School of Journalism and New Media

The University of Mississippi

Robin Waters’ essay recalls time at Ole Miss

Posted on: February 14th, 2012 by

As I write, the African skies are filled with smoky haze which arrives every year at this time – caused by myriad brush fires when the tall grasses of the savanna, bleached golden white, almost inevitably, it seems, get torched.  Sometimes accidentally, mostly deliberately;  sometimes maliciously, mostly thoughtlessly.

The haze brings with it the scarlet fireballs of sunset and sunrise of the dry season; no less spectacular than the rises and sets of the wet season, but different; hotter, blurred, with the tang of smoke and dust in the nostrils.

I love this time of year in Africa, but then I love all its seasons and I am reminded what a privilege it is to live in a part of the world which creates in me such a right feeling of belonging.  I was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, at the time called Rhodesia, in 1961, but snatched away to Salisbury, the capital, now renamed Harare, as a babe in arms due to my father’s work related transfer.  Four years later, in 1965, Prime Minister Ian Smith declared independence from Britain and the country became a pariah among the nations of the world.

Growing up, I thrived on a diet of proud, go-it-alone settler nationalism, and indeed the country was well-run, with good infrastructure, clean, green, cities, tidy schools and supermarkets filled with locally grown and manufactured produce.  I was not even conscious that the nation was a house built on sand; that the black majority were not equal partners in this picture.

By the time I went into high school in 1974 there was a serious storm brewing, but the local media by-and-large toed the line and portrayed Rhodesia as a bastion of western values besieged by communism – this domino was not going to fall.  I remember being in the car with my mother who was driving myself and my brother to school when we heard that the Portuguese had walked out of Mozambique – that was maybe the first inkling I had that perhaps all was not stable and permanent in the world at large.  My home life, meanwhile,  somehow survived the slowly brewing volcano of my father’s slow deterioration from cancer; the volcano blew up in my first year of high school.

1979 was my last year at school, my eighteenth.  Rhodesia had just became Zimbabwe-Rhodesia with the nation’s first black Prime Minister;  Bishop Abel Muzorewa was, if nothing else, a figurehead able to represent the internal parties in end-game negotiations with the black nationalist parties based outside the country.  I admired Lord Carrington who chaired proceedings for bringing closure where no-one else had succeeded before, but the time was right.  Whole swathes of the country had become no-go areas unless you were heavily armed and preferably in convoy; and even the most efficient economy could not sustain the hemorrhaging expenses of the bush war.

In 1980 the country achieved legal independence from Britain and Robert Mugabe was elected Prime Minister in the first one-man, one-vote elections we had known.  I took a three-year degree in English at the University of Zimbabwe and followed up with a post-grad MA in journalism at Ole Miss.  Ole Miss had selected me by offering financial assistance which enabled me to cross the Atlantic, but it was fitting to find myself in the home town of Faulkner, having studied the American novel at UZ.  Ole Miss’ tumultuous racial past, and that of the South, paralleled my home country; both continue to deal with an ambiguous past while reworking the future on a daily basis.  The past with all its faults provides the foundation of the present; much was achieved and men died defending those achievements, believing that there was no other way forward.  We cannot erase the past, and we should respect its role in defining the present, at the same time as we grasp all the value of hindsight to avoid making similar mistakes, if at all possible.

I returned to Zimbabwe in 1985 and, like a fish gulping a fly, was hooked by the photo safari industry which was just beginning a rapid expansion.  The ‘journalist’ found himself driver-guiding tourists around game parks, and apart from some unremarkable episodes in the city semi-practicing his true trade, he spent the next twenty five years in tourism in some of the most beautiful locations Zimbabwe has to offer.  I thought that if I was to stay in Africa with all its issues, I may as well live in the post-card version of Africa which overseas travelers come to see.

The country prospered after 1980, and tourism especially burgeoned after 1994 with Mandela’s coming to power next door in South Africa.  But in Africa, development seems to cycle with destruction and the continent is littered with the remnants of projects and schemes which have blossomed and withered, like so many white flowers on the giant baobab tree, scorching brown under the rising sun.

On September 11, 2001, I was meeting with Ole Miss professor Will Norton in my mother’s small flat in Harare when news came through of the twin towers bombing.  The world stood still and watched as the course of history changed before our eyes, like some massive science-fiction warp in the matrix.  By then Zimbabwe had already executed a U turn; politics had collided with economics to the detriment of the latter.  Commercial farmland was seized by toyi toying youths and the agriculturally-based economy found itself as spineless as a bream fillet.

Over the next ten years, the economy set records for shrinkage in a nation at peace.  In an ever-compounding downward spiral, the local currency lost value; the government feebly arrested shop owners for profiteering, shops emptied and manufacturing ground to a halt.  Somewhere between 20 and 30% of the population found work outside of our borders and, ironically, floated the economy by sending money back to feed the family at home.

I switched jobs, at first from the safari industry in the south-east lowveld, to the hotel industry near the stone ruins known as Great Zimbabwe in the centre of the country, then to the wondrous Victoria Falls in the north, seeking the best way to survive while savings and pensions disappeared.  Why did I stay, by now teamed with my wife Carey, son David and daughter Joanna?  Was I part ostrich, with my head in the sand, or part sloth, unable to run?  Why did so many Jews allow themselves to be caught up in the holocaust?

Underlying it all, as well as the glass-half-full optimism that ‘things must get better,’ was my fundamental knowledge that this beautiful, warm land is my home, where I was born and where I would wish to die.  As well as my time at college in the USA, I have seen Britain, Australia and South Africa, all the favored places for Zimbabwe’s exiles.  I could live in each, but only as a baobab might live at Kew Botanical Gardens in London.

After two years in Victoria Falls, I moved this year to Bulawayo where I was born all those years ago, a city founded on the kraal of Lobengula, a local chieftain linked by bloodline to Tshaka Zulu.  I am running a small hotel here, in a historic building dating to 1935.  Portraits of the controversial founder Cecil John Rhodes are everywhere in this building, but my take on him is that he was an extraordinarily talented man locked into the mindset of his time. Development was in the name of, and firstly for the benefit of, the motherland; if the locals learned a thing or two along the way, that was all to the good.

Outside is a new granite-clad plinth where a statue of nationalist hero Joshua Nkomo was recently erected.  But the plinth is bare; the statue was hastily removed soon after unveiling because locals threatened to tear it down.  It had been made in North Korea; North Koreans trained the Shona soldiers from the north who brutalized the local Ndebele tribe after independence 1980-1987.

The site of the statue is exactly the same as that of C. J. Rhodes, forever looking north to link his territorial claims for the Queen in one unbroken belt up Africa. The new statue is now housed at the National Museum, where Rhodes’ statue can also be found.

Today is a warm afternoon, and ash gently rains down onto the hotel’s white table linen, as it will continue to do until a strong wind, typical of the ending dry season, clears the smoky haze from the skies above.

– Robin Waters