It’s not black and white

1990’s “Zimbabwean fashion” was an oxymoron. Finding itself in a time warp somewhere between the fifties and seventies, Zimbabwe was an amalgamation of unflattering styles that rendered one’s appearance pretty irrelevant, and I have to say I found it refreshing. While colonial influences had eradicated ethnic creations for the blacks, Shona women’s conservative outfits from Edgars or Topics, somehow astounded in a way whites could never pull off. The Rhodies, white Zimbabweans, descended from farmers, dressed practically, even in Harare. I look back at photos from that time, and even in the highly sought after Trading Company ethnic influenced clothes I looked like a country bumpkin.

Downtown Marondera 2019

I will never forget my second haircut in Zimbabwe at a Rhodesian hairdressing salon in the small Eastern Highlands town of Marondera, where I lived for 2 years. As she cut my locks our conversation ventured to life and work.

“So do you go to the club?”

She referred to the Country Club, a harbour of white Zimbabweans clutching onto a past era. How could I respond without offending the person who held scissors precariously over my scalp, architect of my new coiffure?

“No, no, I tend to go to Harare on weekends,” I offered, weak camouflage for my entrenched views that all Rhodies were racist and to be avoided. “You work at the hospital,” she stated. “Can you smell the morgue?”

It was the hot topic in town. Due the AIDS pandemic of the 90’s, bodies were piling up in the unrefrigerated morgue. With lobola, bride price, typically not fully paid, the husband refusing to take responsibility and the the woman’s family denying their responsibility, the body could lay abandoned indefinitely. At other times poverty left families with no option but to leave the corpse rotting in the March heat. A deadly odour slowly permeate the atmosphere around the small concrete building located in a remote part of the hospital.

“Oh, um, er, no, don’t. I work at the Rehabilitation Technician’s Training School,” I spluttered. I explained the school and talked of my role as tutor and development worker.

“Yes, well they need people like you,” she attested. “Yes. They need people like you to tell them how to do things. But do you really think they can learn?” she queried. “Do you really think you can make any difference?”

I was relatively new to the country and as yet had not perfected my response to blatant discrimination.

“Mmmm, yes, I’m certain black people have the same capacity as you and I to learn,” I cautiously ventured, “given the opportunity.” I squirmed. She had scissors and my hair in her hands.

“Oh yes, yes” came her rather pitiful recovery.

I soon sought out the best salon in Harare where the hairdressers held more progressive views. While never “haute couture”, my haircuts became bearable within an African context, thankfully never quite as disastrous as the Rhodie women’s shapeless helmets or the bowl cuts of the men.

Ahh, the 1990’s Rhodie male. Thin stringy locks clung in the heat to sunburnt scalps and high cut fringes exposed broad foreheads. Short sleeve shirts atop stubby shorts, socks worn with sandals, stocky build, the Rhodie male never held any appeal for me but my distaste was not based upon looks alone.

The Rhodies, distinct from other white Zimbabweans, seemed stuck in the past colonial rule. I will never forget a trip to Beira, camped at a private campground on the beach, a former playground of whites pre civil war, the Mozambican war that is. Pulling myself up onto a bar stool next to my travel companion, an Irish medical student, who was chatting to a cluster of white Zimbabwean farmers fishing off Beira for the weekend. The men, in their early teens at the time of Zimbabwe’s independence, had spent their first decade of life under white rule with black farm hands as their school holiday friends. The majority of their adolescence and adult life was spent under black rule.

Sipping a gin and tonic I listened as the fisher-farmers talked of growing up in Marondelas and Umutali, of weekends in Salisbury. My skin bristled. Marondera, Mutare, Harare. Symbols of the African taking back his identity after a hard won independence denied in their words. The men were interested in my companion’s experiences as a medical officer in Zimbabwe, innocuous enough you’d think. But then came the attack, cunningly leading my young companion down a path towards the AIDS pandemic. As the horrific statistics were catalogued, instead of the compassionate response most of us would expect, came, “Well, AIDS is Africa’s Godsend, the best thing for the environment.”

Discrimination was ubiquitous to the African but hit me in unexpected places at unexpected times, sometimes merely by association. One afternoon shopping in a Harare haberdashery, with Sarah, a Shona friend, the white woman serving smiled and helped with my query. As the transaction concluded Sarah approached and as we chatted iciness from the woman inched across the counter. Bursting out into the warm sunshine I was mute, Sarah was nonplussed; this was the stuff of her day, every day. In a country with a population of eleven million and only 200,000 whites I was in the minority but Sarah was still the second-class citizen.

The leafy northern suburbs were a white enclave, the Indians were relegated to Belvedere and the coloureds elsewhere. The urban professional blacks rented apartments in The Avenues, the rest relegated to the high density suburbs (townships) where there were few made roads, small plots where many families often resided in one dwelling, shared one tap, had electric light and cooked with a perilous paraffin stove.

Fast forward, 2019. Zimbabwe’s population is now over 17 million. From a peak of about 296,000 in 1975 when the whites represented about 8% of the population, the number of white Zimbabweans fell to 28,732 in 2012, a mere 0.2% of the overall population (post the land reforms and devastating economics on the late 2000’s). The UN says whites currently represent about 0.1 % of the total population. While a few have drifted back with Mnangagwa’s promise of 100 year land leases, with economic and political realities, and with access to European, British and Antipodean passports, the white exodus is still largely one way.

As an expat, a white expat at that, I find myself in a bit of a ‘no mans land’, not belonging to either camp. It offers an interesting perspective. Another expat friend, new to Zim but not to Africa or race issues (her daughters are mixed race European/African), was recently at a local tennis club with her husband, his black tennis coach and wife. Commenting on the club members, she said, “They were very friendly, but Patrick and his wife were the only blacks there, and it was as if they were observing us wondering what we were thinking about them”. At a local market I was chatting to a friendly 60 plus year old fellow, his wife and the stall owner, both originally Kiwis though after decades here their accents were pure Rhodie. I was wary of delving too deeply into conversation not wanting to be disappointed, what if these Kiwis had become racist too?

At meditation the locals are white, bar one new Shona young man. The women are probably in the 60’s or 70’s and after the recent cyclone, were volunteering to pack items for Chimanimani. Largely Buddhist in its orientation, one might assume this group would not be racist. And they hopefully are not. But I had a glimpse into a different perspective of the ‘us and them’. They knew of a man who lost his 2 sons in the disaster, a white man who had deferred picking his boys up early from boarding school. I understood their compassion, it was someone from their community, it touched them. But that little voice inside my head ‘what about all the other people who have lost everything?’

For sure there is much more integration. There is clearly a bigger middle class — on a drive out to Marondera, past Bromley, through Surrey, I saw new housing estates, some grand, some medium density. There are many cars on the road (when there is fuel that is), and not all of them are the 3rd hand Japanese rejects like mine. The snazzy Jags, Carreras and Mercs have black owners. The black elite are ostentatious in their wealth in a way the white tobacco farmers never were. Everyone has a mobile phone with at least the basics of social media and government interference in the internet affects all equally.

But history is never too far away. Blacks agree with the land reforms, just not the distribution of it. I have yet to ask their view of the land grab from younger white farmers who had taken loans to buy land, not inherited from the colonial invaders. But yes, it is only after a life of privilege and connections that these young white farmers found themselves in a position to buy land that their black peers would never have.

Life is still one of inequity here, but if you have white skin you are most likely privileged. And you stand out. Walking in Gosho game reserve over Easter a pretty young woman came over to chat. Tsitsi, from Mt Darwin. She is an environmental health technician currently upgrading her Diploma to a degree as well as supporting her 2 younger sisters. She asked about life in Australia. I always talk about the cost of housing in relation to salaries to try to convey that we have our own economic challenges but it is pretty meaningless here (when a volunteer at Safe Hands gets A$40 per month and the cost of a loaf of bread increased from A$1 to A$2 over night). Eventually she wanted to give me her phone number. I had my phone so obliged. My heart sank a little….had she been genuinely friendly or would I expect a text for financial assistance in the dyas ahead. It is a thread that permeates almost every interaction here. Kids in the park in Marondera happily playing, see me run up asking (demanding?) “give me money”. And as I put up defences the ubiquitous phrase ‘people are hungry’ haunts me. But I can’t help everyone.

House sitting my UNESCO friend’s house
My old home in Marondera gone to ruin
I am able to afford to drive and pay entry to a small game park in Marondera

Chatting to a friend at home I reflected, “How do rich people manage this?” I suppose at home we don’t encounter such widespread poverty, and most of us have never experienced such need ourselves. Australia is yet to develop a culture of asking for hand outs (yeh yeh I know some people reading this will feel too many people ask for handouts from the government, but it is, relatively, a very small minority). Sitting here in autumnal Johannesburg, South Africa, very much the rainbow nation Mandela described where I barely notice colour — mine or others, a lovely white South African of European heritage commented on the paternalism of colonialism, where the blacks HAD to ask permission for everything and were given rations rather than a salary. She says in her business it persists today where staff have an expectation of lunch and other ‘perks’ — quite different to our taking a pen on occasion or doing a photocopy here or there. I had been warned 27 years ago, embarking on my ‘development worker’ adventure, to expect this culture of asking. For some reason it never really transpired. Only once in 4 years did someone ask for a ‘loan’. Now in 2019, is what I am experiencing a relic of colonialism? Or is it a reflection of the country’s almost universal poverty?

It’s not a black and white issue.

All I know is it is a challenge and yes I admit it, I suffer from ‘white guilt’. While in Joburg I do ‘normal things’ like browsing in a shopping mall, have a bit to eat, go to a movie, knowing the people who have asked for ‘help’ to source things in SA will see my facebook posts. I rationalise — I am sacrificing earning a salary, I am spending savings, I am not contributing to my superannuation, it is enough.

Hmmm, how will I manage this over the coming months? It would be tempting to become harsh, or leave. ‘Watch this space’ I suppose.