New beginnings: Zimbabwe, back from the brink

Three weeks ago a young elephant wound her trunk around my arm and began – politely, elegantly, insistently – to pull my hand into her mouth and suck the salt sweat off my fingers. It was the happiest I’ve been this year, that moment; partly because of the elephant and partly from that knee-jerk joy; the one that says home.

My mother was born and raised in Zimbabwe, and I spent part of my childhood in Harare; we left in 2001, but I go back every year. This January, I returned to a new regime, and a new feeling in the streets. Nothing yet has visibly changed, except that the police road blocks which used to spore across the city on payday have gone, but the air felt newly oxygenated.

The new president, 75-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa, was previously known to the country as the head of Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organisation. He was closely associated with the Gukurahundi, the massacre of tens of thousands of Ndebele people in the 1980s. Ruefully, warily, people call him The Crocodile. But change – any change – has felt galvanic. The day Mugabe resigned, you could hear the city roar.

For a visitor to Zimbabwe, Victoria Falls is the best place to begin. Its tiny town is structured to look not unlike a frontier in the wild west, but with curio shops selling wire toys instead of saloon bars, and spotlessly clean if dilapidated hotels. On my last visit, I stayed at the N1 Hotel, where the linen is threadbare but fresh, and from there walked to the bridge that leads over the Zambezi and into Zambia.

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