Guest column: Miriam Tose Majome
WEEKEND afternoons in Harare as any Zimbabwean town go like this: The viscous African sun beats down furiously as gentle tropical breezes flirt pleasantly about.
Gleaming SUVs and battered ex-Japanese cars that have cruised on better roads in Nagasaki, Japan, speed over dusty pot holed roads. Harare drivers are always in an impatient hurry even during weekends. Pretty girls in SUVs are driven by men who look like cats that just got the cream.
Regular men and women drive their Toyota Wishes and Honda Fits packed to the hilt with their weekend buddies. They are just regular Zimbabweans going about their way enjoying their weekend. They have different lives and lifestyles, but have one thing in common — they love their drink. Everyone, including the driver, drinks freely and openly as they drive around the city.
Drivers don’t bother to hide their bottles anymore. Those days are long gone. At the intersection, they stop to take a long hard swig as a passenger opens a window and flings an empty green bottle out, narrowly missing a stunned cyclist. It hits the pavement just inches ahead, shattering into a million pieces as the car lunges full speed ahead.
At ramshackle neighbourhood shopping lots dotted around the city, the same assortment of vehicles are parked haphazardly cheek by jowl. People mill aimlessly about. Men with pot bellies rudely poking out of tight T-shirts clutch beer bottles and huddle around in small groups. Pretty girls in weaves and tight jeans hang around near them delicately sipping expensive ciders and fancy alcopops. Chunks of meat sizzle on makeshift braai stands and greasy, smoky pleasant aromas hang in the air. There is a warm easy going camaraderie shared by friends and strangers.
They show off cars, discuss business deals, complain and theorise about the parlous state of the economy and politics. In another corner, small groups mill idly around their fancy cars sipping spirits from plastic tumblers showing off expensive whiskeys placed on top of car boots. A few paces away, bootleg spirits are sold from the back of a small hatchback. Loud dancehall music pulsates from different cars vulgar lyrics blaring into the gloriously fading dusk. A couple locked in an amorous embrace sways hips together rhythmically and suggestively to the cacophonous thumping beat. Today they drink, tomorrow, they go to church. Later, they will pass through the drive-in bottlestore to get a few more bottles on their drive home.
Chatty youthful vendors move around selling pirated music and porn DVDs. Some also sell drugs, but this is known only to those who need to know. The offensive stench from the mounds of litter dotted around the edges occasionally wafts through as skinny dogs scavenge for meatless bones. Flies swarm around, but no one is bothered. They just swat them away from their meat as they talk loudly between mouthfuls of sadza and chunks of cucumber.
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There are no toilets or running water at most of these places. When men need to go, they step away a little and dart behind a tree or car with their backs to the crowd. They hold and shake off vigorously before returning to plunge straight into the tray of shared sadza. And the women? Well, they have a harder time, but they make do because when a woman’s gotta go, she’s gotta go. They crouch and hide shyly behind cars and bushes and whatever physical obstruction there may be. If there is none, they human-shield each in the sisterhood of strangers shouting deathly warnings to approaching men to keep away. They are shy at first, but as the cider warms their head making them feel a little fuzzy, it’s not so bad and anyway, who doesn’t pee? If men can do it, they can do even better.
This is the part it gets disturbing and sad. These men and women who drive and drink openly, who throw beer bottles out of moving vehicles, who run red lights, who wee and defecate in public, are the nation’s lawyers, journalists, bank managers, nurses, teachers, engineers, doctors and accountants. They are the country’s best brains, but as they crouch behind bushes peeing, there is no difference with the casual layabouts and street vendors who they plan for and drive past on their way to work on Monday. Here at PaZindoga, PaMaruta, PaFatso, PaChikwanha, PaMereki, among others, only their clothes and cars parked nearby tell them apart.
This and church are the sum total of weekend entertainment and recreation for the majority of ordinary Zimbabweans. On Sundays after church, well-meaning fathers take their families to these popular drinking places. Their thrilled young children love it there. They most especially love the open air, fizzy drinks and the copious mounds of roasted meat which they don’t get at home. They chow and suck on the grilled meat as they chase each other darting between cars, bumping into commercial sex workers and weird men peeing behind the cars.
They run over used condoms and trip over used syringes strewn about on the ground. No one is particularly bothered. It’s just kids having fun out on dad’s treat. When they need to pee, no problem, they know what to do. Giggling shyly, they crouch behind trees and cars like they see adults do. That’s just the way it is done out here. It’s so much fun.
There is, believe it or not, a government ministry dedicated to developing recreational facilities in the country — the Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation ministry and Kirsty Coventry is the minister. Its stated mission is “To develop and implement policies and programmes that transform and strengthen the involvement of Zimbabweans in sport and recreation for socio-economic development.’’
No single party is to blame for the appalling state of the nation’s recreational facilities and industry. Churches and bottlestores are the facilities most accessible to ordinary people. Government policy aside, there is a critical lack of imagination and creativity at individual level. People who can afford to drive nice cars and drink every weekend are by no means poor. There has to be a better and imaginative way to entertain themselves than this.
At government policy level, the lack of a tangible national recreation policy has led to the growth of too many social vices that will only take a radical approach to tackle. Vices like drug addiction, public drinking, prostitution and thieving, etc, are directly linked to lack of viable entertainment and recreational facilities. There is a disturbing and growing overall disregard for the law and a fast diminishing sense of social decency and propriety.
For example, urinating in public was not as common as it is now when every tree is a men’s toilet.
Many of the issues highlighted here are policy issues regarding health, law enforcement and recreation. Whatever policies the government may have are clearly not working. If nothing changes, the children of these bankers, doctors and journalists who urinate behind walls will also soon be sneaking behind bushes at the same but much more dilapidated shopping centres.
This will be all they know because it was all they saw when they played between their parents’ cars parked at bottlestores. They will see nothing wrong with it. Their only fear will be getting caught peeing by someone of the opposite sex. This is the truly authentic Zimbabwean recreational experience.
Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer and a teacher. She can be contacted on email@example.com