Peter Godwin Reflects on Harare, Zimbabwe

Jumping on a trampoline at the Royal Agricultural Show in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1996. Paul Weinberg / Anzenberger-Redux

Harare has always been an arboreal city, planted by its colonial fathers with graceful avenues of overhanging boughs. And this eye-drawing foliage can conceal the capital's slow deterioration. The last time I visited the city, where I was born and schooled, the rains had been more plentiful and, from the air, the city was concealed by a leafy canopy. Water had collected everywhere, except in the city's leaking dams. It spilled out of clogged storm drains and pooled on the broken pavements and the roads. The runoff had torn at them, creating jagged edges and huge potholes, new ones almost daily, so that you couldn't remember the geography of them well enough to slalom around their minefields.

And as the surrounding commercial farmers had been evicted, and their lands mostly had fallen fallow, the bush had encroached and had been recolonized by wildlife. Eagles wheeled overhead, adjusting their wingtips for sudden plunges onto rodents below. Snakes slithered through the thickening undergrowth. There were more insects—scorpions and mosquitoes, flies, bees. Monkeys and even baboons had reappeared in the city, scampering through the suburbs, rustling through the trees.

Working streetlights were rare, and at night bats flourished, as the city had grown profoundly dark, in a way that no modern city ever really does. Without competing light pollution, you could see the stars pulsing, limpid, and glistening in the close velvet night. And the luminous craters on the moon were startlingly clear even to the naked eye. With most industry closed and traffic dwindling, the city's background hum, that urban tinnitus, had relented, and at night it fell eerily silent.

Most people survived without electricity. Women walked the city streets carrying thick bundles of wood perched on their heads, with their backs perfectly straight and their shoulders back, the posture so sought after by Western debutantes, perfected here in the impoverished streets of Harare.

And the natural rhythms of the African bush had started to return to a capital of 2 million people. Hungry residents had planted maize on every available patch of land, even along the highway medians. And you saw the soft glow of fires as people cooked their meals in front of their houses and on the curbside. And they came to work in the morning, those few with jobs, reeking of wood smoke, as though they had been camping. And in a sense, they had. They'd become urban foragers, hunter-gatherers reverting to a preindustrial rhythm of life, maximizing daylight, walking miles to collect untreated water, to cook with it and to bathe in it and to flush their stagnant toilets.

In the lobby of the Harare city hall, beneath the lion's-spout gutter, stood the carved granite capstone of the original Salisbury town hall. Its inscription tells us that it was laid "on Occupation Day, 12th of September 1902."

The terra cotta–roofed building surrounds a Mediterranean-style courtyard with high arches and white walls and, in one corner, emerging from a quartet of potted palms as though from a threadbare jungle, stood a crudely fashioned duo of his-and-hers guerrilla statues, Kalashnikovs at the ready, commemorating liberation. A municipal cleaning woman in a white coat swept impassively around them.

At the faded Borrowdale shopping center, once quite posh, the bank was almost empty. Because of rapacious hyperinflation, most trade had now moved over to U.S. dollars, and no one here wanted Zimbabwe dollars, not even the freshly minted 1 trillion–dollar note. Enterprising Zimbabweans in the diaspora were selling it on eBay as a curiosity—the world's largest-denomination note—for more than its black-market face value here. An elderly white man tottered up clutching a check to deposit, made out in Zimbabwe dollars. "How much is this number?" he asks me, his rubber-tipped aluminum stick clattering on the parquet floor. The check has 21 zeros before the decimal point. I try to calculate. Six zeroes is a million. Nine zeroes is a billion. Twelve is a trillion. Fifteen is, a quadrillion? Eighteen is… hmm. "About five U.S. bucks," I say, and he chortles. The cashier slides across a handy laminated chart. Twenty-one zeros is a sextillion.

Godwin is the author, most recently, of The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe.