/ 6 July 2017

Small-small survival vs living large

Class divide: Exclusive African designs and cuisine hold sway at a new Harare spot. The ‘rich kids’ are caught between enjoying the good life
Class divide: Exclusive African designs and cuisine hold sway at a new Harare spot. The ‘rich kids’ are caught between enjoying the good life

As I get into the taxi taking me from my guesthouse in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare to the launch of “a premium multibrand retail store”, the driver quips: “This is where all the big fishes live. Lots of top people in the army, police and intelligence service live here. Our head of state lives just down the road.”

A radio news broadcaster lazily informs the nation that the country’s president, Robert Mugabe, had that day castigated traditional chiefs and new black landowners for leasing land to white farmers. This, Mugabe felt, went against the ethos of land redistribution.

Turning down the volume as soon as the president’s speech commences, the cab driver says: “Yes, my brother, life in Zimbabwe is hard. You know, sometimes even me, I have to wait more than two months to get paid. For now, I can say, my wife and I, we are failing as parents to provide for our children.”

His wife, he says, earns “small-small money” working as a tailor, doing alterations for people in their neighbourhood.

“She is actually a designer — a proper designer — but it is too expensive to buy material. So she just fixes people’s clothes. But it is small-small money. And sometimes people don’t pay, so she goes around begging them for 20 dollars, begging them for 10 dollars. It’s hard.”

As we pull into a street in the affluent Harare suburb of Chisipite — a security guard staring at us suspiciously but slowly lifting the boom to allow us entry — it becomes clear that this is a world away from his wife’s tiny tailoring business and the small-small money they have to survive on.

Passing a security guard, I step on to the expansive property, replete with palm trees, Turkish-themed gazebos spread across the lawns and Harare’s well-heeled blithely — if self-consciously — chatting away.

The event is the opening of The Sp_ce, “a lifestyle, fashion and design concept store”. Though to call it a store would be something of an understatement, because The Sp_ce occupies the entire property and consists of a restaurant and a boutique selling the exclusive wear of African designers such as David Alford, RumbiRumbi, Bamboo Revolution, Boheika, Taibo Bacar from Mozambique and South Africa’s Rich Mnisi.

I walk into the palatial shop while owner Priscilla Chigariro-Gessen is having her makeup done. “It’s so much better when it’s done professionally,” she smiles. The former model and founder of Zimbabwe Fashion Week says she opened the store “as an outlet for my creativity and to create a space where comfort, quality, luxury African designs and excellent service are on offer”.

Reclining in one of the luxurious Turkish-themed booths inside the store is a group of impeccably made-up young women deciding which drinks to order. Instead of a traditional laminated menu card, the establishment offers its menu on iPads.

“Zimbabwe has improved a lot in terms of the culinary industry,” says Anaishe, who runs her own catering company and didn’t want to use her own name.

“Before we used to have, like, basic meals. Back in the day, families used to have lunch or dinner at the hotels — like Rainbow Hotel and Crowne Plaza — but that’s changed now because restaurants have upped their game and it’s actually the hotels that are slacking.”

Aware of the jarring class divide across the country, Rufaro, a pilot who also preferred to remain anonymous, says: “For us, it’s always been the norm. The disparity has always been the norm. You’re either stinking rich or upper middle-class or you’re completely poor. The class divide is something we talk about a lot.

“The older generation still has a chip on their shoulder about being colonised. So, for them, they’re still very conservative. They want to keep the standard and class and want to keep up appearances. Our generation is trying to break those barriers. You have, for example, rich kids going to more dodgy places and having fun and meeting people. Stuff that is frowned upon by the older generation.”

For Impi Maphango, a musician with the alternative hip-hop band The Monkey Nuts, this is “definitely not true. The only place I know of is a chisa nyama in Warren Park. Rich kids go there, but it’s not like a South African chisa nyama because it is set up like a bar in the affluent area of Borrowdale.”

Tendai Angela, who produces a range of organic skincare and wellness products, adds: “It’s also important to remember that city kids — or kids that grow up in these suburbs — still go kumbusha [the rural areas]. It’s that idea of meeting your people; seeing your grandmother.”

A central aspect of her business ethos, she says, is “going back into the past and learning from it”.

“I like the idea of looking at organic skincare and what our grandparents taught us, because we’ve kind of lost that. Once a week, I go to these different areas and speak to the older women there and find out exactly what they do for their skin. I got so tired of people telling me: ‘Oh my God, my grandmother’s skin is always glowing and I don’t know what she does.’ Or this whole idea that we all think our grandparents use L’Oreal or Garnier or Colgate. No, those white shining teeth we are always in awe of literally come from a bark that you chew. That thing of making it seem like it’s all new is nonsense. There is nothing new in this world,” she says.

A decreasing number of live music venues across Harare has pushed Maphango and his bandmates to try to create something new.

“We’re always looking for different ways to do things,” he says. One of these ways was First Fridays, a series of monthly events held at the National Gallery of Zimbabwe from last November to February.

Featuring live music and fashion, the events were, however, ended because of budgetary constraints.

“It’s not easy doing things in Zimbabwe,” he says, adding: “We’ve toured Europe and when you’re there, you get to see all these opportunities, but I don’t think I’d ever leave Zimbabwe. I want to be one of the people who contributes to making it better. Also, this is home.”

Anaishe does not share this optimism. “I’ve personally given up,” she says, matter-of-factly. “I mean, we’re supposed to have an election next year but nobody’s started campaigning yet.”

Rufaro counters: “I definitely have hope. We’ve been exposed to a lot as a people, a lot of struggle, but we’re resilient.”

Waking up late the next morning and realising I could miss my flight, I charmed the taxi driver to break the speed limit to get me there on time. Slipping him R100 for the favour, I apologised, saying something along the lines of “I’m not sure what that can actually get you, but …”

The gratitude with which he received this “small-small money” — powerless against the US dollar that is the country’s currency — reminded me that, despite the hopefulness espoused the previous evening, there was still a long way for the country to go.

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

The Other Foundation