July 19, 2024

Travelogue: Four days in Harare

  • June 18, 2024
  • 11 min read
Travelogue: Four days in Harare

By Wale Okediran

IT was the President of the Nigerian Publishers Association, Chief Uchena Cyril Anoke, who dragged me to the dance floor. “Wale, you are too quiet for my liking,” he said, as I trotted after him to respond to the compelling beats of the internationally acclaimed song ‘Buga’ by the Nigerian musical duo of Kiz Daniel and Tekno:

Buga wọn Lemme see you dey buga o (Go low low low)
Lemme see you (Go low low low)
Buga wọn (Lemme) Buga wọn Lemme see you dey buga o (Go low low low)
Lemme see you (Go low low low) Buga wọn
(Lemme see you) Buga wọn Lemme see you

Before long, other African publishers, led by the President of African Publishers Network (APNET), Lawrence Njagi from Kenya, had taken over the night with expert choreographic dance steps that would make Michael Jackson smile in his grave.

Under the directives of the Master of Ceremony for the night, President of Ghana Publishers Association, Asare Konadu Yamoah, other publishers, soon flocked to the dance floor to the melodious output of the DJ who flooded the night with music by different African artistes.

“I never knew publishers could dance this much,” I later quipped to one of them.

“Yes, we know how to relax unlike you writers who always appear too serious,” my friend replied, smiling with a fried chicken drum stick in one hand and a cold Martini in the other.

I had come to Harare, Zimbabwe on the invitation of APNET in my capacity as the Secretary General of Pan African Writers Association (PAWA) to attend the African Publishers Conference 2024. The well packaged event, which had as theme ‘Enhancing the Capacity of African Publishing Industry for the Promotion of Literacy’, took place at the auditorium of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) in the Zimbabwean capital city. To welcome the conference participants, a cocktail party which was later enlarged into a late night party took place at our lodgings, Rainbow Towers Hotel located on Samora Machel Avenue, West Harare.


Delegates to APNET African Publishers Conference 2024… in Harare, Zimbabwe

It was my second trip to Zimbabwe. My first visit also courtesy of APNET was to the 1999 Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF), which took place at Harare Gardens with its beautiful canopy of Jacaranda and flamboyant trees amidst a welter of fountains and park benches. Unlike the 2024 publishers conference, the social night of my 1999 trip was not in a high brow hotel. It took place at the Queensdale Sports Club, a smoky writers’ and journalists’ hang-out located on Chiremba Road where Chenjerai Hove, one of Zimbabwe’s leading poets at that time, led other international poets for an event the book fair organizers dubbed “Poetry in the Pub”.

It was at Queensdale that I got acquainted with other Zimbabwean poets such as Chirikure Chirirkure, Shimmer Chinodya, Memory Chirere as well as Virginia Phiri. On the band stand that August night in 1999 was Albert Nyanthi and the Imborgi Band while the Botswana poet and saxophonist, Keineetse Keineetse as well as solo guitarist, Patricia Matongo were there to give support.

It was also at Queensdale Club that the Nigerian avant garde writer, poet and now publisher, Lola Shoneyin, almost brought down the roof with a hilarious performance of her provocative poetry collection So All the Time I Was Sitting on an Egg. That was 25 years ago. I was now back in Harare to the warm embrace of the Zimbabwean winter. Even though 25 years is a long time in the life of a country, it seems that nothing much has changed in Zimbabwe.

Living to its nickname as ‘the Sunshine City of South Africa’, it was still sunny in Harare despite being winter. The city, which was founded in 1890 by Cecil Rhodes, and formerly known as Salisbury, still has lovely architecture that makes it an attractive and modern city, the spectacle of an African city with a European face. Even though the news of a nation with a beleaguered economy persisted, Zimbabweans could still be seen going about serenely in their daily chores, with happy revellers thronging some social outlets in the city.

As to the current state of Queensdale Club and my 1999 acquaintances, Chirikure, with whom I am still in contact, had this to say, “Queensdale club is still there, but it hasn’t hosted literary events in a long time. Most of the club members who were in the arts have passed away. For example, Hove passed away in 2015 in Norway where he was based. We buried him at his rural home here in Zimbabwe. All the other poets you mentioned are here in Zimbabwe and are still writing and performing.”

Unfortunately, the news about the now rested ZIBF, once described as the ‘doyen’ of African book fairs, was not so good as the facilities hosting it are said to be in state of disrepair. “However, the ZIBF board is currently working on how to bring back the glory of the book fair,” Chirikure added.

Zimbabwe, officially the Republic of Zimbabwe, is a landlocked country in Southern Africa, straddling Zambezi and Limpopo Rivers, and bordered by South Africa to the south, Botswana to the southwest, Zambia to the north, and Mozambique to the east. The capital and largest city is Harare, and the second largest is Bulawayo. A country of roughly 15 million people as per 2022 census, the country boasts the second largest platinum deposit and high-grade chromium ores in the world.

In response to the Zimbabwean economy which has been shrinking since the year 2000, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), the country’s central bank, introduced the new gold-backed currency, known as Zimbabwe Gold or ZiG, on April 5 2024 to replace the inflation-ravaged Zimbabwean dollar.

After touching down at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport with its unique dome-shaped terminal building, I discovered that despite the scary announcement of a 9-degree temperature on our arrival, I didn’t need my jacket after all. All around me, the Harare skies were clear, with the sun shining brightly. I was, however, informed that the nights, in contrast, can be freezing.

“Yes, this is our own winter,” PAWA’s Vice President (South Africa), Monica Cheru, said laughingly when I observed how warm the weather was. We were sitting at GAVAS, a popular restaurant located inside the Belgravia Sports Club to discuss the affairs of PAWA over steaming cups of ‘Rooibos’ tea. According to Cheru, ‘Roobois’, which means ‘Red Bush’ in Afrikaans, is only native to South Africa.

The writer and cultural advocate was also positive about the future of her country. As she put it, “Zimbabwe currently has the lowest trade deficit (less than 10 per cent) since the colonial era. This feat has largely been due to our sustained surplus trade with China among other countries.” Using the happy throng of revellers at the GAVAS restaurant as an example, she was of the belief that the narrative of Zimbabwe as a drowning nation has been exaggerated.

Graced by a galaxy of publishers, partners and paper presenters, the two-day publishers conference resonated very well with me especially the presentations that emphasized the need for the protection of writers’ rights, including appropriate remunerations for their literary productions.

With the same graceful dexterity with which they danced, the publishers were able to successfully interrogate important topics such as The State of Publishing in Africa, Best Practices of Reprographic Rights Organizations (RROs) in Africa, The importance of IPRs to the Publishing Industry, The International Policy Landscape for Publishing: Copyright and Freedom to Publish as well as Copyright, AI and Publishers: Challenges and Opportunities, among other important topics.

In my remarks, I thanked the publishers for deeming it fit to invite the representative of a writers’ organization to their event, a significant and positive sign of the symbiotic relationship between writers and publishers. I also pledged PAWA’s support for APNET. As I put it, “In the face of dire economic challenges and dwindling support from our traditional partners, it is imperative for writers and publishers to collaborate on a number of literary projects.”

Just as Mungo Park ‘discovered’ the River Niger, I also ‘discovered’ a Zimbabwean culinary delight, the sadza during my brief stay in Harare. Obviously tired of eating rice all the time, during one of the lunch periods, I decided to give the ‘white stuff’, which I was told was made from corn, a chance. In partnership with steamed vegetable, tomato sauce and chicken, I found the food very tasty and ended up putting away a substantial portion of the dish. This unfortunately led to a dozing spell during the afternoon session. Unknown to me, apart from being delicious, sadza also has some sedative effects, especially in the comfort of an air-conditioned conference room.

It was my friend and Executive Director of Publishers Association of South Africa (PASA), Eric Radinku, who later lectured me on the intricacies of sadza, which according to him, is also known in South Africa as pap and in East Africa as ugali or posho while Malawians call it ‘nsima’. In view of its cultural and culinary importance in East and South Africa, nsima and its namesakes has been added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to Radinku, to avoid the embarrassment of dozing after consuming sadza, he prefers to take the corn meal over the weekend when he knows that he will be home to rest and sleep if necessary.

Unlike my 1999 trip when I had enough time to do a proper sightseeing of Harare and its bucolic and elegant suburbs, on this trip I only managed to catch a tiny glimpse of the city courtesy of Ketros Chapanga, a taxi driver who gave me a brief tour of Harare. From my hotel on Samora Machel Avenue, Ketros cut into Mbare, one of the oldest suburbs of Harare, being the first settlement to be built for migrant workers in what was then known as Rhodesia. As we drove through Mbare, I saw a very congested peri-urban slum with lots of children playing on the streets. I also noticed that drivers in Zimbabwe still drive on the left side of the road while petrol sells for $1.9 per liter.

Chapanga showed me Mbare Musika, a major farmers’ market, Mupedzanhamo, a market that provides space for textile retailers, the Matapi Flats, one of the largest residential areas in Zimbabwe as well as the biggest bus terminus in Zimbabwe where buses provide transportation to locations within Zimbabwe and to neighboring countries such as Botswana.

According to Chapanga, “Mbare used to be a one-bedroom dormitory for black male workers during the colonial era. It was meant for the workers to stay during the week before going to the homelands at weekends to give their families money for their upkeep. It was after independence when the nefarious practice of segregation was cancelled that people flooded to Mbare and thus congested the place.”

It was also Chapanga, who informed me of one of the earliest traditional practices in Zimbabwe, such as the practice of Mediumship, which is the art of communication between the spirit realm and the living.

According to him, “One of the most famous spirit mediums in Zimbabwe’s history is Mbuya Nehanda. Widely revered and praised, she led the “First Chimurenga” which occurred in 1896-97. The “First Chimurenga” was the fight against the colonization of Zimbabwe by the British South Africa Company. She and other spirit mediums including her spiritual husband Sekuru Kaguvi were later hanged by the colonial masters for their efforts in leading the war. The spirit medium who is still highly revered today has a street and statue named after her in our country.”

I was back at the GAVAS Restaurant on the last evening of my stay in Harare for a farewell dinner courtesy of the conference organizers. Unlike my earlier daytime visit, when the weather was warm, I was buffeted by the freezing wind of winter in Harare. Since my group was sitting outdoors, large firepots were placed close to our tables to keep us warm, while on a nearby dais a musical band pelted out some sonorous African music.

As the menu list of traditional Zimbabwean cuisine and grill was being passed round, I quickly ticked my new found friend ‘sadza’, with its accompaniments of vegetable, fish and curry soup. It was our last dinner. I could eat as much as I wanted.

* Dr. Okediran is Secretary General of Pan-African Writers Association

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