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Opinion: No fights in Zimbabwe's Quill Club

Zimbabwean culture of civility means few showdowns at bars or in politics.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, center, and Finance Minister Tendai Biti, right, joke with journalists, Aug. 16, 2008. The friendly nature of the Zimbabwean press inhibits them from aggressively trying to pin down politicians like Tsvangirai and President Robert Mugabe. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

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.