Zimbabwe: A tale of two townships

By Ewan McDonald

On a hot afternoon in Victoria Falls, nothing is black and white. The scene unfolds around Ewan McDonald.

Spray from Victoria Falls shoots into the air in the distance as a maid cleans the terrace of the historic Victoria Falls Hotel. Photo / Getty Images
Spray from Victoria Falls shoots into the air in the distance as a maid cleans the terrace of the historic Victoria Falls Hotel. Photo / Getty Images

Major Foxx-Parr allowed himself a quiet yawn, looked around to ascertain whether anyone in the vicinity had noticed, and contemplated the future before him.

The future before him was a three-tier sterling silver cake stand, which had once borne the calories of several club sandwiches at its lowest level, two scones of rather less sturdy stature than Cook used to serve at home of four o'clock in the afternoon on the middle platter, and some fractions of lemon madeira and other fancies in the topmost quarter. Or tier.

The Major had partaken the better half of the ham and egg and salad and mayonnaise sandwiches, and rather more than his share of the Devonshire tea, and hoped that his better half had not noticed. Or that he was contemplating a rather less than equal division of the lemon madeira. The Major had always been partial to lemon madeira.

"I do hope you're not thinking that slice has your name on it," said his wife, from the other side of the table, interrupting his thoughts, as she had been prone to do for the past 40 years, except when the Major had been called to the colours, which had not happened too often during those four decades.

He had largely been a peacetime soldier; his service to the Sovereign had mostly consisted of ensuring a decent port was served at the regimental dinner, and was always passed to the left.

"More tea, dear?" asked the Major, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the Earl Grey. His wife looked at her watch.

"Have they forgotten my G&T?" she responded, in the slightly agitated manner that, the Major realised, signified that the big hand had ticked over to four o'clock.

He considered the panorama before him: not the tea-stained bone china but the immaculately trimmed lawns and the gardens watered each morning before the guests opened their curtains in the ever-so-elegantly faded grandeur of the Victoria Falls Hotel.

He wondered if Agatha Christie had ever stayed here, had plotted an intricately intriguing murder behind the fading print wallpaper and curtains and counterpanes of the bedrooms or the slightly passe plumbing of the bathrooms, or in the corridors lined with sepia photos of royalty and not quite but almost royalty that led to dining rooms unseen and reception rooms unbidden. It was a setting worthy of her.

The vista was perforated by a fluttering flag that looked - to the Major's eyes - rather more like the tablecloth in the below-stairs dining room at his family home than the infinitely bettered ordered, triangulated and sensible Union Jack.

The lawns stretched before the terrace until they ended at a cliff and fell away rather like a waterfall, which was not an inappropriate metaphor given that the world's greatest waterfall was what they fell away to, just around the bend from the railway bridge that marked the boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe or whatever they called Northern and Southern Rhodesia these days, which he could see from his vantage point behind the tea tray on Major Stanley's Terrace.

A pianist tinkled at his grand instrument beneath floor-to-ceiling portraits of the old King and Queen overseen by a stairwell of bleached skulls and horns and tusks.

Earlier that afternoon the Major had amused himself by putting names to faces in fading photos on walls, each one smiling behind a recently deceased beast: Hemingway. Mountbatten. The young princesses. Their mother and father.

The young princesses? One was Queen and almost 90, her sister passed.

Noel Coward had witted and twittered at that piano, scotch and soda to hand. Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun, he used to bray. Well, it would be mad dogs and South Africans and middle-aged Americans now. In their camouflage gear and wide-brimmed hats and stout hiking boots, hunting knives stuffed into belts, a breach of etiquette that, in his youth, would have drawn a quiet but not-to-be-trifled aside from the Major-Domo: "Excuse me, sir, may I relieve you of your weapon for safekeeping?"

A gentleman would never take his own knife into the dining room. A breach of the law, too: Robert Mugabe's government had decreed that wearing camouflage-styled clothing was illegal within its borders.

That afternoon, on the 10-minute walk from the end of the lawn to the Falls, the Major and his good lady had encountered perhaps 10, possibly 20, young men insisting on selling them trinkets. The lads had been insistent to the point where the hotel's security guard had intervened.

The Foxx-Parrs had been upset: these seemed intelligent, articulate, earnest boys who could not get a job, for there were no jobs, especially for those of their tribe, who only wanted to earn a dollar for their families.

An American dollar, of course, since their country's currency, its sovereignty, had been declared redundant.

"If you haven't got dollars, I will come back to the hotel and you can give me your shoes, you must have another pair," one of the youths begged the Major, though the lad would have preferred Converse to sturdy brogues.

Major Foxx-Parr noticed one of the waiters, immaculate in the hotel's chocolate uniform, hair cut to regimental length, teeth that would have graced an American sit-com. He gestured to the fellow.

"Please add the bill on to our account. And bring my wife's G&T upstairs."

He found one of those insipid looking American dollars, it may have been two, and anchored it beneath the teacup.

Everton smiled at the couple as they picked up their belongings, and began to clear their table. After working at the hotel for two years he had learned to smile and wait until the tourists had left before he picked up the greenbacks. No one put them into his hand and said "Thank you"; the tip was always tucked under the crockery.

He had learned several other things: to ask his grandmother to iron his uniform every night so it would look clean and tidy before he walked the three kilometres from her cottage in the township just outside Victoria Falls at six every morning, to be there in time for the buffet to open at seven; and to have his head shaved every month to meet the hotel's hygiene rules for dining-room staff. He had learned that he was fortunate to earn $US150 every month, and to share his tips with the head waiter, and what would happen if he did not.

He had also learned from his older brother: Sunderland had not been quite so willing to accept the "Yes sir, no sir," of the breakfast room and the head waiter. That was why he was now assigned to lawn duty, following the warthogs that kept the grass down, and the tourists amused, and making sure there was nothing for the tourists to step on.

The township was called Chinotimba. Not many of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who came from all over the world to see "the smoke that thunders" saw it, for few bothered to stroll outside their hotel grounds, let alone through the hundred or so metres of souvenir and liquor and takeaway shops that constituted the town of Victoria Falls.

Everton had met two of these tourists as he'd walked home yesterday, a middle-aged couple he'd thought were English but learned were New Zealanders. The woman was a midwife, wanted to meet her colleagues in the township hospital; the man said he worked in an office and asked a lot of questions about life in Zimbabwe, and Everton knew it was not a good idea to be completely honest in his answers.

They walked up the gentle hill towards the police barracks. At the barracks, with its mission statement about serving the community of Zimbabwe to the best of their abilities spelled out in white and brown stones, they turned left.

Left, off the sealed road towards the straggling and struggling bush. Left, towards the few industries servicing the town - the mechanics' workshops and farm implement sheds and produce barns. Left, into the red dust of Africa.

Past the warehouses were the cottages. Concrete. Four-square, door front and centre, net-curtained window to each side. Tidy. Vegetables, wherever they could be coaxed to grow. Children playing football or chasing in the street. Women sauntering home with melons or plastic washing baskets on their heads. Men talking. Politics. Football.

And after the cottages the churches. Anglican and Presbyterian and Catholic and Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists and Methodists and Baptists and the Salvation Army and the Gospel of Hope and Redemption and seventeen other faiths cheek by jowl, one creed jostling another, the petrol station and liquor store and vege market in the same square. If they had fought a war over religion in Chinotimba, it would have been a very small skirmish. Perhaps it would have been because the Baptists' singing drowned out the Evangelical pastor's sermon.

Everton and Sunderland lived with their grandmother in one of the cottages. They did not live with their parents because Everton's father had died in the war before he knew he had a son and Everton's mother had died when her son was 17. No one told Everton why but he knew enough about the health of women in Africa to believe that the cause was more than likely Aids. That was one thing you could rely on in Southern Africa: when anyone died before their parents, or their children, the cause was more than likely Aids.

Two more people lived in their grandmother's house: their sister and her three-week-old baby. Their sister had given birth in the local hospital on the far side of the village just past the Salvation Army chapel, the one with the cracked lino and crumbling concrete walls and rotten windowsills and rusty corrugated-iron roof, the one with the 30, or maybe 50, year-old iron bedsteads and the sheets that were not much younger, where Sister Patience and her midwives attended to three or four births a day, where there were no medicines or pain relievers apart from the "past their use-by date" donations from the Latter Day Saints charity. The hospital that was the pride of the township, for it still functioned, unlike so many other basic necessities of life in Zimbabwe.

Their sister did have a choice: the local doctor, but he charged $US50 a visit, more than a week of Everton's wages, and about four weeks' of the midwives, who were paid by the Government, when it got around to it.

Everton's sister had been the prettiest girl in Chinotimba, and that was not just Everton's opinion. That had been why she had caught the eye of the best footballer in the village, the one who had caught the eye of the talent scouts and been lured to South Africa and a contract with the Rainbow Nation's most famous team, Kayser Chiefs.

Once, George had paid for Everton to come to Johannesburg to watch him play. Everton didn't like South Africa. No one smiled. No one stopped in the street to give the three-stage handshake and chat, and ask after his grandmother, like they did in Zim. In one weekend he missed the yards with squawking chickens and guinea fowl and the little plot of chard.

Everton preferred to watch George play for Kayser Chiefs when he was sitting on the vast couch with Sunderland and their friends, on the massive TV that George had sent them, that dwarfed the tiny room and its heavy furniture, with the aromas of Grandmother's huge cooking pot wafting from the kitchen stove, past scrupulously swept concrete floors and dark corners, around walls covered with family photos.

Even more, Everton had missed the red-dust and scrabbly scrubby tracks that led to Chinotimba from the hotel, the paths where elephants ambled after dark.

On the bed in the chintzy hotel room, fan battling the stultifying heat, the tourist who was not from England stirred. Or, rather, was stirred by the woman who had been so interested in the fate of the women and babies in Chinotimba.

"You seemed to be having quite a dream," she said.

"Time to go down to the Falls for the sunset cruise. Not that you'll be needing a sundowner."

- NZ Herald

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