If England's cricketers do play in a World Cup match here on Feb. 13, some mischievous opponents of President Robert Mugabe have an idea for a practical joke. They know most Zimbabweans, unlike South Africans, have never cared for the sport. And in these tough times, people are too busy playing other games Spot the Shortest Petrol Queue, Pretend You're a Ruling Party Member to Get Food to pay attention to this one. But there may be a way to get everyone out to the cricket ground. "We might spread a rumor that there's going to be free food," says one local wag. "Then we'll have the whole town there."
Six World Cup matches are slated for Zimbabwe, but the British government (unlike its cricket officials) has led calls for a boycott of its imploding ex-colony. Zimbabwe has already lost its reputation as southern Africa's breadbasket, its once-vaunted economic potential, its veneer of democracy. For years, the rains haven't been good; neither has the government. But Zimbabweans haven't lost their humor or common sense. Ask about cricket and you'll get an answer, but they'll also remind you that when you're busy waiting in a food line or trying to will your paycheck into keeping pace with galloping inflation, you don't have time or energy to dicker about cricket. "Sport isn't exactly uppermost in our minds," says Godfrey (names have been changed to protect the speakers), an office administrator. "We're worried about our day-to-day existence."
So is Mugabe, which might explain why Zimbabwe's status as a World Cup host and the credibility it might bring him matters so much. The President turns 79 on Feb. 21, and he looks tired. Some of his colleagues seem to be tiring of him. Last month, while he was vacationing, the papers were full of reports of an exit-and- exile plan allegedly hatched within his zanu-pf party. On his return, Mugabe scotched the rumors, cracked down on opponents and cranked up his propaganda machine, as if to show that he still can pull the levers of power at will. Six trouble-free Cup matches would be a nice birthday gift for himself.
Britain's attempt to use sport to seize the moral high ground is annoying enough to the Zimbabweans who even noticed it. But the laughable part of the England players' call for a venue change was the worry about "safety issues." "You get the impression that people are running after whites with machetes," sighs Chenjerai, a taxi driver. "Johannesburg is bad. Harare is quite safe." And probably never safer than during the Cup. "Mugabe will sanitize the area," says political commentator Diana Mitchell of the wide, treelined avenues around the cricket ground. "There will be a corridor of protection. The cricketers won't see a thing."
Which is too bad, because if they had the chance to break bread with the locals (assuming bread's available that day), the cricketers would learn a lot. At every meal you hear about other meals missed a day spent in line or a dinner skipped for lack of maize meal, the local staple. You hear of the shortages brought on by government price controls and farm seizures. You hear frustration over seasons of drought and see angry eyes raised at the clear blue sky. Talk invariably turns to exit strategies. Whites opt for Perth or Cape Town or, worse, chilly London always "for the children." Among blacks, there's wishful thinking of a job earning foreign currency in Botswana, Namibia, England.
At each meal, people also serve up cracks about their misery. Recently I heard a half-mocking piece of advice for Harare drivers: don't ever stop. Others may think you're in a petrol queue and rush to get behind you. Humor seems to be group therapy, one sign of a resilient people. In her travelogue/memoir African Laughter, Doris Lessing, who grew up in Zimbabwe, recalls a meeting where a story is told "of cruelty, of official stupidity. The whole room was laughing ... I said to the man next to me, 'Why are you laughing? That's a terrible story.' 'That is why we are laughing,' he said."
"Oh, the people are suffering," says Namatai, a young widow with a two-year-old daughter. She counts herself blessed; she has a job as a guard at a government building when 70% of the work force doesn't. But she earns just $20 a month. "How can I afford bus fare, the rent of my house, mealie meal ... " Her voice trails off, her eyes wander. For a second, she looks as if she's going to cry. Instead, she throws her head back and maybe because of her troubles, maybe because of her government's cruelty and stupidity she laughs. Sometimes you just have to.