Six-Thirty a.m., Kenyatta Avenue and Kimathi Street, Nairobi. Standing on the corner, waiting for a ride. The clouds were underlit by the rising sun, peach and blue. We were headed for Harare.
This was way back, 1995, before the world decided Robert Mugabe was a monster, and we though “Ahh, Zimbabwe…the land of Bobby Mugabe…. Officially, His Excellency the Honorable President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, CDE Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
The "Sunshine City" lived up to its name…brilliant sun, no humidity – clear, crisp light. Harare perched atop the highveld, twelve or 1500 meters above sea level. We were speaking Shona now – thank you was datenda, beer was wa wa.
As we flew in, cumulus puffs played shadows across agricultural heartland. Occasional hillocks. The main crops were tobacco and maize, but there was also wheat, cotton, citrus, diary and what they call "commercial wildlife production."
The altitudes moderated the tropical temperatures. A perfect climate, and at only 650,000 people, a manageable size, with gracious wide boulevards, a compact center and prim, polite suburbs where properties were trimmed with hedges. It looked like Schaumberg, Illinois, or maybe a suburb of St. Louis.
We had business. We needed airline tickets to Victoria Falls. We needed a hotel there, to find the American Express office to buy money, and film. We took a room at the venerable Miekles (say nickels with an m) Hotel.
How else to start such a busy business day? We sampled the local beer at the Miekles bar. Listening to the Out of Africa soundtrack CD at the wood and wicker bar with Zambesi beers might sound hackneyed if you're used to it, but we weren't.
By three we had cash, film, air tickets and a room in Victoria Falls for tomorrow.
Department stores – Barbour's and Truworth's and Greaterman's. Between two extended stays in the bush, we went wild. The personal care section – Shield Zimbabwe deodorant. Some hair care product licensed by Clairol out of Johannesburg. Glent Lotion ("An American formula"). Preen soap.
Brentoni Italy expensive boutique. "American Express Cards Welcome" all over town. No begging except a few kids along the First Avenue pedestrian mall – and a policeman shooed them away. Some of these people did the shorts and high socks, Bermuda-style routine. It looked no less silly here. Trash cans to keep the streets clean. Smiling people. Good climate. Livable.
A (metered) taxi driver asked if it was our first time in Zimbabwe. I said yeah but don't drive us around aimlessly to run up the meter on account of that. He turned. "No, I would not. That would be stealing."
Kenya had had independence since 1962, Zimbabwe since 1980. Depending on how you looked at it, Kenya had more time to build infrastructure – or Zimbabwe had less time to let it fall in. The land of Cecil Rhodes was well built by the Brits and turned over in good shape when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
Dinner wasn't very good. "Roots of Africa" boasted authentic local food. It couldn't've been served by a nicer, more smiling group of people. The setting was thatch and bamboo and traditional African print patterned tablecloths, open air with the grill visible through glass, out on the edge of downtown (Seventh Avenue). Chaka Khan on the juke.
But the food just didn't cut it. On the menu: matumbu (intestine), green grams (green bananas), sadza (thick porridge), rape and dovi (peanut butter). We both tried mokimo, a mash of potato, maize and beans, pry-your-lips-apart dry. Chicken stew, third world all the way, dark meat with a bone in every bite!
The most remarkable thing about Roots of Africa restaurant was their one, single, By God Urinal – a chest-high double-wide metal monolith.
Okay – maybe not a lot was happening in Harare back then. But Africa Unity Square was a sweet little green space between the parliament and the Anglican cathedral where they took Polaroids of rural folks who didn’t have cameras, standing and grinning by the fountain. It might not have been hip but it was gracious and it was sweet and I'd rather have been there than in Moi's Kenya.
Next: Up to Victoria Falls