Archives – February, 2006

The funeral

Note: Apart from the first one, all pictures in this post are made by Brian (In the first picture on the very right)

Emilia was 22 years old when she died from AIDS. Her daughter, aged 4, was infected with the virus during birth. She will never get the chance to protect herself from the disease; she was already born with it. Within two years, Emilia’s father lost his wife, his daughter and his sister in law, the first to breast cancer, the latter two to the virus.

Emilia was the sunshine of Mbare and everyone here loved her. She was a trusted friend to many and she was up for everything. Just four months ago, Emilia was well on her feet and roamed around with her friends, having a beer in that bar in Beatrice Cottages or a walk through the roads of Mbare. Then, all of a sudden, she started feeling sick. She kept telling her friends that she didn’t feel good. The virus had begun to take down her immune system. She had to go to the hospital and her condition grew rapidly worse. Just a few days ago, the doctors told her family that she would die if she didn’t get proper medication. But drugs are expensive. Where to get drugs when you can’t pay for them? After all, there are no license free imitations; the big Parma companies defend their patents like castles. Those who cannot pay simply have to bite the bullet.

But Emilia’s family managed to collect the money for her treatment. They flipped every penny and collected among the more distant relatives. A cousin sent 2000 Rand from South Africa. But it’s too late. On February, 22nd, the day the money is finally scratched together, the girl died. And once again the people of Mbare gathered for the obsequies.

Nokhutula and her brothers were close friends of Emilia, they grew up together and to them, Emilia was the kind of person you sleep together with in one bed and share the most intimate secrets with. They invite us to take part in both the obsequies and the burial one day later. We go to Mbare and meet at Siman’gliso’s house. Together with Shela and Nyaradzi we walk to the place, just about two hundred meters away. At that time I don’t know yet how close my friends from Mbare were to Emilia; I get to know all that I’ve written above in these two days. On our way to Emilia’s house, Shela teaches me some Shona. Trukfamba mu’Mbare, trukando conamo – We are walking through Mbare, on the way to a funeral. I had a different idea of my first sentence in Shona.

The obsequies have already begun when we arrive. Even before we turn into the road, we can hear the singing. It’s not somber or sad, nothing that you would expect for a funeral when you are European. In the first moments I relate it to a birthday party or something of that kind. We reach the house, where the men are all gathered in the shadow under a tree across the street, while the women stand in a semicircle in the garden, clapping and singing. They seem relaxed, they laugh and kid around and only a few, elder women sit aside and watch with somber faces. Shela grabs me on the sleeve, whispers that we should not go there now and drags me towards the men. Brian, another friend of the group, is there, too. We sit down, smoke, and listen to the singing. Brian, Shela and Siman’gliso tell me about Emilia.

Eventually, a pick-up truck comes, with the coffin on the load floor, and backs into the garden. The guys stand up and approach the car. Together, they lift the wooden coffin from the trunk and carry it over the small veranda into the house where the body is to be laid out. Now the men and the women mix again and I, too, go into the yard and join Saba and Andree. A small boy sits in the corner of the garden and cries his heart out. Emilia’s relatives and friends get in a line and, one after the other, go into the house, take a look at their dead girl and walk out through the back door. It is now, that – apart from the small boy – I can see and hear people crying for the first time. Siman’gliso and the others are in the row, too, and beckon me to join. They want me to pass the coffin with them. Inside the house it’s cool and dim, just a little light casts in through the open door. The front end of the coffin is uncovered and there lays Emilia, all but her face covered in white cloth. She looks peaceful.

After everyone has walked past the dead, Emilia’s friends carry the coffin back out onto the load floor of the pick-up truck. They cover it and the car leaves for Seke, the village of Emilia’s family. The obsequies is over and the people gradually leave for their way home. We walk back to Siman’gliso’s house and sit together in his living room with a glass of Sprite, gossiping.

The next morning, we raise early, drive to Mbare and gather in front of Emilia’s place. The day before, Nokhutula bought 60 liters of petrol to fuel enough cars. Emilia’s friends all wanted to go to the burial, but didn’t know how to get to the village. After everyone has arrived and yet another car is organized for all the people, we leave for Seke, the village where the burial will take place. Together with the guys, I take a seat on the back of Nokhutula’s pick-up truck. We’re about fifteen people on the small load floor, but neither of us is reserved and we hold on to each other harmoniously. We aren’t even around the first corner when the guys start singing. It sounds similar to what I heard yesterday at the obsequies. Happy, but sincere. One of them sings the verses, the others join in for the refrain and I don’t understand anything since it is all in Shona. But I clap, I wave back and forth and I stomp my foot on the ground along with them, and sometimes, when they repeat the refrain over and over again and when I can make out the words, I even sing with them. The guys now really gather momentum, every now and then one of them whistles or screams while clapping his hand onto his mouth, sounding somewhat like a loud Rididididi. I join in and start screaming, whistling and clapping together with them.

At some point we stop and Brian buys some rum. They cut open a plastic bottle, mix the rum with water and hand it around. After about two hours, we reach Seke. The farm consists of a house, not very big, and face to face of it a round hut made of clay with a roof of straw. On the top end of the courtyard there is a third building under construction, but obviously no one has worked on it for a long time. It sprawles green out of every door and window opening. Some trees cast welcome shadow and everywhere around the farm grows maize. We descend from the pick-up and go to every single person on the yard to greet them. Nyaradzi tells me to say nematambudzko every time I shake someone’s hand. That means I’m sorry. On the way here, I had a bad conscience because I neither knew Emilia nor anyone of her family and still I would come to her funeral. Nokhutula asked me to take the camera and so I felt like a vulture, like one of these yellow press photographers who get their stories out of others’ misery. But the way I was accepted by Emilia’s family quickly took away those feeling. They welcomed me like a brother and her aunty Messa told me that this farm is also my farm and that I should make myself at home. If I had any problem I should tell her. It was her, who later asked me to take pictures and she was next to me when I went into the round hut where Emilia’s body was laid out to photograph the wake. I never felt as an intruder.

After we had greeted everyone but the women who were singing in the hut, we went to the grave that was being prepared for the burial. The men who had dug it out were just laying the bricks of the side walls. Emilia’s father and grandfather were with us, and on the way, her father told me about how painful it was for him that his daughter was not around anymore. But life would go on, he said, and never have I heard this sentence spoken with so much conviction. This man radiated an admirable peace and hope. Then he thanked me for everything I had done for their family, and I felt embarrassed. I hadn’t done anything for this family; I just came for the funeral of their daughter. In the opposite, these people did so much for me by sharing this difficult moment with me and thus let me take part in their culture in such a unique way, and I told him that.

After we got back to the farm, Siman’gliso and his friend brought out two big drums and we began singing again. It was the same songs we had sung on the car and I understood now that it hadn’t been just for fun but to rehearse the songs before they performed them here. We grouped around the drummers and danced and clapped, and soon the women around began to dance the jiti. For this traditional dance they bend over and vigorously swing their hips and backside towards a person or the drum or whatever they dance at. Some pulled out some bank notes and threw them in the crowd and Kugi would pick them up and collect them. The dancers were rewarded for their performance. The singing went on for about two hours, with brakes, since the sun burnt down mercilessly and everyone was drenched in sweat. Eventually we went into the round hut and continued there, with the women dancing the jiti at Emilia’s coffin and everyone taking up her picture, holding it above the head while dancing and passing it on to the next person. Once more, Emilia celebrated with her friends.

Then it became silent. The people went outside and took their lunch. Only the closest relatives remained in the hut and silently sat on the floor in front of the coffin. Messa went inside with me and asked me to photograph. There was a sacral atmosphere in the room and I tried to move as silent as possible. I was in the hut for about half an hour when the coffin was opened and moved to the center of the room. Messa asked me to take a picture of her and her sister with their dead niece. Then, one after the other, the people came inside to say good bye. They circled Emilia’s coffin, some would stop briefly to touch or kiss her, and many cried. I pressed myself to the wall and I really felt being in the wrong place now. It was very, very intimate. But I didn’t want to disturb by just standing up and leaving, either. So I made myself as small as possible and huddled further to the wall. When Siman’gliso and his friends came in and I saw the pain in their eyes, when Brian bent down to kiss his dead friend, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I broke into tears and left the hut together with them. I was relieved to finally be outside since I really felt trapped between the urge not to disturb the intimacy and the fear to break it through the slightest motion.

After everyone was at Emilia’s body, the coffin was taken outside on the courtyard, and a priest spoke some words in Shona; probably a prayer, but I don’t know and I didn’t want to ask, either. Then Siman’gliso and his friends hauled the coffin to the load floor of a pick-up, the grandmothers and the aunties took a seat next to it and the whole crowd moved to the cemetery. Emilia was bedded on the pile of earth next to the grave and everyone sat down on the floor. The priest spoke again, this time passionately and vigorously, and he walked up and down on the open grave like a tiger in a cage so that I was afraid that he might fall into it any minute. After he had ended, single people stood up and held speeches of which unfortunately I didn’t understand anything. Every time when a person finished speaking and sat down again, the women cheered stridently and clapped. After the coffin was finally lowered into the grave, they put a heavy iron slab on it and fixed it with concrete. The concrete was prepared with water which had been in a jar under Emilia’s coffin all the time. Then some wooden sticks were put on the concrete and finally the earth was shoveled in the hole. The people at the grave grabbed the spade from each other and poured the soil in the opening as fast as possible. It almost looked like a contest and the people rooted for each other. I don’t know yet about the meaning of the water, the wood and the common shoveling, but Nokhutula promised to find it out and I will write it later in another post. Suddenly, a man came with a bucket full of water and spilled it over two of the women standing on the grave. Everyone laughed and cheered and then the three started a wild chase through the maize fields while the others started singing and dancing again. Two men were drumming, and the women danced the jiti at Emilia one last time. The last song was quiet and melancholic but still happy. I didn’t understand much, but the refrain was always the same: Bye bye, Emilia…

After the song had ended, the people spread out. Some went back to the farm, others started their way home. The sky was overcast now and the first raindrops started falling. Bolts flashed in the clouds and somewhere in the distance, the thunder growled. We hopped on the pick-up and left for Harare. It began to rain heavily now. We moved closer together on the load board, put our arms around each other and covered our heads with jackets and sweaters. It was nice, back there in the rain. And then we started singing again. Bye bye Emilia…

2 Comments February 27, 2006

birthday surprise

On my birthday, I was kicked out of my bed a little roughly; My friends told me to take off the bed sheets and the mosquito net so that everything could be washed. I took a quick shower and then I began to pull the covers from the blanket and the pillows. After a little while, Nokhutula’s maid came into the room and told me that I had to put the cover back on the blanket since there was no spare cover and the first one wouldn’t dry in time. I did as she told me and began to wonder what this whole thing was about.

When I was ready, the maid took the whole stack including the blanket and the mosquito net and disappeared. I started packing my stuff since we planned to spend the day at Nokhutula’s cousin Jackie’s to relax and hang around at her pool with some drinks. Saba told me to take my camera, but I asked her why, we would just lie around in Jackie’s garden. She shrugged her shoulders and said “Just take it.” I really didn’t see any reason to waste my films for such nonsense and left the camera behind.

When we sat in the car – the drinks were bought and everything was there for a nice barbecue at the pool – we drove in a completely wrong direction, away from Harare and deeper and deeper into nowhere on a small rural road. I asked them what this was about and I was told that we would just drive to some farm to get some maize for the barbecue. I was really wondering why we would go all the way to a farm for some lousy maize cobs when they just sold them on the roadside but I didn’t say anything. After almost two weeks in Nokhutula’s house with only short trips to downtown and Mbare, the trip into the countryside was a welcome break. I enjoyed the beauty of landscape rushing past the windows, dramatically enhanced by the clouds of an upcoming thunderstorm.

We were cheery, in party mood, fooled around and tried to make a hitchhiker whom we picked up believe that I’m a lunatic virgin priest who just came out of mental treatment and was now taken out into the green by three women for his 45th birthday – Of course the guy didn’t believe us a single word, but he joined in and bamboozled with us. Eventually we reached a gate and a young man approached the car and talked to Nokhutula in Shona. He opened the gate, we passed and he looked into the car, grinned and said in English that we should be cautious about the lions that strolled around the farm. What the hell was that supposed to mean now? I pointed towards Saba’s digital camera and asked if it was ok to take pictures. He grinned again and nodded simply. For some minutes we drove past a fence with a beautiful, natural scenery behind it. I gradually started to be suspicious now. We were on a farm and not a single field around?!? The girls in the back were grinning already and every now and then one of them would say in an exaggeratedly startled way that she saw something in the bushes. By now I was sure that we were not going to a farm.

We finally came to a halt at a parking lot, bordered by a wonderful, green garden. Somewhere in it was a house with a roof made of straw and a covered porch in front and some people were just on their way there. We got out of the car and went to the hut. On the pebbled way leading to it were several jeeps with zebra painting; in that moment I realised that it must be some kind of Safari park the girls were taking me to. I also realised, why Saba told me to take my camera and I was a little bit pissed that I didn’t listen to her. They asked me to wait outside, went to the reception, talked briefly to the guy behind the desk, received some piece of paper and came back out. “Happy birthday, Jakob” they said and handed me the paper. It was a map for a Safari Game park. I didn’t know what to say. This morning Saba said that she was so sorry that we were not in her country where she could have organised something beautiful for me. I was simply flabbergasted.

After some time a guy came and we went back to the car and got in. It was quite narrow – Nokhutula’s car has four seats only – and I wondered if that guy would stay in the car throughout the whole Safari. But soon we stopped again in front of a marvellous cottage. There was a plastered courtyard and on it a hut – open in the middle and with two rooms on each side – and a second hut right next to it with a kitchen and a bathroom. The man exited the car, started to unlock the doors and told us that this was our cottage. I didn’t quite understand. What, our cottage? What am I supposed to do in a cottage? I want to see the park! Only when Saba walked past me with our blanket and the mosquito net, I realised that this was an overnight trip. That also explained Saba’s show with the blanket this morning… I was so happy that I didn’t know what to say. I threw my arms around the three girls, thanked them vigorously and began running back and forth between the car and the cottage to unload our stuff.

Some time later we took towels and bathing suits, drove back to the parking lot and went through the garden to one of these colossal rock piles that are so typical for the Zimbabwean landscape. Stairs wound upwards and on the top, hewn into the stone, was a tremendous pool. A small wooden bridge lead over the pool to another rock screened from the sun by a wooden construction covered with straw and behind that was a third rock, surrounded by a fence, serving as sun terrace. From up here we had a wonderful view over the roof of leaves that covered the whole park. This complex was breathtakingly beautiful. We bathed for around an hour – me decadent sod of course with a bottle of beer in my hand – then dried up and went back to the reception. I was told that the best was yet to come.

We waited some minutes until one of the park’s staff came and loaded us upon a jeep. Safari… We drove off, through some gates that secluded the 1000 acres of Wildlife Park and into the savannah. After a few metres we saw the first Impala herd grazing, stopped and the guide told us something about the animals. Unfortunately they were very shy and so we couldn’t get closer than maybe a hundred metres. Not so with the Zebras. This time we left the jeep and approached the animals slowly until there were not more than five metres left between us. The Safari guide then asked me to come back because I got too close.

We saw a lot more animals other than these, but the Giraffes were the most impressing of all. A herd of them was hidden in a small forest so that I didn’t see them instantly. But then they started moving, startled by the car, and crossed the path we were standing on. Although I saw these animals on TV so frequently, it was an incredible experience to have them in front of me, just an arm length away. The Giraffes moved as smooth as elves, despite their towering size. It was one of the most fascinating experiences in my life and I wished I could once see these animals in their real environment, without some degrading fence around.

In the evening, after we came back from the Safari, we lit a fire in front of our cottage and made a barbecue. We roasted four huge T-Bone steaks, a whole chicken (we roasted it in one piece – rarely had such a delicious chicken…) and a pork steak, along with rice, Sadza, coleslaw and lots of beer and wine. After dinner we sat for hours under the African sky and partied.

Unfortunately we had to go back early the next day since the first meeting with the women’s group in Mbare was to take place. But the park is just a half-hour drive from Nokhutula’s house and we’ll surely spend the one or the other weekend there during the next three months – and then I’ll bring my camera…

3 Comments February 23, 2006

First Steps

Last Saturday we had our barbecue in Mbare. Being an hour late, all the people had already gone back home to go about their daily business. On our way to Mbare we stopped at the supermarket to buy the stuff for the barbecue, and at the police station to tell about the party. The authorities in Zimbabwe are very sensitive about any kind of gathering; whatever assemblage is not reported and permitted will be split up since it could be a political one. While we were sitting in the garden, waiting for the participants of the project to gradually come back, Si-man’gliso and Nyaradzi took care of the fire. After about half an hour, the place was virtually packed and all the people came to introduce themselves to us. I wondered how the hell I should remember all these names and soon gave up even trying it.

When Nokhutula opened the meeting, they all sat down in a circle in the grass and explained why they were here and what they expected from participating in the pro-ject. The three women didn’t tell anything about their intention to work on HIV/AIDS in advance since they didn’t want to influence the people. They should decide on their own what’s important to them and what they want to work on. But it soon became obvious that the majority of the present people tended towards the HIV/AIDS issue. In a country with meanwhile an estimated 30 percent infection rate (I heard this num-ber several times this day; however I did not yet do any research to confirm it!) it is a huge challenge for the young generation to get this plague under control. The passion-ate motivation to face this challenge was tangible in the air on this afternoon in Si-man’gliso’s garden.

The project was outlined briefly and a rough schedule set up and afterwards the peo-ple spread in the garden, with plates full of roasted chicken, sausages and salad in their hands. Andree and I stand in the shadow in front of the house together with three girls who tell us that they made a video on the life in the ghetto. They promise to bring it for the next meeting to show it to the group. Natasha, one of the three girls, brings the conversation back to HIV/AIDS and begins a passionate and convinced speech about the challenge of her generation. The girl is only twenty but the way she stands there and talks make her appear a lot more mature. While she speaks everyone around listens in spellbound silence. Later, after we all finished eating, I ask Natasha if she personally knows any families who are struck by the plague. I explain that I want to shoot a documentary on the disease and its impact on the community and that therefore I want to deal on a very close and personal basis with people who are di-rectly and indirectly affected. She answers me that this might be a difficult goal to achieve, since those who carry the virus often deny it – not only to others but most of all to themselves. Yet she promises to let me know by next week and she sounds very confident about finding families who will be willing to work with me.

Meanwhile it had become late afternoon. Some clouds had come up and took away some of the sun’s merciless intensity and the people gradually hit the road from Si-man’gliso’s garden to their homes. We left with Bianca who invited us on a walk through Mbare. She led us to a small double house where she lived with her family. A fence divided the ground it was built on in two equal parts. Two women sat gossiping on the doorstep of the neighbouring house and when they saw Bianca they greeted her friendly.

We ducked inside the hut through the small door. It was dim, and in here I realised that Mbare isn’t just a nice little neighbourhood with nice little gardens. The interior was depleted, almost nothing, and a worn out rug covered the floor. Bianca led us on into a small room where a man and a woman sat at a tiny table situated in front of a bed. On the bed there was nothing but a ragged woollen blanket. The two at the table, Bianca’s uncle and aunty, welcomed us cordially. There was a bowl with Sadza on the bed and they just took their dinner. Some light shed through a small window on the opposite wall, otherwise it was dark. With the table, the bed and the two people on their chairs, the room was so packed that we could barely move beyond the door. Back outside, we walked around the house in the backyard. Bianca’s Aunt Heather sat there on a wooden bench and wove extensions into the hair of her niece Gay. Aside, there was a toy car wrought of wire. Gay turned out to be a real joker who wouldn’t stop talking and making fun until we left. When we turned to go, she shouted after us not to forget to send them hard currency. We went to a few other houses afterwards and the circumstances some people lived in were shocking. While some living rooms were equipped with TVs, surround speakers, computers with internet access, stereo systems, glass tables and fancy sofas, others held nothing but a few, shabby seats.

On this afternoon I realised that, in spite of my first, positive impression, bitter pov-erty holds a tight grip around Mbare, although compared to the slums I saw in Bang-ladesh it still offers bearable conditions – at least everyone here has a small garden to grow the most essential such as maize and cabbage. But at the same time I felt a won-derful sense of community among the people of Mbare that fuelled my desire to work with them.

On Monday we finally managed to meet the staff of J. F. Kapnet Trust, the NGO that the three girls want to do their drama project in Zyimba with. Craig, the director of the organisation, picked us up at the reception and led us over the premise to a small building that served as conference room. We took our seats and waited for four other members of the NGO to come and join the meeting. A dense curtain of gigantic, moist leaves with shafts thick like arms screened the window and a smooth green light flooded the conference room. Two ceiling fans sucked the scent of fresh cut grass through the open door and spread it in the room.

After a few minutes, two men and two women entered, introduced themselves and sat down at the table. Marc and Trust, the two men, were rather silent during the meeting and listened while Craig, Hazel and Hazvinei briefly explained the projects and the aims of J. F. Kapnet Trust. The NGO works with HIV/AIDS infected women and children in the slums of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia. Their main purpose is to create awareness among the people and to offer the children an exit from the spiral of poverty through proper education.

Nokhutula, Andree und Saba explained to them how they plan to support the work of the NGO with their drama project, and the people from J. F. Kapnet Trust seemed fas-cinated by their approaches. Hazvinei then came straight to the point and asked us, what we expect from them. We told them that for the girls’ project as well as for mine it is essential to fall back on already existing infrastructures, especially when there is only three months time. Furthermore, that we need financial support for fuel and ac-commodation and – in my case – material. In exchange, Saba, Nokhutula and Andree would teach interested people from the NGO and leave them copies of their working diaries and I would provide them my pictures. It was a fair deal for everyone and we agreed on soon arranging a first trip to Zyimba to get an impression of the situation there.

1 Comment February 23, 2006


I’m not yet really in the mood for writing but I’ll just try to begin now and to summarize the first seven days. The journey to Zimbabwe was quite easy, we didn’t have any problems. The only thing worth noticing was the one hour delay in Heathrow that we spent half in the bus and half in the terminal; after boarding in Heathrow you don’t enter the aircraft directly but instead they’ll drive you to the plane in a bus. Once we’ve made ourselves more or less comfortable with our entire luggage and stood our ground in the jammed bus, we were driving quite some while over the huge airport compound and came to a stop in front of the machine, while the passengers of the preceding shuttle passed the gangway into the plane. Since I’ve offered my seat to a mother with baby, I had to stand in a quite crappy position, perched between our luggage and the people around me, and my legs gradually started to hurt now. And, of course, nothing went on. The bus in front of us already seemed empty to me for quite some while, at least I couldn’t make out any more people in it, but it still stood there, blocking the gangway. After we’ve passed several minutes there, with my legs getting numb now and the people uneasy, a woman in safety vest entered the bus and made an announcement that we had to be patient, there seemed to be some irregularity in the aircraft, they were very sorry. So we waited. And waited. And waited. Meanwhile I’ve cleared myself some space on the ground to sit down and relax my legs. Fifteen minutes must have passed when again somebody came and explained that the aircraft crew missed to perform the security check and that we would now be driven back to the terminal so that we could stretch out our legs a little bit. Oh, thank you lord…! During the ride I couldn’t think of any more positions to relief my legs. Thank god we reached the terminal quickly and when I stood up, pins and needles seemed to pierce my thighs. My blood obviously started circulating again. After another thirty minutes in the terminal the bus collected us again, delivered us at the plane and we could take off for Africa. During the flight, the captain explained that they found some suspicious package in the cabin and that the procedure in this case requires a bomb squad to clear the aircraft. The package turned out to be a left-behind cabin bag.

At the airport in Zimbabwe we didn’t face any major problems although Saba and I were a bit nervous about the equipment. If they had found our cameras, films, and god knows what else, they might have thought we were journalists and we wouldn’t have gotten away so easily. The only situation I started sweating over was at the customs. We took the „nothing to declare“ path and an elderly man with his trolley (the same one who pissed all over the aircraft toilet just before I went in there…) stood a bit dimly in the way and created a jam that made us stop with all our luggage right next to two customs officers. Apparently I didn’t look past them innocently enough although I honestly tried it; it was a man and a woman and she came straight toward us, pointed at my bags and asked: “What do you carry with you?” For a moment I thought about lying to her but according to Murphy’s Law she would have definitely had me opening the bags and I would have been screwed. So I mumbled something about three cameras and films and she just told me that I had to declare those and asked me to proceed to the customs. Crap. So there we were, at the airport in Harare, three cameras, 340 rolls of film, developer, fixer, developer tank and a voice recorder in my baggage and a video camera, a tripod, a gun microphone and a digital camera in Saba’s, and should explain to a customs officer that we were no journalists. Thank god Saba came to my assistance and began talking so fast that the poor woman couldn’t get a word in advance. Noticing that, her colleague approached and wanted to know what’s going on. We told him something about tourists, Safari and god knows what else and eventually he asked: “Are you visitors?” and we said sure, just tourists. “Then it’s ok”, he answered and waved us through. Behind me, Saba kick started her trolley, crashed into my heels and pushed me through the people to the outside. We were through… In the hallway, Nokhutula already waited with her daughter Mina, her son Nyasha and Mudiwa, her nephew. She welcomed us in her usual, funny-cordial manner and together we walked to the parking lot.

We’re sitting in Nokhutula’s van, the windows open to catch a cool breeze in the car. Although I already knew the feeling from Bangladesh, the temperature difference between the hibernating Germany and the tropical late summer punched me hard when I stepped from the air conditioned plane into the gangway. The wind in my face is just what I need now. The ride is short, maybe fifteen minutes, on an all-straight road through a vivid, green landscape. I imagined something different on the way here, something more savannah-like. There are trees and bushes blossoming everywhere and the saturated hues of green almost painfully pierce my eyes. Pedestrians walk on both sides of the road and I wonder where they are going. Apart from the airport there is no other building around. Some turn from the road into the green and disappear between the bushes.

After a few kilometres we turn left into a smaller road, pass a brick wall and come to a halt in front of a red iron gate. Nokhutula honks the horn twice and shortly after, the iron gate is pushed aside and opens the view on a one-storied house, covered with brown slates and surrounded by a wide, wonderful garden. Unfortunately I lack the botanical knowledge to go into details, but even I recognize the giant eucalyptus tree and the pomegranate tree bending under his burden of bursting full fruits. The rest blossoms mysteriously in all colours of the rainbow. We bring the baggage to our room, take a shower and then Nokhutula guides us around the house. There are three chairs and a table standing on a terrace; we sit down and Emilia, one of the maids, brings us tea while Nyasha and Mudiwa play vividly on their bobby cars.

The next four days we wait for Andree, Nokhutula’s and Saba’s class mate who they are going to do their major project with. We kill the time with sleeping, reading and watching TV, and in between we go downtown to exchange some money and buy a mosquito net. Zimbabwe currently struggles with a catastrophic inflation and I begin to realise how it must have been back then, during the economy crisis in Europe. I get 10 million Zimbabwe $ for my 100 US$; a bundle of notes that I can hardly hold in two hands, the smallest denomination being 20.000 ZW$. I am finally a millionaire. The mosquito net is 1.7 million and we begin to count the money on the table. Five minutes later, the cashier finished her counting and we can leave the shop. Outside I notice that the people carry all kind of bags, most of them probably filled with some millions for the daily needs. On our way home, Nokhutula tries to get some fuel which is difficult to find in Zimbabwe these days. We have no luck, but the tank is still half full and that gives us time to try it again during the next days.

The second day, Nokhutula takes Mina and us to Mbare, the neighbourhood she grew up in. Her brother Siman’gliso still lives there; he inherited the house from their parents. Mbare counts as one of the densest and poorest parts of Harare. It’s one of those quarters that are depicted by the Medias as highly dangerous, one of those you better shouldn’t go to when you’re white. The houses we see there are small but they don’t look ghetto-like. They are made of brick, well preserved and with lovely, neat gardens. The people here say that when you haven’t been to Mbare, you haven’t been to Zimbabwe. I don’t see any of those waste piles that are so typical for Ghettos, everything looks clean and orderly. We stop in front of the gate that separates the ground from the street und walk through the small, lovingly preserved garden to the house. Siman’gliso isn’t there yet, but his brother Tendai welcomes us and invites us inside. It’s a small living room we enter through the main door, with two sofas, a chair, a table and a TV. One of the sofas parts the room, with the kitchen being behind it. To our right is the sleeping room, where Siman’gliso sleeps with his wife Kudzanai and their 14 months old son Mudiwa. We sit in the living room, wait for Siman’gliso and gossip. Tendai tells us, that his girlfriend broke up with him today. He pretends to take it easy but it’s clearly visible that it’s giving him a hard time. As his brother arrives we go out in the garden, since he brought along some friends and it’s getting too narrow inside. We sit on small wall in the garden and Babi, Siman’gliso’s small dog, weasels around our legs.

After some time, Siman’gliso invites me to come with him and get some beer. Nokhutula hands him a bundle of money and we walk off. The bar we are heading for isn’t far, maybe five hundred metres, across a main road that separates Mbare from Beatrice Cottages. The people seem to take that very seriously: when I mistakenly talk of the neighbouring quarter as Mbare, I’m instantly told that we’re in Beatrice Cottages right now, which has nothing to do with Mbare. We walk past a fenced ground in which there are some sculptures; beautiful sculptures made of metal, a couple embracing each other passionately, and another one, sitting on a wall, their arms around each other. At first I thought they were real humans since they stand in the shadow of some trees and are partially screened by leaves and it takes me some moments until I realise that these are artworks. At the entrance to the ground there is an old, bleached out sign saying “BAT Studios”. The studios were founded in 1980, sponsored by British American Tobacco, and had a great influence on the Zimbabwean art scene. Just a few metres ahead from here is the bar we’re heading for. Fragments of Reggae music wave through the air and they grow louder the closer we come to the bar. We step through a low door in a concrete wall onto a tarred court. Spread on the left side there are some tables with parasols, most of them empty. Right next to the door, on the wall, some boys are doing a barbecue; it smells of burnt grease and soot. The right side of the courtyards ends into a roofed terrace, a part of it secluded with bars like a cage. In that cage is a DJ set, and a guy with dreadlocks and Bob Marley t-shirt is mixing. We go across the terrace and enter the room behind it. Inside, it’s a little shabby but quite spacious, with sofas, table football and a pool billiard table. We order six bottles of beer, place the bundle of money we got from Nokhutula on the bar, wait until the bar keeper counted it and go back outside. We stop at one of the tables where some of Siman’gliso’s friends sit and smoke and drink beer. He introduces them to me as football players. After they gossiped for a few minutes, we walk back to the house. Saba and Nokhutula aren’t there, and Mina tells us that they drove somewhere to buy some food for dinner. We open a beer, drink and talk and at some point Siman’gliso and Tendai ask me if I’d like to go on a walk.

On the roads of Mbare I hear music everywhere, mostly reggae, but also Hip Hop and traditional music, and the people sit in groups in their gardens in the shadow of Mango trees and gossip. The people here seem to value a beautiful, clean and well preserved surrounding. I don’t see real signs of poverty, but I’m sure the first impression is misleading. HIV and bad food and water supply are not dancing in the street.

While we stroll along, I speak of Siman’gliso’s garden. I ask him if he spends a lot time in it since it looks intensively and passionately taken care of. His eyes start beaming and he tells me proudly that the garden is his one and all. He wants to buy a piece of land eventually and become a farmer. I wonder what the prices for land are like over here and how he is going to afford it, but I don’t ask him now. I’ve just met him a few hours ago.

We reach the shopping area of Mbare, a concrete courtyard with a market in the middle and some shops around it. Tendai and Siman’gliso take me to a butcher shop that his run by their relatives and introduce me to their uncle and cousin. We shake hands quickly, and then they focus their attention back to their customers. The coolers for the meat are almost empty, with just a few pieces wrapped in plastic at their bottom, and the display cabinet doesn’t show much more, either. However it’s late afternoon and the major amount most probably sold already.

We go on, past a stadium with a tarred basket ball court in front and some youths playing on it, through a restaurant where they sell Sadza – the local basic food made of maize flour – for 150.000 ZW$ a plate, and in a bar that serves Chibuku. That’s a traditional kind of beer, brewed from water, maize and milk and with 80.000 ZW$ a litre quite cheap. The bar is jammed with people and an old man, obviously with several Chibuku cursing through his veins, dances enthusiastically around me. Tendai and Siman’gliso ask me if I want to try the drink but there is no more left and so we leave the bar through the back door into the yard outside. Two men sit on a wall with a small, turquoise plastic bucket between them. Nokhutula’s brothers approach them and talk to them for a little while, then they point toward the bucket and tell me that it’s Chibuku in it. The muggy, whitish liquid, with some indefinable sort of slabs in it, looks as if already drunk once and I’m glad that there was no more left at the bar. The two men invite me to take a sip. I don’t want to be impolite but also, I don’t want to swallow this stuff for anything in this world. I wonder what I should answer and then the empty bottle of Lion Lager beer that I’ve been carrying around all the time comes to my mind; I show it and explain them, that I just had a beer. I thank them for the invitation and, before anyone of them gets to say anymore, I turn towards Tendai and Siman’gliso who both look quite amused and we start walking back home.

Two days later we came back to Mbare, Siman’gliso had bought a bunch of chicken for Nokhutula. After they were put away in the trunk of the car, we sat together in the living room, drank a beer and talked about the drama project dealing on HIV/AIDS which we came to Zimbabwe for. Nokhutula suggested doing it in Mbare and everyone was enthusiastic about that idea. Siman’gliso stood up, left the house and, a few minutes later, came back with Laina, a friend who plays in a theatre group. The women vigorously talked about how the project could look like and within short we were all consumed by a vital discussion, not least fuelled by several bottles of Black Label beer. We agreed to do a barbecue in Mbare the following Saturday and Laina promised to summon interested people until then to get a first overview and to talk over the first steps. On our way home, with the full moon hovering closely above the horizon before us, I somehow had a good feeling with the prospect that we would soon be working in Mbare. I liked that place and its people from the very first day.

Meanwhile Andree arrived and she is still struggling with the Jet Lag she brought from Australia. Today we went to purchase our food for the next two weeks. The amounts of money you need to pay here are still something to get used to; all in all, we paid almost thirty million bucks. Nokhutula’s aunt Teresa, who is living in the same house with the Masiwas, carried the money in a big plastic bag and the cashier sent her to a special counter for large amounts since the money wouldn’t fit into his own…

Right now I’m sitting in my favourite chair on the terrace, with the view over the garden and its majestic trees. It looks like it will rain soon. I’m drinking a cool beer, listen to Lady Blacksmith Mambazo and wonder what else I could write. But I think I’ll rather let it be for now and enjoy the moment…

4 Comments February 17, 2006

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