The kindness of Strangers
By Karen Petersen
The flight from Johannesburg to Harare wasn't a particularly long one, as flights around Africa go. It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere and the weather in South Africa had been on the cool side. The temperature was warmer here in northern Zimbabwe and Christie felt her muscles relax instinctively as the door to the plane opened to the outside heat.
She rode to her hotel in a small rickety green cab with missing floorboards, crammed in alongside three African men. Only very wealthy Africans and the white colonialist types rode around in cabs by themselves here. Her fellow passengers appeared to be from differing economic and tribal backgrounds, but the one thing they had in common, and she had noticed this all over Africa, was the ever-present briefcase and cell phone, the identity badges for Africa now.
They arrived at her hotel, the most modern in town and designed along the lines of a comfortable Holiday Inn. Sometimes urban builders in Africa had understood the importance of respecting and integrating the wisdom of local tribal architecture into their designs. The Hotel Wafou in Abidjan and the Balalaika in Johannesburg were good examples of that. But in general this was not the case, and very garish Western type structures were what could be expected in most places. Harare; was certainly no different in its desire to be “modern."
Christie extracted herself from the taxi with an "Uhh, thanks!" Jeesus! She thought, if it had four wheels and moved, somebody in Africa would get in and drive it off, no matter what shape the rest of the car was in. But why complain? I’ve ridden into town for the U.S. equivalent of fifty cents.
She walked through the cool, wood-paneled lobby, checked in and went up to her room. The heat had been tiring so she lay on her bed and watched TV. The one station in town had a news round-up on. The male newscaster was sweating from the lights in the studio and reading the news--clearly from cue cards--in a grave attempt to appear like a Western professional, or at least to mimic the flat affects and woodenness of the British and American correspondents. But he was still all too human, subtly struggling with his itching collar and lopsided tie, pretending as if the misplaced cue cards weren't there, reciting from memory like an actor.
She smiled at the scene. Poor bastard. She enjoyed having this human element to be able to relate to, instead of reducing the TV news to a universal boring common denominator: watching the wrinkles moving in a square-jawed face or the sweep of eyeshadow on a lid and a new brooch on the dress. Tonight at least, she was actually paying attention. The Western news media's lost its individuality, its unpredictability, she thought as the phone rang.
It was the hotel's front desk. "Is madam planning on eating dinner at the hotel tonight?"
Why, yes, she is. “When is it being served?”
"In a hour."
“Thank you, I'll be there,” she said.
She looked at her watch and got up. Maybe the gift shop was still open and she could send off a postcard before leaving. She ran down to the lobby.
The gift shop was open but the postcard selection could not have been described as vast. On one glass counter a single rack was filled with three varieties of cards. A badly overexposed lioness and rhino ran after one another through the bush, an out of focus Victoria Falls poured forth frothy cataracts into a strange orange and purple sunset, and several bare-breasted, disease-ridden Batonga women stared vacantly into nowhere. That was the selection.
Christie opted for the overexposed rhino and joked to the tall, slender clerk at the cash register. "I guess printing new postcards aren't on Mugabe's list, eh?"
But the boy tensed and looked around the store uneasily. There was only one other customer there, a large fat German, lost in contemplation of the animal skins in the corner.
The boy shrugged his shoulders and silently took her money. Christie felt she'd said something wrong but instead of pursuing it, changed the subject. "Tell me," she said, trying to be friendly. "Do you know of any clubs in Harare that I could visit tonight? I've been all over Africa as a writer and wherever I go I try to visit the local nightclubs to get a feeling for the music."
This time the clerk smiled and said, "Why, yes, there are many in town. But why not go to the disco here at the hotel? It's quite International."
Christie shook her head, knowing he thought she wanted to hang out with the white expats and the tourists. Hotel employees in foreign countries were always instructed by the management to refer guests to certain places for their own safety but those bland, white-washed “International” clubs had nothing really to do with the culture and people of the country. Most of the whites living in Africa went to these when they went out at all, and the Indians, largely a mercantile class dating back decades, stayed home.
"No, no, no, what I want is to go to an African nightclub, where all the local people are."
The man looked at her carefully and smiled again. "Are you an American?" "Yes," she said.
"Ah, sure...hello, madam, my name is Patric." He extended his hand in welcome.
"Hi, Patric, my name is Christie, nice to meet you. I'm only here for a night, on my way back to the U.S. from South Africa. The music in South Africa was amazing, and I'd love to hear some local live music here too if that's possible."
"Oh, I see..." Patric's voice trailed off thoughtfully. He looked at her politely and said in his best missionary school English, "Would you like to accompany my brother and I tonight to hear a local band, miss? We will take you to where we normally go."
She was immensely flattered--this was a rare invitation. However, she had often found in her travels that if she made a connection with a local they were eager to show her their country and culture, and employees at the big hotels were always carefully vetted. Jobs were scarce so no one ever misstepped. What a great opportunity, she thought! "Why thank you," she said. "I'd love to. When and where should we meet?"
"I will be finished in an hour and..." A handsome young African man in a white suit jacket and black bow tie had just walked in. Patric's face lit up. "Ah, here is my older brother now. He works at a restaurant across town. Simon, this is my new American friend Christie."
"How do you do," Simon said solemnly, bowing.
Christie smiled, flattered by the gentlemanly gesture. Odd, they don't really look alike, she thought. Perhaps they had different fathers.
"Could you meet us outside in the lobby in an hour, miss?" Patric seemed apologetic for not being able to be ready sooner.
"Sure, don't worry, that'll be fine." She shook their hands warmly and left. But up in her room she wondered if this adventure was too reckless. Zimbabwe was still one of those places where people tended to disappear from time to time. Then again, travellers were always forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, and her instincts told her these guys were nice people.
She ate dinner fast, and an hour later walked into the small lobby and found Simon waiting on a wicker couch. "Patric is out in the car," he said rather curtly, getting up. "Let's go."
Patric was waiting across the street, in an old two-door Honda pick-up truck. Both brothers insisted that she ride in the middle, a position she wasn't exactly thrilled with, but she got in anyway.
As they drove off, Simon turned towards her in the cramped car. "I'm sorry if I was a bit rude in the lobby, but you don't understand how things are here."
"What do you mean?" she replied, noticing they were heading towards the outskirts of the city, past the giant white-owned tobacco farms.
Patric looked grim. "We Matabeles have always to be careful. In the capital and the countryside there are informers everywhere... But I can see by your face that you do not understand." He glanced at Simon.
Simon sighed deeply and ran his hand over his short wooly hair. "Christie, my friend, this country is not a democracy. Robert Mugabe, a Shona, rules here with an iron fist. Political parties are along tribal lines and his party, the Zanu, is consistently favored for civilian jobs. Ours, the Zapu, is always kept down, and Mugabe and our late leader, Joshua Nkomo, hated each other for years. I tell you, it is very bad...Even Patric, who has had two years of college would be unemployed now except that he has held his hotel job since the days of Ian Smith when the owner of the concession was--and fortunately still is--an Englishman. But things are getting worse and, who knows? The government may just decide to step in and confiscate the hotel at some point because it is showing a profit. Mugabe and his cronies grab money from wherever they can find it."
Patric interrupted. "A few years ago, Mugabe sent some secret police that were specially trained in Korea into the countryside to exterminate our people, but when the foreign press began to report on it, he eased up a bit. Our parents were killed at that time and we came here where we thought it would be safer. These days, everyone keeps to themselves. Believe me, miss, our taking you out publicly like this was closely watched by someone in the hotel. You will see for yourself, sure.”
“Tonight at the club, there will be informers. Ohhhh, you must be careful, they will be the ones that come out of the crowd and question you.”
Christie looked at both of them in astonishment. "My god, I don't want any of us to be hurt or anything. This is crazy!"
But Patric and Simon laughed, deep, easy-going African laughs. There was a gentleness to the sound that she loved.
"Oh don't worry, my friend. We are doing nothing wrong. People will soon see you are just a tourist here." Patric pointed out the window, slowing the car. In front of them was a long grey cinder block structure, decked out with strobe lights.
"Club 99,” he said, rolling to a stop.
In the flashing lights Christie could see many young African tribal men, already drunk, hanging around outside. They peered at the car, unable to believe their eyes. A white woman. How peculiar.
One very dark man stepped forward. He had on an old knitted red hat and a cheap white polyester shirt that was missing a button. His soiled blue trousers were held up by his hips. His worn dusty loafers were also made of some synthetic material and he wore no socks. All in all, he looked just like many working class tribal Africans she'd seen. Poor.
"Hey Patric," the man said, staggering over. "Linjani?" which Christie knew was Matabele for "How ya doin'?" The two men spoke for a few minutes and then Patric told Simon and Christie to get out of the car.
"Come on, let's go in," he said, carefully looking around.
In the club it was dim and smoky. There was an insanely tight five-piece dance band playing full tilt to a packed, sweaty crowd, dancing joyously. Christie couldn't believe the scene. This was great! A real old school Jiti band, Bhundu Boys-style, singing in a language she couldn't understand but whose rhythm she could feel. No Western rock and roll here, thank god...
Eyes were on her everywhere but she didn't care. As the only white person in the place she assumed people would be staring. The band, thinking she must be someone special--because whites generally mingled only with Africans in "international," not African, sections of African cities--played louder and with more enthusiasm, showing off, and she loved every minute of it. But inevitably a man came up to her.
"Hello, where are you from?" he said casually.
"I'm from America," she said.
"Oh...yes...and this is your first time in Zimbabwe?" he said, looking at her closely.
"Yes," she said.
"And how long are you here for?"
"Only two days. I'm a tourist," she said, smiling at the realisation that this must be one of the men Simon and Patric had warned her about.
"I hope you enjoy yourself," he said, walking away apparently satisfied.
And so on it went for the next hour. Periodically another man--never a woman-- would come up to her and ask variations on the same questions until it began to become tiresome.
When the next man politely stepped forward with another "where are you from?" she looked at him and angrily replied, "NOYB."
"NOYB?" he said slowly.
"Yeah, that means none of your business!" She turned her back and walked away.
Simon, overhearing the exchange, went and grabbed Patric, who was having a beer at the new bar--a multi-coloured, large-scale advertisement for the patchwork world of formica, complete with plastic stools. "I think it's time to leave, Patric." His tone was insistent.
Christie was relieved to see the two of them approaching. Once they were outside in the car Simon started laughing. That deep, heartfelt African laugh again.
"What's so funny?" Christie asked.
"It could have been a real problem if we stayed, my friend," he said, looking over at her, still chuckling. But she knew he was serious by his eyes.
"Yeah, I know. I'm glad we left," she said. "But thanks for taking me anyway, the music was great."
"Sister, would you like to see what an African house here looks like?" Patric was smiling at her, his eyes a little glazed from the beer. She noticed that he had adopted the inclusionary family term of ‘sister’ when addressing her, a lovely offer of friendship still to be found among the more rural areas throughout much of Africa.
However, she wasn't sure what this invitation really meant. Was it as innocent as it sounded? From her experience with most men the answer would have been no, but perhaps because Patric and his brother had been educated by missionaries and came from a rural area they were just being kind after all. "Well, uh, it's a bit late...she said hesitatingly, suddenly embarrassed.
Patric shook his head. "Nonsense! It is only one o'clock; we will have you back at the hotel in less than an hour, sure."
"We live close by," Simon chimed in. "Let us show you our home. We own it," he said proudly.
She knew that was quite an accomplishment in such a poor country. "Okay," she said, laughing to herself at her uptightness. Come on, go with the flow, you're in Africa, not New York City.
The drive to Patric and Simon's house was indeed short, down a twisting, bumpy road lined with camel-thorn trees, ghostly in the dark. Patric had had too much to drink and Christie was relieved when they finally lurched to a stop. She knew people were killed in horrible traffic accidents in Zimbabwe all the time where life was regarded as cheap.
Their house was a modest, small cement block structure, painted yellow, with the corrugated sheet roofing that was commonplace in all third world countries. Periodically set into the wall were small geometric-patterned tiles, which gave the plain dwelling a more festive air. There was no land to speak of; the neighbours could be heard talking and moving on each side of the house, although an acacia tree in the small front yard gave the place some shade and a sense of privacy. For that, she knew, they were very lucky.
Patric opened the door and extended his arm inside, welcoming her. She went in and Simon followed.
The house consisted of three small rooms: living room, bedroom and kitchen. The bathroom was outside, in a run-down wooden structure in the backyard. But she knew from experience what that looked like and didn't want to see it again, since bathrooms and sewage systems as such were still fairly primitive in Africa, the elite preferring to hide money in Swiss bank accounts rather than build up much-needed infrastructure. Even now, it was still commonplace for many people to just drop their drawers by the roadside and go, whenever they needed to. It was practical and no big deal, but it always managed to horrify the passing tourists. Most locals hadn't yet developed the complete detachment from natural processes that the West already had so successfully managed to cultivate, for better or worse, and they thought tourists’ shocked expressions were funny.
"Would you like a drink?" a soft female voice came from behind her.
Christie jumped, startled, and then laughed. "I'm sorry, I didn't see you," she said, looking at the very young girl standing in the hallway, in ragged bedroom slippers. She must have been about thirteen.
"This is my sister Elizabeth," Patric said.
"How do you do," Christie said, as they touched hands slightly in the African version of a handshake. Elizabeth then looked away shyly.
Christie turned to Patric. "I'm not that thirsty but perhaps a soda if you want to share it," she said. Patric touched Elizabeth on the shoulder and off she padded obediently toward the kitchen. Christie had often noticed African women waiting on their men hand and foot. They must think I'm quite the strange one, she thought, amused.
They sat down in the living room, an odd combination of obligations to the modern, Western world and allegiances to an older Africa. The few furnishings were of the Western, bargain basement variety, but the colour combinations and mixing of patterns were clearly African. The lacy curtains were new, and covered the wooden slatted windows.
Everything was neat and well taken care of, yet the floors were cracked with great fissures and the walls filthy with dirty fingerprints. Over in one corner a pastel coloured print of a blue-eyed Jesus Christ gazed beneficently down and in another was a television set, which Simon promptly turned on, and then ignored.
Patric went over to the record player, an old portable like the ones teenagers in the USA used to play their 45's on during the 1950's. He put on a record of West African Juju music.
"Oh, I know this kind of music!" Christie cried out enthusiastically.
"Really?" Patric and Simon looked astounded.
"Yeah. I have a King Sunny Ade album at home," she said.
"I've heard of him," Simon said to Patric, and they all laughed, pleased by this unexpected bond.
Elizabeth entered slowly, carrying a tin tray with several drinks, which she placed on a small table in front of them.
"Thank you Elizabeth," Christie said warmly.
"Yes," Elizabeth said softly, sitting down next to her and staring at the floor.
Christie noticed a faded black and white photo, tacked on the wall, of Patric and a young woman.
"Who's that?" she said.
"That's my wife, Mary." He looked momentarily glum. "She works in Bulawalyo. We see each other every two months."
"Two months! How awful. Why is that?" Christie was shocked.
Patric shrugged his shoulders. "That was where she could find a job," he said stoically. "This is quite common here. We are lucky it is only two months--I know other people where it is four to six months...but come..." he said, standing up. "I want you to see my children."
His children! Christie thought. Where on earth could they be sleeping in the midst of all this racket?
Behind a curtain, which served as a door at one end of the room, a small light glowed. "Come," he whispered. She went behind the curtain with him into a tiny bedroom in which lay two small children, a boy and a girl, sound asleep. They were sleeping on mats on the floor next to a small bed, which Christie thought must be Patric's. She guessed that Simon and Elizabeth must sleep in the living room.
Patric bent down and tenderly kissed both their heads. "Aren't they wonderful?" he said, filled with a father's pride. Christie nodded, moved by the humbleness and sweetness of the scene.
Patric turned and carefully opened a small drawer. He took out a large, dirty envelope that had been held by many hands. It was filled with photos. He passed it to her wordlessly.
As she opened the envelope she realised in amazement that she had before her his family history for three or four generations. The older people in some of the photos had literally come from another Africa--an Africa that had since largely disappeared, and she looked at those faces intensely, reverently, wanting so much for them to speak to her. These weren't just some photos seen in a textbook, there was a real connection here--she knew this man. She'd met his brother and his sister, seen his children sleeping.
"Thank you," she whispered, handing the envelope back to him.
In the living room, the music had stopped and the one station had signed off the air, leaving a test pattern. Both Simon and Elizabeth had fallen asleep sprawled on the couch, and Christie and Patric grinned at each other conspiratorially. "It's getting late and time you got back," he said quietly.
"Yes, you're right," she said. "Thanks for a very special evening Patric. I'll never forget your kindness."
He looked embarrassed, and walked down the hallway to the door. "What's in there?" Christie asked as they passed another curtained off area.
"Oh, I rent out that area to a student from Kenya. He's no trouble. That, plus my salary at the store is what helps my wife to visit." He smiled.
The ride back to the hotel was a silent one. The chilly African night air went right to her senses and Christie put her head out the car window all the more to drink it in.
Patric walked her to the front desk so the clerk could see she had returned safely. "Goodnight my friend," he said, holding out his hand stiffly.
Christie knew they had to be especially polite towards each other in the lobby. "Patric, take my card...if you ever need anything..." her words trailed off.
He took the card, but shook his head. "I am only one of many you will meet. Enjoy your life. Perhaps you will come back here again someday."
He waved goodbye to her as he walked out into the night. What a nice young man, she mused, looking after him, happy he had taken the risk of sharing some of his world with her.
She went over to get her key from the desk clerk and while waiting--one must learn to wait in Africa--overheard a well-dressed, clearly well-off, older African man who had just come in ask him when the next flight to New York was.
"Excuse me for interrupting, but I know because I'm on it," she said, trying to be helpful. "It's at 10 a.m."
"Why thank you," he said with a patronising tone. "And what brings you to Africa dear?"
Anyone calling her dear always made her furious. What a pompous fool, she thought, I'll show him.
"I'm a reporter for The New York Times," she lied. "I write about politics."
"Really?" the man said, suddenly interested.
"Yes, but I'm awfully tired now and have to get to bed. Perhaps I'll see you on the plane. Goodnight..." The clerk ever-so-politely handed her the key and she swept past them to the elevator.
She was sound asleep at six a.m. when a soft insistent knocking started on her door--it got louder and louder until she woke up.
"Who is it?" she said groggily.
"Room Service," came the reply.
"At 6 a.m.? I didn't order anything. There must be a mistake."
"Your newspaper miss." The voice was polite.
"Well then, leave it by the door." She was becoming irritated and wanted to get back to sleep.
A half an hour later, the knocking began again."Who is it?" She was more awake this time."Room Service," came the reply.
“What do you want now?" She was cross with whoever it was.
"Your breakfast miss." That polite voice again.
"Jesus Christ," she said, getting up and putting on her robe. She hadn't ordered breakfast but perhaps this was like England, where you were given a cup of tea and a roll at all sorts of ungodly hours. She clomped over to the door and opened it.
The hotel porter, an old man whose brown eyes were already blue grey from cataracts was standing there, empty-handed. There was also no paper by the door.
"What is going on?" she said, looking at him directly. He acted as if he didn't understand but peered at her intently instead. She became frightened and shut the door. "Go away," she shouted.
What a senile old coot, she thought, getting back into bed. It was now 7 a.m. damn. She had to get up at 8. What a strange way to start the day.
At 7:30, as she was dozing, the knocking at the door started up again.
"YES?" She wasn't even going to try and guess this one.
"Room Service," came the familiar reply..."MISS." The voice was insistent.
"Okay, okay, I'll play your little game. What have you got for me this time?" She decided she was going to call the hotel manager. This was absolutely outrageous.
"Your newspaper, miss."
Christie burst out laughing. "No kidding! Well, I'd like to see it," she said, putting on her robe again and going to the door.
There was the old man, sure enough, and this time he had a newspaper but he wouldn't give it to her. No, he had to walk into her room and put it on the table.
She saw him look carefully around the room as he came in. Oh My God. A chill went through her. He's an informer. Simon and Patric really hadn't been exaggerating. They were everywhere.
"Thank you," she said politely as he left slowly. What was he looking for? she wondered? I’m just a tourist, basically, a writer, yeah, but...she gasped, remembering her inflated offhand remarks the night before at the front desk. The clerk--or that arrogant man--who was he?--must have reported me and the secret police had sent the old man up to check me out first thing. It’s fortunate I’m leaving today, she thought nervously. This place has become bad news.
She dressed and took her bags with her into the breakfast room. Is it my imagination or are the hotel staff staring at me? She was getting jumpy from the lack of sleep.
She finished her breakfast and went out to settle her bill and get a cab to the airport. She noticed the gates to the little curio shop that Patric worked in were locked.
"What time does the shop open?" she asked the desk clerk. It would be nice to buy a memento from Patric after last night.
"8 a.m. madam," the clerk said, somewhat oddly. She looked at her watch. It was 9 a.m.
"But it's still closed," she said.
"It is only temporary madam. The former clerk quit early this morning. It will be open again tomorrow." He turned away nervously and resumed adding up her bill.
"What do you mean he quit? That's ridiculous!" she said, her voice rising. Several minutes went by and the clerk said nothing.
She addressed him again, angrily. "Why, I know the man, he'd never do that."
The clerk looked up at her through half-lidded eyes. "If you'd like to speak to the hotel manager..."
"Why yes, I would," she said indignantly. "Absolutely." She stood there, arms akimbo, incredulous.
The hotel manager appeared in the lobby, a short, dark man with a taste for expensive silk suits. His fat face beamed up at her. He unbuttoned his suit, which suggested a certain informality, and said in soothing, practiced tones: "Just what is the problem madam? How may I help you?"
"I'd like to know where the curio shop clerk is," she said.
The manager looked at her sharply. "Why he gave notice this morning."
"Oh really? May I ask what reason he gave?" She had to be careful, she hadn't left Zimbabwe yet. "You see, we were on friendly terms and I was looking forward to seeing him again today." Christie was starting to feel nauseous.
"I'm afraid that is impossible, since he mentioned something about having found a better job. I'm so sorry. Perhaps you can write him a letter." She recognised the manager’s name tag had a Shona last name on it, ‘Tinashe,’ and when he patted her hand consolingly but firmly, as if to say "don't even try, lady," she shivered involuntarily.
It was as if an impenetrable wall had come down in front of her.
On the way to the airport, in yet another rickety taxi--a private one this time, she passed the local women, swathed in colourful fabrics, on their various errands, giant packages on their heads, moving gracefully since early sunrise to their own rhythms. In the morning's heat, the unemployed men had started drinking and gossiping under the speckled green and gold Mopane trees that lined the main road, as the white Africans drove by, going the other direction on their way to work in their comfortable foreign-made cars. Suddenly, it all seemed unreal.
The taxi dropped her off at the small airport and she checked in. A friendly airport employee let her use an office phone to try and call Patric, but there was no answer at his house. Feeling dizzy, she went back and sat at the little airport bar, and when her flight number was called she boarded the plane with relief, noticing that the obnoxious rich businessman from the night before was not on the flight.
As the plane took off she could feel its trembling struggle to separate from the dense pull of the earth and its sudden transcendence into the freedom of the airy heavens. Planes would always be reliable exit visas, she thought sadly, provided you had money. You could get out of any scrape, if you had a plane that worked and enough fuel.
Seeing the land vanishing beneath her, she was gripped by a terrible sense of loss and guilt. She undid her seat belt and got up, wobbly making her way back to the toilet. Once in the locked safety of the little cubicle, she took out the faded rhino postcard from Patric's shop with shaking hands and stared at it, unbelieving, for the longest amount of time, until a stewardess had to be summoned to open the door and make her come back out into the harsh sunlit glare of the cabin and the bored, curious expressions of her fellow passengers on their way to America.
Adventurer, photojournalist and writer, Karen Petersen KAREN has traveled the world extensively, publishing both nationally and internationally in a variety of publications. Most recently, her poetry was published in The Manzano Mountain Review and Pilgrimage Magazine in the USA, Orbis in the UK, and The Wild Word in Berlin. Her poems and short stories have also appeared in A New Ulster in Northern Ireland and The Bosphorus Review in Istanbul. In 2015, she read "In Memory of W.B. Yeats" at the Yeats Festival in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the KGB Bar in NYC. Her poems have been translated into Persian and Spanish. She holds a B.A. in Philosophy and Classics from Vassar College and an M.S. from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and teaches English Composition at NNMC.