Driving in Harare

Harare, the so-called Sunshine City, is a place with many faces. Zimbabwe’s capital and largest city, Harare is a city full of poverty and ostentation, of inequality and privilege, of creativity and old thinking, new and broken industries, and the ever restless energy. It’s the site of the Kopje, that hill where British settlers hoisted the Union Jack and created the colony that was Southern Rhodesia. Where Mbuya Nehanda, that legendary freedom fighter, lived her last moments, hanging from a tree that used to stand in the city’s central business district. The home of lavish leafy suburbs and elite private schools, with their haughty walls and pristine lawns. The site of squatter camps and crumbling infrastructure. A complex and enticing city, wrapped in a bow of success and corruption.

It had been five months since I’d been in my home city, the place where I was born, grew up in, and plan to live in after I graduate and gain employment. Studying outside Zimbabwe, I shuttle back and forth between home and school at least twice a year. There are moments when I crave Harare, the many little things that colour its landscape. The sound of the traffic, the hooting of impatient drivers and street hawkers. The undertone of smoke and something equally nasty in the air. The trees that crop up between buildings and the jacarandas that dust the street with purple. The warm, almost always cloudless sky. Even the billboards.

I like to think that I know Harare pretty well, both as a pedestrian and a driver. If I’m not running errands, I’m shotgunning with my mother as she runs errands. As familiar as the city is, and as much as I am aware of the stark divides that run through its streets, there are moments when Harare still manages to surprise me with just how different it can be.

Nothing illustrates this like the drive to and from Harare International Airport. Located just outside the city’s parameters, the airport is the gateway into the big city. As I lean back in the passenger seat, I get a view of the road before me. Finally the airport highway is complete. It had been under construction for the past three years, and I thought it would take another three for the highway project to be done. I’m pleasantly surprised, and quietly chastise myself for thinking so little of my city. The wide road is immaculate: no trace of broken streetlights, smooth even tarred surface, absent of potholes. Solar-powered streetlights line the middle of the road. They look new and shiny and impressive, and unlike their older counterparts in the inner city, these streetlights aren’t decorated with posters promoting music events and healing ministries. Driving down the airport road is a breeze and it’s a pleasant welcome home. It’s pleasantly cool today, and I roll down the window. The small sculpture garden whizzes past my vision. I manage to capture a glimpse of the granite pieces of art. It reminds me of the sculpture garden in Warren Park, a suburb not too far from where I live. Not for the first time, I promise to buy one of the little sculptures for myself. My mother takes advantage of the airport highway, the speedometer needle sitting comfortably at 100km/hr mark. The army barracks approach. I squint against the glare of the sun and see two soldiers standing by the entrance. They’re in full gear, arms cradling a weapon. I turn away and look at the landscape looming ahead. Harare’s skyscrapers now come into view, and the taller ones are pretty easy to identify. There’s Joina City Mall, and that’s the Reserve Bank a little in the distance, with one or two buildings that I can’t quite make out. Nothing has changed for the past few years. No new additions, no change to infrastructure. A few tweaks here and there, but nothing significant enough to stand out in my memory. Harare’s a developed but stagnant city.

We reach the roundabout and turn left. Some instances we continue straight on, using the route that passes through Arcadia. Today my mother decides to take the route through Mbare, the faster route. As we drive through Mbare, the roads become fuller. All manner of cars swerve and speed around us – trucks, lunchbox cars, 4x4s, brands whose names are unfamiliar. Pedestrian traffic increases as well.  Some of the more daring ones weave through the cars to cross the road. Most wait for the road to clear to cross. It’s louder here too, courtesy of a blend of hooting cars, music playing somewhere in the distance, and the brisk business in Mbare Musika going on around us. To the left, to the right, straight ahead – Mbare Musika encompasses every part of this leg of my journey. I’ve been here before, at different times and different days. In the dead of the night when once again I come back home from school, with not a soul in sight and the inky black punctuated by a street light here and there. In the early morning before the world’s woken up, when vendors and customers are only just getting to the market. And right now, in the afternoon, in one of many peak rush hours, where cars are squeezed together bumper to bumper. I don’t mind the delay: it gives me more time to drink it all in, to experience a side of Harare that I don’t often get to see.

We pull up to a traffic light, and to my right is one of the prettiest murals I’ve ever seen. It completely covers one face of the block of flats. Two smiling faces greet me. They’re both familiar and foreign, two young children immortalised in a picture of carefree existence. My mind drifts to the occupants of that building and the others like it. My mother tells me that these apartment blocks were once posh living spaces for civil servants back in the 1980s. That was almost three decades ago. The buildings show the strain of overpopulation, with flats built for single tenants occupying families consisting of at least 3 people.

The traffic light turns green. The car inches forward, only for my mother to slam the brakes. A car from the left whizzes past, trying to beat the light. We both scowl and continue driving unperturbed. Harare roads are well-known for showing no mercy. After spending months in pedestrian-friendly Grahamstown, I’m re-calibrating my brain to adjust to the unpredictability of Harare drivers. My mother’s foot relaxes on the pedal and we go along at a pleasant speed. We’re venturing past the industrial side of the city. It’s a mere snapshot of the interior, but there are enough factories and plants to remind me of the industries. I think back to the memories I have of that place as a child: machines humming, people walking to and fro, and puffs of smoke in the air – a symbol of work, but something that I now understand to be damaging to the environment. I don’t see much of that activity anymore. There are remnants of it here and there, but it’s a shadow of its former self. I shake my head and instead focus on the cemetery to my left. It was old even when I was a child, and I haven’t called myself that in over 10 years. Some of the graves look poorly maintained, giant cracks visible on the slabs. Some are in danger of caving in. Others stand out thanks to their tombstones. Not all the graves have tombstones. An ornate cross with glittery granite sparkles in the afternoon sun. A stone angel stands over its charge, frozen in its eternal vigil. Despite the noise and movement around it, the cemetery has an air of stillness to it, like the place that time forgot. It’s one of the oldest cemeteries in Harare. A little pocket of history in a city that is a slave to the past yet is relentless in its pursuit of modernity.

I drink in my city. Each time I come home for school break, it’s as if I’m getting to know Harare all over again, its hidden corners, its dark secrets, its deceptively sunny disposition. The car jolts and snaps me out of the spell. We’ve hit another pothole-riddled patch of road. My mother manoeuvres effortlessly around them, slowing down her speed as she zig-zags through the road. Other cars behind and in front of us follow suit. These potholes are particularly nasty, with edges that dip sharply into their crater-like centre. My mother scowls as she drives, squinting her eyes and leaning forward. I recline in my seat, watching industry morph into suburbia. There are more trees now, tall large trees that seem perpetually green, no matter how hot or dry it is. Grey durawalls line the road, and I get a glimpse of the city centre before my mother turns away from that road.

We’re five minutes from home now. I drum my fingers against the window, my interest in the surroundings dwindling. It had been months since I’d last seen my neighbourhood, but like the route that we used to take to school every day, the road is etched into my brain. Even now as I close my eyes, the image of that avenue remains intact, unaffected by time and distance. We drive down Church Street. It’s not really called Church Street, but that’s the name we use to describe this particular part of the suburb. There are churches everywhere, lining the road, with billboards and adverts pronouncing the power and glory of their respected pastors and prophets. I see my first primary school, Louis Mountbatten. I haven’t been there in 15 years, I can hardly remember anything from the three years that I was a pupil there. It’s said that Prince Charles himself came to ring the school bell – the first time that it was ever rung. It’s not quite as swanky as it used to be. Government schools especially took a hit when Zimbabwe’s economy went belly up. Private schools were cushioned by their longstanding tradition of elitism and wealthy patrons. However, Louis Mountbatten hasn’t fared nearly as badly, it still has its reputation for good academics and work ethic. The checkered blue uniform still looks mighty impressive, a far more flattering uniform than the Peter Pan collared dress I had to wear when I moved to another school.

In my mind, my neighbourhood has never really been part of Harare. It’s a distinct separate place all in its own. That’s my suburb kid mentality speaking – my mother always jokes that “inini ndakakurira muHarare, iwewe wakakurira mumasuburb” (I grew up in Harare, you grew up in the suburbs). It’s a fair observation. My mother came to Harare in the late 1970s. She’s lived in its ghettos, its high-density areas, its swanky neighbourhoods. She’s worked and hustled and scraped a living in this city. She knows its every nook and cranny, from Samora Machel Avenue – one of Harare’s longest and most famous roads – to one of hundreds of little tributary streets shooting off the main roads. I grew up in a suburb, in a quiet enclosed community, never having to really venture beyond its confines. I struggle to remember street names, navigating my way by using landmark buildings. I realise just how little I know of the city I say I’m proud of. Once again, I remind myself of how classist the divisions in Harare can be, and how I feed into that division by essentially sequestering myself to areas that fit with my social class. How can I be proud of Harare when I’ve only had a surface-level experience of it?

As the car pulls into our driveway I make a silent vow to see more and do more in my city. I could no longer lock myself behind our house gate and pretend as if the rest of the city doesn’t exist. There comes an age where ignorance becomes intentional, when you have the means to educate yourself on something and choose not to, one can no longer blame outside influences. It would be a whole five weeks until it was time to leave my home again, more than enough time to at least start the process of immersing myself into Harare. I love my city. It’s a fact I only realised after I was separated from it the first time. With all its complexities and nuances, its drive and energy matches my own. I’m a product of Harare. I’m an heir to its rich history. And I’m responsible for its future. I breathe in the city air and savour its many little scents. The displacement I felt in Grahamstown is gone now, I’m back where my body belongs. Welcome to Harare. Welcome home.

Feature image sourced from www.experiencezimbabwe.com

One comment

  1. Lovely article – brought back memories. I also went to louis mountbatten primary – but in the 70s. hadn’t heard about prince charles windsor ringing the first bell, but he did visit us in 1980. i presented him with a visitors’ book, headteacher was mr ragadoo – nasty chap.


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