The soldier sauntered out from behind the barrier, fiddling with a rifle slung across his chest. We had reached Zimbabwe's Birchenough Bridge, a dusty settlement five hours from the South African border. The soldier peered into the car window. He was young, in his early 20s, I'd guess. "Why didn't you stop?" he asked. Not for the first time, I wondered whether we were right to return.
Since a controversial presidential runoff in June – which longtime leader Robert Mugabe contested alone – Zimbabwe's economic crisis has worsened. Shop shelves have emptied. The rate of inflation has risen to unprecedented levels: Some recent estimates put it at 20 million percent. So precarious is the local currency that schools now ask for extra fee payments in fuel and floor polish.
In contrast, on our two-week holiday in neighboring South Africa, the stores were full of things to buy. And the people we spoke to were incredulous when they learned where we were from. "You live in Zimbabwe?" asked a shop assistant in the Orange Free State. "And you're really going back there? How will you eat?"
On the freeway between Johannesburg and the coastal resort of Durban, a South African policeman at a checkpoint roared with laughter when he saw the Zimbabwean plate on our car. He laughed so long and so hard that we shifted uncomfortably in our seats. "So you're from Mugabeland. Who'd you vote for?" he asked.
Near the end of the holiday, I filled a suitcase with bags of flour and lentils and tins of sardines. I bought sacks of maize meal for friends, instant gravy powder and shaving gel for my mother- and father-in-law, crayons for my son.
On the drive back through Zimbabwe, I had ample time to look around me and to think. We passed the New Cannibal Inn and the Heaven Broadcasting Church, perched precariously on the rocks near the Runde River in southern Zimbabwe. Children waved and called out "murungu" (white man). Bank queues lined the main street in the central city of Masvingo because there are still cash shortages. In the countryside, crowds gathered at the side of the road waiting for food deliveries because, in our absence, the authorities had authorized aid organizations to start distributing desperately needed food.
By the time we got to Birchenough Bridge, I thought I knew why I was coming back to Zimbabwe. Because of my friends, first of all: friends from the ethnic Shona majority who've taught me that, with some creativity – bartering bottles of deodorant for carrots and apples or substituting custard powder for eggs – it is possible to get by. I was coming back because many Zimbabweans hope better days lie ahead, even though a power-sharing agreement signed recently between Mr. Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai looks flimsy. I like living in a place where hope is a thriving currency.
I was coming back because I love the baobab trees that dot the road. I love the fact you can still walk along the side of the road here and call out a greeting to everyone you see. I was returning because this is where we've sunk our roots and made a home.
"I want to know why you didn't stop," the soldier repeated. We realized that the front wheels of our car were half a yard past a battered stop sign. We apologized. In the back seat, our small son giggled. The soldier's face relaxed.
"It's fine," he said. "You can proceed."