(On the 26th of August, anti-Mugabe protests disrupted the city of Harare. The following are snippets from conversations heard on the day of the riots that show how people avoided talking about the riot by talking about the traffic instead. I happened to be leaving Harare for Johannesburg on this day. The protest that took place in the Harare CBD on the 26th is one of a series of protests that have taken place in Harare since the end of July)
At the mouth of downtown Harare, a group of at least 12 riot police are seated on an island at an intersection; Helmets on, transparent plastic shields upright. The girl in the car reflects on how this would be a good shot to capture—gritty and tense, maybe even dangerous. Perfect for Instagram. She asks her older sister if these police can be photographed. “I wouldn’t dare take a picture,” remarks the older sister. What she means to say is, “don’t you dare.”
At home, a girl says goodbye to the group of tailors who work for her family’s fashion and lifestyle business. Salutations are cheerfully exchanged. “So great to see you again.” “Travel safely.” “Stay well.” Along with this, a warning is communicated; “do not drive through town. Take the long way around to get to the airport. In fact, avoid town all together.” “I wonder how we will get home,” the youngest tailor remarks, in a kind-of-defeated tone. She is a woman and is clearly making reference to the fact that the taxi rank along 4th street in Harare CBD might be a dangerous place to travel through today and taxis may not be coming out into the suburbs today.
A quick succession of WhatsApp messages stream in—the backlog from a day spent without Wi-Fi or cellular network.
“Have you left yet?”
A series of at least 5 pictures follow. They load. Slowly. The first picture looks like a blur of smoke. The girl suspects that the photos are of the “riots in town.” Pictures 1-5 finally load, and she runs through the house to the kitchen, where she shows her sister shots of people running, teargas choking, smoke billowing and things burning.
A friend arrives in Harare on the afternoon flight from South Africa. She pulls into the driveway with a half full green beer bottle in hand. Perhaps a Heineken, perhaps an Amstel. She smiles widely and gestures enthusiastically through the windscreen as her boyfriend brings the car to a halt. She squeals and runs to embrace her best friend. They have not seen each other for some time. Her boyfriend somberly tells of how some of ‘their’ shops were vandalized and looted in town this afternoon. “Hooligans,” he says, shaking his head disapprovingly. He takes out his phone and plays a video showing a defaced storefront. The graffiti spray-painted in red reads “Mugabe must go.” And other things.
A man in a navy suit is bent over on his knees at the check-in gate Fast Jet Airlines. The gate will close in less than ten minutes. He scratches around in his belongings for something as he desperately waits for the remainder of his luggage to be brought over by his friends who are kindly ensuring that each bag is cling wrapped. He is panting slightly, and rightfully so. He complains about the bad traffic in the city between sharp breaths and panicked glances toward the entrance to the check-in counters.
Two men sit at an empty bar-island in the small waiting area for passengers boarding planes out of Harare. One black, one white. The lights are off, and they have no drinks. The black man recalls to the white man how he barely made check-in because of the horrendous traffic he got caught up in. Horrendous.
“Did you pass by town this afternoon?” asks the woman next to me, to the woman next to her. It is clear that neither of them did, so they continue comfortably, sharing the things they have heard from other people about the commotion, as if they witnessed it themselves, as If they were there.
“I have to say that the traffic coming out here was insane!” “Which way did you go, the Mbare way?”
“No, I took the road out through Epworth.”
Laughter, as the ‘bad traffic’ jokes continue among a group of three men and a woman. Jokes about Google Maps and how “Zim traffic is the worst”. No mention of the protest.
The flight is delayed. All around impatient passengers. Kids are making friends with other kids. An old couple sips bottled water quietly. The man opposite me retells how a small pocket of the flight’s passengers had in fact already boarded the plane before being brought right back to the boarding gate because the crew hadn’t yet arrived. People laugh in disbelief. The old lady sipping water next to me confirms the story true with a tired nod of the head.
“We got on the plane only to find that the crew hadn’t even arrived. Can you believe this!?” followed by more laughter and jokes. Someone joins the conversation, and loudly states that the flight has been delayed because the pilot got stuck in traffic.
In any other situation this would be absolutely outrageous. In this case, everyone understands how this is possible. The flight is delayed by more than an hour. The damn traffic.
No mention of the protests.
Post image by Nyasha Tsakatsa via Flickr.
About the Author:
Wadeisor Rukato is a Zimbabwean who grew up in South Africa. She is currently completing a Masters degree Peking university in China. She is also the co-founder of ‘From Africa to China’, an online platform that explores Africa-China relations from the perspective of four young African women. Wadeisor aspires to work at the intersection of consulting and journalism on Africa in the future.