Heading to Zimbabwe the notion I had in mind was that of a country in tatters, of a people in disarray. It is the mental image CNN and to a large extent literature from that country has impressed on my mind.
It turned out anything but. I discovered a beautiful country and even more beautiful people, who have their challenges as everyone else does. But beneath the beauty of the Vumba, the scenic resort town that gives one the impression of dwelling in a painting, and the refreshing cleanness of Harare, Zimbabwe is a country with its own peculiar story.
The Zimbabwe International Airport is not by any stretch of imagination one of the busiest in the world. Most of the shops were closed, even though we alighted in the morning. Apparently not many flights were expected so the shopkeepers decided to do other things with their time.
A very friendly immigration officer asked what my business was in Mugabe'e country and where my address would be while there.
"Ah! Vumba," she said. "You will love it there. It's a beautiful place. I am from there myself."
But her countenance changed when she discovered I was a journalist. I had to sign a paper, she said.
"Visitor's Warning" the heading of the paper read. I had to agree not to undertake any journalistic work while in the country since I do not have a permit. It was the first time I had to sign any such paper anywhere, and the impression I had was that of a country with a chronic paranoia issues.
Having been stamped through, a bit cranky from the long flight, and having to sign a ridiculous paper, I went to buy a SIM pack at an Econet Stand. They had a poster for a rather grotesque looking smart phone set to the background of a dreadfully dark clouds, a swamped dirt road heading into the jungle and the bold caption: In Africa only the toughest survive.
"Your advert really upsets me," I told the attendant.
He seemed shocked. How can you invite investor, and tourist to your beautiful country and then shock them with such a nasty image at point of entry? I lodged my complaint and demanded they take it down and they promised to forward it to their office, which they did and I promised to check on them later to see that something had been done about it.
On a bus with a bunch of other writers, we drove through the neat Harare towards Mutare, a three-hours journey that stretched to five. The roads were good, only a relatively small stretch of potholes, but the bus was agonisingly slow so finally I lost count of the hours. I was resigned to the assumption that at some point we would get to this Vumba.
Recounting the airport experience, a Zimbabwean friend said, "You have to be careful. They actually monitor phone calls and your internet use. They could just come pick you up. It has happened before."
All the faces of Nigeria's benign dictators flashed across my mind. And I wondered how people lived in that country. The extent of the state censorship would later be revealed to me in the course of my visit.
Sometime that night we arrived at an incredibly quaint hotel. A pink, imposing structure complete with stone face and turrets set in the deep mountain greenery of the Vumba. Pink was an odd colour to choose, but it didn't take much away from the beauty of the Leopard Rock Hotel, were Queen Elizabeth had apparently been a happy guest in 1953, judging from the pictures on the wall, and Princess Diana too had at some point stayed there. She was pictured with a racket on the tennis court with the coy smile with which she had charmed the world.
It was colonial, down to the last detail, with a gentleman in a long coat tail awaiting our arrival. Leopard Rock happens to be a golf resort of some commendable stature.
The Amazing Vumba
Taking a tour around the Vumba, a resort town, is simply breath taking. It not only serves as a resort town but a home to the protected Samango monkeys, beautiful creatures that move in troops and leap graciously from tree to tree. They are a specie unique to the region and it is not uncommon to see them walking the grounds of the hotel . There are also species of birds and other wild animals to be seen. The hotel maintains a games reserves that is home to impalas, Zebras, giraffes and numerous other beasts and birds.
In the evenings, guest can see the animals, from a special platform, or up close and personal, as they are fed "game cubes". Quite an impressive site.
Despite the name, there was no leopard to be seen. Well, except in the photos on the walls. Reported sightings of one ahead of our visit were apparently exaggerated.
But the views were more than enough compensation. Stretches of hilly country dotted by bodies of water fading into misty mountains were simply astounding.
It prompted a fellow writer, in a moment of tipsy euphoria, to blurt out, "God is a *blip* artist!"
The network of narrow roads, twisting around the Vumba offered a remedy for contemplation as the birds twittered from the trees, whose canopies shade the roads. It is easy to get lost in these roads, even for locals, as a Zimbabwean friend kept making the wrong turns when we were looking for a famed café, which we found hours later.
And somewhere in the serene wilderness is a cake shop, where a slice costs $20. Somehow, Tony's little cake shop draws many tourists in the Vumba who go there to witness what has been described as "a performance" in serving cake. For 20USD a slice!
Trade in Zimbabwe is done mostly in US Dollars. The country doesn't have a usable currency since the Zimbabwean Dollar completely lost value to the extent that a million ZD couldn't buy anything significant. And there was in fact, 100 trillion dollar banknote! Carrying a wallet became useless and finally the government had to relent and adopt the USD for official business. The South African rand, the Botsawa Pula and all other major foreign currencies are used for transactions.
Zimbabwe got its name from a building, or more appropriately from the ruins. The Great Zimbabwe, a massive stone structure that could have housed 18, 000 poeple was believed to have been built by the Shona people between the 11th and 14th Centuries. In Shona, Zimbabwe means "House of Stone". Initially Christened Rhodesia, after the colonialist Cecil Rhodes, the country decided to change its name to Zimbabwe in 1980.
We never got to see this great ruins, which has always fascinated me since I saw a documentary about it years before. And a poster of it hanging at the entrance of the former Media Trust annex office made me long to see it.
But to make up for it, we visited the castle in the Vumba, a small affair built of stone by the Seymour-Smith family, owners of Leopard Rock, as a private residence in the 1940s. It was acquired by the hotel much, much later and is used as a function place. And from the roof of the castle and the top of its turrets, the view of the extensive golf-course of Leopard Rock, the striking views of the Vumba stretching to the border with Mozambique is simply amazing.
Exploring the Vumba, seeing the magnificent sights, the Samango monkeys, the misted mountains bordering Mozambique, and the splendid weahter it is easy to see why those white men, all those year ago, decided to stay and eventually became Rhodesians.
Most of my days there were spent writing. Somehow the Caine Prize had thought its writers' workshop are best served far removed from cities which makes sense since writers may choose to wonder off to explore, rather than sit down and write. And the Vumba was as inspiring as any place there is.
Evening readings brought about discourses among the various writers from various countries and through the workshoped stories, the essence of different countries were explored. Notes were compared. Africa is Africa but there are many different Africa.
Visit to Hartzell Schools
Part of the Caine Prize programme included visits to schools in Mutare, not too far from Vumba. It was a way of giving back and reaching out to young, aspiring writers and readers.
I was in a team of three that visited Hartzell School in Mutare, a school set up by the missionaries in 1801.
The initial impression was shock as the first person we saw was a teacher, dressed in what could have been a colonial era uniform with knee-length socks, as if she was plucked right out of the 18th century.
But alas! It was a "funny day", a day set aside for teachers to dress in their comical best, in the most ridiculous fashion they can imagine as a fundraising drive.
We read to some 200 students ranging from 16 to 18 years. Enthusiastic students they turned out to be and the interactions we had were thrilling. Most of them had never met writers before and their idea of what a writer looks like, and this it seemed was a general perception in Zimbabwe, was a shaggy haired or dread-locked, self-destructive genius. No small thanks to Zimbabwe's most famous writer Dambudzo Marechera, who died very young in 1987, leaving in his wake a cult-like following of dreadlocked, aspiring poets and writers, who draw inspiration from booze and alcohol.
"How do alcohol and intoxicants inspire you?" some of the students asked.
We were glad to inform them that one doesn't have to be a rascal to be a writer, nor does one have to find inspiration in substance abuse.
It was a rewarding encounter with Zimbabwe's tomorrow and we left, hoping we have righted some false notions they might have had about writers and writing.
One impression I couldn't change though was that of a teacher, who is enthralled and awed by the sorcery showcased in the Nollywood movies she had seen.
"Do such things really happen?" she asked, cringing at the memory.
"Movies often exaggerate reality," I told her. We had a long discussion alongside other staffers of the school but this nice lady was reluctant to part with the notions Nollywood had infected her with.
After 10 days living in the tremendous art work that the Vumba is, it was time to head back to Harare, for readings and literary discussions as well as interactions with regular Zimbabweans.
Driving through the city, what strikes a visitor, especially one from Nigeria, is the laid back approach to life of the people of Zimbabwe. The busiest streets in the capital are nothing compared to the bustle of life in Lagos or some suburbs of Abuja, or even some other major cities of Nigeria. It was refreshing view of sanity on the streets.
There was a literary parley at the Harare City Library where the workshop participants engaged the Zimbabwean literati and book lovers. The politics of writing was discussed as well as the politics of government.
The other highlight of that evening was dinner at Amanzi, an awesome restaurant in the capital. It turns out the owner is a Nigerian whose family had left the country due to the Kaduna sectarian violence. Nigeria's loss, Zimbabwe's gain.
The next day, we scheduled to read at Meikles Supermarket. An initiative designed to meet people off the street. The readings were successful, and one of my fondest memories of Zimbabwe would be a sumptouoslaunch in the kitchen of Meikles Hotel, one of only two five star hotels in the country, in the company of the owners, John and Jeane Moxon, great lovers of the arts and good conversations as well as some friends connected to the Meikles Foundation.
Despite the underlying ethnic tensions, the muted rage of the minority Ndebele people over a massacre sometimes before, the fear of the impending post-Mugabe era, and the racial and class differences, one thing that is clear is that Zimbabwe is truly a beautiful country. And this house of stones not a ruin just yet.