(This is a re-post, in light of today’s military takeover in Zimbabwe)
Today’s GPS, which even calculates the space-time difference between
the ground and the satellite giving it information, is sadly not so good
at knowing what changes have taken place on the roads it guides you through
during the day.
And so it was that we arrived from The Victoria Falls ( more of this in our blog
‘ The Cutter of Rock’ ) at about 6 pm in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital.
From events that followed, it appeared that Mr. Mugabe himself had arrived home from a busy day at the office just a minute or two before we turned into the street where he lived, in an upmarket suburb of Harare.
In winter (July in the southern hemisphere) it is dusky to downright dark by this time, and our GPS told us to take a left, which we did.
Shortly after this, and from the surrounding walls of tall pine trees lining the road, came a load whistling, or shrieking sound.
I couldn’t see anything, but slowed to listen, as I thought it could be some species of bird
I had never heard of before, roosting for the night.
My partner wasn’t as sure, and thought we should stop and see what it was.
I did in fact, almost stop. I paused. Then the whistling shrieks stopped.
So I drove on, but slowly. And the bird calls started, all the louder.
The trees were dark silhouettes, and I was trying to see shapes of what would be fairly
large birds, against the dying light of the sky.
This leering out of the window was unfortunate, as it prevented me from seeing
the considerable assembly of armed police and soldiers blocking the road ahead of me.
Fortunately, I gave up on the birds, directed my attention to the road once more, and avoided running over the armed squad before us. I was going slowly, it must be said.
When one is expecting to possibly see a new species of bird, it is quite a surprise to
see a squad of well armed men instead.
We were immediately asked, quite agitatedly, what we were doing there.
As we were in a public road, made all the more credible by our state of the art GPS,
it was a strange question,to which I gave the honest reply. ‘We’re looking for our B&B’.
They asked us to get out of the car.
I don’t think I could have parked the car more perfectly in front of Mr. Mugabe’s
driveway entrance if I had tried. And an impressive entrance it was, even the guardhouse
seemed to have marble columns in the dim light. Unless I’m very much mistaken it also
had a fully armed machine gun, which was pointed our way. I don’t mean that to sound menacing. It was possibly always pointed in that frontal direction.
Now that we were out of the car, standing in the middle of the road, surrounded by
camouflaged men with AK 47’s and men in neat police uniforms, things did feel a little odd.
Again the questions came, ‘Why are you here?”Why are you in this road?’ Why didn’t you stop at the roadblock?’
To this last one, we replied ‘What roadblock?’ The policeman who led the interrogation
seemed to sigh inwardly with tired foresight. ‘ That one’ he gestured. And in the dim
light, channeled by a tunnel of pine or fir trees, I could just make out a sort of multicoloured
obstruction across the entrance to the road we had just entered.
‘It wasn’t there when we turned, otherwise how would we have got here?’ I responded.
It was a good question. So good in fact, that the entire troupe, nudging us on, decided to inspect the roadblock for themselves, to see if it really wasn’t there.
We got to the roadblock, which stared balefully at me, now manifest proof that I was lying.The roadblock was manned by two soldiers, and at someone’s soft command, one of them was prompted to move forward and press the barrel of his AK 47 into my tummy.
We were now in the predicament where we seemed to be lying because of a roadblock that had insinuated itself across the road after we had passed it.
There was a considerable amount of crosstalk going on between the troops, and I
picked up some valuable intelligence. Mr Mugabe had turned the corner to his estate
possibly a minute or two before us. Those who were supposed to close the road after his passing (in a manner of speaking) seemed to have been a bit tardy, and so we snuck in before the road closed. In fact, the road was open for so long that another vehicle, a minibus taxi, had also managed to slip in, noticed.
While the blame still rested squarely at a point near my belly button, things were looking up. No-one wanted to admit publicly that the road had not been closed timeously, and
so a long face-saving interrogation proceeded. The police had their half hour to an hour.Then the army moved in and took over the questioning. They asked if we had a bomb in the car. Our car is a lovely little Peugeot Partner, tough as hell, but looks like a breadvan, and it was jam packed with tourist paraphernalia. They asked me to drive it a full block away from Mr. Mugabe’s residence, and this was a good thing.
Not just for Mr. Mugabe, but for us. A policeman squeezed into the car with us and escorted us to where we parked. It was a good time to suggest that I leave my partner by the car, as she wasn’t in fact the driver, and could look after the car and its contents.
To his credit, the policeman, a senior officer, both in age and rank, agreed,
This took a lot of pressure off me, although the semi-automatic did nuzzle into my navel as soon as I was taken back to the roadblock.
Now it was the army’s turn. Their fantasy was that I was a spy and planned a car bomb
at the front entrance of their President’s home just as he was arriving home.
Now while I am not an ardent supporter of Mr. Mugabe, I do believe in live and let live.
The argument went around in circles, and fortunately started losing its teeth somewhere after another half hour. Something that worked in our favour was that we were so assured of our innocence, that I believe it rubbed off, even to the hardened sceptics among them.
Also, when the barrel first met my tummy, I literally said a little prayer, and I was filled with calmness. I think that helped a lot, and so I have a lot to thank God for.
Things got a lot more serious when the men in black arrived. These were lean, tall
men in suits, and there was a patient menace in their mien and in their questions.
But luckily under all this, there was a murmur of blame allocation building for the
men who didn’t block the road immediately.
The men in black didn’t care for that, and escorted me back to the car.
Here they wanted to see for themselves that there was no bomb or other weapons of
mass, or even tiny, destruction.
The one suspicious item they latched onto was our sturdy, well worn Stanley flask.
I took this out of our picnic bag gently, and slowly opened it. To show it was bona fide, I poured a little steaming water onto the tarmac.
By now the army and police had gathered around.
Suddenly bored or embarrassed, the men in black told us to be on our way,
and not in so many words, to remove this street from our GPS permanently.
As we hastily started our little breadvan, we noticed that everyone’s attention was now
focused on the hapless taxi driver who had taken the wrong turn. They smacked him around a few times, and then gave him dire warnings in Shona, and bundled him back into
We drove off into the night, now devoid of whistles.
My partner felt something on her seat, flat and small. It was the senior policeman’s identity
“I’ll drop it off in the morning’ I said.
‘We’re not going near here, ever again.’ She said flatly.
I drove for a while ‘ We’ll hand it in at the nearest police station’ I offered.
She looked ahead and said nothing.
The owner of the B&B had a reaction we were to see a few times over the next day or two in Harare. She buried her face in her hands, and shook her head and groaned with disbelief when we told her the story.
When she finally looked up, still in shock, she said ‘ They usually shoot people who
do that.” We, fortunately, are proof that they don’t, but apparently it has happened.
That day at lunch we met a business colleague, and it was quite uncanny how he almost
exactly mimicked our landlady’s head in the hands reaction.
I wondered what kind of a country it is that causes people to behave this way.
The ironic backdrop to this is, that most Zimbabweans I have met are good people,
in need of good work, and who will go the extra mile to help.
There was handful though, that seemed not to belong here, with other Zimbabweans, they were officious, arrogant, and when I saw them just before elections in the rural areas,
plain thugs. We noticed shiny new Landcruisers laden with arrogant young men and party banners roaring into villages and nearly running down just a few old women, old men and some kids. Then they strutted about, shouting and waving posters and generally being threatening.
I had heard about the intimidation tactics used in areas that were not voter strongholds, and I may be wrong, but these seemed like intimidation teams to me. Sad to have to threaten people to vote for you.
They were everything their other countrymen were not, and I refuse to believe that they were just born like that. Something made them like that.
In breaking news today 15 November 2017 Robert Mugabe and his wife Grace are detained under house arrest in the very same house we were ‘detained’ at 🙂