HARARE, Zimbabwe — It must be Christmas. Santa Claus is once again evident in his red suit and white beard. He can be found in Zimbabwean newspaper ads and Harare's department stores. He is also busy on Christmas cards as he delivers his gifts to lucky youngsters across the nation. He is of course assisted by Rudolph and his team of reindeers.
One might think this traditional holiday scene unremarkable except that it is to be found in tropical southern Africa, not in snowy Canada or Norway.
The portrayals of Christmas in Zimbabwe are similar to those in northern climes. There are carols by candlelight, nativity plays at primary schools and decorated fir trees sparkling in windows. Even Bing Crosby dreaming, in the 1940s, of a white Christmas is no stranger to this country, thanks to satellite dishes.
Zimbabweans are united in their Christian faith however divided they may be in politics. Churches are packed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. You may wish your friends and neighbors a “Merry Christmas” or a “Happy Christmas” but certainly not a politically correct “Happy Holidays.”
Despite these images of a traditional Christmas between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, there are, of course, reminders of reality.
Storm clouds gather daily as December falls in the middle of Zimbabwe's crucial rainy season. The rains are welcomed as they make the growing season a success. We are so used to thunderstorms in December that the crack of thunder and a sudden downpour puts many people into the festive spirit.
A fly swatter is always handy. And while a turkey, imported from Brazil, occupies pride of place on the dining room table of wealthier homes, for many in Harare’s teeming townships the treat will be chicken and sadza, the staple dish of maize-meal porridge.
No puddings or chocolates here. Residents will be lucky to have water. And even in the better-off homes, water and power shortages persist. The hum of generators can be heard across the city as those who can afford it power up their ovens and television sets.
Not so long ago, people would evacuate the cities at Christmas, returning to their home villages where roots run deep. There the feast may be a goat although those with jobs in the city would be expected to bring a wide range of goods. Now many prefer to remain in the townships eking out Christmas fare wherever they can find it.
For those heading home the Christmas burden is formidable.
“There is no escape,” said Freddy Tafara from Harare’s Mabvuku township. “If I want to go home I have to go equipped.” He will be carrying maize-meal, sugar, cooking oil and candy for his army of brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces. The journey home will last a day and some of the night. The 50-pound bags of maize-meal will find space on the roof of the bus, alongside the tethered goats.
Back home, no matter how impecunious, the menfolk of the townships will find a beer outlet and enjoy themselves as the hot afternoon wears on.
Mabvuku is located on the main road east of Harare that heads off to the border town of Mutare and beyond that into Mozambique. For better-off Zimbabweans that means a one-day journey to the coast — to the pristine beaches of Villanculos and the islands off the coast. There is a distinctly Latin feel to these resorts where baracuda steaks, prawns and cashew nuts are common fare all year round.
Travelers may want to stop a while in Zimbabwe’s Bvumba mountains where five-star hotels occupy commanding positions looking out over the plains of Mozambique thousands of feet below.
As the political negotiations drag on in Harare, Zimbabweans can at least dream of Christmas past when travel was cheap and horizons distant.
The economy stabilized this year — largely thanks to the U.S. dollar and the demise of the Zimbabwe currency — making it possible for people to plan ahead.
Tafara bought 50 baby chicks before he left, which one of his Harare-based brothers will look after.
“These chicks will be one-year-old next Christmas so at least I can buy my family something nice when I sell them,” he said wistfully.
The year 2009 was a distinct improvement on the shortages and horrors of last year. President Robert Mugabe, 85, may still be in office but the brutal system over which he presides is palpably disintegrating — which gives many something to smile about.
The president’s recommended reading over the holiday should be something to encourage him to reform his ways. Something salutary by Charles Dickens: “A Christmas Carol” perhaps?