All these headlines are from the past couple of days, but you've been seeing headlines like them for years now – long enough for a whole sub-genre of Zimbabwe memoir books to surface, with titles like:
House of Stone: The True Story of a Family Divided in War-Torn Zimbabwe,
Through the Darkness: A Life in Zimbabwe and
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa.
This photo is of a thriving downtown Harare in 1995. I remembered Harare fondly as a friendly city that worked, so I went back and found some of the things I wrote while visiting there, and to reread them today against the backdrop of those headlines is just astonishing.
We were on a three month trip around the world, visiting a couple dozen countries. Here are a few random notes from Harare, 1995:
– One of the real, pleasant surprises of the entire trip. The "Sunshine City" lived up to its name yesterday, brilliant sun and no humidity – clear, crisp light.
As we flew in, cumulus puffs played shadows across mostly green, flat farming fields, with only occasional hillocks. This is the rich agricultural heartland of Zimbabwe. The main crops are tobacco and maize, but there's also wheat, cotton, citrus, diary and what they call "commercial wildlife production."
The altitudes moderate the tropical temperatures. It's a perfect climate, and at only 650,000 people, it's a manageable size, with gracious wide boulevards, a compact center and prim, polite suburbs where property lines are trimmed with hedges. It looks rather like Schaumberg, Illinois, or a suburb of St. Louis. It's almost unsettling.
– By 3:00 we'd done everything we needed to. Replenished with cash, film, air tickets a room in Victoria Falls for tomorrow, and a fabulous hotel in the Miekles here in Harare. The Miekles is the nicest in town. It's great and gracious and listening to the Out of Africa soundtrack CD at the wood and wicker bar with Zambesi beers might be a bit hackneyed if you're used to it, but we aren't and it's great!
– Harare shows modest wealth, and because of the wide boulevards it doesn't feel close and busy like Nairobi. But then, at 650,000 versus 2,000,000, Harare is not as close and busy as Nairobi.
Department stores – Barbour's and Truworth's and Greaterman's – where we stocked up. The personal care section is a trip – Shield Zimbabwe deodorant. Some hair care product licensed by Clairol out of Jo'burg. Glent Lotion ("An American formula"). Preen soap.
Brentoni Italy expensive boutique. American Express Cards Welcome signs all over town. No begging except a few kids along the First Avenue pedestrian mall – and here a policeman shooed one away from us white tourists. Some of these people do the shorts and high socks, Bermuda-style routine. It looks no less silly here.
The Karigamombe Center, 54 Union Avenue ("A National Railways of Zimbabwe Pension Fund property"), is a big, indoor shopping arcade where we picked up locally crafted gifts for back home.
– There are trash cans on the streets and in general, it's the finest African city I've ever seen! Smiling people. Good climate. Livable.
Okay – maybe not a lot happens here. Here's a list of "sightseeing in Harare" from the What's On in March guidebook: Parliament of Zimbabwe, Civic Centre, University of Zimbabwe, National Archives, Harare City Library, Zimbabwe College of Music…. Yawn.
Okay, not much happens here but the Africa Unity Square is a sweet little pretty green space between the Miekles, the parliament and the Anglican cathedral where they'll endearingly take polaroids of you by the fountain, in case you're from the country and don't own a camera. It may not be hip but it's gracious and it's sweet and I'd rather be here than in Moi's Kenya.
– Notes from Harare, Zimbabwe, 1995.
There are still vestiges of tourism at the game parks in the north, and of course to Victoria Falls. You can still take the very nice Rovos Rail train journey from Pretoria to Vic Falls. But it's ironic: On our visit to Vic Falls in 1995 we walked across the bridge over the Zambezi River for the novelty of a visit to Zambia. Nowadays, I suspect, a walk in the opposite direction for the novelty of a visit to Zimbabwe is just as likely.