Bulawayo – a pleasant surprise
Okay, first up just a clarification on the train trip. We were not at all disappointed with the ride. We’d done our research beforehand and knew it would be dirty and rough. But I (Andrew) am a firm believer in the creation of transcendent memories. Embarking on experiences so far beyond the ordinary that the memory of them will remain a lifetime. If we’d caught the bus it would have been just another link in the chain of our long travels. The chance to sleep the night with the rumble and clack of a train with the deep velvet African sky rushing past the window was transcendent. We loved it.
Yesterday morning our train rumbled and ground into Bulawayo through the fairly grim Northern suburbs. We were down to 5kph because the tracks and wheels are so worn, anything faster might result in derailment. Litter was strewn everywhere, shanties cascaded down towards the trainline and lots of people stared indolently at the train.
For a long time I have had a stock standard answer for people who ask why I haven’t returned to Zimbabwe and my home town for twenty five years. I’d wanted to remember it as it was, not as it was now being described. In returning to Bulawayo I’d expected it to be extremely run down, deserted, unkempt and fixed with an air of desperation.
So I have to be honest to admit I have been gobsmacked by the vibrant air of positivity and pizzaz about town. This is not what I had expected at all. Sure the potholes are bad in places and there’s the occasional ramshackle building, but in the main a lot of the public places are reasonably maintained, traffic lights are working again, there’s lots of new shops with fresh paint that seem well patronised and, incredibly everyone sports mobile phones – and why wouldn’t you when a tower on every hill means coverage is far better than what we know in Australia.
But what has really amazed me is the vibrancy of the people. The streets are alive with music, laughter and bustle. The Bulawayo city centre I knew in the 1970s might have been pristine but it was also sterile and vanilla-flavoured. This new incarnation is alive with the sight, sound and character of the continent within which it is nestled.
The other thing about the citizens of Bulawayo is their incredible resourcefulness. Unemployment is supposed to be running well above 50% yet we have seen few, if any beggars. Only one guy bailed us up today with a hard luck story, asking for money for food and he was quickly swarmed on by a few other guys on the street and taken away. Everyone seems to be doing something to get by, even if it is filling potholes in the roads with rocks and taking small donations from passing motorists for their efforts. I’ve spent the day wondering what these resilient and resourceful people would do if they had access to the resources and opportunities we have in Australia. Would it spoil them?
Today Morag and I went for a drive to our old house – 16 Cypress Drive. My childhood home, my memory of it has always been fixed within a childhood context. It was an enormous block perched on top of a soaring hilltop. Well it wasn’t quite that today, adulthood foreshortened the dimensions – but it was still great to see the house where I spent my first fourteen years.
The house was recently pained and in good repair. And the maintenance man met us as we walked around the perimeter and agreed to let us walk through the gardens. And so much of it was as I remembered it. A few of the fruit trees (the mulberry and pomegranate trees most notably) were gone. But the “new” chicken pen was still there, with rusted doors and no mesh. The tall water tower where I built my cubbies still stands (but isn’t very tall). The inscriptions all us Grants had put into the concrete were still there (and this is why the maintenance man believed me that as a Grant I had lived there). We did the rounds of the graves of our precious dogs.
But this one is for Mum and Dad. The great hole of Kimberley, manually dug out with much blood sweat and tears by dear Shadrach. IT IS NO LONGER. It has been filled in, probably by hand as well! This was a hole dug out in preparation for a swimming pool that was never built because Mum found out she was pregnant with me. And we’d never had the heart to ask Shadrach to fill it in again.
We have done lots more these past two days. But I’ll leave it up to Anne to tell some of that story.