In Zimbabwe, the promise of an ice cream sounds like a cowbell. We didn’t have ice cream vans with loud speakers; there were teams of dedicated and extremely fit vendors who cycled all around town pushing cooler tubs on thick rubber wheels while ringing their cowbells. They’d cycle through the residential areas or park outside schools at home-time to sell Zimbabwe’s very own flavors: Nutty Squirrel, Monsta Mouse, Green Giant, Super Split, Bigger Bear, etc.
I’ll always remember climbing up onto those big fat tires, leaning deep into the cooler box and feeling the cold air on my face as I picked out my treat.
The ice cream men are still going strong and Nutty Squirrels are still the bomb.
Despite being in the tropics, we celebrated Christmas in Zimbabwe with the same decorations and Christmas cards that are commonly seen in the Northern Hemisphere — never mind how absurdly out of place they looked or the fact that most of us had never even seen snow.
For kids in Harare, the closest thing we had to a mall was an open-air commercial hub called Sam Levy’s Village; you knew Christmas was in the air when they set up the larger-than-life My Little Ponies and Tom & Jerry figures in between the palm trees. They also mounted a whole cast of tacky, anonymous cartoon characters that lit up at night onto the sides of the shops. It was an annual highlight.
It’s only after having been to Sweden at Christmastime as an adult that I’ve understood that some celebrations are all about context. Christmas somehow makes sense in Sweden in a way that it never will in hotter climes.
From red gashes of erosion on the hillsides, to meter-high tidemarks of mud on the sides of buildings from splashing rain, to bare feet dyed red from running around outside — red earth is deeply engrained in the hearts and minds of Zimbabweans.
Baby car seats? Seat belts? These are not things Zimbabwean children experience. Parents are far more likely to pop their kids into the back of a pickup truck, or bakkie, where they may or may not fall out when going over speed humps. You don’t know driving until you’ve had your brains shook up and your bum bruised in the back of a bakkie. Driving along a dirt road with the wind in my face still whips me into the same state of silly happiness that it did when I was a kid.
With immense skies come immense thunderstorms. When I think of the rainy season I think of the smell of rain on hot soil, chongololos underfoot, and the click-BOOM of the house being struck by a thunderbolt.
Zimbabwe has one of the world’s highest death tolls from lightning strikes. In 1975, 21 people were killed by a single lightening bolt in the Eastern Highlands. With storms like that, you can’t just unplug your computer and leave the cable lying near the socket. The electricity can still jump across the room from the socket into the cable and burn out the entire network.
Every playground has its own brand of shaming and in Zimbabwean schools, if ever a child did something cheeky or embarrassing, the other kids would gather around and start chanting “I-i-ih, i-i-ih!” while doing wrist flick snaps at them like Ali-G.
Most Zimbabweans will have a couple of snake stories to tell: a boomslang in the shower, a cobra in the stairwell, or that time the dogs found a snake under the car in the garage that had just eaten a toad whole and was too fat to make an escape, so it barfed up its dinner in a panic and sped off.
While these make for sensational stories over dinner or around a campfire, living in such close proximity to snakes actually teaches you that they are generally more afraid of you than you are of them. As long as you act accordingly and back off or use snake tongs to remove them gently, then there’s often no need for dangerous confrontation.
Unless it’s a black mamba. You’d better hope it’s not a black mamba…
Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, is famous for its avenues where the rows of trees on either side of the road have grown so tall that their bowers reach over and touch. When the Jacaranda trees are in flower, its like driving through tunnels of purple. On the way to school, my siblings and I would delight in the way the fallen flowers sounded like squibs popping underneath the car tires.
We didn’t just buy oranges; we bought pockets of oranges the size of a slaughtered hog. When it was mango season, the vendors would park their bakkies on the side of the road with piles of mangoes literally higher than their cabs. It was impossible to walk away from a vendor with just a handful of fruit, so for a couple of days afterwards your face would take on a permanent orange hue from wrestling with the stringy, fleshy fruit.
Harare International Festival of the Arts is an annual event that attracts musicians, dancers, theatre troupes, and workshops from all over the world.
Every opening night, I’d sit on the grass with my family in front of the main stage to watch Tumbuka break out their dance moves or to listen to opera. There would be the smell of street food and fireworks on the air, the city center would be a-buzz with activity and the promise of world-class performances for a week would fill me with excitement. HIFA was unifying and stimulating, and it anchored in my young mind a sense of how talented my country and region are.
Zimbabwe is blessed with towering kopjes, mopane woodlands, river valleys, dry bushveld, and barefaced mountains. And that’s just the half of it. Its skyscapes are as monumental as the landscapes they crown. The sky is a fierce blue and something about the country being on a raised plateau gives the light a particularly striking quality.
Every Zimbabwean will remember the sense of immensity that came from watching the ever-changing skyscapes from the backseat of the car on a long journey.