Street life in Bulawayo. (Flickr/Julien Lagarde)

No place quite like Bulawayo

It’s been four years since I last lived in Zimbabwe, four long years during which I strolled along the Mediterranean beaches in Algiers, ate Middle Eastern food, danced to Rai music and, like the rest of the world, observed the country of my birth from the other side of the looking glass. We are a country not exactly famous for positive headlines and I admit that I too have been sucked into negativity. Perhaps that explains the little pang of regret I feel as the bus crosses the Limpopo river and approaches the Beitbridge border post.

The differences are almost immediate when you enter Zimbabwean territory. The lights, for one, seem dimmer this side, the buildings older, the flag that stands at the entrance of the border post seems to be reminding itself of better days when its edges were less tattered. For a moment I wonder why I am going back when it seems so many are ignoring crocodiles, electric fences and the oh-so-insignificant fact that they don’t have passports to go in the opposite direction. But it is time: the bus stops and we descend to begin the appeasement of the bureaucratic god that lies in wait at every border post.

It hits me almost as soon as I step out into the crisp morning air. Perhaps it’s the freshness of the air, the excited buzz of passengers as they contemplate that their journey is almost at its end. I don’t know what it is but almost at once I feel glad to have arrived back home. It’s an amazing feeling to walk into a passport office and have the crest on your passport match the one on the Ministry of Home Affairs logo, to not have to explain where you are going and how long you are going to stay there. It’s an even greater feeling to hear the hawkers selling Buddie airtime, their voices insistent, belying the fact that they’ve probably been up all night.

The bureaucratic god is appeased with a cursory glance at my passport. He bangs a stamp on it and we board the bus again, waiting to depart. After a five-hour delay at customs, which I am assured is not that bad a wait, we are on our way. The people around me have become livelier. The relative calm is punctuated by occasional snoring. Some men behind me are talking about a man in Makokoba who has taken his mother for his lover. The woman next to me shows me photos of her children. She is working so that she can buy a house for her family. She likes living in South Africa, she says, but she misses home terribly. She asks me what I do.  I lie and say I am a student at Wits. I have discovered that is the best way to avoid barrages of questions about the Middle East, Islam and why on earth I would go and study there in the first place. (When I was offered a scholarship to study French and computer science there four years ago, my main thought back then had been that the journey would involve a plane.)

Five long hours later the bus finally arrives in the former capital of the Ndebele Kingdom, a city built by a king fleeing the murderous wrath of another king and named after the slaughter that occurred there so many decades before I was an idea in God’s mind. None of that is evident as I look out the window. All I see are scenes that had once been part of my every day, scenes I had taken for granted as I went on my way to school or to church. The tree-lined avenues of Bulawayo that will come October burst into a purple glory matched by few other cities; the vendors selling airtime at the robots; the kombis dodging through traffic, filled almost to bursting point with people on their way to work. Life had continued while I was away but for the most part the city is the same as it was when I left it.

Street life in Bulawayo. (Flickr/Julien Lagarde)

And it seems the headlines have not touched Bulawayo’s heart; forget them all. There is nothing like being where you know you will always belong. There is nothing like being able to speak in your mother tongue without having to resort to English-accented French or stuttering Arabic. Even my English can return to its default setting – here a traffic light is a robot, any soft drink is Coca-Cola, all toothpastes are Colgate and names like Priority are as commonplace as Matthew and Jacob. Here I can walk down the street with absolutely no fear of being stopped to show my ID, a practice that annoyed me in Algeria as much as it did in South Africa. And even when the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority demonstrates its loose definition of the word ‘supply’, it can be a calming thing to sit in the candle light and talk about anything and everything under the sun.

And some things never change. The windis (kombi conductors) still hang half their bodies out of their vehicles; they stand at taxi ranks screaming at the top of their lungs for passengers. The old ladies still sit in the flea markets waiting to convince customers that their vegetables are the freshest and the cheapest. Youth still loiter on the streets during the day, dressed to the nines in the latest offerings of the Jo’burg and New York fashion world.

I come to realise that people have lived out their lives through a water supply crisis, an infamous economic collapse and a notorious Government of National Unity. The sun has risen and set on the townships and suburbs of Bulawayo all these years and people have gone about their days with smiles still reaching the sides of their faces, enduring the harsh, dark realities with bittersweet stoicism.

From afar the news headlines may have been accurate but they never told the full story. I realise that you can never be right whilst standing on the other side of the looking glass; you have to step through as I did and realise, as I did, that there is no place like home.

Bongani Ncube-Zikhali is a writer, poet, youth activist and a fan of Dr Sheldon Cooper. He is passionate about the written word and has been published in two anthologies by Amabooks. In 2010 he was awarded the Dr Yvonne Vera Award by the Zimbabwean Intwasa Arts Festival. He currently lives in Paris where he is studying computer science.

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