I was born in the 1980’s, a good time to be Zimbabwean. As a child, my country felt normal – maybe a few routine power cuts, but a reasonably well-functioning, stable country. The Zimbabwe dollar was strong, Zimbabwean pride was real. Now as an adult living in my home town, Harare, I’ve noticed a huge identity shift in my country. We do not have our own currency, we use the American dollar and South African Rand. Harare has become very expensive, the divide between rich and poor is immense. The very rich drive Porches and even Hummers, while the poor majority walk, bicycle and rely on commuters. Municipal water is a distant memory for many, power cuts are every day occurrences, and rates are high.
Trucks now pump out borehole water and sell them to residents, to fill their water tanks. $60 for 5000 litres of water is a huge expense. Some are lucky to have their own boreholes, but underground water is diminishing and boreholes are drying up. The worldwide trend to drink water out of a plastic bottle has been appropriated here too. A small bottle of water in a restaurant costs $1. But how many Zimbabweans can afford to buy water like this? Life has now become more about getting by for many. What happened to the laid back feeling of my youth?
South Africa has taken huge advantage of the collapse of our economy. Its goods’ fill our shops, its chains seem to be everywhere. We now rely on imports because industry has essentially collapsed and agriculture is struggling; Zimbabwe once the ‘bread-basket’ of Africa. As Zimbabweans, are our identities being eroded?
Entertainment, Now and Then
As a teenager, Avondale was one of the main places to be seen. There were three cinemas: 7Arts, Vistarama and Elite 100. I spent many a Saturday night watching a movie with friends, followed by coffee at the Italian Bakery, which everyone referred to as IB’s. The Italian Bakery was a true Harare icon in the 1990s. It started off very small and gradually increased in size. I remember it for its delicious Italian bread, and the best custard slice in town. IBs has now become Café Nush, a popular restaurant and cafe with reminders of the past.
The ‘latest releases’ were always behind the rest of the world. The cinemas had an old-worldy feel and there was always the same adverts that we all knew before the movie. But it felt Zimbabwean, the cinemas had a Zim identity; it was part of my upbringing. It felt ‘ours.’ Popcorn in brown paper bags and small tubs of rum and raisin ice cream.
When Westgate opened, a new type of cinema dawned in Zim. It had a South African feel, bright and new, grand and a bit far away. It was a bit of an adventure and drive, reserved for a special occasion. Westgate cinema has managed to survive, although the new Borrowdale cinema complex has become the most popular option in the northern suburbs. Ster Kinekor is now the South African brand in cinemas that teenagers of today know. The Avondale cinemas unfortunately closed down, taking with them a bit of our Zimbabwean identity.
It seems that restaurants and bars and supermarkets have become the wealthier classes’ main form of entertainment. Sam Levy’s Village paints a false picture of a vibrant economy. It is a bubble of wealth that has become increasingly branded South African, encouraging a lifestyle that the majority of unemployed Zimbabweans can’t even dream of. The South African chains that have crept in to capitalize on the American dollar are all doing well. Mugg and Bean -a huge café chain- has stamped its mark on Borrowdale and Avondale.
The Food Lovers’ Market has recently opened a large store in Borrowdale, adding to the collection of supermarkets. The TM chain of supermarkets that every Zimbabwean knew, is now being re-branded as Pick ‘N Pay. Restaurants such as St Elmo’s and even Ocean Basket, are hugely popular and busy. Ocean Basket’s staff are in fact made up of Zimbabweans who were working in South Africa, and have now returned. Zimbabwe’s economic free fall has pushed many desperate people into South Africa. It is common to find Zimbabweans working throughout South Africa.
However, local restaurants and cafes are flourishing and shouldn’t be overlooked. Antonio’s in Borrowdale serves some of the best food in Harare. Sorella’s Pizzeria has delicious authentic pizza, and is run by two Zimbabwean-Italian sisters; a local business that is proudly Zimbabwean. Queen of Hearts Cafe serves one of the best cappuccinos in town, has wood-oven pizza nights on a Friday, has the best homemade ice cream, and has established itself as a dynamic business in Harare. It has also recently hosted a couple of fairs. Fairs and markets have become very popular here.
The Maasdorp Market is always busy every Wednesday and Saturday morning. There is a growing number of people who want to support local farmers and buy organic produce. Amanzi restaurant has a food market on a Friday morning in its beautiful gardens. It remains one of the best upmarket restaurants and its Thursday nights of live music and dancing has created quite a cult following. It also has a quiz night that is very popular. In fact quiz nights have gained popularity throughout Harare.
Harare has also recently seen a surge in ‘local’ cocktail bars and sushi, strangely so in this land-locked country. Mekka is one such place in Borrowdale that caters for the well-heeled members of society. It is also favoured for its DJs. In a city that craves modernity, more streamlined venues are popping up. Pariah State in Avondale and Pomona are the latest bars to make an impact. Cocktails and live music in a funky environment with an African vibe. Night clubs in Harare tend to shut down frequently and start up again with a new name. The recently launched Pablo’z has had many previous identities, H2O being the most recent.
The Venue in Avondale is another bar, that serves upmarket food, hosts popular DJs and provides entertainment for this new Zimbabwe. However these venues cater for a select, wealthy section of our society. I don’t ever remember growing up with such a disparity in Harare. I couldn’t have ever imagined as a child that Harare would one day serve Sushi in the neighbourhood that I grew up in.
A venue that has a strong Zimbabwean flavour is the Book Café. I frequented the Book Café as a teenager, an interesting local venue for live music that continued to thrive until very recently. In the 90’s when it was situated at the Fife Avenue Shops, the Thursday open-mic evening was one of our main forms of entertainment. The same poet every week performing the same poem and our own friends with their home-grown bands. It was a time when nightlife was less exclusive. House parties were common. If you heard of a good party you went along, even if you didn’t have an invitation. The social scene naturally, was smaller. There were fewer places to go to as a teenager. The Bowling Alley in Borrowdale, many Zimbabweans will remember was the place to be on a Friday night. There was bowling as well as pool tables and even a games section. It was a large venue that created a lot of memories for so many young people. Now, in its place, is a Spar. Shopping seems to have become more important, with the worldwide trend of consumerism.
I remember supermarkets being closed on a Sunday. In those days, life seemed more laid back. Some restaurants even existed throughout my youth, such as Guido’s in town. Many enjoyable family meals of weekend lunches were had there.
So how does it feel to be Zimbabwean in 2015? In many ways, Harare has not changed. We still braai, the outdoor lifestyle is still celebrated. Some places have not changed at all. Reps Theatre still produces productions in an environment that has hardly entered the 21st century. HIFA has continued to survive and represents the best of Zimbabwe’s arts and culture and brings in acts from all over the world. But Harare is different. The small percentage of super wealthy have been accommodated for in the luxury of Sam Levy’s Village. However, the rest of Harare tells a different story. Children begging, more and more people vending. Shopping centres that struggle to keep their shops open.
The soul of the country that I grew up in seems to have been lost. How can we be proudly Zimbabwean using a foreign currency? Of course, it is a better reality than the millions of Zimbabwe dollars that were worthless and ended up being thrown away. But I remember when the pretty notes of my childhood had real value. When cent coins could buy you bubble gum. The children of today, perhaps associate Zimbabwe with dirty American dollar notes.
I have a lot of nostalgia for the city I grew up in. Now I mainly see what we’ve lost. There is nothing wrong with luxury, but should it be more important than a self-sufficient country? Should the majority be so neglected in poverty? Is this the future of Zimbabwe? Is this the Zimbabwe we want to identify with?
Main image from www.panoramia.com