HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabweans have a reputation as a friendly people and that extends to its journalists.
South Africans are endlessly battling among themselves but their northern neighbors in Zimbabwe acknowledge they are a docile lot and therefore prone to the depredations of political gangsters in their midst.
Despite the state violence during the 2008 election, Zimbabweans still generally eschew warfare. Go to any meeting or bar where the males of the species congregate and you will be struck by the bonhomie and back-slapping that goes on. There are disagreements galore, especially when politics are involved, but the more intense the debate, the more the contestants smile at each other and hold on to their opponent’s hand.
The Quill Club, haunt of Zimbabwe's journalists, is a noisy but tranquil place. In central Harare, in the faded glory of the Ambassador Hotel, which enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s and 60s, the Quill Club is a tattered but busy bar, tucked up a steep flight of stairs from the lobby.
Bitter acrimony and violence are rare in the press club. Reporters from the rival state and independent press exchange notes over drinks even as they argue over the competing claims of President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
When the white settlers arrived in 1890 in the inland territory they named Rhodesia, they justified their presence by claiming to defend the “passive” Shona against the “warlike” Ndebele, the two principal ethnic groups. Simplistic notions of this sort are unhelpful. But it is true that Zimbabweans are slow to fight for their rights, something their South African cousins hold against them in countless editorial columns.
“When will these Zimbabweans take to the streets and boot the old man out?” it is asked in reference to the country’s 85-year-old President Robert Mugabe, widely disliked but still very much ensconced in office.
The positive side of this coin is that wherever you go you are greeted warmly and reminded when you last met.
Throughout January people ask: “How was the holiday?” Or “How’s the new year?” For the curmudgeons among us this is particularly annoying. But a mumbled response will only provoke a further inquiry into the health of the whole family. There is no escape.
Amongst journalists there is an even warmer bond. If you have worked with somebody in a newsroom, even for a brief period, it is assumed that you are known to his or her brothers, parents, and colleagues. You are therefore greeted as somebody who is connected to the whole family even though you have never met them.
If you have a career such as teaching behind you, you will be expected to remember whole generations of Zimbabweans.
Most of us understandably don’t want to be “Mr. Chips,” the cinematic British school master who aged while his pupils remained the same. But there is really no choice. If a teacher meets a former student, he or she will be politely reminded exactly which year and what class was being taught.
In many cultures former pupils will cross the road to avoid meeting an old teacher; in Zimbabwe you will be hunted down and obliged to exchange greetings. Helpful hints will assist recollection.
While the Zimbabwean smile is endearing, it can also be an impediment. Journalists smile when they ask the president or other luminaries an awkward question. The smile says “I don’t want to inconvenience you with this terrible question but my editor made me ask you.” That’s why so many questions begin: “Some people say …”
Zimbabwean journalists also have a ready laugh when the president signals that what he has just said is a joke. In addition to the interviewer, you can hear his officials off camera falling about. This completely vitiates any attempt to put him on the spot. With the interviewer grinning away, you know the rest of the interview belongs to Mugabe, which is galling for those us for who want to confront him.
There are dilemmas emerging from all this pleasantry.
A reluctance to argue with others means issues are not so easily solved. Zimbabwe’s current political negotiations are bogged down precisely because all sides want to avoid confrontation. Mugabe is on his annual vacation and hasn’t signed a new press-licensing commission into existence because nobody dares ask him.
All very vexing. But you can be sure of one thing. Whatever our differences and however heated our discussion, there will be no fist-fights at the Quill Club tonight.