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On the Road to Zimbabwe!

Glam shot

Glam shot in my dressing room, (and yes, can you believe I had my own dressing room)!

Queen of Denial, Part 5

by Rebaba
posted July 13, 2011

I was having trouble navigating the slippery floor that smelled strongly of the beer below my feet as I made my way down the aisle towards the restrooms at the back of the plane.  I barely avoided slipping into a group of my fellow passengers that were congregated in the service area singing songs that sounded like they were usually sung in their neighborhood pubs at closing time.  Wonderful! I was surrounded by drunk and nostalgic men on their way to work in South Africa.

According to our stewardess, the group of men heading to South Africa, had managed to consume every drop of alcohol on the plane before we were even half-way there.  She confided this worrisome fact to me while she was searching for a place to hide for a moment’s rest.  These wailing gentlemen had taken over the back end of the plane for most of the flight, including the area that was normally curtained off for our poor stewardess to get some privacy and rest from her duties.  Unfortunately, things were not going her way during this very long flight. She finally ended up joining me in one of the many empty rows of five seats across to take refuge from her unsuccessful attempts at getting all these guys to “Sit down in your assigned seats please, and relax!”

My next vivid memory of the seemingly endless trip to Zimbabwe, Africa, was of being met at the arrival gate by an armed customs agent holding a sign with my name on it.

He escorted a very nervous me to what looked like a shabby hotel room and proceeded to lock me in like a criminal!  Unbeknownst to me at the time, and according to South African law, I had been labeled a “hostile alien” and was only granted overnight privileges within the boundaries of the airport because I had a connecting flight taking me out of the country.  I was locked up with my own guard outside the door in an airport holding-room specially for unwanted (but tolerated) guests, such as. travelers like myself, with boycotted passports (from the USA for example) arriving in South Africa while on their way to somewhere else.  They passed me a document through a slit in the door that explained my predicament (being locked up) while on South African soil due to the fact that I was a citizen of the anti-Apartheid US, meaning I was from a “hostile” country,  and I was without a South African Visa, implying that I didn’t even want to stay in their country!  The document also explained that I would be allowed to order food and that my food would be passed to me through the same little slit in the door, and that I couldn’t leave the room until my connecting flight was boarding.  Early the next morning, an armed agent escorted me once again to my connecting gate to board my flight to Harare, Zimbabwe.  Needless to say, I was extremely happy to leave South Africa!

My trip to Zimbabwe was beginning with an unexpected life-altering experience: my having been locked up, and over the next couple of weeks, I would be forced to do some deep soul searching that would end with my making more “unexpected and life altering” decisions.

Handsome Boss
Me posing with my (handsome Greek) boss!

Once again, I was going to be tested more than this Bellydancer from San Francisco had ever anticipated.  Relatively speaking, my now fading trials in Greece paled in comparison to the emotional roller coaster that was coming my way in Harare, Zimbabwe.  My new boss was of Greek dissent, and born in a large Greek population that existed in late 1940s in Zaire, Africa.  He and his family had immigrated to colonial Rhodesia from Zaire.  He was one of a small handful of Caucasian businessmen who had chosen to stay in Zimbabwe after their war of independence. 

This information had been provided to me by my agent, and I made the assumption that he stayed on because he was in support of “black rule” in the newly named country of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia).  The capital was still in the process of being rebuilt after the war that ended with Rhodesia being slowly transformed into an independently ruled nation.  The old regime was still in office, but, only until the newly-elected black president and cabinet could be taught the finer points of ruling their own country.  To me this opportunity was very exciting, not only to travel to Africa for the first time, but, to visit a newly independent country just beginning the process of learning to rule itself.  What I didn’t fully understand until my arrival was that the old government, besides being a foreign colonial regime with a white ruling class, was still very much installed in this capital city and the majority of businesses were owned and run by this ruling class. 

These businessmen were holding tightly on to their financial empires and trying to avoid selling out to the new black government as their alternative was starting all over again in another country. 

The animosity that existed between the new government and the outgoing politicians and their white constituents was extreme.  The restaurant and nightclub in which I was going to be performing was one of these businesses, and the Greek owner was holding on to his business in the new capital city for financial reasons–not  political ones.

For you to fully understand my emotional reaction to the environment in which I found myself when I arrived in Zimbabwe, I will give you a brief description of my upbringing:  I was born and bred in San Francisco, California in the 1950s, and the first child to my union activist, left-wing bohemian parents.  We lived on Potrero Hill, which in the 1950s and ‘60s was a working class neighborhood.  The population consisted of white and black families, many of whom had “dads” that were Longshoremen and politically active in their union.  There were housing projects on the very top of our “Hill” that were home to predominately poor Latino families and even poorer white families from the Dust Bowl region of the United States (i.e. as close to real “hillbillies” as San Francisco knew about).  Potrero Hill and the surrounding industrial area of San Francisco was also home to many of the city’s bohemian artists. 

Downtown
Photo of the newly named capital city of Harare, Zimbabwe (formerly Salisbury, Rhodesia), the main street that ran down the middle of the very small downtown/financial district where the Restaurant/Nightclub was located (where the tallest buildings are in the photo).

It was in this true “melting pot” of America that I attended my first public school, and of course, my school mates were the children of all these ethnically and culturally different families.  This very eclectic and racially integrated society was my “norm”, and in fact, at that young age, I thought it was every one’s “norm”.  I didn’t learn about racism until I was older, when we moved to what was then considered a black “ghetto” that was being “integrated” by the city government; we were offered affordable housing for my then single mom, which was the Fillmore District of San Francisco.  At this time, I learned about racism, what this word meant, and the role racism began to play in my everyday life in the 1960s.

To say my initial introduction to Zimbabwe was frustrating and horrifying would be an understatement. 

I don’t recall much about my performances in Harare.  To be honest, it was Bellydancing at its worst for me, because I hated (and still hate) dancing to recorded music.  Even though it was an easy job, it was Bellydancing reduced to a “job” nonetheless.  I did seven 20-minute shows a week, with a matinee on Sundays, and Mondays off.  This was my first job overseas with a day off.  I was more excited about having the opportunity to be a “tourist” in Africa than I was about my performances, and actually justified taking the job at all because of the travel opportunity.  Having one day off a week would enable me to fully explore this newly liberated country for more than a few hours at a time.

Honestly, I didn’t expect to find that the black population was still enslaved both emotionally and financially to the white ruling class who had been pushed out of political power but still maintained the real power in this and any country–the money.  The white population, that had been, for many years, the ruling colonial class, had evolved and maintained the belief system that enabled their minority rule by adhering to the misguided and self-serving conception that they had bigger brains than the native black population.  According to their history, their complete domination over the native population was  an act of mercy and good will.  It was beyond comprehension and extremely shocking to me (as you can imagine)!  I immediately got myself into some very heated arguments about freedom and equality, and the basic human rights that I had always taken for granted in the environment in which I was brought up and educated–here in San Francisco.  The idea that the “white man” had “saved” the native population by taking over their country was about as foreign and evil a concept as I could imagine.  It went against every law of humanity that I had learned since birth and personally experienced while growing up in San Francisco.

During the first week, I struck up friendships with my housemates.  We entertainers were all housed together in a beautiful villa complete with grounds and a swimming pool.  Our temporary home also came with no less than 6 house servants as well as outside security and grounds men.  I had never been served like this before in my life and it completely unnerved me.  Especially when I discovered that our “servants” lived in little thatched huts that were hidden by a humongous hedge at the bottom of the property with no electricity or running water!  The way I discovered this awful fact was when our cook asked if he could take a bucket full of hot water home with him at the end of his work day.  I think I actually walked in on him in the act of taking the water, and he felt obligated to ask my permission.  I was appalled that it was necessary for him to take water home.  When he told me where his home was and that he didn’t have running water or electricity, I was so upset (both mad at his situation and feeling guilty because of the opulence we were enjoying in the villa) that I started crying.  The cook didn’t understand my reaction at all and started apologizing to me for making me cry, and that made me cry even more…

When I finally composed myself, I told him, “Yes, please take whatever you want: water, food!”  I think I offered him the clothes off my back, and he ran out of there looking at me like I was crazy. 

home away from  home
Two photos I put together to show the front of our "home away from home", the entertainer’s villa located in a suburb of Harare.

 

pool
The swimming pool down the slope from the villa. I arrived in spring and immediately started working on my tan!

It was after this first interaction with our house staff that I discovered something that made me more uncomfortable than even discovering their horrible living conditions right under the nose of our beautiful “villa” (but hidden so as not to offend us).  This was the fact that none of our house servants (or most of the black population I encountered during my stay) would look me in the eye when talking to me.  They all looked down at the ground avoiding any eye contact, as if they were bowing to me.  I found out that this “posture of respect” as it was called, was taught from birth.  The black native population was brought up and trained to react as if constantly immobilized by fear in the presence of their “superior” keepers, the “white” population (and yes, that’s exactly how it felt to me)!  The amount of subservient behavior was just awful and made me so angry that I was constantly looking for an argument with all the people around me, meaning the nightclub staff, the villa manager, his girlfriend, and of course, my boss who owned the establishment and the villa where we lived.  The most difficult thing for me to deal with was that all these people (who worked for the owner, my boss) were bending over backwards to make my stay a happy one and provide me with anything I wanted.  They were just as frustrated by my reaction to their society as I was to theirs, but for entirely different reasons.  All they wanted was for my temper to disappear so I could start enjoying myself in their beautiful country.  They tried explaining their up-bringing: how they helped the natives by bringing “civilization” to Zimbabwe and now they were being “paid back” by this ungrateful native population.  They truly believed that the natives would be living in trees like monkeys if the white colonists hadn’t come to Zimbabwe.  All their written history supported this basic fact, down to their grade school history and science text books.

I think it was around this time when I had gotten to know my co-workers and escorts well enough to allow them to try explaining their way of life and thinking processes to me, that I realized I was in a “no win” situation.

  If I were black American, I am certain I would have left the country.  As crazy as it sounds black Americans were treated just like they treated me, or any white American.  The reason for this was that they thought that because the American black population evolved from slavery, that all the Afro-Americans had some amount of Caucasian blood in their genetic make-up; and therefore, their brains had evolved to the same size and ability as the brain of the Caucasian American.  It still makes me cringe to write this down, but, they truly believed this insanity, and I, one person alone, had no chance of convincing them otherwise.

bush
Roadside view just outside the city which was surrounded by African "bush" as the locals referred to this dry landscape.

I had a big decision to make and one that weighed heavily on my mind.  I could leave and break my contract, costing myself and my agent quite a bit of money and aggravation, or stay and continue my self-assigned crusade for freedom and be miserable while continuing to make everyone who came into contact with me miserable as well.  What to do?  I decided that my main interest in coming to Africa was not for the work as an entertainer, but, see and experience this incredibly diverse country with all its beauty and blight.  I reminded myself that a good portion of my audience members were made up of the newly elected black government officials, the black high military officers, and the black-owned commercial elite of Zimbabwe.  Keeping this in mind, I made the conscious decision to leave my morals and belief system in my head and never again bring up the subject if possible. 

At this point, I was able to begin taking advantage of the many invitations  to show me Zimbabwe that were coming my way.  The people I befriended were truly kind and generous people–in spite of the fact that they were assigned to keeping me happy during my stay in their homeland.  In the end, my work ethic and love of an adventure won over my liberal upbringing, and I stayed and honestly enjoyed the remainder of my contracted time there.  Because of the generosity of my newly found friends, I was able to go with them on trips every week on my day off over the two months I worked in Zimbabwe.  I lived for these weekly trips!  I was extremely grateful to my hosts and that one day off per week which allowed me to visit Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall in the world, and to travel to the beautiful Hwange National Park, where I saw my first elephants in the wild–along with antelopes, monkeys, baboons and lion tracks (no actual lions unfortunately).  We also visited Lake Kariba, a very large inland mountain lake, and stayed in a beautiful resort town that reminded me of Lake Tahoe.

 Finally, while looking back on this adventure, I remember the very good friends I allowed to get to know me (and not just my temper).  My decision to stay gave me the unique opportunity to see this beautiful and still very wild country.  I realize now how incredibly lucky I was to have experienced this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  It’s not something that happens to everyone, and it certainly wasn’t something that typically happens to young Bellydancers from San Francisco…

To be continued…

 

River
Taken in Hwange National Park, a very wide part of the Zambezi River where we were looking for lions!
 
 
Arnie
Arnie was the General Manager of the Restaurant and our boss’ official "right-hand man". He maintained an office in the villa and spent part of each day "hanging out" with the entertainers. We became great friends and remained in contact for years after I left. He ended up relocating to Australia and working in sales for Esprit. He came to visit me years later in San Francisco while he was on a business trip.
Arnie
Arnie in his office at the restaurant.
Dinner out
Dinner out with friends on my night off (the woman was Arnie’s girlfriend)!
Sunbathing
Sunbathing with Arnie, his girlfriend and some other employees of the restaurant. (You can see me with my ever present "head-band" and perm, so 80’s!!)
Good Bye Party
The restaurant staff had a tradition of throwing "good-bye" parties for those entertainers that they particularly liked … Yes, I was appreciated and popular with the staff and "regulars" once I began keeping my controversial opinions to myself! The staff along with the owner brought this huge camel cutout up on stage and showered me with confetti. I posed with the camel in the bar after my show.

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   |       |    3 Comments

  1. No Gravatar
    Mish Mish

    Jul 14, 2011 - 12:07:15

    Rita……think the glam shot picture of you in the green costume in the dressing room is the cutest picture I’ve ever seen of you! Like the curly hair too………….

  2. No Gravatar
    Amy

    Jul 14, 2011 - 05:07:46

    what precautions did you take when traveling alone to different continents that aren`t the safest imaginable?

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