If the drive from Bulawayo to Mutare was long the drive from the United Theogical College to our accommodation felt like an eternity. We knew that there was trouble in the air but our tutor did not want to talk or tell us about it. A few people had wifi and had snippets of information but our tutor clearly knew more and that added to the anxiety. The company providing catering for us during our stay in Harare has driven from our accommodation to the United Theological College (UTC) where we were spending the morning. I asked how their journey was and they said they had been stoned by protested as they drove through to bring us lunch.
For context fuel has become scare in Zimbabwe, the economy is in crisis as the local bond note has little value and on Saturday the president announced a more than doubling of petrol prices resulting in increased prices for everything (which is already inflated) being announced and implemented today. Trade unions yesterday called for a general strike and there is uncertainty about how the police and army will respond due to how they responded to rallies last summer, shooting dead a number of protestors. On our journey from our accommodation to UTC the only evidence of potential trouble were empty tear gas canisters by the side of the road.
Our hearts were certainly in our stomachs as we crept along. It began with a sense of tension that we could feel from our driver and the team leaders of our trip.
We edged along the potholed road away from the college. It was eerily quiet yet there are people around us. Groups of younger men are particularly concerning. A pickup style truck with young men and women standing learning over the cab as they cruise around has a sense about it that they are looking for trouble. As a group of white people in a minibus we are a potential target for an outburst of violence.
We stop to wait for the principal of the college to join us, to lead us home and to make sure we were safe. Our tutor and principal were offered to rise in the pickup belonging to the principal of the United Theological College but rejected the offer in order to stay as a group with their students. As we we approached the main road we came across our first road blockade. Smouldering tyres showed the remnants of fires. Large rocks and concrete blocks littered the road and showed evidence of a significant disturbance not too long before we passed through.
We have the window open as we drive as it is very hot. However, we are ready to close it in an instance. I am sat beside the open window and but another member of our team takes responsibility for opening and closing. He is clearly more comfortable with the open than I am.
Creeping on, mile after mile, lampposts have been pulled over across roads. Rocks and concrete blocks are scattered, no longer blocking junctions completely but clearly they did at one time an hour or two ago.
There are what I would describe as riot police occassionally in small groups. We pass an army vehicle. There are times when we have to stop due to traffic and the level of anxiety rises. The smell of burning rubber mixes with the smells of burning wood and other fumes.
We pull off the main road and follow a smaller road with pot holes. We had been moving at a reasonable speed but this is slower and it feels as though anything could happen at any moment. It doesn’t.
We are back onto a main road. The rumble and smouldering tyres become less frequent. We are moving again, feeling safe enough to open a window but ready at any moment to pull it closed. The group’s of people became increasingly dispersed.
We enter the safer part of town. The tension eases but I am not sure we will relax until the gate closes behind our bus as we enter our accommodation. As we drive on our tutor informs us that when we sat in a lecture ealier eight people were known to have been shot and killed.
We profess a faith a God, call him a projector and a guide, yet at no point did prayer get suggested, just as it hasn’t for the entire trip. Perhaps some of us prayed silently but it was not a communal activity to bring reassurance. We trusted in our driver, the communication between ministers to know routes through, but I don’t think we trusted in God.
Rather than heading to our accommodation we pull into a shopping centre, to have a hour to stretch our legs and wait for things to die down further. We head straight to a coffee shop and the silence of our journey gave way to a nervous outpouring of comments and laughter as we then begin to relax.
We finally return to our accommodation, unsure of what we may encounter, though thankfully the roads are clear and we drive in and safely close the gate behind us.