IT hadn’t really hit me before, but having an hour or so to kill in Harare’s CBD last week graphically illustrated what an almost cheerless plac
e the so-called Sunshine City is today. And I’m not just talking about a grey, overcast sky with wind whistling straight from the South Pole through steep architectural valleys formed by grim high-rise buildings.
For gone are the days when a dozen or more friendly pubs, clubs, cafes, restaurants, tea or coffee shops lay within spitting distance of Herald House; you could meet pals and have a drink, snack or meal almost any time of day (or night.)
Most of those people are either dead or in the diaspora. And there simply aren’t the dozens of outlets around we used to enjoy. Even Bulawayo or Mutare seem better off when it comes to city centre attractions.
One survivor of Harare’s happy go lucky, good old bad old days is Mokador in Nelson Mandela Avenue but it endures almost in name only. The average casual visitor to the capital probably wouldn’t even spot the place on the first floor of Michael House, above a greasy spoon takeaway of mercurial reputation.
There were actually a few customers ordering and eating when I climbed the now rickety-looking, shabby staircase to the restaurant. It always had excellent sound systems, going back to the days it was opened as a cosmopolitan laid-back licensed café by refugees from the horrors of the former Belgian Congo, and great music, amplified faultlessly, greeted me, albeit — it later transpired — from a South African commercial radio station.
Everyone looked stressed-out and worried in the restaurant; pressures of living in contemporary Zimbabwe are very telling; I’m sure this relentless tension played a large part in recently driving two friends to comparatively early graves. At least they expired before their investments and life’s’ savings did!
With back firmly to the depressing sights of Old Shell House and the former Baker Avenue Police Station visibly mouldering into rack and ruin through sheer neglect, studied a tacky laminated menu the centrepiece of a sticky Formica-topped table. A waitress chanted what cooldrinks were available, but she was dismissed with a shudder and an order for bitterly cold Pilsener lager.
Nowadays few can afford to drink intemperately on a mid-week mid-afternoon in downtown Ha-ha-ha-are (Africa’s fun capital) but it will be a frosty Friday in Filabusi, when I’m financially forced to drink Fanta. Incidentally, a lager which at Christmas was $70 000 now costs $280 000!
I ordered the one soup on the menu actually available (no minestrone, vegetable or vegetarian soup — whatever the difference is other, than a couple of hundred K?) It was “home-made” (I bet, I thought cynically) cream of mushroom soup at a fairly alarming $620 000; then spaghetti Bolognaise for $1 080 000. That jotted in waitress’ pad, I dipped into my camera bag for reading matter, as a distraction from gnawing hunger.
The Good Book Guide described the volume in question as “laugh-out-loud-funny” and the London Times warns it is “Not a book that should be read in public, for fear of emitting loud snorts.”
As wonderfully amusing as Bill Bryson’s perfectly polished prose decidedly is, the only loud snort emanating from my person was one of distress, derision and near disgust that after two rib-tickling chapters there was still no sign of any graze. Nor was the waitress even on the radar screen. I told her male colleague that if I wasn’t served, chop-chop, I was on my bike.
A place setting and toast came, and fairly ropey margarine, followed by the mushroom soup which — to be fair — wasn’t at all bad. At least it contained plainly identifiable tender, tasty fungi, was initially scalding hot and (unusually for Harare) needed neither salt nor pepper.
Thanks to Zesa (or lack thereof) it was the first hot food I’d tasted for 42 hours and a man can tire of tongue sandwiches, milk and Marie biscuits. Having felt almost faint with hunger earlier, I wolfed enthusiastically.
A large table next to me but masked by jungle-like vegetation, whose clients were well-ensconced when I arrived, were finally served, mainly burgers, hot dogs and chips ($750 000-$960 000) with two plates of extra chips and half a litre of tomato sauce between five, but one figure-conscious young lady sensibly ordered salad ($500 000-$850 000).
Waiters and waitresses seemed to spend an inordinately large amount of time staring out of plate glass windows at goodness knows what. Each time I followed their collective gaze, all I could see were louts, parking touts and potential tsotsis milling around.
The pasta finally arrived looking as dry as the Kalahari, but there was some sloppily oily thin sauce lurking under the spaghetti and rather gritty mince meat which (I suspect) would have been precisely the same nyama I’d have got had I ordered beef curry: Just hold the Italian seasoning, splash on curry sauce and chutney?
Talking about dry: the Parmesan cheese certainly filled that description, with the consistency and possible flavour of coffin shavings; but at least they had it, unlike Gaby’s recently.
Hunger, they say, is definitely the best sauce. To confirm that, I was starving and there was very little left of a memorably mediocre main course.
Soup, pedestrian pasta and two lagers totalled a hefty $2 260 000 of which $294 783 comprises some
previously unheard of and unannounced on the menu “tax”, which — had I spotted it before now — would probably have been disputed vehemently and possibly refused.
The gents’ loo, as it has been for at least a year, is a disgrace and possible health hazard.
* Mokador, 1st Floor Michaelhouse, Nelson Mandela Avenue. Tel 704329. Open breakfast to supper Monday to Saturday.