Moments before the plane landed at Harare International Airport, a tourist from Europe exclaimed rather dramatically: “I didn’t expect such a neat modern airport!”
Hearing this knee-jerk remark, bemused locals smiled knowingly. I craned my neck to face the first-time visitor and told her calmly: “Ma’am, this is a city of surprises.”
In most parts of the world, an airport is a capital city’s best foot forward. It showcases to foreign travellers what the city and country are all about. Within a few minutes of landing, a seasoned tourist can accurately gauge a nation’s pulse.
Borrowing richly from the chevron motif of the Great Zimbabwe Monument – an Iron Age city that gives the country its name – the airport’s architecture is aesthetically impressive.
But Harare is a city of contrasts. Should you decide to buy coffee at the airport, you will come face-to-face with Zimbabwe’s extortionate pricing. A couple of sandwiches and a cuppa will set you back $15.
Harare is the gateway to Zimbabwe, the land of the fabled King Solomon’s Mines and magnificent tourist attractions. It may not be a world-class city in Johannesburg’s megaphone sense, but it is the closest example of a vibrant African metropolis you will find on this part of the continent.
Every city has its peculiarities. When you arrive in Joburg for the first time, you are warned – beware of criminals. In Harare, you are warned – beware of the tap water.
In most cases, it is a remark deployed to break the ice, rather than a clumsy attempt at scare-mongering. Make no mistake, the tap water is indeed toxic but there is more to the “Sunshine City” than sewage-tainted water.
I have spent nine years in Harare, brought here by a journalism vocation. This means I view the city not only from a writer’s vantage point but also through the lens of an existential participant.
In November, Harare is a stunning riot of colour: beautiful purple jacarandas and flaming red flamboyants tower above the roads in majestic splendour.
On picturesque avenues, the jacaranda petals are shaken loose by the wind before drifting to the ground, forming a purple “carpet”. It is a photographers’ paradise.
The sights and sounds of Harare would be incomplete without mention of Shona sculpture. It has won international acclaim and there is no better place to behold its glory than on home soil. The National Gallery in Harare has a large collection. When you buy an art piece at the gallery, you are assured of an authentic artefact, not the fake replicas that have flooded galleries across Europe and Asia.
The earliest forms of Zimbabwean stone sculpture were steeped in mythology. Contemporary pieces still draw inspiration from spirituality, although they display a dynamic sense of modernity.
Speaking of modernity, the city’s skyline never fails to catch the eye. Architecturally, Harare is a mix of ancient, modern and contemporary. There are plenty of well-preserved structures dating back to the early colonial era, which stand alongside such ultra-modern marvels as the 27-floor Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe headquarters.
The growth of contemporary architecture has been hampered by economic turmoil but there have been glimpses of brilliance. Eastgate Centre, a shopping mall and office block, is one such building.
Designed by local architect Mike Pearce, it has been hailed as probably the first building in the world to use natural cooling to a high level of sophistication.
“Modelled on the way that termites construct their nest to ventilate, cool and heat it entirely through natural means, Eastgate’s ventilation system costs one-tenth that of a similar air-conditioned building and uses 35 percent less energy,” says Pearce.
Compared to other capital cities in Africa, not much commercial building construction is taking place in Harare. One of the few projects is a $200 million US embassy compound due for completion in three years.
Louise Bragge, director of Urban Space, an institution which has been spearheading a campaign to document the history of Harare’s cityscape, says every city has a unique identity. History and the arts, she says, are a vital piece of the cultural jigsaw.
Music and the performing arts are among the crucial components of Harare’s heritage. Foreign visitors who seek authentic local sounds will not be disappointed. Exponents of mbira music perform to packed audiences at venues. Marimba music is another national beat, often performed by youngsters during school fetes and family concerts.
Prominent Zimbabwean musicians include Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo, although the latter is now based in the US. Many teens and young adults prefer either a Jamaican-influenced beat called “Zim dancehall”, home-grown beat ”urban grooves” or South African house music. Mukudzei Mukombe, who goes by the stage name Jah Prayzah, belts out a unique brand of urban pop that has struck a chord with music fans.
Once a year, the Harare International Festival of the Arts comes alive, although financial constraints are now threatening it. Artists and tourists from all over the world converge on Harare to savour an eclectic potpourri of music, drama and dance. The Harare International Carnival, held recently, featured samba girls from Brazil, bare-breasted maidens from Swaziland and local musicians.
Seasonal attractions also include the annual tobacco marketing jamboree, in June and July, when tens of thousands of golden leaf growers, international buyers and bargain hunters rock Harare.
If there is one crop that has generated amazing publicity for Zimbabwe’s controversial land reform programme, it is tobacco. Last year, there were 88 000 registered growers; this year the number rose to 106 000. Small-scale farmers sold 220 million kilograms of tobacco this year, earning the country $600m.
Day-to-day living in Harare is a lesson in sheer survival. The economy is in turmoil, yes, but Zimbabweans are not throwing up their arms in surrender. Life must go on. Youngsters are forever devising strategies to put food on the table. Small second-hand cars imported from Japan are operating as unlicensed taxis, playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with traffic police but, crucially, delivering income to families.
Remarkably for a country experiencing a prolonged bout of economic decay, crime is generally low. Sociologists are yet to pinpoint why, but it seems a fair bet that no one is willing to risk a stint in the nation’s notoriously perilous prisons.
Do not be fooled, though. Not everyone is suffering in Harare. In the leafy suburbs, the rich are building mansions with huge swimming pools, tennis courts and even helipads. Supermarkets in these suburbs sell delicacies, from fresh prawns to rare Scotch. This is a country where 70 percent of the population live on less than $1.16 a day – below the World Bank’s $1.25 threshold of “extreme poverty”.
Worryingly, murky land-purchase deals have blighted Harare’s real-estate market. Con artists, known as “land barons” here, are invading and sub-dividing municipal land into plots and selling them to unsuspecting home-seekers. A few months later, municipal officials dispatch bulldozers to demolish the illegal houses.
Harare has come a long way since the colonial British South Africa Company established Fort Salisbury in 1890. What does the future hold for this city of surprises?