/ 18 April 2013

Who moved my country?

Who Moved My Country?

"There is that Satanist ‘church'. Look, it doesn't have a cross on it," Aunty snorted derisively, her voice full of concern and anger. The three heads in the back seat all nodded in agreement.

"You mean the Mormons? Mitt Romney's church? Where did you hear that from? You Zimbabweans and your stories!" I said in shock. 

"Meat who?" asked concerned Uncle 1. Disgusted Aunty and concerned Uncle 2 all vehemently lecture me about the rise of witchcraft and Satanism in Zimbabwe. 

They recounted stories of snakes coming out of women's handbags, babies born after three days of pregnancy, and cows delivering calves with six heads. They gleefully affirmed the magical powers of the born-again prophets. Uncle 1 was particularly pleased that even government ministers were outwardly embracing Christianity, wearing apostolic gowns, joining mass prayers. 

"This nation will be blessed by God. The Satanists will be destroyed," opined Aunty, reclining in her seat, a satisfied smile on her face. 

I had lost yet another battle. EJ: zero, Zimbabwe: too many to count. I do not have the weapons to fight these battles at all. 

I realised this just a few weeks after I returned at the end of 2011. Ten years away from home is a long time. Home. A very problematic concept. I was born and grew up in Zimbabwe. I only went away in my late 30s. I should feel at home. I moved back into my own house, dusted the furniture, killed the roaches and ran the rats out of the 'hood. The street names are still the same. The villages are exactly where I left them. Yet I can no longer navigate this place.

A new Harare
I am discovering a new Harare. Phillip, my old hairdresser, is still in Harare's Avenues. He shares space with about 10 or more hairdressers. It is called "rent a chair". Each hairdresser brings their own supplies and their own clients.

Aunty Mary closed the big salon after the Zimbabwe dollar crashed, and went back to Kenya. She must have taken the fluffy white towels and functional driers with her. 

Here, in the down-market area of Harare, is where I get to experience real life the way an ordinary person on the street lives it. 

As I sit in the wobbly plastic chair, a veritable supermarket passes me by: fresh chickens, at $5 each;  sweet potatoes, even in the middle of December; car parts and stationery; shoes and toilet paper. Skin lightening creams are back in vogue, at $6 for the one with the most strength, straight from Europe – where the women have milky white skin, the vendor assures me! 

I regret not learning haggling skills in the markets of Lagos or Kolkata when I still had an international job. So I let the hairdressers negotiate on my behalf. Me, I would pay $20 dollars for a $5 handbag. That is the problem here. One never knows what the real price of anything is supposed to be. The US dollar is treated as if it is the old Zimbabwe dollar or even the South African rand. 

"Ah, mother! To fix this geyser we need only 500," quoth the electrician. Rand or dollars, I stupidly ask no one in particular. The job takes him less than two hours. 

"Just $10" is what a young man charges for working 16 hours a week in my mum's garden. "We bought this Mercedes for just $25 000," says the apostle of a newfangled church. 

I keep converting into rand. But none of the pricing makes sense. I don't ask how people survive, on both ends of the economic spectrum. All of it defies economic logic.

In my neighbourhood, Westgate, a big Pick n Pay supermarket opened last December. That's shopping I can understand. The familiar blue and red logo invites me in. I saunter down the wide aisles as I would in Rosebank in Johannesburg. Here is my favourite Clover milk. My son's Parmalat cheese. "Product of Zimbabwe" it says on the freshly packaged veggies. Yeah right. Who gives a fig? All I and other happy shoppers want is washed and ready-to-eat salad. It could be from Mpumalanga, just like the apples, the juices from Ceres valley, or the toothpaste made in Isando.

Indigenisation my (made in South Africa) Essie pedicured foot! It doesn't matter how many times Indigenisation Minister Saviour Kasukuwere and his lot pontificate, over here in the 'burbs indigenisation is as foreign as lasagne. We love our imported stuff, we Zimbabweans. If Britain's Sainsbury's was to open a branch here, a big political man and his wife I know would be the first to go and buy their favourite bread. 

Gone are the big department stores we once knew. The ones that offered me credit as a fresh university graduate. One can shop for or sell goods anywhere! I just peer out of my gate and the neighbourhood security guard sells me an airtime voucher. I buy guavas in traffic jams. I am happy that the big "bambazonke" multinationals have been unbundled, creating opportunities for the small trader. Everyone has seemingly become an entrepreneur. I am amazed by the women who daily manage to sell me something I do not need or want. I marvel at those I see in airports, screaming at customs officers and then triumphantly clearing their goods for resale. I just worry about the disorderliness of it all. But that's just me: reared on classic capitalism and so-called Western standards. Pronounce it with distaste in your voice, please. 

Even Harare's city has "moved". I still have not been to the old CBD. There is nothing there, my middle- class friends tell me. Unless I want dodgy moneychangers, cheap Chinese products or, heaven forbid, a bank – I still deal with real human tellers rather than use internet banking! 

We order fresh croissants from Mohammed, the French baker. A "new farmer" delivers beef to your door. Chickens are reared by your office administrator. Clothes are found at a friend's cousin's wife's place; she brings them from Dubai or China. Your car gets fixed by a cousin's fixer buddy who runs a mobile service. Money is not in the banks;  it comes through Eco-cash on your cellphone. Every second house in Mount Pleasant seems to have been turned into a restaurant, serving the most delicious filter coffee and exotic sounding food. The food critics in the papers can't cope. 

Another world
There is another whole world in Zimbabwe, the one you don't read about in the papers. Here is where I discover just how many white people there are in Zimbabwe, the old and the new ones. The old ones (in both senses of that word) have their own universe. I have discovered "missionaries" in long blue skirts in Mabelreign. Young Christian volunteers from the US are here to "spread the word". They too live in a parallel universe, away from the "Zimbabwe will never be a colony again" mantra in the public arena. I see a 21st-century Pioneer Column arriving in their wake. But then I am known for my hyperbole. 

I live here physically, but I may as well be in Johannesburg. I shop at Pick n Pay. I stream my favourite Kaya FM on my laptop. Thank my employers for good bandwidth! I read the Mail & Guardian. I can't wait for the Sunday Times

The Christian-fundamentalist holier-than-thou messages on local radio are too much for my atheistic head to tolerate. The local papers are too full of stories about goblins, witchcraft, sexual scandals and, quite frankly, no new news. I can read all the daily newspapers during the 15-minute drive to work. How many times can you read about what Robert Mugabe said or what Morgan Tsvangirai predicts? The antics of the Chimbetu brothers have become stale from too much daily reheating. I watch ZTV news just so that I can keep up with the important funerals. 

I socialise more with my friends strewn across the globe. I have deep Skype conversations with Neelanjana in India, political discussions with Jorge in Brazil or Wandia in Kenya. I keep up with Laura in New York on Google chat, Shamim in Johannesburg by SMS and Korto in Liberia on Facebook. I have un-friended most of my clan who have become Jesus's deputies.

The markers of Zimbabwe, my home city Harare, or what it means to be Zimbabwean, have all been yanked out. 

Friends and family have become strangers. I cannot relate to the national fascination with superstition mixed with religiosity. I am confused by all the proselytising, and at the same time everyone has become self-centred, seeking political power, wealth and prosperity. My people's unquenchable pursuit of monstrous houses, big money, huge cars and even huger Bibles are the stuff of Nollywood movies for me. 

I too have changed. I see things differently. I speak a different language. Maybe it is not the country that has moved. Maybe it is me who needs to move. 

Everjoice J Win is a Zimbabwean feminist. Her body lives in Harare, her heart is in Italy and her head resides in Johannesburg.