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Odyssey through a sad land

We are puttering along in an ancient pickup with no brakes to speak of, dodging the potholes. Every bolt seems to groan with effort, but Max Mkandla says the car is doing well. He speaks rather like a proud father discussing his brightest child.

"I'm trying to protect these tires," Max says. There's a pause. "Because I haven't got a spare."

I'm taking a turn at the wheel. The seat won't roll forward -- not good for someone just over 5 feet tall, so I've wedged lumpy bags and books behind me to reach the foot controls.

Suddenly a calf lollops across the road and I floor the brakes, or try to. There seems to be no stopping our rattling, chaotic momentum, but eventually we slow down. The calf trots to safety.

But in protest, the brakes get even worse. A line of warning lights blinks angrily on the dash. When I point this out, Max takes the wheel, but within an hour, the car has had enough.

"Everything's gone, brake lights, everything," he says, pulling over in thick bushland. We're stranded in outback Zimbabwe with no cellphone reception on a track with few cars.

I give up hope of getting any work done. I'm supposed to be on my way to research a story about hunger with Max, a stringy war veteran turned activist. But nothing is simple in Zimbabwe. I'd planned to leave by 8. Problems getting diesel (and Max's elastic idea of punctuality) meant it was lunchtime before we got on the road.

But once the car has rested awhile, Max starts it up and decides we can limp along after all.

The music of the cicadas almost drowns out the tinny vibrations of the tape player. Zimbabwean artist Oliver Mtukudzi is singing a ballad in Shona called "Bvuma": "Accept that you are old. Accept that you are worn out. . . . Don't deny it, you are finished." It could have been written for Max's car. Or is it about the country's all-powerful, 83-year-old president, Robert Mugabe?

The roads of Zimbabwe sing their own haunting lament for a people and their suffering.

--

Junica Dube felt the birth pangs of her first child. She was hoping for a boy. In the hospital, Dube struggled and labored, alone. There was no painkiller, nor any comfort, in a medical system racked by shortages of even basic items. She asked for help, but the nurses said to call them when she was really in pain.

"The nurses told me to keep quiet, I'm making too much noise," the 28-year-old says. "I tried by all means to keep quiet, but it was too painful."

She felt small, frightened and terribly alone. Outside the maternity ward, her husband, Luke, waited anxiously with his sister, Daisy.

Two days passed, but still no child came.

--

Despite the car and the roads, Max and I have made it to a village named Nkayi in western Zimbabwe. A mechanic has been found. It turns out we've been driving for quite some time with no fan belt.

Max says he always carries a spare fan belt, just not today.

We are sitting in the dusty main square, hood up and windows open in the late afternoon heat with Mtukudzi blaring out of the speakers. A small boy with a stick ambles by and seeing an old tick-bitten donkey with a floppy ear, gives it a random whack.

When I first traveled to Zimbabwe in 2005, locals waxed about the country's beauty, but I could see why so many people were leaving. Later, things got even worse, yet its pull on me grew -- it's the kind of sleepy yet menacing backwater that would have made a great setting for a Graham Greene novel.

Life here is full of Catch-22 dilemmas that would strain credulity if they were fiction: It costs more to go to work than you can possibly earn, for example. There is no economy to speak of, either, just the black market, where even the government gets its dollars. And hospitals, like the one where Junica Dube was giving birth, with no medicines and little staff, are places of death, not life.

Every time I've come to Zimbabwe, I've met someone new, dipping in and living their story for a while. You end up with a collection of stories scattered like photographs on a table, some about survival, some about grief. One of those pictures is Junica Dube telling her story as she sits in her house, lighted by a single candle during one of the daily power blackouts.

But many stories don't get told. Reporting is difficult here. Because the government rarely issues journalist visas to foreigners, most of us work undercover, risking jail.

So when I had asked some church activists who knew where people were most hungry to take me to Nkayi, they told me, horrified, that it would be impossible. Everyone would ask who the white woman was. I'd be watched. The authorities would be summoned.

But Max had brushed aside such fears. Now, sitting in the car, watching villagers dawdling around the dusty square enjoying the last peaceful hours of their Sunday, the warnings tumble through my brain.

I stiffen as a police vehicle stops nearby and three men get out.

Are they coming my way? No.

As the sun sinks lower, Mtukudzi's voice is distorted by the buzzing speakers. He is singing a tribute to farmers who produce the food.

The area around Nkayi, Max says, was owned by white farmers but taken over by black settlers starting in 2000 under Mugabe's land redistribution policy. Commercial farming collapsed and harvests plummeted. Now the country can't even feed itself.

It is well after 4 when a fan belt is found and the car repaired. But it is not too late for my story. I have time for some interviews before it gets dark. As we get ready to head out of town at dusk, I offer to take a turn driving and detect a whisper of alarm in Max's refusal. He thinks I'm bad for his car.

--

By the third day, Junica Dube was exhausted and frightened. The doctors and nurses were arguing in front of her, blaming one another for errors when her labor was induced. They told her she had to be induced again.

"I asked the nurses, 'Wasn't there any other way to make me give birth?' They said, 'That's all we have for you.' "

Her sister-in-law urged her to request a cesarean but "the way things were, it was too hard to ask," Dube says.

On the fourth day, doctors decided Dube did need a cesarean after all.

Her spirits lifted. Her child would be born at last.

--

Everywhere you go in Zimbabwe, there are snapshots of decline.

On the dusty roadsides, elderly women struggle along with huge branches on their heads, hewn from the bush.

A pickup heads out of town, hazard lights blinking, a makeshift coffin in the back and mourning, threadbare relatives cramped around it in the cold wind.

Along the road from South Africa, SUVs tow trailers swollen with loads as large as elephants: consumer goods unavailable in Zimbabwe's bare shops.

The stores are so empty that the government statistician says it's impossible to work out the inflation rate. (Independent economists estimate that it is between 40,000% and 90,000%.) Given the depth of the economic crisis, it's difficult to see how anything works.

The answer is in a Zimbabwean turn of phrase, "We'll make a plan," which can mean growing your own vegetables, going to the black market, bartering, bribing an official, stealing from your workplace and selling the goods, buying what you need in South Africa or Botswana, or holding down several jobs to make ends meet.

A journalist more than doubles his salary by making candles on weekends. A Reserve Bank employee buys and slaughters cows on the side. A sign writer sells sandwiches cobbled out of difficult-to-come-by bread. Teachers, who can go to South Africa with no visa, bring back cooking oil, the staple called maize meal, flour and sugar to sell.

In Harare, the capital's thin veneer of normality and air of placid self-satisfaction have been scraped away over the last few years. Often the elevators in its few modest skyscrapers don't work. I wait in the rain in a gasoline queue with Mtukudzi singing a song about a fractious old man who has lost everyone's respect. A little girl with an orange umbrella dances in the downpour.

Driving the streets of Harare is a hazardous business. It's not so much the warnings you hear from locals about Mugabe's secret police swarming like wasps in every crowd. It's the pedestrians.

They pour across the roads, surging around the car like waves on a rock. They pause at the sight of a thief, dashing grimly through the crowd, with a kite tail of sweating pursuers fluttering behind.

In the crowded Mupedzanhamo market in Harare, I meet a Rasta trader surrounded by desiccated baboon hides and fleshy things in jars who is banking on the shortage of Western medicines -- when you are desperate, any cure looks attractive.

He offers me a tiny piece of wood half the size of my smallest fingernail. I hesitate. It's a cure called "Today and Tomorrow" that he claims will destroy any infection or impurity in the body. Its unpleasant sour-bitter taste quickly burns so hot that it's impossible to chew. I swallow hastily, feeling the burning sensation creep into the gullet and the stomach, inducing a dizzying nausea that lasts hours.

On the road from Harare to Bulawayo, there's a hill named Heroes' Acre where famous veterans from Mugabe's triumphant uprising against Ian Smith's white minority regime in the 1970s are buried. Driving by, I feel a twinge of curiosity to see the soaring North Korean-designed obelisk within, but entry requires a special government permit. Locals shrug at my interest and say the place usually is deserted. But occasionally there are jealous fights in the ruling party over who deserves to be buried there.

The many roadblocks on the way are mostly a means for underpaid police to extract bribes. Lately most can't even find cars or fuel to man the barriers.

But roadblocks do get more serious if the government has a big campaign on, like Operation Murambatsvina (Clean Out the Filth) two years ago, when the military invaded townships and razed nearly every shack. The Mugabe government said that it cut crime and made everything clean and tidy. But it targeted areas that had voted for the opposition.

In the townships then, the air was full of the dust of demolitions. The route from Harare to Bulawayo looked like a road out of a war zone, with desperate people pushing carts piled with belongings.

One evening during the operation, I was stopped at a roadblock as I was leaving one of the affected areas. I'd carelessly slipped notes of interviews into the pages of a guidebook, in between brochures and maps.

The police ordered us out of the car and began to search the vehicle. They carefully searched the pockets, the trunk, my rucksack. They lifted up the seats. One officer picked up the book with my notes and began flipping through it. I had to look away.

For a moment I felt a tiny whisper of the fear that Zimbabweans live with, like a fine invisible web that sticks to everyone.

But when I glanced back, he had placed the book back in the car.

--

On the fourth day of Junica Dube's labor, "the nurses were saying, 'We're trying to save the baby's life, not yours,' " she remembers. "I thought, what happens, happens. If I die or my baby dies, I'll take it."

Her son was delivered by cesarean, alive. But weak. The mother lay insensible.

The doctor hurried away to get to a soccer match. But suddenly a nurse ran after him, calling him back. Luke Dube and his sister could hear the nurses whispering outside the waiting room. Then a long silence.

--

The hitchhiker's name is Efficient. It's another journey, another day, heading south as he offers a heartfelt diagnosis of the country's ills. People can't even find soap, a basic of life that once was always cheap and readily available, in the shops, and when they do, it's unaffordable.

He says no one in Zimbabwe is completely aboveboard. Just to take a government bus you have to grease the driver's palm, so he hitchhikes or rides on top of trains.

Efficient is a born entertainer, offering hilarious anecdotes as the price of a lift, until I drop him off at a rain-washed town along a track so pocked with holes it is almost impassable.

Roads all over the country are crowded with hitchers. They swarm onto pickups; they roost like large, dignified birds on top of large trucks. Some carry babies on their backs; others wait with enormous lumpy sacks. Even soldiers hitchhike to get around, standing prominently at the front of the crowd, eyeballing the drivers, daring them to pick up someone else.

Efficient isn't the only hitchhiker to tell me his story as I travel around the country. On another journey, driving with a church activist in a big red pickup truck in western Zimbabwe, we stop for two teenagers, Patrick and Sarah, boarding-school students going home to try to find food. Every time I ask a question, Sarah covers her mouth shyly and giggles.

The two are excited because they have never sat in the cabin of a car before. They come from a place called Danger, named by their forefathers for a high place with a river. I picture precipitous cliffs above roaring water. An hour later, we cross a small concrete bridge a few feet above a trickle of a creek.

"There it is, that's Danger," Sarah says.

In a nearby village, two policemen ask for a ride. My activist friend agrees with reluctance. On the road he berates them for arresting and beating people for no reason, brushing aside their ineffectual protestations of innocence.

The activist asked not to be identified, fearing repercussions that might make it difficult for him to work. Like everyone, it seems he has something to fear.

The elite fear losing their privileges and wealth, or being arrested as traitors should they fall out of favor. Dealers and retailers fear jail for black market profiteering, or for violations of strict foreign exchange laws and price controls. Opposition and human rights activists fear being arrested, beaten, tortured or "disappeared."

People believe the secret police are everywhere, eavesdropping on every phone call, inspecting every e-mail. As vast as Mugabe's security apparatus is, the fear of it is even larger.

People walk on a knife-edge. Even giving birth is something to fear.

--

Luke Dube waited for what seemed a long time, and then the doctor told him that his baby had died. It was a son. The doctor seemed annoyed as he fended off questions about what went wrong. The next morning, a nurse broke the news to the mother.

"When I saw his body, I just felt as if he was alive," Junica Dube says.

She was still in the hospital when the funeral was held, on the cheap. She didn't even get to see the tiny coffin go into the ground.

--

I first stumble across Junica Dube's story while writing an article about hospitals, which turns out to mean writing about death.

It's just a few days after the baby died; Junica is still in the hospital, too traumatized to speak. The baby's aunt, Daisy, is the first to lay out the shards of the story.

Daisy speaks of a different kind of heroism than that celebrated so grandiosely in Heroes' Acre: the struggle, in a country where nothing works, just to give birth and to be born.

"To me, they are the real heroes," she says proudly, and suddenly my notebook is swimming in a blur of tears. I want to ask another question, but no words come.

In Zimbabwe, roads peter out. People die too young.

One evening I'm driving with my favorite Mtukudzi ballad playing: "Akoromoka Awa," an elegy for those who have died.

I pull off the road beside a graveyard. Thistles and weeds grow on the graves. Most are just heaps of earth, decorated with plastic blue and yellow flowers, and a hand-painted metal sign for a tombstone. Row after row, grave after grave, the dates commemorate the young.

This is where Junica Dube's baby is buried, marked by a tin tombstone with only one date.

--

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Dixon, The Times' Johannesburg, South Africa, bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Zimbabwe.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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