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Zimbabwe just happy to survive

By Peter Roebuck
February 18, 2003 16:10 IST
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It was the emptiness of the streets that struck first as our car approached Harare from the spanking new airport. A few vehicles drove past, none of the hurrying, for that is not the Zimbabwean way. Immaculate schoolchildren walked playfully by; girls with braids and pony-tails reaching in to the guava trees in search of fruit. Sunflowers peered over low walls, for Harare has never been as fearful as its southern neighbour and, till recently, had no cause. Quietness could be heard in the streets; the noise of the defeated.

No white faces were seen on the streets till we came across a lady buying apples. Another vendor sold loaves of bread, and others copies of newspapers, state and opposition. But there is less activity than usual. Perhaps there is nothing to sell. Harare was not so much in decay as in resignation, waiting, watching, sensing that change is not far away. We pass an old sign saying 'Don't kill The Babies' and ponder upon its meaning. Aids is rife on this continent and the death rates are terrifying.

Hardly a policeman or soldier was to be seen, though Darryl Hair and Clive Lloyd had been on our flight. An Indian diplomat tells his arriving journalists to be careful, though it is hard to detect any menace in these urban areas; though the green bombers, thugs, trained at camps and let loose after a year to do the state's bidding, must be around. A lady, dressed in rich red, wanders by talking incongruously into a mobile phone. Approaching the city center along R. Magus drive we pass a roadblock and then reach our hotel, where they require foreign currency to settle the bill.

Down at Prince Edwards's School, the boys are playing rugby or training for athletics. This is the school where Graeme Hick and Duncan Fletcher first heard the terrible news that algebra exists. My orphans are close by and they look skinny, and say the 'home' is doing its best but the food lacks nutrition. At the Harare Sportsground, the field looks magnificent. The Indians are practicing. Reporters say that Kaif's house has been stoned and Ganguly's abode surrounded by protesters. The younger Zimbabweans are around, waiting for their practice; Tatendra Taibu talking cheerfully to a friend, whilst Sean Ervine of Lomagundi College, a tough place where the sons of farmers were educated, which nowadays serves as a refuge for those farmers, is hoping he will be included. Andy Flower and Henry Olonga talk in the car park, planning their next move. Everyone wonders whether they will wear those armbands again and most hope they will not because the point has been made and neither the ICC nor local officials can hold off again.

Most people seem furious that England did not come and no one has heard of the 'Son and Daughters of Zimbabwe', the group that scared England away. Informed observers point out that threats were sent only to England and say it was either a hoax or a government plant. Mugabe's henchmen did not want England to come, so the argument runs; it wanted to avoid embarrassment and the arrival of all those supposedly fearless and competent journalists.

Locals believe their president will be gone in a few months, living in exile in Malaysia in a deal brokered by the South Africans. Perhaps this is mere whistling in the wind, yet the argument is persuasive. Mr. Mbeki has run out of patience, so they say. Apparently, Mr Mugabe's henchmen are the stumbling block, for no indemnity will be given to them.

The Zimbabweans practice starts with the youngsters showing plenty of energy. It is a well-chosen squad, without the old-timers like Alistair Campbell, who have been underperforming for years. Apart from Olonga and Flower there is Grant Flower, who has been in outstanding form; Douglas Marillier, an engaging batsman, and Andy Blignaut, whose allround skills are highly regarded in these parts. Heath Streak is also around; a strong, committed man, unjustly demonised by ignorant English writers. Geoff Marsh lends a hand. Odd that both teams are coached by Antipodeans. At least the Zimbabweans do not blame their coach when the team loses.

John Wright's days are numbered unless India reaches the semi-finals. Zimbabwe has no such expectations and simply hopes to survive and to live in a country built on love and not hatred. Perhaps it is not so far away. Meanwhile, the queues for milk grow longer and the population ever more desperate. Opposition forces have been delighted that their predicament and their country's plight has been so much in the spotlight. Now there is a match to play, and another in Bulawayo next Monday.

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Peter Roebuck