Hungry Jacarandas: 1. Introduction

Between 2002 and 2003 I lived close to eleven months in a country that transformed itself at breakneck speed from being the bread basket of Southern Africa to an incorrigible basket case. Zimbabwe.

There were two reasons why the country had any recall for me. One, the visual of Robert Mugabe hugging Mrs Indira Gandhi at the NAM summit in New Delhi. Two, India 17 for 5 at Tunbridge Wells playing the country at the 1983 World Cup – what happened subsequently is a part of cricketing history.

History is also something that Zimbabweans – the most friendly people one can find on this planet – tend to fondly remember. The day in 1980 when Rhodesia became two – east and west, and East Rhodesia became independent as Zimbabwe under the regime of the most loved leader of them all – Robert Mugabe. A huge crowd had gathered at the rally that day, my friend Jeremiah “Jerry” Gezana told me. Mostly blacks, they were waiting for the slightest hint from their leader and they’d tear down and occupy the plush bungalows of the British in leafy areas like Avondale. “Not a hair of any white men will be touched”, warned Mugabe, “today is the day of forgiving past sins and the whites are our brothers as much everyone else is”, he went on to explain to the stunned crowd. Mugabe was the instant hero for the a western world – a case study of erudite handling of regime changes. Mugabe went on to building the foundations of the nation with a remarkable sense of vision, allowing trained professionals like teachers and miners (Zimbabwe was embarrassingly rich in natural resources) immigrate easily to his country, allowing them citizenships on arrival. Thanks to such a scheme, Mrs. Arati Bose, her professor husband and two sons, Bapi and Toton chose to try their luck and come down to Zimbabwe in 1982. We will revisit this family again – many times – in this series because they adopted me into their family and I saw a lot of Salisbury (they were still not used to calling the capital Harare) through their eyes

Then something flipped. Zimbabweans, a rather politically averse community, never could put their fingers when. Some say it was in 1992, some say 1996 but they are reasonably unanimous that it had to do with two important but coincidental events. The rise of war veterans who wanted more power in the governance of the country and, mostly related, rise of Movement of Democratic Change (MDC) as an alternative against the monopolistic political structure of ZANU-PF. And that is when the old man lost it. “Before independence, in this Groombridge area, any black seen after sundown could be shot dead and no police case was registered. This was a white-only area. The memories hadn’t totally erased, they were merely controlled. Thus when it was needed, the whites were an easy target, you know Sub”, Jerry Gezana looked me straight in the eye as he sat down his bottle of Castle Lager in the pub at a stripmall at Sam Levy’s Village. “But what the old man did not realize was that the whites still farmed the grains and vegetables that fed this country. Drive them away you can – and some will argue you should – but who will farm the land and get us food?”, Jerry continued. “And when white nations collectively got against us, we could not import food as well. We were fucked”, Jerry took a last and symbolic swig at his beer. “Night operations by his goons evicted whites from their farms and by the next morning a black family – his supporters – were installed in the farm. Six months later the land was just as it was. The black guy did not know no farming so all he did was he built a bloody home near the gates of the farm. Just look for these farms with a house near the gate – those are the ones taken away from the real farmers, the whites, and given to the guy who perhaps used to sprinkle fertilizers”, Jerry said as I settled the bill. “C’mon, Sub, leave the guy more than $500 tip – that’s like less than one US Dollar where you get your dollars exchanged”, Jerry chuckled and was back in his ways of pulling my leg. He was the Deputy CIO of African Banking Corporation – he perhaps knew what the bank was paying me!

Zimbabwe was a living laboratory for any student of economics and political science. Every theory of those subjects could be tested with live examples and case studies in this country. Alas, I was a novice at economics and nescient in anything political (including those played at workplaces. That explained why I was consulting a Bank here and my friends in New York City). I saw Zimbabwe through the eyes of day to day living in the capital city, through relationships I built with different types of people – both at work and outside, through my travels across the country and of course my faithful camera. It will be unfair to not mention a line about my camera. The technology dinosaur that I am, I was still using my Nikon FM10 manual focus camera and carried an assortment of films ranging from 50 to 200 ISOs and two lenses with me. Much later I had the prints from those days converted to digital format but with significant loss of quality, not to mention the negatives I lost while moving houses

The name of the series also merits a small explanation. Before the Bank found me a home, they had put me up at the Crown Plaza. From my room I would look down at the city and the view was a canopy of green with long slashes of vivid, lusty violet. I later realized they were Jacaranda flowers. Someone who must have loved the city as much as he loved the flowers had planted trees on both sides of several avenues in Harare (perhaps it was Salisbury then). The trees grew up and bent over to embrace their across-the-road neighbors as time passed by. And in spring they would light their romance up in bright, vivid shades of violet flowers. For the traveller it seemed a heavenly canopy of regal violet. As days pass, my memories of that wonderful country recede in the abyss of black and white leaving only the Jacaranda flowers to rekindle the remembrance

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