They filed in, summoned by the booming voice of the announcer: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a call for passengers travelling on Air Zimbabwe flight UM700 to Harare. Please report to your boarding gate as your flight is ready for departure.”
Little did these passengers know in September 2011 that they were among the last that would fly with Air Zimbabwe out of London’s Gatwick Airport for a long while.
Some were in their Sunday best, putting on a smile and engaging in small talk. Others were dressed unceremoniously, clearly exceeding the permitted limit of hand luggage and sheepishly approaching the counter. I was one of those passengers waiting for my name to be called, excited about my perennial trek to Zimbabwe.
Let me introduce you to some of the characters on my flight. There was George, who was trying to hit on one of the flight attendants who wore a creased dress and smudged make-up, but made up for it with a wide smile.
“Ko shamwari ronga ka imwe Castle kufridge,” George said to her. (My friend, please get me another Castle from the fridge at the back.) In no time she came back with what she had been asked to bring, not just for George but for his friends as well. Two shocks here.
First, we had not even cleared European airspace and George was already tipsy. (This was going to be a long journey back home.) Second, you could not miss the labels in Chinese on all the soft-drink cans that the air hostess brought for George and his friend. A new form of imperialism, perhaps.
Opposite me sat a couple and their kids, bragging with their red British passports granted in exchange for the green ones from Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean passport can make your stay at immigration a tad longer, but it is also a nostalgic document that defines a Zimbabwean and is coupled with the intricacies that accompany getting it.
The father noticed me watching him zealously guard his newly acquired red passport. I think it gave him an exaggerated sense of self-importance, because he remarked: “My brother, the interesting bit is that I now need a visa to come back to Zimbabwe.” I gave an artificial smile. The kids seemed more sober, saying they looked forward to going to “Africa”, as one of them shouted, which sent a ripple of laughter among those listening.
There was banter coming from a corner of the aeroplane. A debate had ensued between three males, probably in their late 20s, about which boys’ school was the best in Zimbabwe. It was interesting how a journey back home, a few beers and a topic of common interest could unite people.
One bulky chap sporting a designer cap bragged about how his school, Prince Edward Boys’ High, or “the tigers” as they were affectionately known, was the best school in Zimbabwe. Another man, who had gone to Churchill Boys’ High School, also known as “the bulldogs”, immediately interjected, accusing the “tigers” bloke of being crass and myopic in his assertion.
A volley of questions came from the third guy, who essentially killed the debate. He had attended St Johns Boys’ High School, or “the rams”, and asked a question that led to silence: “What have you guys done for your schools since you left?”
The United Kingdom can be a cruel place that makes you forget not only giving back to your high school, but even to your relatives.
I sat next to a man who was returning home as a failed asylum-seeker. He had exhausted all available avenues to lengthen his stay in the UK. He really wanted to send money home, but life on the island was not as rosy as many back in Zimbabwe thought it would be. If his original projected income was anything to go by, he would have been Richard Branson by now.
He described his tactics for staying longer in the UK, which included being put on a Kenyan Airways flight back to Zimbabwe as part of a forced removal. As soon as he got on the aeroplane, he began to shout like an insane person. It sent the people on the aircraft into a frenzy, causing widespread panic, and the captain had no option but to force him to be removed from the flight. So much for enforcing a forced removal; he lived to see another day in the UK.
Some stories on the journey back home were entirely sober. There was the old lady in front of me, who was elated to have been able to visit her son and grandchildren in Portsmouth. She had held her son’s children and could finally die in peace in Zimbabwe.
There was the businessman on the other side of her, who gave a disparaging look to the three debaters as they made a noise. He looked like someone who had secured some serious business deals and was about to make it big in Zimbabwe. Then there was the lady dressed in black from head to toe. She never said a word and just drank juice and water. Her story was revealed on arrival: she was accompanying her dead sister on the same flight. It is much more expensive to come back home dead than alive.
Sadly, there was another death revelation. One of the guys in the debating team discovered the real reason for being summoned home on arrival at the airport. He was not coming to attend to a sick father, as he had believed. He cleared immigration only to be greeted by the wailing of his siblings: his father had died. The coolness he had displayed on the flight evaporated and the two others with whom he had debated disappeared into the throng.
As for me, I was home to enjoy a short holiday and collect data for my research, which is based on the use of narrative and story in explaining the lived experience. By the time I had landed, I had unexpectedly collected quite a bit.
On arrival in Harare I was welcomed by the warm embrace of my grandmother. She ran towards me like a young girl. As her tears began to soak through my shirt, I thought how wonderful it was to be back home.
Initially, I felt like a stranger in my homeland, but I adjusted easily to the usual problems: power cuts, water rationing, news of deceased friends. I also got used to a notable absence of friends who were now mostly in a world called the “diaspora”.
A month later I was sad to be leaving, once again boarding an Air Zimbabwe flight back to London. I took with me more stories of how people manage to survive socially and economically in Zimbabwe.
It got me thinking that Zimbabweans really are a special breed. They are great survivors. And their stories tell just that.
Willie Tafadzwa Chinyamurindi is a researcher with the Open University Business School in Milton Keynes, United Kingdom. This post was published in the M&G newspaper.