Councillors did not restrict themselves to embarrassing the citizens of Aberdeen at home and in Europe. We did long distance humiliation too. Another of our Twin Towns (we had five) was Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. In fact a visit there was one of my earliest foreign trips in my role as International Relations Officer.
I had already felt a great deal of unease at the unequal nature of our relationship with Bulawayo. It seemed entirely based on us sending them stuff through our Bulawayo Trust which was run by a lovely colleague who was an ex para and would at least ensure the stuff we were sending was in good shape. The fact that the people of Bulawayo had no say in what we sent was not on the agenda. There was an expectation that they would be good and grateful for our largesse. I used to call it our “rusty lawnmowers for Africa Programme”,
We had been invited to send TWO delegates to an Oxfam conference being held in the City. My Councillors in their infinite lack of wisdom decided they needed to send twelve. Ten Councillors to reflect the political composition of the Council and two handbag carriers/nursemaids i.e. myself and my colleague who ran the Trust. Oxfam were horrified. It meant our hosts according to protocol would have to cover our costs and provide a programme to keep us entertained which was a huge expense and hardly fitting given the theme of the Oxfam conference was tackling poverty. The sheer arrogance of our Councillors meant that of course they basically said “Awa an’ bile yer heid” (Translation: One finger salute to Oxfam).
I realised very quickly that the Town Clerk of Bulawayo was a very astute man with a wicked sense of humour. He was to find ways to let our huge delegation know what he thought of us. After an all night flight we were treated immediately to tea with the Governor of Matabeleland North and a lengthy detailed lecture on their economic forecasts for the next year. I watched the Councillor for Torry nodding off into her plate of Madeira cake chortling to myself. Then the fun really started. We were taken from there to visit a sewage farm. There a very enthusiastic sewage farmer showed us how they were purifying human waste into water and irrigating fields with it. The stench was something to behold. This lovely farmer LOVED his work. He had a way of saying “sludge” that I still remember to this day. I thought it was hilarious. Our lot were expecting the VIP treatment and here we were, straight off the plane after a ten hour flight and now knee deep in excrement.
Then we had our first meeting at the “Mayor’s Parlour” (they retained a lot of colonial throwbacks in language and behaviour). They were very hierarchy-minded so we were seated around the table according to rank so I was right at the far end along with my colleague Doug. The head of our delegation whom I shall call Ray was not very bright and permanently attached to a hip flask of whisky. He was later to fall in the Zambesi due to drinking a flask full of Bells and I was expected to fish him out. Not. Back to this first meeting, I remember cringing inwardly when I could tell the Town Clerk was trying to tell him that we need to redress the power imbalance. This was way beyond our Ray who said exactly the following
I know. If we give you some of our rain, you can give us some of your sun.
I am quite sure my expression of utter horror at the patronising crap emanating from our elected representatives will not have gone unnoticed by Mike Ndubiwa the Town Clerk. I had said not one word throughout. I was still very new and utterly overwhelmed. Suddenly Mike Ndubiwa turned his attention to me and said “I want to hear what YOU think”. I stammered a lot but managed to get over my view that any relationship based on one side giving and the other receiving could hardly be called a partnership in international cooperation. I then burst into tears as I was utterly terrified as I thought I had said the wrong thing.
Shortly after the meeting Mike Ndubiwa took me aside and said he had been very impressed by what I had said. He said
You are the only thinker in your group. I am sending them to the football as it is their level. You will be going to the races at Ascot. Make sure you are smartly dressed and then I want you to come back to me and give me your impressions
So I found myself in the owners’ enclosure at Bulawayo Ascot with the gin and tonic set, an entirely white crowd apart from one Asian. These were the remnants of the Rhodesians and they were clinging to the old ways with what I felt was a real sense of desperation. I met only one woman who appeared to have a social conscience. She was a Scot running a community shop in a poor area and actually had some friends who were black. The others seemed to interact with the black population solely through their maids. It was fascinating. They were in a bubble. They clearly knew this bubble was very close to bursting. I feel there was an aura of enforced jollity around. The were dancing on the edge of an abyss and knew it.
This is what I reported back to Mike Ndubiwa. He was satisfied and again reiterated that I was the only thinker in our group. He liked Doug well enough but said he was a “doer” and not a “thinker”.
We were shown some fascinating initiatives in Bulawayo. I loved what they were doing in former Townships now renamed “High Density Suburbs”. They were providing people with a basic “shell” house at low cost with enough space so they could extend when their circumstances allowed. The services such as electricity were installed by cooperatives of formerly unemployed young people who had been trained to be electricians or plumbers etc in their own community again at very low cost. Now I know this stuff was Assets Based Community Development in action. I didn’t know what the way I thought and felt was called, I just knew it was right.
Culturally, I could see how much Bulawayo had to offer us in Aberdeen. Any non-white person in Aberdeen at that time would be stared at mainly because it was such an unusual sight. I met up with the fantastic Amakhosi Theatre Company, Black Umfolosi the musical group and the artists who made sculptures out of welded metal from the Mzilikazi art centre. I could see such potential for a genuine exchange rather than a patrician donor/recipient arrangement that replicated colonialism in spades.
Once back in Aberdeen I presented a seventeen page report to my Committee with my proposals for ways in which we could create a more reciprocal relationship with Bulawayo. I was sick with nerves before the meeting as I thought my report was not good enough. Now I know that most of them will not have read it. However, they had to justify the spending on their junkets to Zimbabwe so my proposals were agreed.
Alongside my projects, the junketing continued. We went back again to the celebration of the foundation of Bulawayo as a City. This is where I must thank Joshua Nkomo. I as a very pale Scot was sitting in the VIP area with no cover over us. Now I had met Joshua Nkomo in the morning. I told Mike the Town Clerk that I had seen him that morning I was told he was still Harare. So just about to die of sunstroke I was very grateful for the arrival in a Daimler of Mr Nkomo. He sat in his seat in front of me. He was so huge, the shadow was big enough to save me. Thanks Joshua.
Recently I attended a celebration outside Zimbabwe House in the Strand. Though it was raining throughout there was pure joy, and a true sense of optimism.
I am grateful to the people of Bulawayo. I learned a lot from them about Colonialism. I see so much of it in Healthcare regarding Patient Engagement.
We will give you a Tesco voucher or a biscuit and a pat on the head for yet again bleeding your pain against the walls in the hope that something changes. Do they change or are the old ways so entrenched it can be surface-level only? Those with power are mightily loathe to give it up but can put up a great façade. Those who shout most loudly about being Agents of Change in my experience tend to be the most resistant to change as soon as it affects them….and that goes for politicians of any race, and public servants in healthcare or any other field.
I hope for the sake of Zimbabwe and come to that, for the sake of our NHS, that change it is finally coming.