Zimbabwe’s long-running theatre of the absurd has its highs and lows but even by the country’s low standards, the days preceding the Warriors’ Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) match against the Zebras of Botswana were rather strange.
By Monday 11 November, commercial banks were supposed to have stacks and stacks of the new currency the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe had been trumpeting for weeks. But by Friday, not much of the money was in circulation and long-suffering people continued standing for hours in long queues in the banks to be handed a pittance, sometimes just Z$100 (R100) a transaction, in a country in which bread costs Z$15 (R15).
On 14 November, the country’s finance minister Mthuli Ncube delivered a budget statement in which he was expected to provide clarity on the nation’s economic prospects, the cash crisis and the inflation rate of around 500%. As if he had no idea that most Zimbabweans have no access to clean water, experience power shortages of up to 19 hours a day, and where the average salary for those fortunate to be in formal employment is less than $1000, he announced that the government was setting aside money for research into exploring space and launching a satellite into the heavens.
The heavens holding onto the rains that refuse to come. Decades before, Doris Lessing, writing in the Rhodesian classic Martha Quest, distilled this angst for the rain: “What of October, that ambiguous month, the month of tension, the unendurable month? Again, it was neither dry season nor wet for how can a month be called dry that is spent, minute by dragging minute, thinking of the approaching inevitable rain, watching a sky banked with clouds which must break, break soon?”
Rain is supposed to come down in November and yet, as a signal of the climate doom, we are midway through November, our eyes looking up at the grey sky, hoping that those dark clouds will release the rain. Sometimes the anxiety is desperate. You look up at the sky, heavy and sagging, and all about the air is humid and still, that stillness which comes just before a thunderstorm yet, somehow, the clouds dissipate and the long wait continues.
I was supposed to take my 12-year-old nephew to the match but a few hours before, I called my sister to say it might not be a good idea to go with the skies hanging low, holding rain, even releasing a little of it in the early afternoon. Realising that she wouldn’t hear the end of the aborted football experience, my sister sensibly said she would give her son a raincoat.
When we got to the National Sports Stadium, an arena about 10km west of the city, built across from the National Heroes Acre, that shrine for the sons and daughters of the Zanu PF revolution, we were among tens of thousands who thought perhaps the Warriors would give us some respite after a troubled week.
In the game’s early moments, celebratory noise rang out in the cavernous sports monument when Marvelous Nakamba attempted a dribble. Muvheti! (local slang for white person), murungu! the crowd cried out, happy to finally celebrate the midfielder’s recent move to Aston Villa, in the English Premier League (EPL). The masses in the stands loved, how to put it, his cultured left foot that was spraying delightful passes across the pitch.
When the initial excitement over the only Zimbabwean playing in the EPL died down, it became clear that penetrating the massed Botswana rearguard was going to be a mission. The visitors were content to sit back, and wait for the Zimbabweans to come at them. The Zimbabweans’ preferred mode of attack, high crosses aimed at the rather short front men of Khama Billiat, Knowledge Musona and Knox Mutizwa, was ineffectual. On the left of the front three was captain Musona; doubts as to his match fitness were well justified.
At Anderlecht where he is playing in the Belgian league, Musona hasn’t been a regular. Apart from a dead ball, which the Botswana goalkeeper Kabelo Dambe tipped over the bar, I can’t think of much that the Zimbabwean captain did. (He couldn’t control one pass that could have led to a passable opportunity on goal and one wayward volley almost flew over the stadium, across the Harare-Bulawayo highway nearby, and into the National Heroes Acre).
To be fair, it wasn’t just him. Everyone seemed weighed down by something, perhaps the heavy clouds which hung low over the stadium, may be the prospect of joining the stellar list of countries that have conquered space. Even Billiat, normally a dependable forward, was a shadow of the player that we know. Apart from a shot early on in the first half, Mtizwa was a quiet presence.
Most coaches, noticing the bind the team was in, would make a change but Joey Antipas was content to let things be, hoping that there would be a lucky break. The crowd started shouting insults. In the 78th minute, he made a double change, taking out Ovidy Karuru and Mutizwa for Prince Dube and Kuda Mahachi.
The folly of his reluctance to make a change was soon shown when SuperSport United’s Mahachi suddenly changed the game. Eschewing the high crosses previously favoured, Mahachi was going direct at his opponents and the Botswana defence appeared rattled. Why hadn’t he made the changes earlier, I and many others wondered, as we streamed out of the bowl of concrete and steel after a torrid hour and half of the match.
Zimbabwe battles Zambia on earth and in space
On Tuesday, the Warriors will face Zambia, who were themselves humiliated 5-0 by Algeria, the current African champions. On paper, the match against the Zebras looked the easiest, but the Warriors threw away the opportunity to get three points. How they will fare against Chipolopolo in Zambia, who will want to prove that the drubbing in Algeria was an aberration, is anyone’s guess.
As opponents, the Zambians are not ideal and not just because Chipolopolo won the Afcon in 2012, but also because in Zambia, Zimbabwe will face a real space exploration giant. For, you see, Zambia’s space exploration programme goes back to the 1960s when science teacher Edward Mukuka Nkoloso founded Zambia’s National Academy of Science, Space Research and Philosophy.
In the 1960s, maybe because people were sneering at him the way we are laughing at the Zimbabwean finance minister, Nkoloso told Associated Press, “Some people think I’m crazy. But I’ll be laughing the day I plant Zambia’s flag on the moon.” In an opinion, Nkoloso wrote, “We have been studying the planet through telescopes at our headquarters and are now certain Mars is populated by primitive natives. Our rocket crew is ready…”.
On the evidence of Friday’s match, the Warriors’ chances of a victory against Zambia’s veteran afronauts are as remote as Zimbabwe joining the countries with a presence in space.