In 2013, I took a five-night trip to Zimbabwe, where my father was born. It was a diversion from a family trip to South Africa for my cousin’s wedding. My father refused to travel across with me; he said he wanted to remember Zimbabwe how it was. I wanted to see things as they were, and to gather some sense of where my dad’s side of the family came from, and what happened to the community they left behind.
I was born in Johannesburg, and though we emigrated to Australia as a family nearly 30 years ago, I have maintained a strong personal connection to the place. My mother and both her parents were born there too, but I am the only one of my immediate family of four who has retained a South African passport. It’s part of my identity.
My father’s side, on the other hand, is firmly rooted in a historical paradise that vanished before I was born, with its independence in 1980—Rhodesia. But my memory of the place it became is of sweaty, hurried stopovers on the way to Johannesburg to visit my grandparents. Under Apartheid-era sanctions, the closest direct flights to Joburg from Australia were to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. But each time we transited we never left the airport.
Then, in 1997, my parents took my sister and I to Zimbabwe, with the aim of seeing the wildlife and Victoria Falls. At that time, there would still have been some relatives of my father’s living there. And yet, perhaps due to the increasingly tense political climate, we never deviated from the magnificent touring itinerary planned; any memories of the Rhodesian idyll left relatively undisturbed after an incredible couple of colonial nights at the Victoria Falls Hotel.
ZANU-PF posters of Mugabe, Harare. Photo: Andrew Harris
We drove at high speed through the bush in an open-topped game-chasing vehicle during an awesome electrical storm. We visited a local school starved of books and arranged to send them a box or two; we marvelled at loaves of bread inflated to Zim $2,000 (maybe $2USD at the time) a loaf; gawped at the ubiquity of Mugabe’s portrait. Dad’s Swiss Army Knife was stolen from his hotel room bedside. I refused to trade my Nike baseball cap for a soapstone carving and ate myself up with confused 13-year-old guilt afterwards. Victoria Falls was unforgettable from a chopper piloted by an unhinged ex-military pilot. That’s more or less what we did in Zimbabwe.
But ever since then, I grew ever more curious about father’s past there in Harare and Bulawayo, the country’s second city, known for main thoroughfares built by Cecil Rhodes wide enough for a turning span of oxen. My father left for Joburg with his family at 17, so that he could avoid the draft into what would have involved fighting on the wrong side of history. The Rhodesian Bush War, or the Second Chimurenga, was an insurgency and counter-insurgency that raged for 15 years, eventually establishing majority rule, promising a new beginning for Zimbabwe under the leadership of Robert Mugabe. While he finished high school in Johannesburg and eventually met my mother, a number of his childhood friends were drafted and killed.
In my teens and 20s, as the news about Zimbabwe became increasingly disturbing, I became more interested. Around 2008, when Zimbabwe closed itself off to foreign media, a period of systematic political violence known as “the Fear,” I became obsessed with traveling there again.
My grandfather had long since died. So I tried to interview my father, his mother, and his uncle Ralph, former Mayor of Bulawayo, by then living in Cape Town. I didn’t know what questions to ask, really. I read every contemporary fiction and non-fiction account of Zimbabwe I could find, and some historical ones as well, but I knew I had to go there for myself.