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Coming home - Alexandra Fuller has been nominated for a Guardian First Book Award
Guardian Unlimited (UK)
November 27, 2002,12366,848510,00.html

I am once again in Zimbabwe, on a journey back to the creased mountains of my childhood where my family once owned a bad-luck, if picturesque, chunk of land. Near the farm, chopped out from the spilling exuberance of jungle, my younger sister Olivia is buried. We gave up the farm in 1981, at the end of the war of independence in what was known (in those orderly days) as a "compulsory purchase" (whereby black Zimbabweans were relocated lands previously held by white people). I want to see both the farm and Olivia's grave before it is too late.

This tight fist of soil pressed up against the Mozambique border contains the ghosts of so many of my memories. And in a way, this tiny, stubborn farm (more rock than soil, more beauty than brawn) also holds the ghosts of Zimbabwe's memories. On these lands, 25 years ago, my sister and I uncovered shards of pottery from ancient burial sites. Later we stumbled upon echoes of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia's bitter fight for independence (army camps in the kopjes). Still now, the land is gathering into its depths the people who pass over her surface.

The farm, careless of those who have bled, birthed, died or fought on it, has not, I discover, lost its shape. Roads have washed away, barns have crumbled, weeds have swallowed where Rhodes grass once prevailed, but the essential red, obstinate earth is unmoved.

I could not come into Zimbabwe as a journalist, so I applied for a tourist visa from the Zimbabwean embassy in Washington DC. David Manyika, who issues visas at the embassy, was chatty and personable. I found myself (prelude to Africa) sitting on the steps of the embassy with him one late September morning. We were waiting for someone who had the keys and who had not yet arrived to open shop. Not that it mattered terribly much. There is hardly a queue of anxious travellers hoping to visit Zimbabwe.

"What are you here for?" asked David, "do you want to apply for a Zimbabwean passport?"

It took me a moment to see that, in David's eyes, this was a tremendous joke. "A Zimbabwean passport!" he repeated, weeping with laughter.

The queue at the passport office in Harare, on the other hand, snakes down the street for two kilometres, day and night. Street children sell their places in the queue to anxious citizens desperate to leave Zimbabwe - from Z$250 for a place near the front of the line to an economical Z$50 for a station near the back.

And David, unlike most of his stay-at-home colleagues, supports Mugabe. In 10 days within Zimbabwe itself (among the traders in the makeshift marketplaces, the passengers on the bus, the nurses at the hospitals, the teachers at my old school) I find only two Mugabe supporters. One is drunk (veering at me from a group of bleary intoxicants slouched under the shade of a veranda at a tavern outside Chinhoyi yelling, "You white! Go away! We kill you! Zanu-PF!") and the other is a diamond smuggler from the Congo, and so presumably ineligible to vote in Zimbabwean elections anyway, (declaring in French-accented English, "Zimbabwe, it is great. Here it is built; good roads, good busses, nice exchange rate, plenty of business. No law and order. Perfect!")

Clutching my visa (there are rumours that immigration is no longer allowing those in possession of a British passport into the country, so I am grateful for my recent decision to become an American citizen) and trying to look as casually like a daughter-returning-to-visit- family as possible, I arrive in Harare's impressively modern new airport. My parents, who have driven through the western half of Zimbabwe from the place where they now farm in Zambia, are here to meet me and to spend a day with me before I rent my own car and journey east alone, back to our old farm. My father is smoking his pipe under a large laminated sign asking him, in both Shona and English, not to do so, and mum has her nose in a well-fingered book. They embody, for me, the scent of home; cut tobacco, parched paper, sun-scoured skin, road dust, horse sweat and flea-plagued dogs. I bury my face in my father's embrace. This is what is most familiar and beloved to me.

And it is familiar still. What is immediately surprising about Zimbabwe, and Harare in particular, is that it has changed so little in the last couple of years in spite of the ripe pungency of rot which emanates from its body politic. The roads are still well-kempt, the street lights still work (mostly) and the shops are still bursting with consumer goods (for the fewer and fewer who can afford to purchase them). Restaurants still offer incredible service, and the hotels are among the finest I have stayed in anywhere - staff are deferential, menus are replete with choices and properties are now staked with a sign that reads (in peculiarly polite Zimbabwean fashion), "Please Don't Panic! It is Necessary that our Grounds are Patrolled By Armed Guards. This is for your Safety and Comfort."

What has changed is the increased presence of Mugabe's militia machine and the corresponding rows of displaced, starving people, hunched on Harare's main streets. Members of Mugabe's green-uniformed "youth brigade" are dispatched from the paranoid body that makes up the country's leadership. They are nicknamed "greenbottles" by the locals. (Greenbottles, it turns out, is also the name given to the fat, psychedelic flies familiar to any hunter or butcher in this part of Africa that feed off carrion). These youth are infamously aggressive and power-hungry and they are omnipresent. I have barely left Harare, no one has even pointed a gun at me yet, and I am already intimidated.

When I arrive in Zimbabwe, it is almost October. The month which the Mashona know as "Gumiguru" or "the month of the big 10" but which white people have always known as "suicide month." It is the beginning of the end of the dry season, it has not rained for months and, by now, it feels as if it may never rain again. It is an ominous month, inscrutable with its withheld rain, swollen with waiting and hopelessness. It is usually the time when farmers are preparing their land for the spring planting - when, across the country, great plumes of red dust kick up behind tractors. This year, the tractors are, for the most part, silenced and instead a thick blanket of woodsmoke hangs like a ragged cloud, above the land, turning the sky to unwashed grey and tinting the sun a pale, nicotine yellow.

A great, heavy, pregnant sense of waiting and dread prevails. On my slow journey home, I visit as many old friends and acquaintances as I can find. All, without exception, have stories of intimidation, violence, attacks, beatings, vote-rigging by Zanu-PF against anyone who dares oppose Mugabe's regime. By the time I reach the valley in which I grew up, I am weighed down with a sense of complete hopelessness for this country. How can it survive this madness?

It is old Thomas Matenga, whom I have known since I was a tiny child, who gives me a gleam of hope. Thomas, who is managing a still-existent commercial farm in the area in which I grew up, knows exactly where Olivia, my sister is buried. It has been a long time since I have seen her grave, and Thomas offers to show me the road leading up to it. First we snake through an old orange orchard and up to a house (which did not exist in my time) now occupied by the manager of the farm which encircles this little old cemetery. We get out and walk and Thomas takes off his hat in a gesture of respect as we approach the fenced-off enclosure of these old graves (the fence does nothing to stop the exuberant attention of the local monkeys). Olivia's grave is closest to us, near the rusted gate. The vegetation around the grave is overgrown; moss and weeds have swallowed the top of the tiny hump which describes her diminutive corpse.

We stand in silence for a moments until the tears stop. Then I ask Thomas, "Promise me that if those thugs come and kick you off, you will come and tell her goodbye from me."

Thomas turns his brilliant smile on me. "They won't kick me out. As long as I have blood in my body, I will stand up to those people. What does this old man [Mugabe] think of us? That we are weak? That we will give up and let him kill our country? No. There is nothing that old man and his 'youth' can do to me that hasn't been done to me already. Ha! He can take our voices, but he can't take our minds."

"You are the most illogically optimistic old man I have ever met," I tell him.

The next day, I drive back along, old familiar roads, ribbed with erosion and still laced with the shade of old msasa trees. I am in search of Mr Donald (his father was Scottish, his mother a Mashona), who is one of the 21 tenants who live on what used to be our old farm. Mr Donald has made his house in the old grading shed (where, as a child, I learned to count in Shona by running up and down the rows of tobacco bales, "Potsi, piri, tatu, ini!") Mr Donald welcomes me in for tea laced with soured milk - the open-mouthed breath of the old grading shed is still bitter with ancient burley tobacco.

I dip, blinking into the dim room and stand for a moment to let my eyes adjust to this new idea of the grading shed. A wall of old hessian sacks separates a double bed from a sofa and two chairs. There is a television set in the corner and a photograph of Mr Donald's son, pressed into submission in a careful school uniform, smiles shyly down from its stand on a lace table cloth on the Welsh dresser.

The place is dusty with the fine film of red kicked up from the powdery dirt floor. Two of Mr Donald's younger children sit by the door (they are swollen with what I recognise to be worms, tinged by malnutrition) and are greedily crunching their way through the bag of green apples that I have brought for them. I am conscious, suddenly, that the only toilet available to these children is a skinny long-drop set up next to the old grading shed.
Mr Donald and I begin to talk farming: we exchange advice on how best to rid the soil of star grass, (what is needed is fertiliser, irrigation, a tractor and a plough whereas Mr Donald works with a team of oxen and has access to neither fertiliser nor irrigation). We discuss the most effective method of removing ticks from a cow and the difficulty of obtaining maize seed in Zimbabwe today. We discuss tobacco prices.

"I sold five bales of tobacco last season," Mr Donald tells me. "The government took Z$30 000 [£350]for taxes and also for this new tobacco levy. I don't know what the levy is for. They left me with Z$30,000. It's not enough to plant another crop this year."

Mr Donald looks much older than his 50 years. He wears an old felt hat with a leopard- skin band, a worn cotton shirt and bare feet. He fought during the war for Ian Smith's government. His direct neighbour (who owns a tractor and has already completed his ploughing in preparation for this year's crop and who owns a herd of 30 impressively fat cattle) is an ex-combatant too, although, unlike Mr Donald he fought to liberate Rhodesia from white rule and is now entitled to a government pension.

After tea, Mr Donald takes me up behind the old workshop (which now houses Mrs Donald's chickens) and shows me where he plans to build a house one day, and the mukwa tree under which he has instructed his son to bury him when he dies. "I am very happy on this place," Mr Donald says, "of that there is no doubt. I want to pass it to my son one day. But at this rate there will be nothing for my children. This way we will all soon be starving. The dreams I had in my head for this place have died in my heart."

The sun is low in the west as I make my way back to the car. The air is releasing into its rolling embrace the hot-breathed scent of the potato bush. An emerald-splattered dove begins to call, "my mother is dead, my father is dead, and my relatives are dead, and my heart goes dum, dum, dum."

From here, I drive back to Harare (setting myself conspicuously apart from the general population in my bubble of blue Mazda) and then get the bus to the border crossing into Zambia. The border town of Chirundu in October is as close as I have ever come to the biblical description of hell. A topographical map of Zimbabwe and Zambia shows the two countries converging here in a depression of pale yellow, and the heat is correspondingly thin and breathless.

The Zimbabwean side of Chirundu is crushed with an anguish of bodies who appear to be suffering damnation without relief. A long, rickety shelter, which does nothing to keep out the heat and dust, supports the multitude of Zimbabweans hoping to escape into Zambia in the next week or so. They sleep and eat and sleep some more, one on top of the other, too afraid to move from their seats and lose their place in the queue out of here.
Zimbabwe has become a haunted land - a country without a voice. Some voices have simply disappeared. Other voices have simply been intimidated into silence. An old school friend, a single mother in Harare, told me: "Of course I have an opinion. You know me. What do you think I think of this old man? But I see those guys at the roadblocks and I flash my party card and I give them the fist," she showed me her Zanu-PF salute, "because if they lock me away, who takes care of Toby?"

My fellow bus passengers include several well-dressed traders from the Democratic Republic of Congo ("Do you want to buy some diamonds?"), a few haunted-looking smugglers from Mozambique (pathetically small quantities of cooking oil and sugar jealously guarded under a thin layer of clothes), some cheerfully drunk Zambians and a few subdued Zimbabweans. It takes us more than two hours to clear the border, by which time I have been accepted as the resident idiot American abroad.

It takes a special kind of patience to travel for long distances by bus in Africa. Many of my companions have brought entertainment for the drive in the form of cassette players and cans of Castle lager; the rest console themselves with regular visits to every tavern east of Karoi ("Driver! Stop here!"). As a result, we are now also forced to stop frequently between taverns ("Driver! I mean it! Stop here!"). The drunks disgorge themselves from the bus where they scatter jubilantly across the countryside, into fields once sternly separated from the road by fierce strands of barbed wire and now apparently open to all.

Almost all, that is.

"I wouldn't get off the bus here, if I were you, sister," one of the Zimbabwean women warns me (she is wearing a black vest that proudly proclaims in silver writing, "SLUT," and a pair of very tight green jeans). "They might think you are British, these war veterans. They don't like British."

I stare out at the field. It is burned almost beyond recognition - and those hasty huts with their suspiciously-staring residents didn't used to be there. I used to know this farm. In those days, I would have been welcome to make use of the bathroom facilities at the main house while my fellow passengers would have been limited to a quick visit behind the roadside bougainvillea bushes. I cross my legs and shrug.

I am sitting next to a very old woman who has also foregone the distracting benefits of warm beer and frequent pee stops. Although we have smiled at one another and we have both gone out of way to allow the other as much legroom as possible, we have not exchanged a word. Now, as she stares out at the drunks frolicking in the searing light of the afternoon - the driver is trying, without success, to herd them back into the bus - she says suddenly, "You should see these lumps on my feet."

I politely inspect the lumps which are, admittedly, impressive. "You people should pay attention to what is happening to Zimbabwe not because half of us will die in the next few months, but because half of us will live," the old woman says as I am looking at her feet.

I sit up to look at her, but her old face has folded back into itself, and her eyes have closed. The drunks clamour back onto the bus, we lurch forward and my thoughts are drowned out by the roar of the bus and the blaring music.

*Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller's memoirs of her childhood in Africa, is one of five books shortlisted for this year's Guardian First Book Award. For more information on the shortlist go to

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