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