Harare- the city that never sleeps. I often wonder who renamed Salisbury Harare after Independence. Whoever it was understood a truth that I only later came to know. People in Harare do not seem to sleep, at first this was something that baffled me. Why did these people not sleep? Did they not have wives, husbands and children to go back home to? But then after living in Harare I realized that it was because of their wives, husbands and children that they did not sleep. Sleeping is a luxury for the wealthy and in Harare it is a luxury that only a few can afford.
Harare is a city that is many things to many people. It is a friend, a lover, and sometimes a foe. The very first time I went to Avondale Flea market I met a vendor who, like many people living in Harare, did not sleep. His name was Josphat. He sold bootleg movies and series, his stall was popular because, as he waited for people to come buy, he would sing and play the Mbira. He had a soothing baritone voice that carried over long distances, even though he did not shout his voice was loud. His songs usually would be about folklore that my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child. This is what drew me to his stall that day I found myself among people who could sell you anything if you let them talk to you long enough. Josphat was successful because he was selling DVDs at a time were many people had just started experiencing the novelty of the DVD player. People were eager to watch DVDs accompanied by the booming surround sound system speaker set, which came with the DVD player. Many people wanted to watch Nigerian movies and old American action movies. There were some Western contemporary favorites too, such as the series 24 acted by Keifer Sutherland. Josphat was providing what people wanted. He was thriving; to him Harare was a friend.
Then a year later I went back to Avondale Flea Market, I wanted to buy some “African” bags to take back to South Africa for my American teacher who was obsessed with such bags. She loved their bright colors, the print and dye designs and also how they complimented her Senegalese pants. I bought three bags and on my way back home I passed by Josphat’s stall. He was no longer there. I asked the woman who was now selling shoes—where Josphat had once sold his DVDs— if she knew a man who used to play the Mbira and sell DVDs. She replied and said Josphat used to be her neighbor but he was now back in his rural home with his family. Business had run dry once people had moved to the internet. People no longer needed DVDs, they had the internet or friends who had the internet. Harare, once the friend had become a foe, Josphat had failed to conquer it. I wondered what had become of his children who he had told me were going to school as a result of him working in the city. I wondered what they were doing now, probably married early or perhaps they had swum across the Limpopo river into South Africa.
The first person who had told me about how people were swimming across the Limpopo river to get into South Africa was my uncle’s house help, Aunty Gertrude. Aunty Gertrude started working for my uncle three years after he moved to Greystone Park. Greystone Park is one of the posh suburbs in Harare, it is located in the leafy green outskirts of town, with the long Mopani trees as the backdrop. My uncle moved here with his wife and two children three years after he opened his IT company in Harare. The children who live in this neighborhood all go to private schools; my cousin even went to the same school as the president’s son. The children all have house helps they call “Aunty” or “Sisi” and garden boys who help keep the yard green all the time. These young boys usually come from the nearby rural villages in the hopes of finding employment to better their own lives. Many of them like my Uncle’s garden boy –Revai—grow up hearing stories about Harare. It is a city where the lights are so bright that people have to wear glasses so that they do not go blind. It is a city so big that if you get lost you can spend two days wondering the streets. Revai even told me once, that his father told him that everyone in Harare could speak English and because of this nobody in Harare was poor. I imagine for Revai; Harare must have felt like opening a big empty Christmas box wrapped immaculately in red. For people like Revai and Aunty Gertrude Harare was neither a friend nor was it a foe; it danced in between friend and foe; choosing which role to play at its own whim. For my uncle and his family and friends Harare was a friend and a lover. They could afford to sleep, go on vacation, braai meet on Saturdays and go to bed early on Sundays.
When I think of Harare I think of the people living in Harare. I think of the stories that have unfolded, I think of the people I know and the people I saw only for a fleeting moment. I think of my first time on a taxi. I was going to visit my uncle who lived in Greystone park. I was afraid because the taxi was packed with people I did not know, the man sitting next to me smelt of beer and cigarette smoke and his hair smelt like my mother’s chicken pen. I had just taken shower and was smelling like Dove and Neiva, yet here I was sharing sweat and breathing the same air with a man who had probably not showered in three days. This is Harare. It is a taxi, packed to the brim with people like tinned sardines. We all are going our own directions but for brief moments our paths will cross, sometimes for longer periods and then we continue to where Harare takes us.