen, then we swerved out of their gates.
We raced on through the almost deserted Sunday morning streets as I tried to restore some equilibrium. There were some grounds for hope. I doubted whether the newspaper arts pages would be the first thing that Mugabe’s goons would scan over their cornflakes. But you never knew?
‘9am: Harare Airport. An hour and a half to take-off. I checked in my baggage and moved to the terminal café with Margaret. We sat down behind a column and some pot plants to drink coffee. A large black man in an army uniform sat down on an adjacent sofa. He was wearing dark glasses and a row of gleaming medals on his chest. I attempted to hide behind my coffee cup.
Margaret sniffed: “Have you seen those medals? I’ll bet he got them at a second hand shop in Cape Town.”
Christ, Margaret, cool it! I’d got enough problems with the police without casting aspersions on the military as well.
‘10am: Bade farewell to Margaret, my indispensable champion of the tour. She kissed me goodbye:
“Do be careful in Jo’burg. It’s terribly dangerous there. Particularly round the airport.”
The words ‘frying pan’ and ‘fire’ leaped to mind.
Headed through immigration and customs – no questions asked. Breathed a little more easily.
‘10 30am: A speaker announcement that there was a half hour delay to my flight. Aargh! Sat and chain-smoked five cigarettes in fifteen minutes.
‘10 45am: Walked out of the terminal, across the tarmac, and up the plane steps. At each moment I was expecting an official to cross over and halt me. But it was OK. I boarded the plane and settled into the seat. The pilot’s voice came over the speaker – a flat Liverpool accent:
“Welcome aboard this morning’s flight to Johannesburg.”
It sounded like the voice of an angel. A Scouse angel.
The plane taxied out and, gathering speed, left the ground. A surge of elation – Mugabe couldn’t touch me now!
[NB. I have wondered over the intervening years whether my trepidation about the work permit had been too extreme. Had I just been in a total funk about nothing much at all? Maybe the Zimbabwean Government had known and couldn’t have cared less about my activities, and that I was far too unimportant to even register on their radar?
Then in May 2012 I came across a news item in a UK paper. It reported that the BBC Radio 3 classical music presenter Petroc Trelawny had been arrested on stage at the Bulawayo Children’s Charity Music Festival on suspicion of working without a permit.
‘He is being charged with violating the conditions of his entry on a tourist visa, in other words he is accused of making a false declaration when he came into the country….
If found guilty, Mr Trelawny could receive a prison sentence of 10 years. A Harare lawyer with expertise in immigration issues said: “The immigration department has enormous powers. There are people who have been in remand prison in Harare for years on immigration offences”.’
Petroc Trelawny later reported that he had been forced to share a cell with 18 other prisoners.
‘I don’t know what they were in for, all sorts of things I think, but everyone is equal in a cell like that. When I arrived, it was late and everyone had their positions on the floor staked out. It was quite cold and there were a limited number of blankets. There was a complicated herringbone sleeping pattern to get everyone in, but I got my space and managed to get some sleep’.
After a couple of days he slipped on a patch of water and dislocated his shoulder. He spent the next five days in hospital under police guard.
His defence team made strenuous efforts on his behalf, eventually arguing successfully that he had not been working for profit, but as a volunteer to assist under-privileged children. He was released and allowed to fly home.
The only difference in the situations between Petroc Trelawny and myself was that I had made a fair amount of money on the trip and was as guilty as hell – whereas he was working for charity but got arrested!
On reflection, Zimbabwe gave me possibly the greatest theatrical experience of my life, but also placed me in the most dangerous situation I’d ever been in yet. Except for the bombs in Jordan.]
‘11 45am: Flying into Johannesburg. From this height one could see that, for all its size, the city was still just a settlement in the vastness of the bush surrounding it. As we landed the pilot made his last announcement:
“Thank you for flying with Air Zimbabwe. Might I remind you that this has been the safest part of your journey. Please take care on leaving the airport.”
‘Noon: Seven hours to kill till the Amsterdam flight. Bought a local paper – the first two pages were a list of the latest shootings. The stop press update was about the ‘taxi wars’. One taxi driver, upset at having his fare taken, had emptied a sub-machine gun into the rival cab, killing the driver and his passengers, and wounding three passers-by. A normal day in Jo’burg. Decided against a trip into town.
‘2pm: Had lunch in a cafeteria. A couple in their late sixties were having a row at the next table. They spoke in the thick, guttural tones of the Boers. The origin of this accent appeared to lie in the desire of the Boers to sound as unlike the open African enunciation as possible – therefore they barely moved their mouths.
I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation.
“You let that damn house kaffir off too easy. Call yourself a man!” was one of the remarks. It seemed the creation of Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation had yet to gain total approval.
Still, in a country that only ten years earlier had insisted on having fully segregated sewage pipes, (one for faecal matter from whites, the other from blacks), things did seem to be improving.
1995 August: Monday
‘6 20am: Schiepol Airport, Amsterdam. The earliest flight to London they could offer was at mid-day. Another five hour wait.’
‘11 30am: Shuffled along in the boarding queue. My carry-on bag was stopped while going through the security X-Ray machine. A customs man opened it up, rummaged around inside, then produced the offending object – a small stone hippopotamus intended as a present for my nephew.
As I shouldered the bag again and climbed on to the plane, I reflected that it was a good job that he hadn’t noticed the Swiss Army knife and the canister of CS gas that also lay inside the bag.
‘5pm: London. Dropped off the luggage at home after 32 hours of travelling. Then, wearily but with utter determination, walked out again. I’d got an important appointment to keep.
Walked into the Magdala Tavern and approached the bar:
“A pint of lager, please. Can you make that Ice Cold?”