BY GEOFFREY NYAROTA
As a good percentage of Harare’s social media community exploded in anger following the re-introduction last Tuesday, by Local Government minister July Moyo, of the former Rhodesia Railways coaches, now camouflaged by the much despised livery of Zupco, the bus company, I reminisced about the good old days of travel by train.
Back in the early 1960s, when I was a young primary school learner (they called us students then) at St Faith’s Mission, Madetere, 12 miles east of Rusape, the highlight of my life was the train journey between Rusape and Nyazura or Rusape and Salisbury, now Harare, depending on where I wished to spend by school holiday.
The 12 mile or 20-kilometre journey between Rusape and Nyazura (Inyazura as our colonial masters called the small railway station) lasted a mere hour and was not much to talk about.
It was the six hour epic journey from Rusape to the capital city that was a most memorable event.
The train departed from Rusape Station at 12.05 pm exactly and rolled into the brightly illuminated Salisbury Railway Station punctually at exactly 6pm.
People living along the train’s line of travel used to keep their time by the shrill whistle of the train on arrival at or departure from any of the several stations in between.
Around my village about seven kilometres as the crew flies west of Nyazura, peasant farmers lived by the train whistle.
At the beginning of the rainy season my late grandfather rose to the distant whistle of the Fomoni Train as it rolled into Nyazura Station from Salisbury at exactly 4.00 am.
Then he would span his four oxen at the beginning of a busy day of ploughing.
It was not until I reached the third or fourth year of secondary school that it ultimately dawned on me that “Fomoni” was a Shona corruption of “fore morning”, as in “Fore morning everyone, don’t forget your face masks,” as articulated in the Queen’s language.
Tuesday, the day of the launch of the much-talked about new train service, was hectic, especially at the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, as well as on virulently hostile social media.
Detractors, especially in opposition political circles, argued that the Zupco coaches were too old to carry any passengers.
Nick Mangwana, the permanent secretary himself, occupied a whole Fourth Class seat and posed majestically for newspaper photographers in a bid to demonstrate to naysayers that the Mufakose-bound train would reach its destination as scheduled.
By early evening Mangwana’s image had gone viral on Twitter.
I wondered if the Second Republic’s occasionally much maligned spokesperson had ever ridden on a train before, except perhaps on the Underground in distant London, where trains fly at a much faster pace than the Zupco train’s comparatively sedate pace.
But back to my own days of much relished travel by train.
No sooner had the overloaded train departed from Rusape, en route to Salisbury, than the passengers were besieged by an army of train-borne vendors who off-loaded buns, scones, fizzy drinks as well as the popular candy-cake, also known as chipondamoyo, Shona for “that which assaults the heart”.
The highlight of the journey was the longish stop at Eagle’s Nest, halfway between Salisbury and Umtali.
It was here that the “Down Train” from the capital city met the “Up Train” from the Eastern Gateway.
It was also here that the drivers, guards and ticket-checkers changed trains. Also changing trains here were the troops of vendors who transferred to the train back home in Rusape or Marandellas, as Marondera was then called.
When the Rhodesia Railways became the National Railways of Zimbabwe at independence, as a prelude to total collapse soon afterwards, the vendors emigrated to the streets of Harare, where they have since held boisterous sway.
We travelled Fourth Class on the train those days.
Coloured people and blacks of substance travelled Third Class, while two classes were reserved for white passengers — First and Second, in conformity with the racist practices of colonial Rhodesia.
Some of the social media hatchet-men who gave Mangwana and Moyo a torrid time throughout Tuesday rode home that day in their air conditioned Mercedes Benz or Twin-cabs, while their spouses drove in their Toyota Corollas or BMWs.
They never spared a thought for what would have been the scenes of agony and despair at Copacabana, Market Square, Fourth Street, Under the Bridge or wherever else the residents of Harare congregated in desperation while waiting for kombis or Zupco buses that never came.
On Tuesday evening they now piled into the ancient wagons that used to bring joy to our youthful lives 50 years ago for scheduled departure from the railway station at 5.30 pm.
By 6.30 or so they would be home with their children, so Mangwana assured them, while waiting for hot supper instead of settling for what amounted to left-overs at 11pm or midnight.
By that time their fortunate fellow residents would be busy on social media, while quaffing slowly on their favourite drink at the end of yet another long day.
Were it not for the Zupco coaches the residents of the western and southern suburbs would still be waiting at Copacabana at that time.
Mangwana could perhaps take comfort in the realisation that, even after the bullet train of Nelson Chamisa’s dreams finally graces the railway lines of Zimbabwe, those of us still alive will find something to complain about.
It will be either that the train is too expensive or that it is too fast.
By then, people will depart Harare after lunch on Saturday, to spend the afternoon on the beach in Beira, before reaching home in Mufakose in time for dinner.
At 600 km/h the journey will last less than an hour one way.
Whatever our shortcomings in addressing the economic woes that have brought our once proud and prosperous nation down to its knees, one cannot in any way fault us for lack of creativity.
Before the first Mufakose-bound Zupco train had departed from the station, what looked like a brand new Boeing 777-200ER had taken off into the social media skies.
Emblazoned down the aircraft’s side was the legend Zupco. Kkkk
Talking of the Boeing 777, I see the two fairly brand new wide-bodied aircraft that the son-in-law of the nation reportedly imported from Malaysia are still sitting on the ground at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport.
They are shrouded in the endless cloud of dust generated by the final onslaught of revived construction work after funds were craftily diverted from the original project.
The funds were channelled towards what were considered to be worthier projects.
One of them was the beautification of our majestic Blue Roof mansion.
But that issue has since become veritable water under the bridge with our collective permission
Amid the social media storm of Tuesday, I came across an article in the 14 June issue of my old paper, The Chronicle.
The article made reference to the two Boeing 777-200ER aircraft purchased from Malaysia Airways, where they had been in operation for nearly 14 years before being retired.
The planes arrived in Harare amid fanfare and much speechifying in early 2020.
I suddenly remembered my own fortuitous but close proximity to Air Zimbabwe’s first venture into the world of wide-bodied aircraft that now dominate world-wide travel.
As editor of the same Chronicle, I was part of President Mugabe’s delegation that flew into Seattle on the west coast of the United States, en route to Vancouver, just across the border in Canada for the 1987 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).’
Seattle is the home of the world-famous Boeing commercial aircraft factory.
We saw the then newly introduced Boeing 767 on the massive assembly line.
After we flew into New York from Harare, Boeing laid on a brand new 767 to fly the Zimbabwean delegation to Seattle.
This visit was arranged by Boeing’s agent in Harare, the inimitable James “JCJ” Makamba, then PR executive at Tiny Rowland’s Lonrho.
At that time relations between the former radio disc jockey, and the Head of State were notably cordial.
I believe JCJ made his initial fortune after he clinched the deal for Air Zimbabwe’s first two wide-bodied aircraft.
Makamba beat Joseph Mapondera, who was a leading Harare socialite at the time.
More importantly he was the agent in Harare for the other huge US aircraft manufacturer of the time, McDonell-Douglas, of St Louis, Missouri.
Its slightly older DC10 model was the fiercest competition for the new Boeing 767.
The three-engine aircraft had a slight edge over the new wide-body from Seattle.
The DC10 was no stranger to the African skies, where it already flew in the colours of both Zambia and Ghana Airways.
In those good old days Zambia Airways flew a weekly DC10 flight direct from Lusaka to New York.
Harare was one of the destinations of the Ghana Airways DC10.
How Makamba pulled a fast one on Mapondera (MHSRIEP), one of whose repeatedly self-claimed credentials was that he was a relative of the president, was not easy to fathom.
The deal must have been concluded in First Class on that memorable New York-Seattle Boeing 767 flight.
There the fast-talking JCJ had the president’s ear all to himself.
Meanwhile, the rest of the president’s delegation flew across the vast expanse of the American continent, as we sampled the culinary delights laid on at 35 000 feet by the world’s largest commercial aircraft manufacturer.
In due course Air Zimbabwe placed an order for two new aircraft.
The national airline’s first Boeing 767-200ER, with registration Z-WPE and named “Victoria Falls”, entered service with the fleet in November 1989.
Makamba became instantly and quite visibly prosperous.
He lived happily until that fateful day in 2004, when he was arrested and jailed without bail for a total of seven months, while the tongues of Harare folk wagged relentlessly.
Then he left Zimbabwe for the diaspora.
Meanwhile, McDonnell Douglas had been quietly swallowed by Boeing in 1997 at a time when our team was preparing for the launch of The Daily News back in Harare.
- Geoffrey Nyarota is an award-winning investigative journalist and founding editor-in-chief of the original Daily News. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org