I spent the day with my friend Makiwa, getting my bearings in Harare. I have a basic knowledge of the city from previous visits, but things are different when you are driving yourself.
For starters, I am unaccustomed to driving on the left-hand side of the road. It took me a while to stop activating my windshield wipers when I intended to use my turn signal. And I constantly have to remind myself to look in the right (or should it be left?) direction for oncoming traffic.
More troubling for the out-of-town motorist is the general lack of pavement markers, street name signs and functioning traffic lights.
Makiwa blamed the absence of street signs on “unscrupulous people”—i.e. vandals. But during a previous visit, I heard a more macabre explanation. AIDS has wreaked havoc among Zimbabweans (one in four is said to be infected), and coffin manufacturers are one of the few professional groups doing brisk business. The easily bendable street signs apparently make good coffin handles.
Many traffic lights—which Makiwa consistently referred to as “robots”—are so faint that it’s difficult to tell whether they are red, yellow or green. Others don’t work at all, leaving drivers to work out the right of way among themselves.
In practice this means the biggest vehicles and most assertive drivers go first. I am afraid my Toyota Vista is not much of a match for some of the tinted-windowed 4X4s on the road. And it certainly wasn’t a match for the presidential motorcade that crossed our way.
It started with a police siren. I slowed, but Makiwa insisted I pull off the road and stop now. After the procession had passed, I asked what the fine would have been for failing to yield.
“Zero,” said Makiwa. “They’d shoot you.”