There I was, on President Robert Mugabe’s doorstep in my lycra tights and running shoes. Obviously it wasn’t planned – I was really looking for the Botanical Gardens. It’s just that State House got in the way of this mission.
The soldier in his camouflage by the brownstone wall in the shade of the tree was also not that visible, until I crossed the busy Josiah Tongogara Avenue and stepped on to his pavement and almost on to his toes too.
There I had a little run-in of sorts with him. He had the look of someone personally insulted – less so about the toe-stepping than about my presence on his pavement – and asked me what I was doing. The penny dropped somewhat slowly for me, and I tried to make small talk until I saw some officious-looking, if somewhat rusty, sign behind him warning people to keep out.
Then I remembered someone saying Mugabe’s house was in that area and gathered I was, in fact, on holy ground. “I’m just running along here, to the botanical gardens. Aren’t these the botanical gardens?” I asked nonchalantly. He wasn’t amused.
“You can’t run here,” he said. “It’s disrespectful. Where are you from?” Now that was an open-ended question. Careful as I was told to be in Zim, I didn’t want to tell him exactly where I was staying.
Also, the guys back at the hotel almost fainted when I told them I was looking for 10km worth of road to run on (recreational running is apparently not too big in Harare), so I didn’t want to tell the guard my hotel was roughly 4km away in case he suspected I was some kind of (chubby) Charlie’s Angel in training or worse, a Western spy. Or in case he came in the night to look for me.
“The hotel?” I tried. “Uhm, Johannesburg?” I could tell from his look that he wasn’t amused. So I told him my hotel name and asked him how to get to the botanical gardens and if I could run on the opposite pavement. He didn’t seem to approve of running as a sport for girls at all. “You’re a beautiful woman, you’re attractive, you know,” he said. It felt more like a threat than a compliment.
Harare hasn’t up to now felt like a dangerous place, especially compared to Joburg, and I wasn’t going to let a guard in camouflage with a mean gun get in my way. Up to that point most people I encountered had been very friendly.
I offered to cross the street to run on the opposite pavement and said my goodbyes to the guard. A woman on the dusty but leafy opposite pavement also told me off for running so close to State House. I nodded and ran on, about 300m, past the sports club and the Royal Golf Club, its entrance right opposite an unmarked white gate which I presumed to be the entrance to State House.
I decided to test the guards there, and waved good morning. They smiled and waved and asked how I was, so I decided to strike up a conversation. One of them then asked: “How is your life?” He wasn’t asking out of concern.
Thoughts of my white privilege, Woolworths meals for one, and the temporary meaninglessness of my grand and fun job as journalist flashed through my mind, in that order. Instead, I decided to stick to the theme at hand. “Fit and healthy. You should be running too!” I said cheerily, swiftly trying to decide whether to flirt or fly.
Men in uniform are, after all, not entirely unattractive, but these ones looked like they could punch you with a smile.
Afterwards, I’m told that I’d have been hard-pressed to find Mugabe waking up in the vast State House (which stands on grounds a whole block large), as he only uses it for official purposes and was living in a private “mansion” built in Borrowdale Brooke, about 20km northeast of Harare where many of Zimbabwe’s ruling elite reportedly live.
It’s apparently a shoot-to-kill area if you are caught trespassing – as is State House. Not great for healthy living, I’d say.
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