The drive way was exactly as I remembered – albeit a bit overgrown. There was a hut by the gate and a woman emerged, rubbing her eyes. It was the holidays but the dilapidated buildings gave the impression the school had been closed for many years. The driver spoke to her in Shona, gesturing at me – she used to be a student here and wants to have a look. She looked at me suspiciously and the gate was opened.
We drove slowly, past the swimming pool – now empty. Past the old sanatorium which now had weeds growing from the window. The swings had gone but the old tree which had claimed countless bones stood strong – the only thing that had. The classrooms to the left were missing panes of glass. The driver parked at the roundabout and I walked to the old school hall. The doors were all closed bar one – where the latch had worn and a sharp tug set it free. The red velvet curtains on the stage were stained and frayed, a hole in the ceiling directed a shaft of light on the floor – once gleaming and polished was now covered in dust. The very same portrait of President Robert Mugabe hung at the back of the room and I remembered how we sang the national anthem every morning in this hall.
I remembered this place so well – when a new phrase ‘war veterans’ was introduced into our vocabulary, or being feverish with malaria, I could still smell the sweet flowers of the Jacaranda trees and feel the warm gravel burning under my feet. I remember nights in the dormitory when we whispered about boys from under our counterpanes and snuck out into the courtyard to gaze at the stars. I remembered the other nights when our whispers turned to worry – fears of the future. The rumours and tension that had slowly eased their way into our integrated world unnoticed – and with their arrival they took the last moments of our childhood.
Seventeen years since I left Zimbabwe and so much had changed. My parents had moved here so their children would grow up free from the shadows of troubles, they were inspired by the newly independent Zimbabwe. My mother (the daughter of anti-apartheid activists) was seduced by its proximity to South Africa and political hope. The road between Marondera and Harare had been a good, smooth one. The route we would take every few months to the city for a cinema trip and walk round the shiny Capital’s shops, almost twenty years on and I recognised every acacia tree, every kopje.
Today the driver had zig-zagged across the road to avoid the potholes, stopping at the police blocks that regularly punctuated the road. The new Zimbabwe dollar was only recently back in circulation and the fine for not having a radio license, a fictional document, was issued in US dollars. As we drove off the driver explained he always pretended he had left his driver’s license at home, once you handed it over to the police it would cost you to get it back. The police haven’t been paid he explained.
When people talk about Zimbabwe’s decline they talk about how it was once the breadbasket of Africa, they talk about land acquisition, about the factions in the ruling party ZANU-PF and who will succeed the nonagenarian. For me I just think of my childhood. The people I knew and loved, and where they are now. What their lives are like now. And I know I am lucky.
On the journey back to the airport we talked about politics. I told him I was a politician, of sorts. The driver said he was hopeful, the elections next year may bring change he said. He’s pinned his hopes on a telecommunications businessman. Harare is a more expensive city to live in than Belfast and people are struggling to survive. After thirty-seven years of Mugabe in power – and all the elections in my living memory being extremely questionable, I’m amazed by his hope.
And then yesterday happened.
The news last night of the coup – or non-coup as they’re marketing it – is an opportunity for change which Zimbabweans seem to support. And you can’t blame them after so many years of suffering. As I watch the footage of a man in military uniform reading the news, it is clear who is really in control. The change that is so desperately needed is being brought about by the army, not the people, and I’m not sure what good will come from that. We’ll have to wait and see. What is clear is that this is the dawn of a new era for the country, and I hope with every fibre of my being, it is a peaceful one. Because at the very least, Zimbabwe deserve that.
Kate Nicholl is an Alliance Party Councillor for Balmoral.