My Unexpected Day in Harare: Chillin’ with Two Computer Nerds

I was pleasantly surprised to learn the evening we arrived in Harare, that there was someone who was being employed to fix the hostel’s internet problem, who also might be able to take a diagnostic look at my laptop and fix it for me.

I met Mervyn King that evening, and was immediately impressed by his flawless English and incredibly smart personal presentation. It was so wonderful to meet someone whom I immediately felt I could trust and have an intelligent, technical conversation with.

Turns out, Mervyn is a Microsoft certified trainer and had only recently lost his employment with my home-town conglomerate last autumn. His eyes opened like saucers when I told him how close my house was to the Redmond corporate headquarters, and I immediately offered to at the very least, introduce him to some of my acquaintances and connections who work there.

Farai and Mervyn

Farai and Mervyn

Juggling many complex tasks at hand, Mervyn immediately found the issue to be with the screen of my laptop rather than with the computer itself. This confirmed my suspicion. He made phone calls for me to various repair shops and colleagues and then suggested that I wait for his close friend Farai, who was far more adept at solving hardware issues, to come to the hostel and take a look himself. Mervyn believed that I simply had a burned out fuse and by replacing it, functionality of the screen should be restored.

I got restless as I thought the day was going to turn out very much like the one in Lilongwe – waiting around for errands to get taken care of. By lunchtime, I was getting rather anxious to get to DHL and send my tax return to the States by the tax filing deadline. Everyone else in the group had already left to go to town and I was advised not to get a cab as I would be charged to high heaven for being a tourist.

Since Farai was still a ways off and trying to locate a fuse for me, Mervyn suggested I let his cousin, Katherine, drive me into town to go to the DHL office. I accepted his most generous offer and ended up having a lovely afternoon with her and her 3 month old baby daughter Coral. Despite having to go to DHL twice as they initially refused to send my return to the address I’d obtained from the IRS, claiming it wasn’t a physical address (an online search later procured physical street addresses for international delivery services- and I banged my head against the wall for not getting it in the first place) I managed to get the damn thing sent, and learned a great deal about life as a young married mother living in Harare from Katherine.

She talked to me about the enormous wealth gap in her country. Zimbabwe is the 2nd poorest country in the world, with average male life expectancy only at 36. She talked about the corruption, having to bribe the police for everything such as avoiding a parking ticket, struggling to survive on her husband’s wages that had been cut by ¾ after their second child was born. She talked about how services such as DHL and even hiring a lawyer are only a reality to a tiny fragment of the population. If a lawyer charges $100 an hour, how can someone earning $500 a month, which she explained was a very good wage, possibly ever get legal help if fined or arrested for something?

It is a very complex problem in this country where our tour group has also been very severely counseled not to discuss politics with locals…so I was keen to listen, and slow to speak.

She talked about getting pregnant at a young age unexpectedly, and how challenging married life has been since then. How she feels as though she is raising her kids alone – with a slightly absent husband and father. I wasn’t sure to what extent those issues were Zim in nature, however, or whether they were universal.

Playing with her little one, Coral, was also a joy and I wandered around the hostel garden with her giving Katherine a welcome break to talk and, unfortunately, smoke, with her cousin Mervyn. All of the people I’ve met in Zimbabwe so far, are smokers.

With Farai still on his way, I decided to go for a walk into the city by myself around 4pm because I was going a little stir crazy. Mervyn assured me that as long as I left my purse behind, I should be very safe to walk around before dark.

I was so glad that I did. This was one of the first times I’d left the group and been able to simply wander, a traveler’s right that I will never take for granted again. I found myself walking down tree shaded residential streets, through a park, across heavy traffic through fares, and seeing the mass of grey concrete structures increase as I got closer to the city center. Lots of people offered greetings to me as I passed – though mostly not in any sort of harassing way. More in a welcoming way.

I watched women on street corners selling spinach and bananas with their babies swaddled on their backs. Old men with closed eyes lay on the pavement begging for coins. Young men playing snooker on a table parked on a green curb at a street corner. Women walking with entire sacks of potatoes balanced precariously on their heads. Lovers canoodling in the city’s main park – which was a welcome green oasis in what is otherwise a typical African city – busy, devoid of character, and in general disrepair.

Turning around to return to the hostel around 4:30, I got a chance to witness the afternoon rush hour, and throngs of suited and uniformed workers flooded the streets and sidewalks as they made their ways home. The biggest issue I encountered on my wanderings was simply the lack of pedestrian crossings. Huge pedestrianized streets would come to a junction and throngs of people would navigate six lanes of traffic, being forced to wait in the middle of the street, narrowly dodging cars rushing past the other way, before running across to the secure pavement on the other side.

I was one of them.

I returned to the hostel somewhat refreshed and relaxed. Farai was there already pulling my laptop apart in the lobby. Introducing myself to him, I was once again struck by his intelligence, but also by his calm and personable demeanor.

With Farai

With Farai

It was decided that we had to return to the city to secure the part Farai felt he needed, or, to find a replacement screen for the computer. The office where some of his friends in the business worked was open till seven. We decided to all go together (Mervyn decided to tag along – which I suspected was for social reasons) and the boys went ahead of me to negotiate for the kind of cab fare a white woman could not procure.

I found myself about an hour later, climbing four floors of a narrow stairway in one of Harare’s dilapidated high rises, and entering an office containing about five guys sitting around various desks with computer parts strewn all around them.

As Farai began to converse in his native Shona language with his colleagues and began explaining what he believed to be the issue with my laptop – it suddenly occurred to me that I’d put myself in a very precarious situation.

Here I was, with two techie nerds that I’d just met that day, sitting as the lone woman, in a tiny office with about seven guys and a door with a lock on the outside. If I were to be robbed or raped, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be getting much in the way of sympathy for having so foolishly put myself in such a potentially dangerous milieu.

I don’t know why, but I felt safe with Mervyn and Farai. And, much to my surprise, I was beginning to have fun.

Determining that there were no screen parts or fuses available that would be compatible with my Lenovo, we were advised to instead treat the fuse with methylated spirits. So, the three of us made our way back to the hostel, detouring first to Farai’s apartment to grab the spirits.

Along the way, we became better acquainted. The boys told me how they were both self-taught in their relative software and hardware expertise. They had been friends for so long they considered each other as brothers, each claiming that the other had taught him much of what he knew. They discussed the struggle to find work, and get by, but also clearly they both really enjoyed the problem-solving nature of working with computers.

They asked me about life in America, and we had a long drawn-out conversation about race relations that had both of them fascinated and asking lots of questions. By the time we were a few blocks from the hostel, we summarily decided that since we most likely had a long night ahead of us, libations were in order.

I, of course, out of sheer gratitude for the persistence and determination both guys were showing for getting my silly little laptop fixed, offered to buy both of them dinner and get the booze.

Mervyn was in rare spirits, excitedly explaining how long it had been since he’d been able to enjoy such treats. We settled on vodka and the delicious soda, Cherry Plum, for drinks, and each of them grabbed pork and rice for their dinners. The total was less than twenty bucks for everything and I was very happy to treat them.

Getting back, we settled at a table separate to where my crew was eating and proceeded to get rather merry telling stories and sharing experiences. Before I knew it, it was nearly 11 o clock at night and we still hadn’t tried the spirits on the damn computer.

Trying hard not to giggle incessantly, the three of us stayed awake till about 2:30am trying desperately to get the damn ThinkPad to think. At one point, the screen flickered to life for a total of about ten seconds, while Mervyn was out of the room. Convinced that it was simply a “bad connection” – Farai felt confident that neither the fuse nor the screen were to blame for the problem.

Unfortunately, it was now too late to try other things and we were all fighting our bodies urge to sleep. Mervyn declared that I was to take his laptop instead – and he would simply switch out the hard drives and stay up through the night downloading the necessary HP and Lenovo drivers so that a fair exchange could happen – giving Farai more time to work on my laptop that he would then just sell to replace Mervyn’s computer.

The idea seemed crazy to me as Mervyn’s computer was far nicer and newer than my little shitty old thing. I wouldn’t have it – so, after the crazy fun day I’d had with these two nice boys – I made the decision to trust, and I left the laptop with them. It was already in pieces, and each of them assured me it could be fixed and then shipped to Victoria Falls in a week.

Offering me additional assurances, Mervyn gave me his mobile phone and his ID as collateral. He asked me to stay in close touch and for me not to worry.

So far, I’ve been in touch with both Mervyn and Farai daily and progress is being made. However, it’s not just for my laptop that once working I’ll be extremely grateful for. It’s for the two new friends I’ve made in Harare- whose hearts are wide and warm, and who, I am certain, I will see again at some point in my future.

It was a most unexpected and fantastic day.