Day 76: A conversation with a Zimbabwean teenager

“The lights are out,” he says, gesturing to the stoplight at the intersection in front of us. The teenager in question is named Ashley. He and our taxi driver Freddie have just spent the better part of the afternoon as our tour guides of the Vumba Mountains, a range on the eastern side of Zimbabwe, practically on the border with Mozambique.

“They were out yesterday when we were walking around,” we respond. Then, our experience in Benin prompts us to ask a follow-up question: “Does this stoplight ever work?”

Ashley thinks for a second trying to recall either his memories of that particular intersection or the words in English.

“Yes,” he says. “I remember. Maybe when I was like five?”

I still trying to figure out Zimbabwe, but walking through the country, the capital, the other major cities, the small towns that border national parks, all of it, there’s a feeling that at some time, at some point, something was starting, but now, it’s stopped. A reaction that’s strongly in need of a second catalyst. A country that seems frozen in its development, almost all of which was developed in the previous millennium.

This feeling first hit me while I was walking through the streets of Bulawayo, the second largest city. In many ways, walking through the streets of Zimbabwe almost feels like walking through the streets of suburban America. But the suburban America of 1970: the fading paint, the industrial buildings, the notion of the strip mall as the ultimate destination for an area. At some point, it seems that the country decided that it had reached the point where it was going to stop trying, and it remains stuck at that moment.

This isn’t, like much of what I saw in Benin, aid gone wrong. This is development started by Zimbabweans, managed by the Zimbabwean government. Development that now passes the years counting the amount of time it has lain disarrayed and unused.

Driving out to the mountains, we passed block after block of empty industrial buildings. Businesses and enterprises that used to exist but don’t anymore. Later that night we had a conversation with another Zimbabwean, this one much older and much more affected by how the country had passed the previous fifteen years. We were comparing the country to our experience in Benin and told her that there was much more infrastructure here than there.

She tilted her head to the side and interrupted us. “There used to be,” she interjected. “But now.” She shook her head letting the end of the sentence fade into the past of a country that is declining rapidly from what it once was. “But now…”

Days 72-73: Overnight train to Harare

Everyone told us not to take the train.

“It’s not safe,” they said.

“It goes so slow they said.

“It’s not a good kind of crowd,” they said.

But, “it’s so cheap,” we thought.

“It would save us the price of a hostel that night,” we thought.

“We just got off 54 hours of traveling by bus,” we thought.

So we did it anyway.

I boarded the train in the dark. We staked out my sleeper cabin, stored all our bags under my bed and ate cheese and apples and bread while watching out the window at the people walking by on the platform. By the time we got to the ticket station that morning (you can only buy tickets for the day you want to travel on the day you want to travel) there was only one ticket left in a sleeper car, so after dinner we split up, the other to her spot in the economy class.

Fifteen minutes before the train was scheduled to leave, I met my first cabin-mate. She introduced herself; I waved to her seven-month-old son. I met my second cabin-mate five minutes after the train was scheduled was leave. She didn’t talk much. To me, anyway.

The power wasn’t working on the train (which we had heard was usual), so I was rocked to sleep shortly after the train started moving by feeling of the cars swaying on the tracks. I woke up the next morning somewhere between Bulawayo (our starting destination) and Harare. My Zimbabwean geography wasn’t good enough for when my cabin-mated told me where we were that it meant anything to me. I checked on my friend. I looked out the window. I listened to part of an episode of Radiolab. It was just finishing as we pulled into the Harare station.

That was it. No late night visitors trying to get into my cabin. No strangers ducking into the cabin to steal my stuff when I went to the bathroom. No drunken passengers roaming the hallway outside the cabin. The ride was uneventful, but that’s why it worked. It got us from point A to point B and left behind only a minimal amount of fatigue.

Sometimes, it turns out, you can’t listen to what others say.