The Zimbabwe I know is the one before 2002. It was the Zimbabwe where Bata Shoe Company made shoes , proper shoes. I remember the moccasins. My favourite shoes. Bata Shoe Company hummed and roared 24/7 right across from the smoke billowing furnaces of the Zimbabwe Alloys. Men in over-alls on foot, on bikes and busses made endless streams in and out of these factories 365days a year dusk through to dawn. I did not have an alarm in those days. These men passed by my house like clock work waking me up at 5am each day, chatting loudly about anything from women to last night’s beer brawl, as they made their way to shift. The long snake like procession of bicycles took a short cut through the bushes and by 7am had all but disappeared. Their bicycles parked under tin roof sheds in neat rows just by the entrances to their work places. The same men could be found manning machines at Anchor yeast, Kariba batteries Bata and Zimcast and others. They fed furnaces, drilled holes in metal rods or moulded iron pots. Every grand mother owned one of those 3 legged pots. You can’t beat the taste of a road-runner fried in one of those pots, but woe unto you if one fell on your toe!! Some lugged huge crates of finished products onto lorries and goods trains for sale far and wide. Others sat in airy offices generating invoices and payslips.
The men emerged again in the evening covered in soot, oil and other debri- scars of their trade- to make their procession back past my house to their homes or to the local beer hole. The sky filled with a mixture of smoke, the smell of yeast, coal and tanned leather. From across the western suburbs these odours mingled with the foul smell of sewage. The result was a dizzying, sickening, pungent, smell that only Hell has a word for. There was no talk of environmental pollution back then. In fact the smog was quite reassuring. It spelt paycheck. It is the only way people of the suburbs could reconcile themselves with it.
So imagine the shock and disbelief when I returned home almost 10years later. No smoke. The smell of yeast gone. No men on bicycles. Machines silenced. Even the open sewage ponds had been drained. In their place was green corn!! Green corn grown in former sewage ponds! Well I never…..The decay along what was Bristol road nearly killed me. I sobbed. I felt robbed. The edges of the tarmac had been eaten away and pot holes dominated huge chunks of the road. Disrepair was everywhere. At the once pristine CMED old drums and spilt oil greeted you from the road. From time to time my father made a detour round pot holes and drove on the verges. My father could have won gold at the world pothole-dodging games ,if ever there was such a sport. Reader, you have to see him drive to believe it.
A forlorn man pushed a ramshackle cart full of mealies along the road. Most likely a harvest from the sewage ponds. I heaved. For the whole stay in my home town I would not eat corn. The man had abandoned the once busy cycle track, now colonized by weeds and long unkempt grass ,opting instead to push his cart on the road. This wouldn’t happen in the Zimbabwe I knew. At the turn that led to my former home a group of women in uniform gathered conspiratorially, eyes darting over their shoulders, maybe gossiping about the Pastor’s wife. A smile crossed my face, momentarily reminiscing about those good old days in Zimbabwe when Men of the cloth and their families were cannon fodder for gossip especially after a women’s church meeting.
How did we get here, I asked my father as he drove his car to join a long queue of cars. Men stood aimlessly outside their cars chatting. Some snoozed in their cars. Others hid behind newspapers to avoid small talk with strangers. These queues had replaced the long winding lines of men on bicycles heading to work. I wondered what they all needed the fuel for. Hmmm. Here I was stuck in a queue staring at my manicured fingernails. Maybe I shouldn’t have bothered, I thought ruefully to myself. All we wanted was fuel. For that we had to join a queue.
What is this? Where is Zimbabwe? Did I land in a foreign land? ‘You will get used to it.’ said my father with a knowing thin smile that failed miserably to reach his cheeks. I changed the subject. I have been doing this with every visit now. Some could say burying my head in the sand. We are good at this, us Zimbabweans. Every one says with each swallow of dust, ‘it is what it is.