Phyllis Puffer
Danger in Zimbabwe

Forget violent revolution. That’s over with. Forget repressive government that will throw you in jail suddenly for no reason. Forget crime. No worse than elsewhere and maybe better than in downtown Detroit or LA. Forget a disastrous economy. No worse than lots of other places and better than before. Forget being eaten by a tiger. Tigers are in India.

Beware of…
Over waxed, over polished floors.
And nobody listening to complaints.
The British, presumably, brought floor wax to the country and waxed the floors will be.
And waxed, and waxed, and waxed, and…
Wood floors, linoleum floors, stone/cement entrances to buildings. It would not surprise me if they waxed wall to wall carpeting.

Clearly, this is a country where nobody sues anybody for broken legs, slipped disks, sprained ankles, damaged vertebrae, broken or sprained wrists, bruised ribs. The lawyers of Harare, Bulawayo, Victoria Falls, Masvingo and other places with pretensions of modernity should wake up to the profit potential of those waxed floors. Orthopedic surgeons should place their discrete professional announcements of availability outside hotels, restaurants, and office buildings alongside those of the lawyers.

I tried to correct the habits instilled by years of colonialism.

My budget hotel in Bulawayo was really very nice. The rooms were on two stories around a lovely patio filled with plants and walks and a fountain. My room was large; the shower down the hall was clean and overall not bad. A couple of times the hot water heater gave out, but the friendly staff heated a special pail of it for the washbasin in my room.

A middle aged, rather plump, white Zimbabwean ran it. She spoke in the British way, high pitched but softly, which somewhat reduced the bite, for me, of the way she often spoke to the staff. Nonetheless, I still felt sorry for them.

On a Monday morning, the youngish, smallish, thin black woman who seemed to be the general manager was explaining to the owner some untoward event over the weekend. “His story is –”

Owner cut her off sharply, “I don’t care what his story is.”

She rather fascinated me.

I pointed out to her the dangerous condition of the entrance. All she said was, “I noticed it myself when I came in this morning.”

The tall, thin, young man in charge of waxing that entrance is, no doubt, still on his knees doing his duty to the hotel. He would be holding a flat can of floor wax resembling a can of shoe polish in his left hand. His right hand would be vigorously applying and polishing wax on that floor. And I’m pretty sure the entrance, which slanted upward making the situation worse, was made of cement.

Later, in Harare, where I spent a lot of time in the research institute, the situation was more serious. The little hall in front of the office where I spent most of my time, and up and down which I had to walk several times a day, had a section as slippery as an ice rink. I talked to one of the employees about it. She didn’t react. I finally spoke to the assistant to the director. He listened, but made no comment and took no action. Finally, I complained to the waxer herself. I threatened to steal her can of wax and not give it back until my last day. No reaction. I settled into a pattern of scuffling carefully and slowing down when I came to that patch in the hall. And I complained to her whenever I could. Like about daily. I felt vindicated when one day an employee slipped with a yelp.

The waxer was a sweet, busy, industrious young woman, married to an equally admirable young man. The couple lived in a small house behind the modest but rather large former private residence where the institute was housed. It was a pretty house in small but attractive and well-kept grounds. All of it walled and in a good suburb. The young man took care of the grounds, ran errands as needed, helped hand collate survey questionnaires, ran the Xerox machine, and helped keep the electrical generator operational. The institute’s life-by-computer could not risk the vagaries of the Zimbabwe electricity supply. She did the cooking. About 11 a.m., I think it was, maybe 10, she prepared a big breakfast for everyone. She made fried egg sandwiches and tea and everyone came out of their offices, stood around in the kitchen, and ate. Then around 1 p.m., every-one sat in the back yard and had a very big lunch. The main dish was sadza, the center of the Zimbabwean diet and as well liked and as central as rice in Asian countries. It looked like the Botswana sorghum, only was white rather than beige. It looked like stiff cream of wheat. A gravy or stew was poured over it. 

Her other responsibility at the institute was cleaning and daily waxing of that stupid hallway. Sometimes, she did it during the day. That gave me the perfect opportunity to harass her.

My final experience with danger to life and limb was the entrance to an upscale hotel where the institute held a conference. As befitted an important building, the entrance between sidewalk and opening doors was wide and at least looked expensive. It seems as if it were marble. When I saw it, my heart grew faint, as I knew without yet trying to walk on it that here was another experience on ice. Helpful brass handrails stood on each side, but were somehow in useless locations for me. My first impression had been correct. I should have had skates.

I didn’t complain. Complaint had been drained from me. It didn’t occur to me at the time that they might have paid better attention than the others, if only in the possible future. If political and economic conditions improved for the country, they would be educated by litigious American guests.

Phyllis Puffer received her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University, all in sociology. She has traveled in over 30 countries, mostly in the Third World.



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