The Strand. Wintry sunset shining orange over grey buildings. It’s cold. You can see smoky breath from mouths of shoppers rushing with bulging bags from early new years sales. And outside the Zimbabwean embassy – ten years of drumming and singing and whooping and ululating and praying. Puffs of warm breath and hope and will expelled from the mouths of bundled African women.
They arrived here in 2002.
Shoppers pass by them with bags, bankers with briefcases, tourists with excited chatter.
Black skin greyed with the cold, maybe thirty, or thirty-five people cluster inside two metal barriers, decorated with photos of Mugabe and, more recently I assume, of Gaddafi, and banners in the black red yellow green of the Zimbabwean flag.
END MURDER RAPE + TORTURE IN ZIMBABWE
A huge WANTED poster with Mugabe’s mug shot and a list of hundreds of names, the dead and disappeared. The reward offered: Freedom for the People of Zimbabwe.
At the table in front, the woman asks for any donation I can make.
We are completely self-funded, she says, rubbing her hands in the cold.
Next to clipboard petitions to the United Nations and the European Union asking them to withhold aid to the SADC countries until they face up to the reality in Zimbabwe, there is a clear plastic container, the kind penny sweets come in, with a clutch of small change, a few pound coins among the silver and bronze.
A stone’s throw from the group, occupying the corner of a great stone building on the Strand, the embassy’s tall windows display the more positive aspects of Zimbabwe’s culture. Small wooden statues and photos of Victoria Falls, healthy smiling boys and girls, with the Ministry of Tourism’s strapline: Zimbabwe, A World of Wonders.
Embassy officials take photos of the activists and send them back to the mother country so the government can monitor dissidents, the woman says.
I empty the change out of my purse. It amounts to less than a pound. I drop it in slightly ashamed (and more ashamed now as I write).
Those who returned, she says, were detained on arrival.
It can’t just be Mugabe, I say. It can’t just be one man that made this happen.
Even Tsvangirai has joined in now, she says. He is the same thing. They eat at the same table.
My shopping bags are heavy; I put them down between my feet as I sign both petitions and wish them luck. I walk away and then turn back. The group is praying together and puffs of warm air rise upwards.
I sit in Duarte park, a few blocks from L_____'s flat. Groups of people hang out on metal park benches drinking and playing dominoes. Tables of empty green beer crates on their side are chairs. In the middle, a large stone statue with someone bronze - Duarte! - standing on top, trees around the edge and wrought iron lamps yellow against the night and yellowing the bricks and the faces of people walking through.
I sit alone on a bench and write and watch and no one seems to mind.
It's a blustery evening and the wind is cool, verging on cold now the sun has set. Suu Kyi is a small, warm weight on my lap. He watches warily the child swinging a thin stick, shouting, who comes close and is pulled away by his mother, as she eyes the points of Suu Kyi's tiny bared teeth.
This is a space for us.
A door - a hole in the wall - opens into a cramped space packed high with packaged and tinned goods and two old fridges with grimy windows and icy beer bottles in a deep freezer.
The kid is screeching and throwing things and i think Suu Kyi is right to eye him. But then the kid is dragged away and Suu Kyi rests his small warm chin on my arm.
Tinny music comes out of the hole-in-the-wall but the main sounds are voices and laughter and the odd clink of bottle on bottle. Big green beer bottles - Presidente - or people pouring amber liquor into white polystyrene cups. Young and old, straight and gay. All in the yellow light.