Writer NoViolet Bulawayo Reflects on Zimbabwe

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Bulawayo—Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, located in the heart of the country—was thriving in the ’90s. Then things fell apart. Owen Huntley

Bulawayo starts in the sky, a solid shade so alive they had to nickname the city “Bluez.” It’s at the very end of the ’90s and the decade is packing its bags. Does Bulawayo know? That not too many years from now, when we vote for change and it refuses to come, when things fall apart and scatter and we’re singing the blues—does it know that its people will dream of this time?

The city center is a tight fist; it’s easy to walk and be done with before you know it. When you enter the city through Third Avenue, your combi taxi will spit you at egodini, the taxi rank where people arrive and leave from western townships with names like Luveve, Lobengula, Gwabalanda, Nguboyenja, Magwegwe; names that speak of the Ndebele king’s offspring—this is consolation, the weight of heritage.

If it happens to be on a weekend and the city’s most popular football team, the Highlanders, has won a match, then egodini and this part of the city center are a beautiful bedlam. Hooting cars clog the streets, young men shout and whistle and wave their shirts in the air, supporters clad in black and white (the team’s colors) celebrate, and music blares from car stereos.

When you get out of your combi, you will follow the spine of Lobengula Street upward, to the right. During the day the city is all bodies and bustling. On this street are shops like Parekhs and Baloos, and Indian-owned stores where you are assured that you will buy something because the prices are affordable. Stop on this street and walk into one of the photo studios where you will stand in front of a blue curtain, one hand on your waist, and stare fiercely into the camera to have your picture taken.

Lobengula Street will suddenly stop like a spontaneous pause, and you will have to cross the traffic lights to the open square outside Jayz supermarket where, in the late hours, women lean against shop windows and sell curried rice and curried chicken. At the center of the square, a lean, shirtless man drinks clear liquid from a bottle and spits fire into the air. If he is not doing this, then another is walking on wire suspended between two giant trees. The spectators, who have seen all this before, are not impressed, but they still stop to look. Watch carefully because a pickpocket is watching you.

To the right of the square is the terminus for buses going to the townships. To the left are more stores, including TM Hyper supermarket. And at the end of the block is yet another open square where people vend and sit and watch. Take a left and head toward the better part of the city center. Getting deeper into town, the city grows block by block. Bulawayo has a grid construction; the streets have turned wide now and run parallel to Lobengula Street. Large trees line most streets; you’ll notice the jacaranda for the purple flowers that argue with the cool blue of the sky. Failing to win, the flowers drop on the pavement where they are stomped to death.

The buildings are not modern, but they are still solid; perhaps in this, there is comfort. The High Court on Herbert Chitepo. The Tredgold on Fort Street. The Central Police Station on Leopold Takawira. The City Hall on Fifth Avenue. They are mostly old buildings, and if the walls could talk, they would speak of the colonial days when black people would not be found inside. It’s a different time now, but that doesn’t mean that black people and white people aren’t afraid of each other’s bodies. See them leave room around each other on the street, see the black houseboy seated in the back of the lorry while the white madam sits by herself at the front?

This is Bulawayo in the ’90s, but does it know that by 2008 it will hardly remember itself? That queues for basic necessities will take over the city, that angry, hungry citizens will flock to demonstrate in the streets, only to be beaten and rounded up by the police and sent to jails, that there will be blood, that there will be power cuts, that things will fall apart? Does Bulawayo know? And does it know that in 2011 it will be licking its wounds, a wounded bird learning to fly again, most of its children swallowed by foreign cities whose streets offer a little more? Does it know where to go now?