NKAYI, ZIMBABWE — We are puttering along in an ancient pickup with no brakes to speak of, dodging the potholes. Every bolt seems to groan with effort, but Max Mkandla says the car is doing well. He speaks rather like a proud father discussing his brightest child.
"I'm trying to protect these tires," Max says. There's a pause. "Because I haven't got a spare."
I'm taking a turn at the wheel. The seat won't roll forward -- not good for someone just over 5 feet tall, so I've wedged lumpy bags and books behind me to reach the foot controls.
Suddenly a calf lollops across the road and I floor the brakes, or try to. There seems to be no stopping our rattling, chaotic momentum, but eventually we slow down. The calf trots to safety.
But in protest, the brakes get even worse. A line of warning lights blinks angrily on the dash. When I point this out, Max takes the wheel, but within an hour, the car has had enough.
"Everything's gone, brake lights, everything," he says, pulling over in thick bushland. We're stranded in outback Zimbabwe with no cellphone reception on a track with few cars.
I give up hope of getting any work done. I'm supposed to be on my way to research a story about hunger with Max, a stringy war veteran turned activist. But nothing is simple in Zimbabwe. I'd planned to leave by 8. Problems getting diesel (and Max's elastic idea of punctuality) meant it was lunchtime before we got on the road.
But once the car has rested awhile, Max starts it up and decides we can limp along after all.
The music of the cicadas almost drowns out the tinny vibrations of the tape player. Zimbabwean artist Oliver Mtukudzi is singing a ballad in Shona called "Bvuma": "Accept that you are old. Accept that you are worn out. . . . Don't deny it, you are finished." It could have been written for Max's car. Or is it about the country's all-powerful, 83-year-old president, Robert Mugabe?
The roads of Zimbabwe sing their own haunting lament for a people and their suffering.
Junica Dube felt the birth pangs of her first child. She was hoping for a boy. In the hospital, Dube struggled and labored, alone. There was no painkiller, nor any comfort, in a medical system racked by shortages of even basic items. She asked for help, but the nurses said to call them when she was really in pain.
"The nurses told me to keep quiet, I'm making too much noise," the 28-year-old says. "I tried by all means to keep quiet, but it was too painful."
She felt small, frightened and terribly alone. Outside the maternity ward, her husband, Luke, waited anxiously with his sister, Daisy.
Two days passed, but still no child came.
Despite the car and the roads, Max and I have made it to a village named Nkayi in western Zimbabwe. A mechanic has been found. It turns out we've been driving for quite some time with no fan belt.
Max says he always carries a spare fan belt, just not today.
We are sitting in the dusty main square, hood up and windows open in the late afternoon heat with Mtukudzi blaring out of the speakers. A small boy with a stick ambles by and seeing an old tick-bitten donkey with a floppy ear, gives it a random whack.
When I first traveled to Zimbabwe in 2005, locals waxed about the country's beauty, but I could see why so many people were leaving. Later, things got even worse, yet its pull on me grew -- it's the kind of sleepy yet menacing backwater that would have made a great setting for a Graham Greene novel.
Life here is full of Catch-22 dilemmas that would strain credulity if they were fiction: It costs more to go to work than you can possibly earn, for example. There is no economy to speak of, either, just the black market, where even the government gets its dollars. And hospitals, like the one where Junica Dube was giving birth, with no medicines and little staff, are places of death, not life.
Every time I've come to Zimbabwe, I've met someone new, dipping in and living their story for a while. You end up with a collection of stories scattered like photographs on a table, some about survival, some about grief. One of those pictures is Junica Dube telling her story as she sits in her house, lighted by a single candle during one of the daily power blackouts.
But many stories don't get told. Reporting is difficult here. Because the government rarely issues journalist visas to foreigners, most of us work undercover, risking jail.
So when I had asked some church activists who knew where people were most hungry to take me to Nkayi, they told me, horrified, that it would be impossible. Everyone would ask who the white woman was. I'd be watched. The authorities would be summoned.
But Max had brushed aside such fears. Now, sitting in the car, watching villagers dawdling around the dusty square enjoying the last peaceful hours of their Sunday, the warnings tumble through my brain.
I stiffen as a police vehicle stops nearby and three men get out.
Are they coming my way? No.