Street life on Kwame Nkrumah – Chief K Masimba Biriwasha

OPINION – Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, is full of buildings that look like giant matchboxes at night.

Dusk was falling when, after attending a poetry session at the Book Café — an artist’s hangout at the edge of the city centre — I decided to take a walk through the streets. They rang with the patter of feet as the Saturday night crowds criss-crossed and changed direction.

Because I am carrying a backpack with a laptop and a top-of-the-range camera, I keep glancing around to make sure that no mugger is lurking in the shadows of the moonlit night.

Fortunately, I soon walk into a street with lamps that shower light onto the pavement. I feel safe.

Two men standing outside a city apartment/business office gesture at me and inquire about the latest forex rates. When I tell them I’m not a forex dealer, one of the men begins to wax lyrical about the qualitites of his favourite politician — Morgan Tsvangirai.

We chat, furtively, about politics for a while before I bid him farewell and continue on my journey towards the rank to catch a minibus home.

The dark has now fully gathered; around me the matchboxes look as if they’re waiting to explode under the weight of the nation’s groaning.

I cross a wide street at a little trot to avoid being hit by a fleshy black Mercedes-Benz that slides down the street at full speed.

As I reach the other side, at the edge of a street named Kwame Nkrumah, a tall soldier appears from nowhere behind me, walking with wide strides. I almost miss a heartbeat, thinking he is coming after me to confiscate the wide-lens camera in my backpack.

I keep my cool and he strides past; I try in vain to imitate his walk simply to test if I have a soldier in me.

I am lost in my soldier thoughts for a while until a bald man beckons to me and asks for a match to light his cigarette. I offer him one.

We end up talking (dialogue is a currency on the streets) about my pregnant wife and how our baby is due anytime now. Just then a text message beeps on my cellphone. Perhaps this is "the call", I think, and I’m instantly relieved that it is just a friend asking where I am.

I walk towards the Supreme Court. Opposite it stands a group of soldiers silhouetted in the dark who suddenly scream loudly into the night that a hare is crossing the street.

For a moment, I stand frozen, wondering how on earth a hare could have ended up in a city filled with rock-solid buildings, until I notice that the so-called hare is just a cat. In fact, it’s two cats; one scampers away behind the court building and the other, on seeing me, dashes towards the chuckling soldiers.

Cats have joined soldiers in my thoughts as I walk on quickly towards the shop that sells one of the best things still available in Harare — ice cream. It’s usually packed, but surprisingly, tonight it is deserted.

Perhaps it’s the price increase; overnight price hikes in Zimbabwe can bring on a heart attack and new tactics have to be employed all the time.

Anyway, I purchase a huge cone of clear white ice cream that tastes like real cream; of all the things in Zimbabwe, I daresay, the ice cream at that shop competes with any other in the world.

As I lick away, my photographer’s eye can’t help but notice the post-election posters still plastered all over the city walls. They’re an eyesore given that the election was a stillborn.

I go for my camera to take a picture of the posters for posterity or perhaps just to record a piece in the process of human history. At the back of my mind I know I could get arrested and spend a night in jail in this expression-stifled city if the police or soldiers see me. I put the camera back.

Walking on I suddenly sink into a mass of human flesh. On the pavements are numerous men and women selling an assortment of agricultural produce in season – it makes sense for them to trade at night because the municipal police have already gone home. I buy a green maize cob for a total of Z$20, approximately US$0,05.

And then I careen my way through the madding crowd, till finally I reach the rank where I find a minibus to take me home through the Harare night.

Chief K Masimba Biriwasha is a children’s author, poet, philosopher and playwright. His first book The Dream of Stones won Zimbabwe’s National Arts Merit Award in 2004