There are few words that can capture the inside of an African bar; that mix of noise, laughter, danger with the whiff of stale beer and the stench of smoke; the clatter of metal tables and chairs; a place where beer flows and tongues loosen faster than the frames of the fading pictures on the wall.
From Lusaka to Kigali and beyond, bar floors are scattered with the ashes of cigarettes and thousands of conversations – most forgotten – that launched scores of stories – most untrue – into African folklore.
The abdication of Robert Mugabe in November reminded me of one such tale told in a warm, smoky corner of an African bar.
The priceless tale was of Mugabe’s visit to London in 1994 on a mission to encourage more foreign investment into his, then, robust economy.
On the day Mugabe and his team set out their stall in a presentation to narrow-eyed investors, in London, a hand went up at the back of the room.
“If I put my money into Zimbabwe will it be nationalized at a later date?”
It was not the question Mugabe had traveled thousands of miles to hear, even though it was a portent of the troubles to come in Zimbabwe.
The tale I heard, in the African bar, was that Zimbabwe and Mugabe had the last laugh on their former colonial masters. The Queen invited Mugabe and his ministers to Buckingham Palace for a state banquet in their honor.
It was a glittering evening beneath the chandeliers with the cutlery glinting in the lights of the night. Each plate had half a dozen knives and forks on each side.
This caused considerable consternation for the former vice president, the late Simon Muzenda, who frowned down at the line of implements on either side of his plate. Now Muzenda was a good guerrilla fighter who distinguished himself in the liberation war in Zimbabwe. Yet, the man himself would have admitted he was not a great sophisticate when it came to state banquets in palaces.
“What do I do?” says Muzenda in his mother tongue of chiShona.
Mugabe replied patiently that Muzenda was to start on the outside and work his way in with every course that the waiters delivered. Then Mugabe, ever the pragmatist, turned to Her Majesty and said it was customary for his comrades to say a prayer, in chiShona, before a meal; she gave the royal assent. Mugabe clasped his hands and said something, roughly translated, like this.
“We thank you God for our safe journey and the food on the table. We also pray to God that Muzenda uses the right fork at the right moment!”
The Zimbabwe contingent collapsed into laughter; the Queen looked on bemused.
Poor Muzenda would also have been the first to admit he maybe lacked a little education. His training consisted of a short period studying carpentry at a mission school in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.
The latter gave rise to another tale in an African bar.
In the mid-1990s Mugabe was speaking at a dinner in South Africa when he paid tribute to the education the country had lent himself and his vice-presidents Joshua Nkomo and Muzenda. Mugabe listed the degrees that Nkomo had earned at South African universities.
“My other vice-president Muzenda has also had some training here,” says Mugabe, to a few snickers from his aides.
So, both tales great fodder for a night out in an African bar. True? Why should they be when so many spurious tales are born among beer suds and the cackle of the African night.
One sunny afternoon I was hanging out with the presidential spokesman George Charamba in Harare. In those more principled days of the Mugabe regime the charming Charamba played it fairly straight.
“You have got your story,” was his usual retort when you had your facts straight.
I put the Muzenda stories to him and on this occasion he was more emphatic.
“You write those and you will be on the fastest plane out of here,” smiled Charamba.
It was true. So, not all bar tales in Africa are to be thrown away with the dregs of the night before.
Stone Town: From Freddie Mercury To The Farms
The sights, scents and sounds of Zanzibar include a 73-year-old tale of the iconic late British singer-songwriter.
Dress conservatively when walking the streets of Stone Town,” advises the tourist brochures in the predominantly Islamic society of Zanzibar, yet, the tiny Tanzanian archipelago proudly claims Freddie Mercury, the controversial frontman of British band Queen, as its own.
The singer, born in the windswept streets of Stone Town in Zanzibar in 1946 and one of the world’s most iconic voices in pop-rock, is this tourist town’s biggest currency-spinner.
Stone Town, which is a maze of historic alleys and spice bazaars with timber shutters, an old Arab fort, churches, mosques and 19th-century stone buildings, is a World Heritage Site overlooking the sea. Within its dusty bowels, leading up from its myriad walkways, is Shangani Street, starting with a white-washed, two-storied yellow building that was once Freddie Mercury’s home.
There are countless tours offered to what is emblazoned in gold outside as ‘Freddie Mercury House’, featuring four fully-furnished hotel apartments with balconies overlooking the Indian Ocean.
Outside are framed glass cases with sepia images of the songwriter and vocalist, describing his famous connection with Zanzibar. Born Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury’s family had immigrated to Zanzibar from Gujarat in India. He was born to Bomi and Jer Bulsara who were originally Parsis (a Zoroastrian community that migrated to the Indian subcontinent from Persia). In 1964, the Zanzibar Revolution forced the family to flee.
The island community’s lucrative tourist trade is even today cashing in on Mercury’s global image, with tours offered at the Zoroastrian Fire Temple where the Parsi family once worshipped, and to a restaurant named Mercury offering fresh seafood.
“Imagine, Freddie Mercury played on these white sandy beaches and clear waters at one time,” says my tourist guide, Amour, proudly, before taking me on a two-hour walking tour of Stone Town. He points to the domed white Zanzibar High Court where Mercury’s father once worked as a cashier.
His house on Shangani Street, where the first settlers arrived, is a hub of activity, with tourists, and touts selling everything from icecream to tanzanite jewelry and African bric-à-brac. Just a few steps up, is the Shangani post office and buildings boasting Indian, African and European architecture, where you discover your own Bohemian Rhapsody.
Amour helps me weave through the heaving mass of human traffic in the busy streets, to a fish and vegetable market in Stone Town that also sells spices in pretty bamboo gift-packs. The fish is sold fresh and the spices overpower the stench.
“Zanzibar used to be the largest exporter of cloves in the world, but from 70 percent, it’s only nine percent now,” Amour rues, thrusting a packet of cloves into my hand, “and that’s sad, because of declining prices, more competitors and the poor encouragement of farmers.”
Earlier, I had visited the spice farms Zanzibar is so famous for, finishing off with lunch in a Swahili home stationed on a peak in one of the scented valleys. It was modest home-cooked fare but with aromas as strong as the spice farms the ingredients came from: a banana dish with coconut milk and cardamom, flavored cassava from the fields, fried tuna, rotis and the most fragrant pilaf (rice dish) I have ever eaten, watered down with lemon grass and ginger tea.
I had been to the Muyuni village in the south tasting the sweetest mangoes and bananas in all of Africa, passing seaweed-strewn beaches, paddy fields and potholed roads with bullock carts, dala dala taxis and motorbikes.
In the lush mangroves of Jozani, I encountered the endangered red colobus monkeys. In the spice plantations, down slippery forest paths, I tasted nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves off the trees.
The natural treats along the way also included lemons and sweet green oranges. As we passed the red mahogany trees, “beware of the green mambas or pythons”, my host had warned. A vendor in the middle of the forest showed us his wares in a wicker basket: soaps and perfumes made from the Ylang-Ylang trees by the womenfolk.
“In Europe, Chanel No. 5 is made from this. Here, we call it Chanel No. 0, our products have no chemical or alcohol,” he says, pointing to the tiny bottles filled with red liquid. “These farms are so rich in spices that the chicken running around are already spiced, you don’t need to flavor them when you cook them,” laughs Amour, towards the end of our outing. From Freddie Mercury to the farms, Zanzibar beckons the senses.
The Tableaux Of The Wild
The beasts and the drama of the African bush, far from the harsh lights of big city Johannesburg.
There is a mystique about the African bush that enchants visitors from all over the world. Some of them become so captivated they decide to stay on, or return time and again.
Even a born and bred African like me, albeit of European descent, cannot say no to a few days of “bundu bashing”. There is nothing quite like escaping the bumper-to-bumper traffic and constant hum of the big city, to experience a range of smells as you move through the bush. The scent of the long grass. The whiff from the marula trees. The odor of fresh dung.
And at night, when you look up to the canopy of the sky, you feel as though you could reach out and touch the stars. The Southern Cross. Orion’s Belt. The river of the Milky Way. Venus, the morning and the evening star. The red glint of Mars.
On the day our group arrives at the exclusive Sable Camp at MalaMala within the larger Sabi Sands Game Reserve, which shares a 19-kilometer open border with South Africa’s Kruger National Park, it is hot and humid.
On this day in the country’s Mpumalanga province, it hits 39 degrees. We settle in and get ready for the first game drive of our stay.
We are here for the launch of a beautiful book by renowned wildlife photographers Gerald Hinde and Will Taylor – both men with a deep love for animals and African landscapes. We pile onto four game-viewing vehicles to find and photograph the heroes and heroines of their book – The Big Seven: Adventures in Search of Africa’s Iconic Species.
The roads are rough and rudimentary as we head into the bush, cameras with long lenses at hand. We drive along a river bed. As the sun moves slowly down towards the western horizon, its rays glint in the waves of green and yellow grass. The wheels skid in the white sand. We drive past a large bush and suddenly an elephant appears, tugging and tearing at the foliage. He looks at us and flaps his ears lazily.
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A bit further on, after literally bashing through the bush, off-road, we see her. Slinky and quiet, her pelt shines in the setting sun. The lone female leopard looks at us with the disdain of a cat disturbed by bothersome humans. She slinks through the bush as we follow her. Then she sits perfectly still, slowly turning her head from side to side.
As darkness settles, the vehicle lights come on and we head back to the lodge. In an outdoor boma, tables are set up in the round, and a five-star dinner is served under the expanse of the night sky. We are treated like royalty by all of the staff of MalaMala. Most of them come from the community that now owns the reserve, after the conclusion of a successful land claim deal in 2014.
The next day dawns. Overcast, with a soft, insistent rain. The temperature has dropped 14 degrees. Donning rain ponchos, the group of adventurers set forth on the morning game drive. The mission is to encounter every one of the Big Seven. The traditional Big Five tourists flock to game reserves to see are: elephant, lion, rhino, leopard and buffalo. Two more have been added, both on the endangered list – the wild dog and cheetah.
Just as humans are shy of rain, so are animals. They lie low in the grass or huddle under trees where they can’t be seen. An hour or so into the drive, the drizzle lifts and we see movement in the grass.
A lioness lifts her head and looks at us. Slowly, slowly, one lion after another stands up to look at the vehicles. There are, at least, eight of them. They lose interest in us again, and stretch out on the ground.
The time to leave comes far too soon. The quiet and beauty of the bush have soaked into my soul and I feel completely at peace and one with the sky and the grass and the trees and the animals and the river and the world.
Zimbabwe: Two Realities In One Country
The grandeur of the Victoria Falls is in stark contrast to the rest of Zimbabwe.
It is eight days before Christmas. We take the 1,300-kilometer drive from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls for a short vacation. As we arrive in Beitbridge, the border connecting South Africa and Zimbabwe, the sun is shining its warm golden light over the bridge. There are no birds chirping over the Limpopo River. It seems like a peaceful morning, until you get closer.
There is pandemonium as hundreds of cars line up to be stripped and searched before proceeding into Zimbabwe. Most here are Zimbabwean nationals working in South Africa traveling home for the holidays.
They are bringing with them many supplies like cooking oil, fuel, stationery, furniture, clothing, drinks, building material and even Christmas trees. These items are scarce and overpriced in Zimbabwe.
Some want to sell them to hurried customers and others want to use them at home. The problem is, most of them require as much as 40% duty and others can’t be imported.
“Is your friend here today? I would like him to help me cross with my goods,” I overhear a man in the autumn of his life say over the phone.
He isn’t the only one trying to smuggle goods into Zimbabwe. According to local reports, the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) loses over $1 billion due to smuggling each year. With hundreds trying to make their way across, a journey to Victoria Falls is delayed by at least five hours.
As we drive into Beitbridge, we can see and almost smell struggle. This place is seized by an oppressive gloom. Our first stop is an Engine Garage that now operates almost like a tuckshop. Here, fuel tanks are dry and the shop inside has only bread, water, cold drinks, biscuits and chips.
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Outside, it is filled by a crowd of people pushing, shoving, shouting, buying and selling. There is dirty water flowing down the street and litter fills the potholes. Yet, this grubby place is seeing more trade than Zimbabwe’s biggest banks. Here, the black market is king and the bond notes are pawns.
In 2016, the government introduced bond notes in hopes to ease the cash crisis that saw the US dollar become scarce. The Reserve Bank may say bond notes are 1:1 to the US dollar; the free market says no. The black market traders are selling 1 US dollar for three bond notes.
“I used to be an accountant with a good job but our company closed down and now I am jobless. I have to make a living somehow so I rather sell cash on the streets to put food on the table,” says Bongani Moyo.
As we drive further into Zimbabwe, the situation gets worse. Stores are packed with imported goods; roads and buildings are dilapidated. One of the biggest problems is fuel.
“I just came out of a two-day fuel queue. The situation is bad. People can’t go to work and sometimes people hire [other] people to spend the day queueing for them,” says Given Mwale, as he directs us to a garage that sells fuel in foreign currency so we can continue our journey to Victoria Falls.
“That is the only garage that doesn’t get many queues and doesn’t run out of fuel. It is a private garage. They import their fuel from Botswana and they only sell in forex,” he says.
Shocked by the scarcity of cash, we drive towards Victoria Falls. On the way, many businesses are boarded up, their paint peeling and doors closed. As we arrive in Victoria Falls, there are jaw-dropping scenes.
The place looks nothing like the rest of Zimbabwe. Fueled by the tourist economy, the streets are clean and the business district buzzing. People are relaxed in summer clothing and look like they have no worry. It is a true holiday destination.
At Victoria Falls, the Zambezi River plummets over a cliff and into the boiling pot before flowing through a series of gorges. It has a width of 1,708 meters and a height of 108 meters, making it the world’s largest sheet of falling water.
As nature lovers, we experience the falls while walking through a rainforest and playing with monkeys. We also get to watch the sunset while drinking champagne in an open boat.
For a few hours, we forgot the troubles that belie Zimbabwe; until we drove out of Victoria Falls, back to Bulawayo. There may be laughter and foreign currency near the smoke that thunders but the rest of the country continues to cry for an economic breakthrough.
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