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Jacaranda time in Zimbabwe

Purple blooms in Harare mask the rot in Mugabe's capital.

The purple blossoms of jacaranda trees decorate Harare's avenues and distract the viewer from the increasing grime and crime in Zimbabwe's capital city. (GlobalPost)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Mention Zimbabwe and the listener will think of chaos and decay. But in October, with jacaranda trees displaying their striking purple blossoms, the nation’s capital, Harare, could easily be described as charming.

White British settlers imported the trees from South America at the end of the 19th century. Whole avenues are awash with masses of mauve blooms.

Their appearance heralds the arrival of summer, which in Zimbabwe arrives on the dot at this time of year. And as the heat increases so does the prospect of rain.

There is nothing more dramatic than a highveld thunderstorm as lightning bolts zigzag down to earth. Within a few weeks the arid countryside is transformed into a sea of green.

The coming of the rains marks the end of the jacaranda’s brief reign. It is soon replaced by flame trees whose flowering branches provide a scarlet-red canopy across the city.

Postcards from the 1960s show a prosperous and well-laid-out town with flowerbeds and tidy streets. Statues of colonial founders stare down from their pedestals, a breed confident in the perpetuity of their rule.

Times have changed. Harare has not escaped the impact of population growth evident everywhere in Africa. Zimbabwe has burgeoned from 5 million to 12 million in a generation.
Every nook and cranny is now occupied as rural folk drift to towns to seek, if not their fortunes, then jobs and subsistence.

Vestiges of the old city can be seen here and there. But the remains are sad to behold. Bicycle tracks are overwhelmed by rogue shrubs, some street lights haven’t worked for years and sidewalks contain pot holes that would comfortably consume an unsuspecting pedestrian. Indeed, some have.

But viewed from the perspective of the hill that overlooks the city, it is a pretty and well-ordered town laid out in a grid pattern. The statues have, of course, been relocated. But students of “contemporary” (1950s) architecture may be pleased to know that the main artery through the city center contains some of the finest examples of '50s street lamps surviving in Africa including their “Chinese hats.” And some of them actually work.