The main traffic light that filters vehicles turning right from Harare’s Avondale Shopping Centre always seems to take an inordinate amount of time to change from red to green. And like many things requiring patience, this is a strange and testing phenomenon for motorists in a city whose worn and constricted roads are primed for daily aggressive driving and manoeuvring.
For what feels like minutes, you watch as cars roar along the main thoroughfare then filter left in a perfect orchestra of timed light. But you remain waiting, indicator ticking like a frenetic clock, foot revving up the engine in anticipation; eyes fixed on sudden change, and not on the children who approach your half-opened window pleading for whatever money and food you can spare.
Perhaps I imagine that traffic light takes longer to turn green than the others I navigate. And perhaps it is just a function of nature that time always stretches in proportion to the level of discomfort one feels in a situation
Avondale Shopping Centre is one of the remaining hubs for shoppers who might be categorised as middle class, or at least aspiring towards that, to browse fairly decongested shop aisles or grab a late afternoon cappuccino with friends.
Unlike more distant upmarket destinations such as Chisipite or Borrowdale, Avondale is a more accessible suburb. Its proximity to the CBD makes it a quick five-minute trip by public transport (minibuses), or via the Japanese-imported second-hand cars that some use to service the public, squeezing passengers into every fathomable space, sometimes driving with the backdoor flung open to precariously accommodate one more.
At the same time as it reveals its appeal to Zimbabwe’s middle class and nouveau riche, this shopping centre – and it environs – is also a microcosm of Zimbabwe today. Across the road is a contemporary bar, its well-thought décor and mature ambiance appealing to locals and expatriates alike. Behind the shopping centre is a flea market where vendors rent out stalls to sell everything from second-hand books, crafts, clothes to old trillion dollar notes, hiking prices at the sound of a potential client’s foreign accent.
The shopping centre itself provides pertinent social commentary. The premises of one of the main supermarkets there, a member of a local historical chain, have stood derelict for over six months since the store’s eviction. A few metres away, a South African supermarket brand with strong local shareholding (in the company that owns the aforementioned local chain) is under construction. Additionally, a former minimart has been converted into a local branch of a popular South African café franchise. And what was once a movie theatre for young people to enjoy stolen lustful moments, now serves as venue for hire for events including mid-week Pentecostal church services.
All the while, vendors move up and down the potholed parking bays, attempting to entice shoppers to punnets of blushing plums, chunky steering wheel covers, flamboyant brooms and self-published books on successful relationships. At Christmas, a few also move around with synthetic Christmas trees and tinsel, attempting to appeal to those who might still nurture holiday sensibilities.
In many ways, the late popular Zimbabwean musician, Chiwoniso Maraire, could have been singing about this place in her song, ‘Iwai Nesu’, an exhortation to God with allegoric reference to Zimbabwe.
“Vamwe vaparara nenzara, vamwe vachifa nekuguta,” she sings to the doleful thrum of the mbira. “Iwai nesu Mwari Baba.”
“Some are dying from hunger, while others are dying from overeating. God be with us.”
Of course, class divisions have always existed in Zimbabwe, but our fractured socio-political space continues to exacerbate these schisms that somehow co-exist with frightening ease.
Each person knows the limits of their space. Each accepts their boundaries.
This, in many ways, is unlike the Zimbabwe I lived through in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, a period now crystallised in many minds through memories of widespread commodity shortages, political unrest and a rampant cholera outbreak. Then, a tenuous unity formed around lack, uncertainty and fear. Rich or poor, we all converged in the same snaking lines for bread, sugar and cash, to register to vote. We largely worried little about an extended future, and focused, rather, on tomorrow, the next meal, the next drop in the Zimbabwe dollar.
Back then, it seemed there were copious – if not excessive – amounts of time for conversation, for mournful laughter; for empathy.
But the US dollarisation of the economy, and the general abundance of basic foodstuffs today, means that Zimbabweans have once more returned to their stratifications and ever-widening rifts between realities. Now, there is little time for conversation or recognition of the self in the other. The mirror we hold to each other’s plights now only reflects for those on the outside looking in.
Unity. It is a word found in different eras of Zimbabwe’s history; a tenuous 2009 unity government formed to share power between the nation’s warring main political parties, a 1987 Unity Accord to end years of more political splintering, perceived dissidence and the genocidal massacre of many as a result. Unity Day, commemorated every 22nd of December, but so close to Christmas to largely go by unnoticed.
And yet it is disunity – political, social and cultural – that marks Zimbabwe, the current factionalism in the ruling ZANU-PF party underscoring the narrative of self-interest and self-protection that pervades this nation space. What we have witnessed in the past few months reminds us of how hollow this word ‘unity’ has come to sound, and how so often it is appropriated for quick-fix solutions at the cost of deeper introspection and will.
I dislike the traffic light at the shopping centre because, in many ways, it forces me to confront my position of privilege in a society where so many suffer the daily indignities of severe lack. Often, that pensive stop comes after I have deflected a number of pleas; one from a vendor willing even to let me take a set of her lace food covers on credit, another from a woman with a baby strapped to her back who begs for a dollar so she can get some lunch. And now, here, as I wait for the green light a boy ushering his blind mother, a chipped enamel cup in hand to gather any loose change.
“I don’t have any money.”
“I am also struggling to get by.”
Our learned responses belie the weight of the boots that rattle and groan with our just-purchased groceries as we drive away. Some feel that the state’s abdication from its responsibilities should not filter down to any one citizen; in other words, our lack of care is vindicated by the fact that the situations we experience are not products of our making. We are all victims; our unity can be claimed in that, and nothing more.
Oftentimes people speak of when things “get better” in Zimbabwe in reference to a change in political fortunes. Within those discussions, hardly any attention is paid to our compromised social and moral fabric; our empathy, that most important currency that steadily devalues and wanes.
Finally, the light flashes green, instantly returning me to my own life’s issues.
How quickly we forget.