Walk Like a Zimbabwean


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Since moving to Seattle, I’ve had to rethink walking because we didn’t bring my car with us.  Back home in Indiana, walking is something you do to get from your car to your mailbox. If you are super health conscious, you might go on walks around the neighborhood or at the mall with other “walkers,” but walking is usually a choice and rarely a mode of transportation (and if you are going to do it right, you’ll need special shoes!). Seattle, on the other hand, requires walking. Even if you do have a car, parking is so tedious that you’ll be walking to get to your destination unless you drive to the suburbs where parking spaces abound. This summer when I broke my toe for vain, lazy reasons (pretty shoes and a short cut I shouldn’t have taken), I discovered how important it is to keep feet happy and healthy now that I’m an urban dweller. If you don’t, you’re quickly relegated to shut-in status. That said, a big city like Seattle offers plenty of transportation options (buses! ferries! water taxis! street cars!) to get you where you need to be.

Zimbabwe, though, sheds a whole new light on walking. For the majority of the population this and mini-busses are simply the only way to get from Point A to Point B. There is no choice. No moral superiority about your decision to live car-free or how small your carbon footprint is. You just do it. Z’s family, fortunately, is a car family, so I’ve been able to cover a lot of terrain here, even if it is on the “wrong” side of the road. If they were a walking family, I’d be in the ER because of my uncalloused feet and inability to handle the sun shining on my head for extended periods.

The first time I was on the dual carriageway between Harare and Z-ma’s house, I couldn’t quite figure out who all these people were walking on the dusty sides of the road.  Had a concert or sporting event just let out somewhere? (At home, people walking along a road like this have either had car trouble so you should stop to help, or they are up to no good and so you should hit the gas.) I’d squint my eyes and stare at the people we passed: school kids in uniforms, men in dress pants and shirts, women in skirts with babies strapped to their backs with toweling, devout members of the apostolic sects here that are dressed completely in white that–despite the dust and the hours they spend seated penitently on rocks—seems to stay pristine, small children who look barely able to stand toddle after their mothers, mindful of the traffic that whizzes past them.

And the footwear? Definitely not expensive European engineering like my feet require if I’m to do any serious walking. In many cases, people are barefoot and seem completely oblivious to the pebbles, though I am regularly plagued by them.

So on our last day in his hometown when Z and I find ourselves at home without the truck, we decide to walk down to the shops to pick up a few items to take back to America and to check on the status of the shoes he’s having mended by the cobbler. It’s warm and the tree canopy between his house and where I know the turn off for the shops is looks nonexistent.  Winter has just ended, after all, so things haven’t greened up yet. He says it’s a ten minute walk, but I can tell from looking it’s going to take me a half hour. He suggests I stay home and he’ll run our errands, but despite all the things out there—including mosquitos and stray dogs of dubious temperament—I want the experience of really walking for something I need.

Z may be a native of Zimbabwe, but we both look like two big, pale, sweaty Americans after ten minutes. We both have on our “Life is Good” caps that I bought for our honeymoon at a garage sale, sunglasses, the pastiness that comes with a layer of sunscreen, and athletic shoes. The people we pass are just dressed for whatever the activities of their day require—they don’t have special walking costumes like the ones we’ve fashioned.

It’s a straight shot from Z-ma’s house to the shops, and so we walk and talk. Past Florence Nighten Girl’s School, past the Mimosa Flats that were built for workers at a platinum mine some years ago, past houses that used to belong to the neighbors of Z’s childhood but now belong to strangers, past the houses that are late additions that fill up the space that used to be where Z and his brother caught butterflies.

We talk about how it was then and how it is now, and this is one of the qualities I love about Z most: his ability to be perfectly content in the present moment. Were we walking in my hometown, I would be kvetching the whole time about how it wasn’t like it used to be, that houses had gotten dumpier, that trees had been cut down, that old buildings had been demolished. Basically, I’d be lamenting that it wasn’t still 1955 even though I wasn’t even alive in 1955. But he, who can remember a time when the houses didn’t need huge walled fences topped with razor wire and a time when his country functioned more smoothly, well, he doesn’t complain. He says, “What can you do?”

The only thing that kind of riles him is the amount of litter that lines the road.  In some places, it appears that every empty chip packet and soda bottle in the country has found a final resting place along the street of his youth.

Our first stop at the shops is the cobbler’s little hunk of real estate against the back wall where we hope to collect Z’s teaching shoes. The big question in our minds is not will he be there but will the shoes be ready and wearable. So when we turn the corner expecting to see his little bench with tools and Z’s shoes, gleaming in the sun, we’re a bit surprised to see that a thatched awning with a pool table underneath it is sitting approximately where the cobbler was when we dropped the shoes off. In the few days since the shoes were handed over, an entire structure has cropped up and the cobbler has been displaced.

Z scratches his head. We look around and see no sign of him in any other recess. Hmmm.

We stop at the shop that the family friends own and mention that the cobbler isn’t on his post. Z’s friend says, “Oh, he packs up and goes to the rural area to mend shoes sometimes. He’s usually gone a few days. Maybe he’ll be there tomorrow.” Tomorrow is it. We leave tomorrow. Z may be getting those new shoes I’ve been pushing him towards after all.

We visit briefly and asking after the friend’s mother who is “down south” undergoing some medical tests. She tells us that the results were good, and we rejoice, and then we instantly lament the fact that we won’t be able to see her before we leave. She and her other daughter arrive at the airport around the same time we’ll be departing.  We say goodbye and head off to the grocery to pick up a few items, and start the walk back home.

For the most part, as we walk under that big, hot sun, no one speaks to us. One person nods. Another says hello, but on the whole, we pass people and it is as if we are invisible to them. This is something that has consistently seemed odd to me on this trip. When I first met Z, he told me how friendly Zimbabweans are, and because of this, when we are driving and pass someone on the road (which is often), I lift the fingers of my left hand in that most Midwestern of road waves. Here, no one waves back, and eventually, I’ve not only quit waving, I’ve also quit making eye contact with the people we drive past. It reminds me of the transition I made from small, liberal arts Christian college where you couldn’t walk three paces without someone smiling and saying hello, to a big state school for my graduate program, where I once said hello to someone and nearly scared them to death, so rare was it to be greeted by a stranger. Eventually, I quit attempting friendliness there, and I’ve done the same here, at least with total strangers.

When we are halfway home, a group of school children, still in uniform, sees us and stares. One brave soul says in a small voice, “Good afternoon,” to which we reply, “Good afternoon.” Another little voice and another pipes up until it is a chorus of good afternoons. And then the giggling starts. It effervesces.

I don’t need an explanation for it because it is just a lovely moment shared between strangers. Though when Z gives me one possible interpretation once we are out of earshot, I am surprised.  It’s conceivable, he says, that we are the first white people these children have spoken to. This is something I hadn’t considered: myself as exotic animal, worthy of looking at or speaking to just by nature of being something different.  I’ve never imagined myself as the impetus for a childhood dare: you say something to them! No. You do it! This is something to add to the list of my own new experiences.

By the time we reach the gate, I’m hot. All I can think about is peeling off my walking layers and pouring some water over my head. Frank, the gardener, latches the gate behind us as we greet him and rub Skampy’s ears. Frank looks at me, beads of perspiration on my forehead, and says, “It’s very hot today!” Frank is not breaking a sweat himself, even though he has been outside trimming roses. We take our purchases into the kitchen where Eunice is working. She takes one look at my big red face and makes a tch tch sound. “It’s very hot today!” she says, disapprovingly.

This is the kind of Zimbabwean friendliness that I have come to love here, which is different than the friendliness of strangers. Neither of them is smirking. Neither of them is making me feel like it is my fault that I’m too out of shape from my life of Seattle bus riding and Indiana car riding to walk ¾ of a mile under a sun that is not really blazing at all. Neither of them seems to be condemning me for the soft life I lead. Instead, Eunice and Frank seem almost apologetic that Zimbabwe has made my cheeks so red and my forehead so sweaty.

And also, everyone seems to have genuine concern about the plight of Z’s AWOL shoes.

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