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Shebeen Tales: Messages from Harare

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'First World', 'Third World' and 'Fourth World' City

'Welcome to the city of Harare' the city fathers wrote on a large, beautiful signpost near the airport, positioned close to the independence arch carved out of some of the most expensive marble there is. The city of Harare indeed. If I were a city father, I would have written 'Welcome to the cities of Harare', for there are many cities in one, with different flavours, or personalities, if you want to put it that way.

'First World', 'Second World', 'Third World', those are the sections of this capital of nearly a million people, including the homeless who tend to settle on any open space available. They do so, creating another, maybe 'Fourth' or 'Fifth World'. But the police always get there sooner or later, with batons and handcuffs in their hands, to erase the squatter camps with the anger of fire if not bulldozers. That is probably their only way into the newspapers, the squatters whom no one claims as their relatives.

The inner city, the glamorous one where everyone wants to be, including the youth of the so-called 'nose brigade', those who try to speak English like 'real Englishmen' and 'Englishwomen'. They are here too, eating chicken and chips in the mushrooming 'fast food' shops designed and organised like any in London or New York. They are all here, in the centre of the real life of the city as dreamt many years ago by planners who saw this city as a mini-London or New York or Tokyo.

This is the 'First World' part of the city, with flashy cars, smartly dressed men and women purposefully rushing to some unknown nowhere at an incredible speed. The expensive cars, the flower-boys selling roses, the glittering shops well-fitted with neon lights to dazzle the night shopper, they are all here, then the wide streets, broad and clean, in which even a blind man could drive, for they are straight and arranged neatly in a pattern in which it is hard for anyone to get lost.

'First World' Harare is also where the expensive hotels are, demanding a jacket and tie even for a passer-by wanting to taste the rich Tanganda tea from the Eastern Highlands whose 'taste says share it', as the advertisements claim. As for wearing jeans in these hotels, forget it. Food vendors, those selling juicy oranges but without the advantage of a shop, are arrested and carted away, like sheep to the slaughter. Never mind, I say to myself, if I can't buy the nice
oranges today, I will buy some tomorrow, as the 'illegal vendors' always seem to find a way of intruding into the unadulterated 'First World' Harare where they are not wanted.

I do not shop in 'First World' Harare, but I go there anyway, to compare the prices, to locate what I want. 'First World' Harare, with its many fascinations, has the most expensive of anything. Ironically, there is 'First' Street, the busiest shopping centre of the city, crowded but clean. Cleaners are there all the time, engaged in incessant battle with dust and the occasional leaf, plus the left-overs from those who pay homage to the inventor of 'fast food' with its 'fast garbage'.

It is in First Street that I hear so many choruses, as if a church choir has just begun its choral and serene appeal to the gods for mercy or for plenty. The beggars of the city are here, singing, with their children playing around, jumping all over the place, but not too far away from the melody of the blind mother or father whom they must lead away when the sun threatens to abandon them.

'Lord, the merciful one, help me like you helped the children of Israel,' sings one. 'Oh Lord, have pity on me, Lord have pity on me, I am shattered by problems,' shouts another: always that one song for busy 'First World' Harare.

Harareans pass by without noticing, obsessed with their destinations. An occasional lonely coin tinkles on the plate firmly gripped by the starved and pitiable hands of the blind or the destitute. Beggars beggars beggars, in the glamour of the city.

The chorusing beggars know it might not be long before the 'city fathers' clean the city as they often do. They occasionally do so with police vans and the fire brigade, bundling beggars into vans before carting them to some unknown destination. Never mind, I console myself, they will come back, one day. And they do, always.

In 'First World' Harare the blind sit along the pavements, the destitute blessed with eyesight carry their belongings along, in the clean street, evoking the nightmarish image of the very clean against the background of the very neglected. They carry ragged newspapers, old clothes washed I don't know when and headloads of other unimaginable objects, begging if they can, scrounging in a nearby dustbin, not upsetting it for fear of annoying the authorities.

Sometimes the newspapers notice them, but most of the time they don't. The other day one found a thrilling hobby which got newspaper coverage. He took to removing all the parking tickets stuck under the windscreen wipers of motorists who had overstayed their parking times.

Then there is another destitute, right in the middle of the street, with bundles of everything and a well-posted sign reading 'This property managed by Knight Frank and Rutley', one of the most successful real estate companies in the country. The road is named after former president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, it used to be Kingsway, but now it is Julius Nyerere Way, dissecting the city from north to south into eastern and western halves, the 'First World' and the 'Third World' of Harare.

Near Julius Nyerere Way, people wear different clothes and the houses are more makeshift at times, with a touch of individual fingers where bank loans ran short. But across on the other side of the road the shops are crowded, the people are less aware of themselves, their pace is rugged and the streets are narrow and neglected. Even the language is rougher, people are not happy to call a spade a digging instrument. Push someone out of the bus queue and you hear, 'Hey, this is not your mother's bus.'

A pair of shoes which only a few seconds ago would have cost me 120 Zimbabwean dollars can all of a sudden be 60 dollars. A shirt which was 100 dollars on the other side suddenly becomes 30 dollars, a bargain price, and the shop owners, mostly of Indian origin and unsmiling, do not always insist on their prices 'Buya tinapangana (Come, let us discuss the price)', they say. Usually they employ someone to stand by the door, urging and cajoling customers to 'come in and see'. And when the price is not right, I can always say, no, this is too much. The usual plea is, 'How much do you have' and the bargaining starts in earnest

In this 'Third World' Harare, the cars swerve and miss each other by a few inches, with a wave of the hand for an apology or simply the car horn. The smashed body-work of the cars and drivers wearing anything which happened to be near to hand that morning, they all tell me, in the words of Zimbabwean poet Musa Zimunya, 'Never mind brother, this is our home.' Indeed this is my home, and life goes on.

If I fall hungry and my tummy demands its share of earthly pleasures, the small cafés offer me the local maize meal lunch, with beef and vegetables, at one dollar fifty cents, no jacket or tie or jeans or anything on the entrance rules.

Life in the 'Third World' part reminds me that this is not the world of business executives, it is the world of those who see life 'face to face', as the locals say. Or those who came to the city 'to look for a morsel'. The business executives only pass through, on their way to the industrial sites, to check on their goods manufactured for export. Should I wave to a business executive driving past, I know I will be ignored.

'No beggars here' and 'No hawkers' notices always threaten on the front doors of 'First World' Harare. But 'Third World' Harare does not mind. Beggars and hawkers are not a problem there. They do not bother. 'How can the poor beg from the poor?' says a friend talking about the economics of begging and illegal selling.

So the beggars swarm across 'First World' Harare, with its glitter and glimmer of goods so highly priced that only those who do not bother about the contents of their purses dare to buy. Not so with 'Third World' Harare, the city of narrow streets and winding roads intertwined into Joseph Conrad's 'tangle of unrelated things'.

Then a further walk, down the road, towards Harare's oldest suburb, Mbare. An old man is staggering from the pub on his way home. 'Everyone grew up here,' he shouts. 'Everyone including the politicians. I don't know why they never seem to get that straight,' he mumbles, speaking to me, to anyone who can hear, warning any potential ambushers that he is not quite 'drunk'. And I can hear his deep, rugged breath, striving to keep within him, the man whose only entertainment is a drinking bar where beer never runs short and I don't have to queue.

In this part of town, the 'African' one, everything is African. The language changes. No English, no nose brigades, no flashy window displays or cars. Everything is survival, and everything is there. The garages can fix your car, even on a Sunday, with makeshift spanners in a makeshift garage, while you wait.

The guy who makes sandals waits for me to change my old car tyre. He offers me a small amount to persuade me to part with it. He needs it in order to keep in business. 'Nothing for nothing,' he jokes, in the words of popular Zimbabwean musician, Thomas Mapfumo. 'Nothing for nothing is nothing,' the man quotes, rearranging his open shop of tyre sandals.

Tyre sandals are fashionable back home, and he works near the terminus for long-distance rural buses. He does not care about urban people. 'But sometimes they bring poor relatives to buy them cheap sandals.'
The rural buses are not like the 'express' type which stops at hotels and other fancy places in 'First World' Harare. Even when they are designed to carry 70 passengers, double that number is not too bad, as long as they are not caught by the police. The choruses of
furious bus horns tell the intruder that here they mean business – they want passengers. And to get them they employ part-time assistants who, as soon as they see me, a potential passenger, dash up to me, singing praise to the virtues of the bus company, the courtesy; the low fares, the reliability of the conductors and drivers, the sweet music for those who want to dance on the spacious bus. But when you get in, you soon recall the folly of being taken in by poetry.

Poetry, life in this 'Third' or even 'Fourth' World Harare, everything is poetry. The vendor of oranges sings of oranges that speak, the herbalist sings of herbs that will make me more than fertile, the goods vendor wants to sell me handkerchiefs which will wipe my face on their own. Everything is alive in this part of the city – even the potatoes speak, so they say.
But I won't leave before I taste the local dish prepared in the open by women who run a co-operative in these parts. 'They used to be prostitutes,' says the man who points out the entrance of the place.'

But when they saw they were getting old and no man ran after them, they formed a co-operative. Now we run after them for food, not for anything else,' he laughs. And I know, although most of his teeth are missing, in this part of Harare he would never bother to buy artificial ones. His face is a piece of humour as it is, and the friends around him like him the way he is. They have nicknamed him 'the one with missing teeth'.

'First World' Harare, 'Third World' and 'Fourth World' Harare, many cities in one city, and I wonder how it will end. Even though God created this city in 90 years, I don't know how I, the writer can repair it in my lifetime.

Copyright © Chenjerai Hove, 2007

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