The kindness of strangers

Even as the government of Zimbabwe trumpets hostility to whites, a foreign resident of the country recalls how well she has been treated by locals.

Alexander Joe/Newscom/File
Child with wildflower crown in Domboshava, Zimbabwe.

"We've been watching you," says the man leaning out of the window of the black Mercedes.

"I've run out of fuel," I say, brandishing my jerrycan. Fuel shortages have hit this eastern part of Zimbabwe again. I have just run – as best one can run in worn-down wedge heels – to the nearest garage. Only to find the pumps are empty.

My child needs to be picked up at a bus stop 2-1/2 miles away. I have no airtime on my pay-as-you-go cellphone. The midday sun is unbearably hot.

"Get in," he says. "We'll take you to a garage that has fuel."

I can see two more men inside the car. Everything my mother told me screams no. Never get into a car with strangers. Yet I believe I can read good intentions on these faces. So I make a snap decision, and climb in.

Let me say straightaway that this isn't something I'd advise anywhere in the world. I certainly would not encourage a daughter of mine to do this, even if she is now nearer 40 than 30. In my defense, hitchhiking is a way of life in Zimbabwe, where public transport is unreliable, expensive, and often targeted by inspectors looking for a bribe. Every morning, scores of men and women in suits and tailored dresses thumb lifts into Zimbabwe's central business districts. Proportionally, criminal attacks are rare.

The driver clicks down the central locking. But the windows remain wide-open. I could shout for help if I really needed to. I chatter worriedly about having miscalculated how far $5 of fuel would take me.

"You need to set your mileage clock when you've put in some fuel so you know how far you can go," says the man in the passenger seat. I later learn he's called Albert: His friends are Joseph and Dimas. To my relief, we are nearing a fuel station. I manage to open my door and dive into the scrum by the fuel pump. Albert makes sure my jerrycan is filled promptly. He heckles the attendant to hand over my change (always a problem in Zimbabwe). "How do you know him?" asks a bystander. I wonder briefly if I have been rescued by a local VIP.

I decide not to slip away or lie that a friend is coming to my aid. I get back into the Mercedes. And of course, I am driven back past the government buildings along Fourth Street to where my ancient Toyota sits abandoned on the side of the road, emergency lights blinking.

Joseph helps me pour petrol into the tank. I thank the three of them and slide back into the driver's seat.

I'm telling this story because to me it represents two things. One is that it can be liberating once in a while to lay aside drummed-in suspicions and to trust people. The second is that in the 10 years I have lived in Zimbabwe, I have known little but kindness. That's despite the government's often-trumpeted hostility toward whites.

BBC journalist Kate Adie – a more experienced Kate than I – titled her autobiography "The Kindness of Strangers," borrowing the phrase from Tennessee Williams. The kindnesses I have known in Zimbabwe are simple, everyday ones. There was the teacher who, in the middle of food shortages, slipped me a tin of tomato puree from her own depleted larder. The office workers in central Harare who beckoned me to shelter in their workplace when police were tear-gassing crowds. The schoolchild who threaded me a necklace of dried peas and carrots. The niece of a high-ranking ZANU-PF official who drove me out of Harare several years ago to a "private" garage to buy fuel when there was none in the pumps.

I have known fear, too. I was newly pregnant when our car was attacked by a mob of ruling party supporters during protests in Harare. But sometimes that baton-wielding policeman standing on the corner of the road turns out to be brandishing nothing more sinister than a furled black umbrella.

Locals are bracing for elections that President Robert Mugabe appears determined to hold this year. Antiforeign and anti­opposition rhetoric is swelling in the state-controlled press. Reading the editorial pages can leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Then I think of the kindness – unexpected, unasked for, exhilarating – of Zimbabwean strangers.

As Albert, Joseph, and Dimas drive off, I cautiously pump my accelerator. A few seconds later my cellphone rings. It is Dimas: "Have you got your engine started yet? Are you OK?"

"I'm fine now," I assure him. I haven't heard from any of them since.

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