Zimbabwe, May 2015. Winter in Southern Africa. You might think it an odd subject for a magazine that focuses on the past, but this very much suggests the present. Does it not? Let me come directly to my point: Zimbabwe is a relic. Zimbabwe is history. This sounds blunt, brutalist even. A condemnation. I don’t see it like that. Zimbabwe is a country imbued by the weight of its colossal history and the result is a country that is a misnomer. African, yet European. The result can best be described as being like England on acid.
Zimbabwe has a tranquillity and faded charm that is akin to a sleepy English Sunday afternoon at the very end of an exceptionally sublime Indian summer. Afternoon tea is a relic that, in the archaic Harare and Bulawayo Clubs’ members’ lounges, is still taken as an institution. Walking down Leopold Takawira Avenue in Bulawayo, one cannot but fail to notice that the Christmas lights are still most definitely ‘up’. Whether this is from the previous year’s festivities or those of 1981 never became clear. Their unbroken, optimistic message of good cheer felt like a collective shrug of the shoulders.
People carry on. The crash of 2008 that saw the perhaps ironic use of the US dollar as local currency has fostered a resilient resignation amongst Zimbabweans. An informal economy of market stall traders flourishes. At the dead of night in the desolate mining town Thomson Junction, I met a shunter from the National Railways of Zimbabwe (NRZ) who had not been paid in ten months. He is not unique.
The NRZ is certainly going through a rough patch. If the government newspapers are to be believed, the NRZ crumbles. Most of the rolling stock is so old and historically uncared for that in the windows and the mirrors and the light fittings the old ‘RR’ monogram of Rhodesia Railways languishes. This is the colonial entity that created the famous Victoria Falls hotel, whose golden summer is still the much-celebrated Royal Tour of 1947.
But what does the government think of the RR? It could be that no one has ever paid any attention. In Britain, trains still go about with ‘BR’ (British Railways) stamped on them conspicuously – but Britain did not fight a bitter war of liberation from a white minority government. Suddenly the nostalgia group ‘Bring Back British Railways’ and all its Corbynite leanings looks much more innocuous. ‘RR,’ unlocked a time capsule of half remembered jingoistic colonial adventure. Half remembered, because the restaurant cars don’t seem to get the concept of food on the move. Beer, biscuits and fags are what the NRZ restaurant cars sell, and cigarettes, despite the no smoking signs – although I expect them to be another leftover from the RR. Just one example of the topsy-turvy, Alice in Wonderlandworld.
Zimbabwe is a country that walks shackled by its history. I am inclined less to blame than to appreciate this. A window into a bygone colonial world is offered. The pomp of the Royal Tour of 1947 does this deliberately. The NRZ achieves this accidentally. The people struggle, but they do not fall down. The country continues to pirouette through the Indian Summer.
Image: Jason Wharam