In no order of importance, here are some images and vignettes of things I love in Z’s homeland. You’ve already had tea with Skampy and met his family and the wildlife, so don’t look for those here, though they are all at the top of the list.
Senior Citizen Express Lines
Much of African culture venerates the elderly, which is probably something Western society could benefit from. One of the manifestations of this is that in Zimbabwe senior citizens can move to the front of the queue. This has been particularly helpful to Z-ma when she has to get a new passport or driver’s license. The lines can snake around the likes of which I’ve only seen at amusement parks when a new, terrifying ride has opened.
Z-ma delights in her ability to slap down her move-to-the-head-of-the-line trump card. Most places recognize and honor this, but sometimes the cashiers at TM are less inclined. Often, the lines there are not that long, and my preference would be to stand in them because I don’t like to cause a fuss. But Z-ma happily announces to the cashier that she should be allowed to move to the front of the line, and if the cashier balks, Z-ma says forcefully, “I am a senior citizen. This is the law of Zimbabwe!” Z-ma is a school teacher. You do not question her authority. She moves to the head of the line and I slink into the background as best I can because I just know people are looking at me thinking, “You aren’t a senior citizen. Why are you allowed to go in front of me.” But honestly, I’m just carrying the TM bags. I swear.
Before I was willing to eat this popular Zimbabwean snack, I asked my sister-in-law what they tasted like. She wrinkled up her brow and said, “I dunno, Beth. Thingz, I guess. They just taste like Thingz.”
It turns out there is a lot not to know about Thingz. For instance, I don’t know what these are other than a crunchy corn snack. I don’t know why a Zimbabwean snack brands itself with someone dressed in a poncho and sombrero with the message “The Spicy Siesta Snack for Desperadoes.” I don’t know who got the bright idea for guys to sell these in the streets with newspapers and air time, nor do I know who rolls down their car window and buys a bag from a street vendor (though I think the packaging might make them impossible to resist—so blue, so yellow, so shiny!). I don’t know what it is about them that made the bag become magically vacuum sealed on the flight back to America. Most importantly, I don’t know why some American company hasn’t started importing these babies. They’re just that good.
Because of the amazing climate in Zimbabwe (read: too warm for me, but really not as hot as you are probably imagining Africa is), there seems to be a consistent array of fruit growing in Z-ma’s yard. While here, we’ve had mulberries, pawpaw (papaya), and oranges. Soon, there will be bananas and peaches. Later there will be mangoes, and lemons. And this is to say nothing of the vegetables. Generally speaking, I’m so busy devouring Thingz and Z-ma’s excellent cooking that I forget to eat fruit, but the thought that you can walk out your door and pluck breakfast from a tree all year round is pretty amazing.
No One Cares if I Brush My Hair
No One Cares if I Wear Make-up
Mini-buses (or commuter buses) are a significant mode of transportation. A lot of the people walking that we pass when we drive into Harare are waiting to be picked up by one or have just been dropped off. They look to be built to hold about nine people if strapped in by American safety standards, but in Zimbabwe, the buses are packed full. I get claustrophobic just looking at one as there seems not to be an inch of space. If I imagine being on one, I instantly think of breathing apparatus I’d want with me (a SCUBA tank or at least a bendy straw) to ensure I get my fair share of oxygen. As much as I don’t want to walk very far, I want to ride in one of these even less. Aside from being crowded and the frequency with which they are targeted at roadblocks by the police, the driving is often dubious. These are vehicles on the road from which you try to keep some in no small part because of the erratic driving.
What I do love about them are the names that are often painted on the sides, making one bus stand out from another. Here is a list of some of my favorites:
- Shine on Quality Time
- Character is Destiny
- Red Carpet
- God with us is the Best
- Smile Times
- Rocket Missile
- Promised Land
- Sir George
- Royal Comfort
- Hit Them Up
- One Drop
- Never Say Never
- You Never Know
- Next Time
- God of Mercy
- Title Contender
Out of all of these, my favorite, though I can’t say why, is “Super Wesley.”
American Money in Zimbabwe
To combat hyperinflation a few years ago, Zimbabwe adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency. (This helped curb the 6.5 sextillion inflation rate that was recorded in late 2008, and made it easier to buy a loaf of bread because Z-ma no longer had to take millions and millions of Zim dollars to the store.) Until this happened, I had no idea that a country could just decide to start using U.S. dollars. I still have no real idea about how it is that Zimbabwe gets U.S. dollars to use, because I thought when U.S. money got too tatty, it was sent to Fort Knox and incinerated. But apparently not because this is the nastiest, limpest, dirtiest, most torn and nearly indecipherable bunch of bank notes you have ever seen. I defy any of you to take a dollar out of your wallet and try to make it look like this.
40 Cork Road
The first time we visited this café, I confess I was in it for the internet connection and could have cared less about the food, the gift shop, or the ambience. As soon as we pulled up, I was surprised to see a man guarding the parking lot in khaki safari outfit complete with pith helmet. He stands outside the place, watching your vehicle to make sure no one interferes with it, and then he directs you as you reverse onto the road. For this service, you give him a tip of a couple of those tatty US dollars, and it is money well spent.
Inside the terracotta colored walls that keep you unaware of the traffic outside, there is house/gift shop, and a lot of outdoor seating under the trees and on the verandah. The grass is like a thick carpet and all around it they’ve placed objet d’art that you can buy in the gift shop. My favorites this time are a bunch of little metal hedgehogs that appear to be streaming through a tunnel, as if they are in a hurry to get somewhere. There are also metal chickens, butterflies, and song birds nestled amongst the sofas and tables that are scattered on the grass, as if having such furniture outdoors is perfectly normal.
We almost always get baked goods and tea here, all of it delicious, and then I poke around the gift shop and try to justify yet another bag, this one made out of bottle caps. (I can’t. It stays at Cork Road.)
The other thing I love here is the sink in the ladies’ loo. It’s too beautiful to be there purely for hand washing.
Perhaps what I love most about it is that I’ve been there enough now that I feel like a regular, which is a good way to feel when you are in a land that isn’t your own.
How People Believe Peaceful Sleep will keep Mosquitoes at Bay
When I mention that I’m being plagued by mosquitoes, more than one person innocently asks if I’ve tried the insect repellent Peaceful Sleep. Not only have I tried it, I apply it regularly. Even so, my ankles and legs are covered with approximately forty bites. From a single night in Z-ma’s lounge without long pants. When I am itching, it annoys me, but when I am not, I appreciate the sincerity of their belief.
In America, I loathe the idea, but here and in Ireland and England, I’m forced to admit that the kids just look smarter when they’re dressed in uniforms.
The news Z-ma gets is France 24, a sort of French version of BBC news that that is presented in English primarily by Irish newscasters. While I’m here there is a lot of American saber rattling because of the situation in Syria, and it is interesting to hear the news from a perspective that is ever so slightly more critical of U.S. foreign policy than I would be hearing at home. It’s subtle, but it’s different.
And also, I will never understand centigrade. All the years I spent learning the metric system in elementary school because the U.S. was supposedly going to convert were a waste. Not one piece of info aside from “based on ten” latched onto my brain cells. I have a better memory of the cartoon characters in the textbook that were meant to promote metric learning than of the actual calculations.
I gather thirty is hot, yet when I hear it, I wish I had my fleecy boots.
Making a Plan
Zimbabweans are famous both for using the phrase “make a plan” and for actually doing the plan making. Americans might use some version of this phrase and they are masters of planning parties, planning their finances, and planning escape routes, but this is different. In the US, it’s about the future and how to keep things safe and secure. In Zimbabwe, it’s more about making a plan to deal with something unexpected that has arisen. Z used this phrase for the first time when he proudly told me that he’d made a plan during a particularly bad water shortage to water the parched garden with used bathwater. Z-ma’s house is testament to Zimbabwean plan making: if the electricity goes out, there’s an invertor that relies on a car-like battery that offers enough power for a light and her television. The act of taking a shower involves plan-making so elaborate that Z and I won’t take one until we get the nod from her: the geyser (water heater) has to be turned on so there is plenty of hot water, but then you have to judge when the city water was most likely to be on so you can cool the scalding water enough to shower. If the water is not on, then you have to consider a bath that has been cooled with fresh water that is kept in buckets lining the walls of the bathroom. Making a plan is essential if you want to survive in Zimbabwe.
For reasons that include my father and a few misdirected box turtles in the middle of an Indiana road at pertinent times in my life, the turtle is my power animal. It’s not very fierce, but they move thoughtfully, get where they are going, and carry their homes on their back. Because I’m from Indiana and turtles there have feet not fins, I call them all turtles and not tortoises. (Turtle is just a better, less French word.) Despite having shown Z actual documentation that sometimes turtles have real feet and walk on land, he insists I call them tortoises, which I only do when in Zimbabwe because it seems polite. In addition to a turtle necklace Z gave me when we were courting, I travel with a stuffed turtle named ShellE who has been photographed on most of the trips I’ve taken in the last four years. (That’s her with the big guy up above. In case it is unclear, ShellE is the one on the left.)
Z-ma has three tortoises in her yard. One is a great big strapping fellow who greeted me last time with this quick parade around his pen, as if he were saluting me. On this visit, he mostly stays in his shell, but I’m not feeling too bitter about this because apparently tortoises aren’t very active in winter. The second tortoise lives with the larger one and is medium sized. It reminds me most of the ones I grew up with. It’s shell is kind of roundy and marbled.
And then there is the latest addition. A tortoise so small that her name had to be Tiny. For Tiny, multiple plans have been made to ensure her survival. Her pen is closest to the house and has a cover over it so no bird of prey will swoop down and grab her. At night, Eunice brings her into the house in a covered box that is placed where the dirty dishes used to go. The dirty dishes quit going there when, one morning, Tiny was covered in ants that had been attracted by whatever deliciousness was still on the dirty plates.
My favorite tortoise anecdote from my mother-in-law’s, involves the lettuce that she grows there that the tortoises are fed. Z-ma particularly likes rocket, and one day she suggested to Eunice that perhaps the tortoises would like it too. Eunice was dubious, took a bite of the rocket, and spit it out, saying, “No Madam, the tortoises will not like this.” And thus Tiny and her comrades were saved from having to feast on this bitter leaf.
It’s different than Irish thatch and different than English thatch. I love them all.
It looks a bit rude, but you say it “cook sister” and it is a twisted, syrupy pastry that Z-ma makes for Z whenever he comes home and which he graciously shares with me. If I were a better wife, I’d learn how to make them but instead I’ll take him to Krispy Kreme and we’ll try to satisfy our longing with an original yeast donut. (It’s not the same.)
Visiting with Friends
Friends anywhere are special and life is unreliable for everyone, but there is something about the tenuous nature of life in Zimbabwe that makes friendships seem more precious. Almost none of Z’s friends from his youth are still in country, and many of Z-ma’s friends and family have either left the country or have moved from her small town into the city. When we spend time with Z-ma’s friends, it seems almost holy. First, I must confess that part of my love of these friends is that they treat Z and me like rock stars. Because they know how important time with family is, they are happy that we are here with Z-ma for three weeks. But beyond feeling like we are HRH William and Kate on tour, these women are fun. They might be talking about whether or not they’ve had Zesa or their most recent fine for some made-up traffic violation, but they are lovely, funny and kind. Because I’m an introvert, I find myself shocked by how drawn to them I am, and I’m uncertain why I feel attached to people I’ve barely known and who are so different than I am. One of the few disappointments of this trip is that one of the key players has been away having those medical tests, and so we’ve missed our chance to really visit with her.
Z tells me that the Zimbabwe of his youth did not require the high grass or cement walls around a yard, topped with razor wire or bits of angry, broken glass. Intruders were rare. I assume that the walls went up during the war that waged during his childhood, but he assures me it wasn’t until much later. I find this very difficult to fathom because, though the walls can make life here seem isolated, there is a peace and privacy behind these high walls that you don’t find in many American yards. Z’s brother and family live in Harare and I was surprised by how quiet it was, how safe I felt sitting outside (with my feet soaking in a bucket of water), looking at the gorgeous flowers and plants. The outdoor spaces here are as much a part of the home as are the indoor rooms.
My Father-in-Law’s Roses
One of these roses magically appears in my bedroom on a regular basis. I like to think Z-dad and I would have had something to talk about since I’m from a town that was once the world’s largest supplier of roses. Unlike so many roses these days that are scentless, these smell wonderful.
The Writing Desk Z-Ma Created for Me
I had no idea what to expect from something called an in-law when I got married. Based on TV shows, nothing much good. Instead, I got a woman who sneaks roses into my room, who doesn’t make me feel judged for my tedious, picky eating, and who surprised me with this writing space–Z’s old table covered with one of his beloved aunt’s table cloths. Blue is my favorite color. Note the tortoises in the upper right corner. First there was one and then the other two arrived. “They’re a little family,” she said. Indeed.
I could compile a list of things that are my least favorite, crocodiles being at the top of the list, followed shortly by other reptiles and insects and power outages, but the truth is, even my least favorite things give me a new perspective, and it’s good to have my cage rattled.
Pardon me. Z and I have to go make a plan about our last few days in Zimbabwe.