Christine and I were walking down the street in Harare, when we came across the building housing Zimbabwe’s Parliament. I had remembered that a friend told me you could do a tour of Parliament, so figured we would stop in the check it out. Though we couldn’t do it right then because I didn’t have an ID on me, we found the place we had to go to register, and after being handed over four different times, eventually found the man who would be our guide. To call him a character, would be an understatement.
For no good reason, I will refer to him as Pepé. Pepé immediate began asking me some questions about what I do. Thinking slowly on the spot, I told him the truth – that I research conflict in Africa. He drew back a bit and suspiciously declared, “So you’ve come here to do research,” likely invoking the official line regarding pervasive distrust of Westerners in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. I had to explain I was just on vacation, which he replied was even more suspicious given that Zimbabwe was an expensive place to travel to. Though perhaps he discounted this line of reasoning after viewing my ragged attire (or that only heightened suspicions, as the perfect disguise!).
We were on the 4th floor and waiting for the elevator – when it came he just said “I don’t trust you,” and jumped on. A little shocked, I froze in surprise, before snapping out of it and following him. Shaking off that last statement, we told him that I’d get my ID and come back in the afternoon. He walked outside with us and made some forced not-so small talk. He then abruptly pointed to a man and said, “there’s my boss, I’m afraid of him.” He disappeared from sight at that, leaving us frozen in shock yet for the second time in as many minutes.
Pepé’s character, revealed in our less than five-minute interaction with him, only further solidified the notion that we should starting spending more time at Zimbabwe’s Parliament, so we returned in the afternoon and began our tour. Pepé was probably at least in his 50s, and walked with a bit of a limp. Although a short man at a few inches shy of me, he had a gruff manner of speaking, which seemed indicative of many decades worth of uphill battles. While dressed up in a worn suit, it was also just a little too big for him, creating the effect of him sinking into his attire (though I can empathize – I didn’t realize slim fit clothes existed until 2014).
At the entrance to Parliament, Pepé asked for the ID I had gone home to get. I proudly gave him my driver’s license, which in my mind proved I was not a spy (I have no idea why, I think spies can drive too). He quickly shattered my notions that this would resolve the not-so latent tension between us, exclaiming, “this is not an ID!” Meanwhile, Christine handed her driver’s license, which he promptly accepted and said, “see, now this is an ID.” While I was perplexed by his response, the guard accepted my driver’s license regardless, and we were able to begin our tour beneath his leery eyes.
Throughout our time together, Pepé shifted from anti-Western comments that had nothing to do with the confines of the Parliament tour and likely spurred on by Zimbabwe’s status as a pariah nation, to much softer tones and even occasional dissent of the current government. Much of this manifested into how he felt about me, vacillating from a guarded approach as he considered me a spy, to a friendlier demeanor like we used to enter baking competitions together. This split personality made the tour quite interesting, but also very confusing, and we never quite knew where we stood – as a manifestation of a Western threat to Zimbabwe that Pepé would take into his own hands to eliminate as his patriotic duty, or truly the dimwitted but inquisitive tourists we claimed to be.
At any rate, our tour started off less as a tour really and more as an questionnaire, as Pepé took us to one of the main Parliament rooms, sat us down and just asked “so, what do you what to know?” I didn’t realize the burden of information was going to be on us, and was already wary of his suspicions regarding me, so we just started off with some softball questions, such as “when was this building built?,” how often do the parliamentarians meet?,” “is there any free cheese around?”, and so forth.
He warmed up a bit, and then Christine astutely asked “what are the main issues Parliament is debating these days?,” subtly shifting the conversation to something more interesting and relevant. He told us about the debate over the bond notes – Zimbabwe officially uses the US Dollar as its currency, but had just issued new notes that were equivalent to the dollar in order to increase overall circulation. The whole notion was a bit controversial though, as trust in the new notes was low (although we saw the recently released bond notes and used them frequently in circulation, an indication of their quick acceptance). Even Pepé was somewhat critical, either a surprising rebuke of government policy, or the beginnings of an elaborate trap that we would unwittingly walk into.
There were a number of stuffed animals and animal parts that adorned the walls of this chamber as well, and when we inquired about them he assured us that they were real. But as was his typical oscillation between friend and foe, this response was characterized more by the latter, with a stinging remark to close the question that went along the lines of “unlike YOU Europeans, we don’t kill all our animals,” followed by an intense and definitively uncomfortable glare in our direction.
We had exhausted our set of questions upon that, and got up to leave the room. On the way out he pointed to the massive chair at the front of the building, ostensibly where the head of this chamber sits. I really wanted to sit in it and take a photo, but assumed it was out of the question. But I also figured this tour couldn’t get any more awkward, so might as well ask. His eyes actually lit up upon that request, and allowed me live out my dreams of being a leading Zimbabwean politician, if just for a few minutes.
That chair-seating session, however, inspired him in some other sense, and he took us around the corner to a small, mostly empty room. I am not sure if this is part of the standard tour, if there is such a thing with Pepé, but inside this tucked away corner was an even larger and more simply decorated, but distinguished chair. Pepé explained that this was Mugabe’s chair for Parliament, and they only took it out when he visited. Knowing exactly what my next question would be, he said in no uncertain terms, “you can sit in it, and if you are anatomically correct, you can even poof on it!” Absolutely unclear what that meant, I ignored him and sat on it anyways for a few photos. I suppose I was not “anatomically correct” in the Zimbabwean sense, as I do not recalling poof-ing, despite my best efforts.
Pepé took us upstairs, to the Hall of Heroes. There were many paintings of leading Zimbabwean figures lining the walls, with most dating back to the nation’s liberation struggle. He pointed to a few key individuals, but the only informative remark he made was, “this guy committed suicide and died young,” with little other explanation as to his historical significant. Abruptly, Pepé turned to one of two white faces amongst the 40 or so odd paintings. He quickly brought us over there as if he instantly had a great idea. He explained, “look we don’t discriminate!,” and pointed the face of an old white man. Clearly proud of himself for rising above the fray and demonstrating racial equality despite such obvious Western prejudice against his country expressed by us, we asked what this man had done to deserve such an honor. Unprepared for this line of questioning, he stammered a bit, saying, “uh, well . . . he was . . . at the time . . . so we don’t really know, but we still recognize his contributions!” Couldn’t have pictured a better image of racial equality myself.
There was a statue in the middle of the hall of what appeared to be a traditional Zimbabwean warrior with a spear. “See,” Pepé noted, “we didn’t have guns and didn’t fight like that.” He proceeded to pretend there was a spear in his hand, and vigorously act out a series of fighting moves in the middle of this distinguished hallway, his baggy suit flailing around to the point where we had to undertake some evasive maneuvers to avoid contact during the extensive reenactment.
We left the Hall of Heroes and continued to the law and research libraries. Along the way he gave us some printed Parliament notes from a storage area, walked by a man who he claimed was his father-in-law but ignored him, and muttered other occasional comments indicative of his intermittent suspicions. At the libraries, Pepé outsourced his touring to the librarians on duty who were no doubt thrilled by the opportunity, before we were quickly kicked out of each (actually to be fair, they were somewhat intrigued – not sure how often they receive genuine spy tourists).
That more or less concluded the tour, though we weren’t really aware of the fact since Pepé didn’t mention as much, but just walked outside where he lit up a cigarette. He randomly walked down the street a bit and we followed, not in the direction of his office, which was on the other side of the building. After about two and a half blocks he stopped and said he was going back. That apparently implied we were not, and the tour had thus come to its fitting conclusion.
I had debated tipping him or not, but had a $5 bill in my pocket anyways, so pulled it out towards his direction. He jumped back and said, “I am a public servant, and this is an act of corruption!” Afraid that he had finally entrapped his spy and caught him in the act, I quickly retreated and moved to put the bill in my pocket, while apologizing. But Pepé grabbed it out of my hand before I reached my pocket and said, “but this will buy a few drinks tonight!” And with that last act of stupefaction, Pepé walked off and disappeared into the crowd, leaving just as stunned as when he was first met him. But hey, at least we got to try to poof on Mugabe’s chair (think about that next time you watch Zimbabwean C-SPAN)!