Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Welcome to Bulawayo.

I pulled into town in the afternoon, a long bus trip gratefully concluded. I had crossed much of Zimbabwe that day, but the bus’s slow pace and uncomfortable seats made me feel as though I had crossed much of Africa instead. As our bus rattled to a stop, my gaze was caught by my seatmate, a round-faced church going woman wearing a prim dress and oversized glasses. She looked me firmly in the eyes, hers becoming pinpricks behind their thick lenses. “You must be careful of thieves,” she warned me in a hushed voice. “They will steal from you, and they will do it with magic, so you won’t even realize.” Then her face softened again, and with a smile she wished me a pleasant welcome to Bulawayo.

I, however, was less concerned with thieves at that moment. Over the course of the six-hour bus trip, a minor headache had blossomed into a shattering, thudding pain that was even beginning to make me feel nauseous. Whether it had been the effects of the heat of the clear winter sun trapped inside the bus, or that my only sustenance for the day had been a loaf of white bread purchased through the window from the hands of an eager vendor at a brief stop, I was feeling decidedly ill. So ill, that after making my way across town to my guesthouse, I barely gave a thought to protest when informed that the rate per night for a dorm bed was $15, more than four times the price listed in my guidebook.

The next morning, feeling a little better, I decided to take up the issue with the manager of the hostel.
“I am very sorry,” he said with a resigned tone. “It is the law now—we cannot charge you any less.” He was a tall, handsome man whose mannerisms verged on being camp. There was nothing in his face or in his voice that seemed dishonest. Still, I felt it better to ask around and verify the information.
And in fact, he was being honest. Not one guesthouse, hotel, or backpackers’ (not that there were many still in operation, to begin with) could offer a bed for less than $15. Apparently, there were so few travelers coming through Bulawayo lately, that the local government felt they needed to make as much off the few who did come as possible.

Over the course of my stay in the town, I came to find that it wasn’t only for accommodation that these laws applied. On my second full day in the city, I walked through a stately quarter of town to the Natural History Museum—which, my guidebook assured me, was fantastically out of date and old fashioned, and a bargain for only 40 cents US. As I walked into the foyer and peeked past the guard at the taxidermy animals and mid-century displays, I could tell I was not going to be disappointed. I was, in fact.
“20 dollars,” the stone faced guard mumbled when I told him I wanted to see the museum. His eyes seemed trained at a stop somewhere over my head that he had been studying before I entered; my presence had not been interesting enough to incite his glance.
“20 dollars?” I asked, a little confused. I had never heard anything quoted in Zim dollars for less than a million.
“You can go in if you’d like, but you have to pay 20 dollars US,” he replied, still looking beyond me, with a hint in his voice acknowledging that very few people actually paid that amount.

It seemed an odd scheme, likely to squash the desires of any tourists interested in visiting the town. During my stay I met exactly one other traveller, a man from Spain who was assigned to share my room with me. He had planned to stay in Bulawayo for over a week; he left after two days, complaining of the prices and the attitude of the town.

Signs suggested that the town had once been a profitable vacation getaway. A dusty sign decorated with leopard print decals marked the ‘Safari Bar’ on one street corner. A large billboard advertised flights to London, surely long discontinued. And though sun damage had nearly erased the image entirely, you could still make out the phrase “Zimbabwe: Paradise of Africa” on travel posters that hung around the town. There was a strange air of abandonment to the town, compounded by the fact that I rarely passed anyone on the street. Yet everything was well maintained and clean, giving it the Twilight Zone feel of a city suddenly and unexplainably evacuated of all life.

It felt a cold, lonely place to me. I did manage to find one comfortable spot in town, though: a friendly café serving good coffee, Greek food, and tasty desserts. And amazingly for the town, it always seemed busy. The matron of the restaurant, a large blonde woman who stood behind the counter, was always engaged greeting customers, preparing to-go parcels, and overseeing the flow of the dining room. It was in some way odd for me to see her, to see that white people remained living in Zimbabwe, were continuing their lives with some element of determination.
I found it on my first afternoon in town, and visited on my second and my third as well. I was able to get decent lattes (not Nescafe!), which I paired with a slice of whatever cake they were offering—obviously seeking some insulation from the town’s aura of depression. There was a young waitress who always seemed excited to see a new phase, and between serving customers would stop by my table to ask about my travels.

A less charming incident occurred on my last visit, however. The matron of the restaurant had taken a seat with a visiting friend, and the two were waiting for their lunch. One of the waitresses emerged from the kitchen, and politely set down their plates. The ceramic had just touched the table when the matron picked up the plate, turned it upside down, and flopped its contents onto the floor.

“No, no, no,” she stated with a firm razor-edged voice. “That is not right. That looks terrible. Go back and make it again.”

As the waitress retreated into the kitchen, she addressed her dining companion in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “You must tell them like that. Otherwise, they simply never learn…”

I returned to my hotel, where the manager greeted me and covertly pulled me aside.
“I had your money exchanged,” he informed me in a clipped tone, handing it to me in a paper bag.
I went to my room to inspect it, and found that my two twenty dollar bills had been transformed through the magic of the black market into rolls and rolls of pastel coloured paper money. I gathered it up, stuffed it into my backpack.

I woke early the next morning, before breakfast plates were set at the guesthouse, and with the streets still asleep, caught the first bus out of town.


jen laceda said...

Oh, what an adventure!!!

Yoli said...

What she did to the girl brought tears to my eyes. Actually the whole desolate sad scene was hard to digest. Your writing as always beautiful and evocative.

Martine Burdis said...

The title and introduction to your blog seems oddly out of place, given that you are obviously curious and compassionate towards the cultures you are visiting. Why then call them "savage" and "primitive"? These are vestiges of 19th-century anthropology, which did damage in the form of racial prejudice that modern social sciences are now trying to correct. I don't mean to be obnoxiously politically correct, but remember that a culture is only called "primitive" because it doesn't have the things that are valued in our culture. I don't believe any cultures are savage or primitive.

michelle said...

Wow... what a story! Eagerly awaiting your next diary-style entry of your travels.

Xander said...

Hi Martine—thanks for stopping by Primitive Culture.

I agree completely with you that to actually describe any cultures as primitive or savage would be quite unfair and offensive. That really, however, is not what I have done. Your brief tutorial in ‘Critical Anthropology 101’ was a little unnecessary, as I do not, as you seem to think, use the terms unknowingly and uncritically. I come from a background of studying Cultural Anthropology and African Studies, and am very familiar with (and fully supportive of) criticism of the field—particularly with its colonial roots and early ethnocentrism.

The name of this blog, as well as the introduction, should be read with a little more wit than I think you are allowing yourself. I came up with the name because I liked the idea of a contrast between the archaic language of early anthropology and the very contemporary medium of blogging. It was meant to draw a parallel between the field research processes of early ethnographers, and with my itinerant blogging practices—taken with a strong degree of irony, of course.

I think too often people read the title of the blog and jump to conclusions without looking beyond the surface, or taking a moment to think critically. People are very often so self satisfied in their political correctness, or in their own forward thinking, that they are over eager to label other people as being backward or biased. Now, were I to actually describe certain peoples or cultures as ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’, or to make prejudiced or racist remarks within my writing, I would certainly hope that all of my readers would criticize me for that, and take me to task. But as you say, I am ‘curious and compassionate’ toward the cultures I visit, and I think there is very little in the way of ethnocentric criticism on this blog. I have received nearly identical comments to yours in the past, and I added the bit about ‘savage nations’ to my introduction as a response. I hoped that by embellishing the blog with even more ridiculous and over the top language, it would be made all the more obvious that I was not using this terminology in earnest, but that I was rather using irony as a critical framing device for my own writing and explorations—but, as I see, apparently that isn’t clear to everyone. I don’t mean to suggest that anyone should relax in the face of actual prejudice, or ignore racism when it really occurs; however, I think people often need to chill, have a sense of humour and irony, and think critically before jumping to the offensive.

As a final note, I would point out that the only ‘culture’-- writing and photography-- featured on this blog is mine. The only culture that I could be directly labeling as primitive, then, would be my own.

Thanks for reading, and for sharing your concern.

Anonymous said...

hey. i grew up in byo, and it's been on my mind quite a bit these days, so thank you for your post on the situation there. i visited that same museum as a kid, after touring we would visit the cafe downstairs for a fanta and a snack. it's such a shame what the govt has done to my country, but i still want to move back, just not right now. so, thanks again, and safe travels.

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Postcards and Coasters said...


Love your blog. Just posted some pictures from your home town.

Cathy Gatland said...

Oh Bulawayo :..( My mom was an artist at the Museum, painting backdrops - or 'cases' - for the taxidermy birds and animals in the early 60's. I spent happy hours in the basements there as a child, and playing in the Centenary gardens outside. I went back about 20 years ago to visit - was probably only a few cents to get in then. The taxidermist's assistant, Livingstone, had become the Director, he took me around to see my mom's work, but refused to believe I still remembered him, which I vividly did.
I'm sorry to hear the oppressive and arrogant still reign supreme - incidents like that also ring in my memory.

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