A Dish Fit For Christmas

Intelligent Life, December2013

No celebration in Zimbabwe is complete without rice and chicken. It is the favoured dish at weddings, at graduations, at birthday parties and at Christmas. For the over-35s, who were born when Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia, rice and chicken is a dish with a particular resonance. At Christmas last year, Tryson, my regular cab-driver when I visit Harare, told me how disheartened he was that his children would never appreciate Christmas in the same way as he and his brothers.

“You see,” he said, “they eat rice and chicken almost every day now.”

Tryson, like me, is an over-35. Racial segregation and inadequate education for black people in Rhodesia defined the type of employment our parents could get: they tended to work in low-paid jobs. Segregation also meant that we lived in the townships of Salisbury (now Harare), in matchbox houses with gardens too miniscule to run around in after school. In the daytime, we played instead on the unpaved streets outside our homes, leaping to the side when cars came our way. In the evening, we chased flying ants under the towering street lamps while our parents inside fiddled with their radio sets.

As for all people who have very little, food had a symbolic quality. It was not just fuel; it was a treat, a reward for good behaviour, for coming first in class. In the category of very top treats were sweets, ice-cream, Coca-Cola, Fanta and Cherry Plum, a sweet purple drink that seems to be unknown outside Zimbabwe. But the best, and most predictable, treat was rice and chicken.

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From Zimbabwe, An Education

January 2012, Guernica Magazine

When I visit St Ignatius with Rudo and Innocent, it is like stepping into the achingly familiar. I was very happy here. The school is built on a hill, with the Chishawasha valley on one side and a view of the Valley of the Millionaires from Mary Ward House. Rich red earth is everywhere, at one with the red bricks of the well-maintained buildings. Father Roland von Nidda, the rector, is expansive in his welcome. He takes us from classroom to classroom. My visit inspires him to invite me to the Prize-Giving Day as a guest of honor. It is here that I see my old school at its very best.

I speak to the boys and girls about what the school meant to me, about the Jesuits priests and Mary Ward sisters who taught me, about the fierce ambition they burned in me to not only do exceptionally well but also, in the words of St Ignatius of Loyola, to find a way to set the world on fire. I tell them about my little rebellions, abandoning Catholicism for Buddhism, only to find myself as lonely as my headmaster Father Berridge had predicted: I would probably be the only Buddhist in Zimbabwe, he had said.

“I also want to be a Buddhist,” whispers a small Form 2 boy to me later, as I give out his prize.

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The House That Books Built

Africa Report, May 2011

To get to my office on the second floor of Harare City Library requires a strong stomach. You walk through the main doors of the library, then up the back stairs. There is no lift to the second floor. There was a book hoist once, but it doesn’t work anymore. The binding room has been converted into a storeroom that houses exam scripts for Zimbabwe Open University. Next to the book hoist are toilets that no longer work: it is to walk past these that you need the strong stomach – and a clothes peg for your nose.

Socrates is supposed to have said that a library is the delivery room for the birth of ideas: that is my personal vision for our library. I see it as a space that will get Harare reading and get people talking. With the hard work of my committee, the support of the people of Harare and the many friends we are gaining around the world, I am confident the day will come when I can walk to my office without having to hold my breath.

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Your God is A God of Silver and Gold

OSISA, June 2013

A memory comes to me as I walk across the now empty stadium. My then six-year old son and I read together the story of the Exodus. When we came to the twelve plagues, and to the slaughter of the first-borns, he asked me, ‘Why is God mean and evil?’

‘The Bible says you should love your neighbour and pray for your enemy’ says Makandiwa.  ‘It does not say what kind of prayer. I say to you curse, you enemy.’

This not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, this is not the Jesus who said turn the other cheek.  This is Jesus is at war. The crowd saying die, die, die, over and over again comes back to me. It is a message that appeals to the crudest side of human nature, the side that seeks to blame others for misfortune, a side that glories in revenge and spite.

I wonder what the man in front of me was praying for. Those swords of fire, swords of fire. Who were they meant to smite? Who were they praying against, all these people? Who is it that they saw standing in their way? In the nine hours that Makandiwa talked, there was no talk of kindness, or love for fellow man. No compassion or empathy. No giving to the needy. Just salvation, and a transactional sort of salvation at that.

At the same time, I cannot help but be impressed by the simplicity of his message of prosperity: your house, your car, your marriage. These are simple human desires that all human beings share, shelter, transport, and love.  He is not offering wild riches, but simple things, transport, shelter. A man or a woman to love.

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Where Citizenship Went to Die

New York Times, March 2013

HARARE At the Registrar General’s office in this city, queues form as early as 3 in the morning. By 8, they wind all the way around the building and into the street, where vendors sell a medley of randomness: bananas and airtime, shoe polish and ice cream. Inside, crowds of desperate people stand skin to skin, babies squashed on their mothers’ backs as they struggle to breathe in the fetid air of the mazelike corridors.

In this chaotic atmosphere, the government issues the documents that confirm the identity of Zimbabweans, and that entitle them to go to school, to drive, to get jobs, to travel and to marry, the documents that confirm that they exist. The first circle of this hell is the birth certificate office, where mothers are asked publicly about the paternity, and often the legitimacy, of their babies. The innermost circle is Room 100, where citizenship comes to die.

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The Shoes on Her Feet

Africa Report, January 2009

I spent three weeks in Zimbabwe recently and saw at firsthand what the imploding economy has done to the lives of the very poor. The stories are heartbreaking: the Glen View man who lost all his children to cholera, the Kambuzuma widow who died from the stress of burying four close relatives in succeeding weeks, but it was the story of how an old woman from Marondera came to lose her shoes that said more than any other about what my country has become.

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