As Robert Mugabe’s rule collapsed a few days ago, there were quite a few surprising scenes.
The official Zimbabwean economy was ruined years ago, plagued by shortages of everything including water. When the people poured out onto the streets to celebrate Mugabe’s slow-motion resignation, there were quite a few white Zimbabweans.
Given Mugabe’s hostility to Zimbabwe’s white population, and the seizures of their economic assets by his regime, one would have imagined that they had all fled.
While quite a few left, clearly many found spaces in which they became “invisible.”
They were not alone. A few years ago when the Zimbabwe dollar finally became worthless, and it was about to be abandoned, and inflation was more than 231,000,000 per cent, I waited to watch on DStv a travel programme that promised to show the “other side of life in Zimbabwe.”
It blew my socks off. In the economic ruins, the reporter went to a few fancy clubs in Harare that were straight out of a Hollywood movie, with well-groomed folks (and they were not politicals) partying away.
So, as the tanks rolled into Harare to bring down the curtains on Mugabe’s rule, videos from upcountry showed marvellous tarmacked roads. And many of the people who came out on the streets to demand that Mugabe go home, were well fed, with a cosmopolitan air about them.
We’ve seen this before. Just as South Sudan was beginning its ultimately disastrous journey as a new nation and the capital Juba was miserable, some surprising things happened. Among them was a film festival that attracted quite a bit of international attention.
Even before Somalia found the relative stability it has experienced recently, it had international book festivals – especially in Somaliland. Now Mogadishu too rocks a big one – and poetry readings.
Behind the bombed out buildings in Mogadishu, the young people created volleyball and basketball courts. They weren’t playing barefoot or in rags. Their uniforms were the real thing.
There’s more than just the proverbial African resilience going on here. Resilience suggests the ability to survive in difficulty and bounce back from adversity. This is more. People are constructing essentially new micro-universes, and creating sub-economies in which they thrive.
In the very difficult early 1970s era of military ruler Idi Amin in Uganda, when scarcities were Zimbabwe-like at its worst, electricity and cooking gas were erratic or unaffordable, a whole sub-culture that used things like tea cosies to keep beverages warm in pots emerged.
When the necessary but painful economic reforms of the late 1980s and 1990s ravaged families, a flourishing confectionary cottage industry emerged – and tastes also shifted toward bespoke bakery products. It really is the same all over Africa. In times of crisis, its mothers bake, knit, and miraculously make sweet juice out of the strangest of fruits.
There is a story there. Africa probably will never emerge from its decades of crises. It just builds a new layer on the old ways that enable it to survive. The African then is not dual, as the popular view goes (rural vs urban, modern vs traditional, Christian/Muslim vs “animist”).
We are like an onion with 10-11 layers. Zimbabwe just reminded us of that, yet again.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. Twitter@cobbo3