The Chimanimanis before Idai
Before the cyclone, there was a drought in Zimbabwe. People prayed for rain; and then the rain came, and it was not at all what was wished for. It seems brutally unfair: to have lost so much, in so brief a time, at the ordinance of the sky.
The rain came to Harare only in drizzles and bursts. Outside a restaurant I saw a gang of cockerels glaring furiously up at the clouds; but chickens always look angry, and otherwise the city was untouched by the storm. In the Chimanimanis, though, it was different.
The sky often sweeps low in the Chimanimani District; the rainfall is high, for Zimbabwe, and there are patches of subtropical rainforest, with lianas hanging low from trees and the river frog Amietia angolensis: the most fashion-forward of frogs, with leopard-print spots and a violent lime green stripe down its back. There are mutable sun squirrels, yellow-gold against red soil, and occasional glimpses of leopards.
Time is slower in the Chimanimanis, quartzite ridge ranges which stretch over the border into Mozambique. When last I was in Chimanimani town, at the foot of the mountains, there were stalls selling tomatoes and oranges stacked in bowls, a riding stable and a number of stores, one painted with the Coca Cola logo and ‘take home some real refreshment’, half-obscured by dust. People greet strangers, have time to talk.
We used to go often as children. Chimanimani has either a great deal to see, or nothing at all, depending on whether or not you are immune to beauty. There is the traditional visit to Big Tree, a Nyasa redwood which soars at least 65 metres tall and which, at more than a thousand years old, has been designated a national monument. It was recently found to be dying, its branches thinning at the top, perhaps because of human damage at the base where hundreds of people have carved their initials into it, or perhaps simply because a thousand years is old, even for a tree.
As children, we rode through the bush, largely at the mercy of borrowed horses too tall and glamorous for us, and everywhere we went there was the same smell, of warm soil and green things becoming. In the Chirinda Forest Reserve, life asserts itself in riotously named multiplicity: the forest sword-leaf and the elbow-leaf, the forest num-num and the hairy manica bride’s bush (white flowers, leaves like the down on a human cheek), the forest peach and apricot vine and the forest toad-tree, with orange-pulped fruit that gape open like the mouths of toads.
The Chimanimani Hotel was built in the 1950s. It has peeling white-painted walls, vibrantly printed curtains looking a little nibbled at the edges, and a profusion of flowering trees. Look up, and the mountain looks down at you. There’s a good-sized conference room and a kidney-shaped swimming pool. My brother and I spent our time turning somersaults into it, occasionally smacking our heads against its base, luring ant lions out of their traps, and digging with our hands in the earth for quartz crystals, which come up from the ground as sharp-edged and finely wrought as if they have been cut by a craftsman, dirty and shining.
The Chimanimani Hotel is currently being used to shelter about four hundred people; not guests but refugees from the rain. The conference room has been laid out with blankets, and the gardens are being used for open-air cooking. Last week Cyclone Idai hit parts of Mozambique and Zimbabwe with windspeeds of up to 178 kmph, and destroyed everything it passed by. At last count, at least a hundred Zimbabweans were dead: children have been orphaned overnight; roads, bridges, trees and schools have been swept away, leaving heaps of mud. There are bodies under the rubble, but it’s still raining, off and on, impeding the rescue effort.
Mandla Mataure, the general manager of the hotel, told the BBC they were coping, for now, but help was needed:
As far as food is concerned, for the next four to five days we can try and cook and feed people with what we have in the village, but eventually that's going to run out … We need doctors, we need people airlifted out of here, we need blankets to keep people warm.
There are fears now of cholera, which has torn through Zimbabwe before: and there are fears of what the year to come will look like, with crops destroyed in one part of the country by rain and in the other part by the lack of it.
I don’t know if Big Tree has survived the cyclone. I hope it did. Zimbabwe needs as much hope, as much help and aid as it can get, and a less hell-bent sky. It needs luck, and skill; it needs your money, if you have any at all to give. For Zimbabwe there has never been anything like this.