Jacaranda time in Zimbabwe

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.

Here the great mining, banking and insurance companies had their headquarters in the boom years of the Federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland — today Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. All three countries experienced post-colonial economic collapse but none so dramatic as Zimbabwe.

A few banks remain but mostly the businesses have migrated to office parks on the periphery of the city. And with their departure the city has succumbed to crime and grime. Piles of rubbish occupy street corners. And street kids beg at traffic lights.

President Robert Mugabe is universally blamed for the blight of a once-beautiful city.

Irresistible demographics have played a role but change has not been well managed. An energetic, business-minded mayor has the daunting task of putting the city back together again. He’s unlikely to succeed. But some pot holes have been filled.

“One thing he [Mugabe] can’t take from us is the weather,” one old timer chuckles.

It is true that Harare has one of the finest climates in the world. At 5,000 feet it is never too hot or humid and the winter months of May, June, July and August are filled with cloudless blue skies as the rain keeps a discreet distance.

Zimbabwe has a well-developed tourism infrastructure and an impressive range of wildlife. But the resorts are empty with hotels reporting 30 percent occupancy. The customer is king. There is no problem with comfort or security at the country’s main resorts. From its mountains in the east and national parks in the west, to the stunning Victoria Falls and tranquil Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe offers a range of sights for the visitor.

But the tourists won’t be coming back just yet. Like the rest of us they are waiting for the main obstacle to change being removed from the road ahead. Foreigners and Zimbabweans alike hope that it won’t be too long now.