"It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society." --Krishnamurti
A Look at Zimbabwe: A Visit and Subsequent Thoughts
A Look at Zimbabwe: A Visit and Subsequent Thoughts
- Executive Summary
- Preparations for Trip -- Currency Conundrum
- Arrival in Zimbabwe
- Photography in Zimbabwe
- Experience of a Former Farmer
- Deforestation in Nyanga and "War Veterans"
- Preservation of History
- Farmers and Foreign-Exchange Rates
- An Ugly Road Block
- Pensioners in Zimbabwe
- Departure from Zimbabwe -- Currency Conundrum
- The Zimbabwean Economy
- Emigrating Zimbabweans
- Recent Violence in Zimbabwe
- Southern-African Reaction
- Going Back to Zimbabwe to Live
- But I can be Murdered Anywhere in the World
- A Sick Society?
- Dealing with Ever-Present Danger
- Conclusion: The Proverbial Frog
December 29th, 2003.
This message is going out to a broad cross section of people (and it may get forwarded to many more), some of who are very familiar with the situation in Zimbabwe, and some of who probably only really get to hear about Zimbabwe when I talk about it. This may interest you or it may not; if it doesn't, you won't hurt my feelings if you delete it unread. If you do read it and you are not intimately familiar with African history, be prepared to see race discussed in a manner that may not be familiar to you as a non-African. Be assured that race is a very real issue in Africa, for both whites and blacks, and Africans (both black and white) are not shy (as Westerners are) about discussing racial issues and dealing with it in their everyday lives. If you are already familiar with Zimbabwe, I apologise for explaining some things that you probably already know. This account is also long and detailed (so I have divided it into sections for easy reading), and probably way too philosophical. Oh well.
I thought that writing about my ten days in Zimbabwe would be fairly easy. I thought that I'd see all sorts of things to confirm the media reports that we occasionally see in the Western media: queues for petrol (and signs at petrol stations saying they had no petrol); dispossessed and homeless farmers; lawlessness on the part of the police and army; riot police beating peaceful demonstrators, including members of the clergy; farm land lying fallow; "war veterans" standing menacingly at the gates to farms; etc. All of this has happened and does happen, but I didn't see any of it.
First of all, let me describe the grand extent of my visit to Zimbabwe and give you some personal background. I was born in Rhodesia (as it was then) and still have family in Zimbabwe (as it is now). My immediate family and I left Zimbabwe-Rhodesia (as it was briefly) in 1979 when I was 12. On this trip (not my first since I left) I arrived in late November 2003 and left in early December 2003, and spent my time in Harare (the capital city) and Nyanga (near the eastern border of the country in the province of Manicaland) and on the road between Harare and Nyanga. For my trip I took the precaution of registering with the high commission of the country in which I live -- an unnecessary precaution, as it turns out, but a precaution nonetheless. I also didn't take my notebook computer with me, my constant companion because of my business, because I didn't want it to be the catalyst for any trouble. In particular I didn't want to be mistaken for a journalist, although my camera and lenses would probably have been a bigger indicator. I didn't have occasion to go into any grocery shops, but my host did come out of a shop on one occasion without the sugar he went in for because they had none. I spent little time in the central business district (CBD) of Harare. I didn't talk politics with many people because that would have been dangerous, for them and/or for me; I was warned that there are ZANU-PF plants in bars, and that talking politics in such public places was simply not a good idea, as you could be talking to a plant or be overheard by a plant. (ZANU-PF [often shortened to just ZANU or Zanu] stands for Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, and is the name of the ruling party in Zimbabwe.) I did not go looking for a "story" and I did not venture off the main road between Harare and Nyanga, although we did do a fair bit of driving around Nyanga.
To sum up my conflicting emotions (before I've even written about them), I would say that the good in Zimbabwe is very good, and the bad is very bad. The climate and the geography remain the same; even mugabe (aka Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the president and dictator of Zimbabwe and former leader of the Chinese and North Korean supported guerilla terrorist group ZANLA, the Zimbabwe National Liberation Army) can't change those, short of dropping nuclear bombs. The lifestyle (for the white population), as far as I could see, is still hard to beat. The white population is still the same in many respects: friendly, outgoing and pleasant... if you don't count the apparent abundance (and tolerance) of wife/girlfriend beaters and philanderers. (That said, in a country without law and order, to whom would a beaten wife or girlfriend, especially a white one, turn?) On the other hand, hanging over all of the good is the threat that at any moment you could lose it all to state-sponsored terrorism, including the possibility of losing your life. In the blink of an eye and at the whim of a black, ZANU-supporting bureaucrat or even peasant you could lose your home, your business and/or farm, your life savings, your family, your right to live in the country of your birth, and, as I said before, even your life. This applies to blacks and whites; the difference is that the blacks, as the vast majority in the country, have the political power to effect change or even to rise up against the dictatorship running the country. On the other hand, the whites are just along for the ride, whatever happens, good or bad.
Preparations for Trip -- Currency Conundrum
My trip to Zimbabwe starts, obviously, long before I arrived there. I communicated with my family and friends there to tell them that I was planning a visit and to co-ordinate dates. My communication with these people had to be circumspect, as it is believed that the government monitors telecommunications, including e-mail. Do they really? If yes, do they monitor all of it? Who really knows the answers to those questions, but the anecdotal evidence is there and the price is too high to take chances. One network administrator I spoke to there is convinced that the Zimbabwean government hires American firms to monitor SMTP streams into Zimbabwe. (In layman's terms, that means eavesdropping on your e-mail as it is being transferred to or from computers in Zimbabwe, even if that computer is your personal computer and not a server.) I have my doubts about this, not because I believe that there are American companies out there with integrity, but because I am not sure it's feasible or even possible. Then again, I don't know enough to refute it with any certainty.
Because I didn't know for sure that my communication with my family and friends could not be monitored, there were questions that remained unasked until I arrived in Zimbabwe and was able to talk to people face-to-face. Possibly some of the biggest questions surrounded currency, foreign and Zimbabwean: How much foreign currency should I bring? How much foreign currency am I allowed to bring? Can I bring Zimbabwe dollars into the country? If yes, what is the maximum I can bring in? Where can I change money in Zimbabwe? What rate will I get if I change money in Zimbabwe -- the official rate, or the black-market rate (which are significantly different)? If I have foreign currency left when I leave, can I take it out with me? If I have Zimbabwe dollars left when I leave, can I take them out with me? If not, can I change them into foreign currency and at what rate? I didn't have the answers to any of these questions, some of which may seem absurd to some of you, especially if you have never been to Africa. I could have asked a Zimbabwean high commission or embassy somewhere, but the rules in African countries can change overnight or, especially in a country like Zimbabwe where there is almost no rule of law, be arbitrarily made up depending on the official you are dealing with at the moment and the colour of your skin. I didn't ask my family and friends in Zimbabwe because I didn't want to take the chance that the communication might be intercepted and they might be implicated in something, such as conspiring to trade foreign currency on the black market (or "parallel" market, as it is called there).
A couple of days before I was scheduled to fly from Lusaka to Harare, we heard stories of people being stopped at roadblocks in Zimbabwe and having all of their foreign currency confiscated. We (my friend in Lusaka and I) tried to confirm these stories with others who had recently travelled to Zimbabwe, but nobody we talked to had experienced such a thing. The day I was scheduled to leave a friend sent me (by e-mail) a copy of a November 17th, 2003, article from "The Guardian" by Andrew Meldrum which made the allegation about these roadblocks. While I never for a moment considered cancelling my trip to Zimbabwe, I had to decide what the hell I was going to do about paying my way while I was there. The very fact that I faced this conundrum is testimony to the fluidity of the law in Zimbabwe and the lack of predictability. Here I was, a "tourist" who was determined to get to Zimbabwe for personal reasons, having to decide how to try and outwit the government so that I could stay in their country and spend my money there. If I didn't have family and friends in Zimbabwe that I wanted to see and was in fact just a regular tourist, I wouldn't have considered Zimbabwe a feasible destination at all, and would have instead gone to Zambia or South Africa. Little wonder then that there seem to be hardly any tourists in Zimbabwe.
So what did I end up doing? In Zambia I bought Z$930 000 (at the black-market rate, of course), about US$150 worth of Zimbabwean currency at about Z$6000 to US$1. (The official rate [mandated by the Zimbabwean government] is a little over Z$800 [eight hundred] to US$1.) I bought it from three different money changers standing on the side of the road between Lusaka (the capital of Zambia) and Chirundu (a border crossing between Zambia and Zimbabwe). I had planned to buy Z$1 000 000, but I cleaned out the three money changers and didn't have time to drive further looking for another. Again, we had heard that you were only allowed to bring into Zimbabwe some ridiculous amount like Z$2000, but that won't even buy a loaf of bread, so the question became, "How much will I declare on entering Zimbabwe?" I also decided that I needed to take some foreign currency with me. In the end I took Z$930 000, K500 000 (kwacha, the Zambian currency, about US$100), US$70 in cash (US$20 hidden so that I would still be able to pay my departure fee should the other US$50 be confiscated) and a single US$50 travellers' cheque. (The rest of my foreign currency I left with a trusted friend in Lusaka. What I took was, I decided, as much as I was willing to lose.) In case I was forced to sign over the travellers' cheque, I recorded the number and would have immediately reported it stolen to American Express.
The Z$930 000 was an impressive sight, as about Z$700 000 of it was made up of Z$500 notes; that's 1400 bank notes. I looked like a drug dealer sitting with my loot. The balance was in bearer cheques each of which carried an expiry date (some in January and some in June 2004), recently printed in Zimbabwe in Z$5000, Z$10 000 and Z$20 000 denominations to deal with the shortage of actual cash in Zimbabwe. I decided to declare Z$200 000; the rest I simply tied into bundles and put in my suitcase (my checked luggage) without trying too hard to conceal it. Had it been discovered, I would have pleaded ignorance of its existence. Stupid, maybe, but what were my options? I also declared K200 000, as well as US$50 cash and US$50 in travellers' cheques; the balance of my foreign currency (K300 000 and US$20) I hid. To cover any eventualities, I told my friend in Lusaka that if he hadn't heard from me by noon the day after I arrived, then somebody had obviously taken a dislike to me and the undeclared cash in my possession, and that he should make the necessary phone calls. Fortunately, that didn't happen.
Leaving Lusaka airport was amusing. I decided to remove the large flash from my camera bag and in its place I put the Z$200 000 that I would declare on entry to Zimbabwe. This was a bundle of 400 notes, standing on end in the compartment where the flash normally sits. It was too big to put in my pocket or my bum bag, which is why it was in my camera bag. As had happened previously when I left Lusaka to go to South Africa (and as also happened after my trip to Zimbabwe when I left Lusaka for London), the brain trust operating the X-ray machine opened my bag to look inside. The guy flipped open the compartment containing the wad of cash, didn't bat an eyelid, closed it, continued with his search, and then sent me on my way without a word. There was no way to tell, looking at that wad of cash standing on end, what currency it was. It could have been a wad of US$100 notes (US$40 000) for all he knew. Was he actually thinking (or conscious!) while he was looking through my bag? If so, what was he looking for? Who knows.
Arrival in Zimbabwe
I arrived at Harare International Airport, having spent the flight over reminding myself what currency I was declaring. On arrival I was impressed at the sight of the new terminal, both inside and out. However, what impressed me even more was that it was empty except for two or three Customs officers and the eight or so passengers from the aeroplane on which I had just arrived. (The arrivals hall was similarly devoid of humanity, with only one or two parties there to meet people in addition to the party who met me.) I filled in the entry form and said that I would be staying in Zimbabwe for eleven days. Normally I tend to overestimate the number of days I will be staying in order to maintain a safety margin, but I decided to declare the exact number of days this time in order not to give anyone an excuse to accuse me of lying. (Although I stayed only ten days, I was originally supposed to stay eleven days, but decided to leave a day earlier than planned to give myself more time in Lusaka before my departure on December 4th for London.) What I didn't notice until I was well away from the airport was that, although I had arrived on November 23rd, the entry stamp in my passport said November 21st. So, despite having been given a day more than I needed, I was still a day short because the stamp claimed I had arrived two days earlier than I really had. African incompetence or African deceit? Who knows. However, having read a story in a "Getaway" magazine (a southern-African travel magazine) about one of their journalists who had encountered a similar scenario in Zimbabwe with ugly consequences, I wouldn't have been surprised if it was the latter. I was tempted to change the date myself with a pen and scribble some fake initials under it. However, I was persuaded to go to the Immigration office in downtown Harare to explain my predicament a day or two later. Those familiar with African bureaucracy will know what happened next; the official behind the desk did exactly what I was planning to do. I asked him, incredulously, if he would put some sort of official stamp on it so that it didn't look like I had done it myself, but none was forthcoming.
Photography in Zimbabwe
My father had asked me to take some photographs of a number of places with which he had been involved during their construction. My host was actually quite nervous about my camera, especially when in the CBD of Harare, and so I think I took only one picture there other than the few I took quickly and surreptitiously of one of the places my father wanted me to photograph. I intended to ask permission to take pictures of this particular building, but I wanted a few in advance in case I was denied permission. As it was, the administrator was quite happy to give me permission, and I roamed the grounds by myself taking all the pictures I wanted, both inside and outside. This particular building still looked quite good and was in a good state of repair after more than 40 years.
I did not receive such a friendly welcome at my second stop. This time I didn't take any pictures in advance, and ended up talking to the chief of public and press relations for this particular place. He listened to my request, told me to put it in writing, and then went back into his office and closed the door. (We're not talking about a top secret military base here!) I looked at his secretary, pulled out my pen, and asked for a piece of paper. However, I decided not to bother as I didn't know my host's address or telephone number off by heart and I figured that, even if I did get a positive written response (or any response at all), there was no way it would arrive before I left Zimbabwe. So, I put my pen back and promised to send them a letter. Then I went and took the pictures anyway. In this case, a world-class structure at a public institution that is barely more than 20 years old, had fallen into a shocking state of disrepair and neglect. Very sad.
I happened to arrive when the West Indies were in town to play cricket against Zimbabwe at Harare Sports Club. I attended the match on Wednesday, November 26th and thoroughly enjoyed the day. Zimbabwe actually beat the West Indies that day, which was quite an accomplishment. We sat in the sparsely-populated stands for some of the game, and then spent the rest of the match in the corporate boxes. In there and in the bar afterwards, you wouldn't have known that Zimbabwe is a country that has been on the brink (of something) for several years now. Apparently there is still a lot of money ("obscene" amounts in some cases, to quote one person) in Harare, much of it fuelled by dealings in foreign currency. Something that surprised me is that quite a number of people making their living through foreign currency dealings are former farmers. Ensure you interpret what I said correctly and realise that it is based on hearsay; a significant number of people making their living through foreign currency deals are former farmers, but in fact it is only a very few former farmers. Apparently usury is quite rife too.
Experience of a Former Farmer
A friend of my host is a former farmer. What I heard about his situation was very interesting. Apparently, in dealing with ZANU officials on matters related to his seized farm, he has made "friends" with some of them. This startled me, quite frankly. How does one become "friends" with people who are stealing your life and everything you have worked for out from under you? Good question, so I asked it. These officials claim that they are just as unhappy with what mugabe is doing to the country as the brutalised white farmers (and their black employees) are. They claim that, when mugabe is gone, they will give back (either in whole or in part) the farms that have been seized and which now lie (for the most part) untended or barely tended at all. Can these people be believed, or is this pure nonsense and fantasy on the part of the former farmers? I have an opinion, the former farmer has an opinion, and only time will tell which of us is right.
Deforestation in Nyanga and "War Veterans"
My only full weekend in Zimbabwe was spent in Nyanga. The journey up there from Harare was uneventful and we were stopped at only a couple of police road blocks on the way -- fewer than we would have seen on a journey of the same length in Zambia, but loaded with far more potential for nastiness. (Zambian road blocks are a joke in comparison, and almost amusing in fact.) There was nothing remarkable (to me) about what I saw (or didn't see) on the way up, but we had my host's black gardener with us as he was returning to that area for a few days to see his children. He has lived in that area for most of his life, since he was a child, and kept commenting as we drove along that the area had changed so much for the worse in recent years, particularly in the last couple of years. I couldn't fully understand exactly what he was talking about, but he seemed to be referring to indiscriminate deforestation, presumably undertaken by those (usually describing themselves as "war veterans") who feel that they have a right to do to the land whatever they want because it is "theirs". We spent a couple of nights at a cottage, and the friend of my host with whom we had gone there commented that the "war veterans" had chopped down quite a few trees on the property since he was last there. In fact, several trees were cut down while we were there. Whether or not these people have a legal right to fall these trees in a country where there is no rule of law is not even worth discussing.
(The term "war veteran" [or "war vet", often pronounced as the single word "wovet"] deserves some explanation here for those not familiar with Zimbabwean history. The war referred to is the civil war that took place starting [depending on how you define the start of an undeclared guerilla war] sometime during the 1960s or early 1970s and which officially ended in 1980. For those who had trouble with maths in school, the war ended almost 24 years ago now. Many of these people claiming to be "war veterans" are teenagers -- gangs of thugs organised by ZANU and its youth wing. Even those in their 20s could not have been older than five years when the war ended.)
Preservation of History
We visited the Troutbeck Inn for drinks one day; it was quiet, although not as dead as the airport was on the day of my arrival. We also visited the Rhodes Nyanga Hotel, where there is also a small museum. Again, the hotel didn't seem very busy, although the person we spoke to assured us that they were quite busy. He gave us a tour of a few rooms (presumably unoccupied), including the rooms where Cecil John Rhodes (after whom Rhodesia was named) slept and dined. In fact, the room where he slept still contains his original furniture. We also had the museum opened so we could have a look. I have heard stories that the Zimbabwe government has, at best, ignored the destruction of some of Zimbabwe's historical documents and artifacts (including Rhodes' grave) and, at worst, encouraged and participated in it. (History is history and, no matter how odious it might be to someone, it should be preserved for future generations so that they may learn from it.) So, it was encouraging to see that the black owners of this hotel have kept both the name and the museum intact.
Farmers and Foreign-Exchange Rates
Another place we visited was a farm in the area. We visited the dairy and drank milkshakes and ate baked goods. This farm was also growing flowers for export to earn much-needed foreign currency for the country. However, the problem with such exports is that the goods are sold to the international market at the official exchange rate, while the farmer has to pay the black-market rate to buy his inputs. For example (numbers are purely hypothetical), if a dozen roses sells for US$20, the farmer earns (at the official rate of Z$800 to US$1) Z$16 000. However, if it costs the farmer US$10 to grow those roses he has to buy that US$10 at the black-market rate, meaning it cost him (at the black-market rate of Z$6000 to US$1) Z$60 000 to grow those dozen roses! Look at it another way. Let's say it costs the farmer US$10 (Z$60 000 at the black-market rate) to grow a dozen roses. In order to break even, he needs to sell those roses for US$75 (Z$60 000 at the official rate). That's a 650% mark-up! How many businesses do you know of that can be competitive if they need that big a mark-up just to break even? Of course, not all inputs are paid for in foreign currency, particularly labour. However, even though the figures are not precise, they illustrate a huge problem.
Adjacent to the dairy farm we saw another farm that was apparently being worked by "war veterans". The only activity we saw there was some workers trying to fix a tractor that was loaded with seed potatoes.
An Ugly Road Block
Our journey back to Harare, along the same route, was much the same as the journey up with one notable exception. I had let my guard down and had not kept my foreign currency hidden. Not that it was lying exposed on a seat in the car, but I had made no effort to hide it in places in my luggage which would stand up to a cursory search. At the road block on the Harare side of Marondera the police officer told us, without any preliminary discussion, to pull over to the side of the road. After we had sat there for a couple of minutes he came over and informed us that he was going to search the entire vehicle for "money". This was not good news, and could not turn out well. Besides the stories I had heard about all foreign currency being confiscated in such searches, the police have also, in the recent past, confiscated "excessive" amounts of Zimbabwean cash because it is illegal to hoard the cash which is so scarce in the country. Although my approximately US$150 worth of Zimbabwean currency was not an excessive amount by any reasonable stretch of the imagination, it could easily be considered excessive in terms of what one would normally need for one day. However, any move by me towards my luggage would not have elicited a positive reaction, so I just sat tight. My host's friend, who was driving (there were five of us in the car, including two children), got out of the car and opened the boot (trunk to you North Americans), all the while keeping up a stream of conversation. He was explaining to the cop that we had just been in Nyanga for the weekend, had not left the country (e.g., to go to Moçambique or South Africa) and so we had no foreign currency with us. For whatever reason, after pawing through a few items in the boot, he decided not to bother searching the car and everything in it. That was a huge relief, and we wasted no time in departing.
Something else the cop would have been interested in that was in the boot was a jerry can full of petrol. Apparently these are routinely confiscated. Along the roads, usually not far from a road block, you will also see "petrol stations" (gas stations for the North Americans) set up. These are not your shiny Shell or Total stations with neon lights and canopies; these are oil drums set up in the bundu (bush) with a piece of hose pipe for siphoning the petrol into your tank. Guess where these people get the petrol that they sell to you. There are no prizes for guessing right the first time.
Pensioners in Zimbabwe
We returned from Nyanga on Monday and I spent that afternoon with some family friends. These people are a retired couple -- retired numerous times (by their own admission) from various jobs and businesses. He retired after more than two decades of high-ranking service to both the Rhodesian and Zimbabwean governments, mostly with the Zimbabwean government, and most of his service with the Rhodesian government was in a role that brought him into contact with the black population in ways that were meant to foster development and a smooth transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe. (I apologise for being so vague, but it is for a reason. I'm trying to say that this is a person who, if any white man is going to be the recipient of some sort of favouritism from the black government, it would be him.) His monthly government pension won't even buy enough dog food for one of their dogs for one month. Admittedly these are not people who are content to sit around doing nothing, so it's probable that they would have the business they now run even if their pensions did support them. However, if this business fails or is somehow usurped, they will be destitute. OK, so they get rid of their dogs and don't have to buy dog food -- now try and survive on less money than it takes to feed your dog every month. Think about it. These people are the "lucky" ones. There are pensioners in Zimbabwe dying of starvation because they have nobody to support them and no way to support themselves.
Departure from Zimbabwe -- Currency Conundrum
I left Zimbabwe the following morning. On the way to the airport I pondered what to do with my remaining Zimbabwe dollars. I knew (actually I assumed) that I couldn't take them out of the country, but it was my money dammit! I decided to put the bearer cheques (in their larger denominations) in the "secret" pocket in my shorts. There they were unobtrusive and I was willing to take the chance that I could get them out. However, I still had about Z$200 000 left in Z$500 notes. (I didn't bother counting it; I just eyeballed it.) Not a hell of a lot of money -- only about US$33. Did I want to throw it in my luggage and chance it ending the day in the pocket of some official at the airport (and perhaps worse for me), or should I just give it to my host? I decided to give it to my host, but then decided to keep a few dollars (I peeled off about Z$10 000) for an experiment. As it happens, my luggage was not searched and I could have taken it out of the country with no problem.
At the still-empty airport I found out that the departure fee was US$30, not US$20 as I had been told. (I believe that Zimbabwean citizens can pay this in Zimbabwe dollars [although I am not sure at what rate], but foreigners must pay in US dollars or pounds sterling. I presume other reasonably strong foreign currencies would be accepted, but I didn't ask and you certainly wouldn't want to count on it or change if you didn't have the exact amount.) It's a good thing the cop in Marondera didn't discover my foreign currency. After checking in and saying goodbye to my host, I stopped at the first hurdle between me and the aeroplane. (The scene literally looks like a steeplechase.) He just wanted to see my boarding card, which I showed him. My next stop, at the desk behind him, was exit control. This seems to be a feature unique to Third-World countries (and probably Second-World countries, when they existed), although I encountered it for the first time in a First-World country in the Netherlands shortly after I was in Zimbabwe. This person looked at my passport and stamped it, showing that I had exited Zimbabwe. Interestingly enough, she made no comment about the manual change to the entry stamp in my passport. That was a relief.
Next stop was currency control, and this is where it got interesting. The person at the desk asked me if I had any Zimbabwean currency on me. Time for my experiment. I said, "Yes, maybe about $10 000." (When I counted it later it was actually $13 000, plus the bearer cheques I had hidden away.) She said that I could not take it out of the country with me. I said, "Oh, what should I do with it then?" expecting her to tell me to give it to her. She said that I could go back out to the terminal and spend it in the shops there. Remember, this is after I have "officially" exited Zimbabwe. I told her that I had looked in the shops and didn't see anything there that I wanted. Then I looked past her at the duty-free shops in the departure area and asked her if I could spend it there. She said, "You can try," and off I went. She let me past with the now-illegal Zimbabwean cash I was carrying to "try" and spend it in the duty-free shops! We're talking about the equivalent of little more than US$1.50 here! Of course, I went straight to the gate and I ended up selling it and the bearer cheques in Zambia.
The Zimbabwean Economy
That's the blow-by-blow account of my trip to Zimbabwe. What about this economy that is supposedly on the brink of collapse, and has been for at least four years now since the referendum that precipitated all this chaos? I am not an economist, but my understanding of the way the world's economies are supposed to work is that £10 in the United Kingdom should buy roughly the same "basket of goods" in Zimbabwe -- not exactly the same, but roughly speaking and as a general rule. However, £10 probably buys almost £20 worth of goods in Zimbabwe. I haven't figured it out exactly because I didn't do much shopping in Zimbabwe, but my impression from talking to people and seeing the prices of a lot of things is that they are ridiculously cheap to someone from outside the country. (For example, I bought a very nice, button-up, collared, short-sleeve shirt for US$16. You'll pay that for a T-shirt of questionable quality in other countries.) However, incomes are also much lower in Zimbabwe (I'm talking about for educated people in managerial- and executive-level positions), so to Zimbabweans everything seems "normal" as long as they don't have to buy anything from outside the country with foreign currency (e.g., airline tickets or Internet hosting). The lucky few (executive-level) who are paid some of their salary in foreign currency (outside the country, I believe) leave that money outside the country for a rainy day, to buy things that must be bought in foreign currency, or bring it into the country and buy Zimbabwe dollars on the black market, making their salary go a hell of a lot further than if they are paid purely in Zimbabwe dollars inside the country. The annual salary for the network administrator I spoke to compares favourably only to the monthly salary of a network administrator in a place like Canada. It's no wonder he has applied to emigrate there.
Speaking of Zimbabweans going abroad, their reactions once out of the country are instructive. With access to satellite television common in Zimbabwe these days, there's no excuse (which wasn't always the case) for being ignorant of what happens in the country, despite the propaganda in the government-run media and the constant harassment and closing down of the locally-based independent media, including the reporters of international media outlets trying to do their jobs in Zimbabwe. So how do Zimbabweans recently arrived, whether on holiday or immigrating, in other countries react? Think about it. Do they defend what is going on in Zimbabwe? (Well, actually, I have heard of one fairly recent ex-Zimbabwean who referred to a "hard-won independence", as she side-stepped the question of mugabe's policies. One wonders why she left, but I digress.) Do they pine for the razor wire and the personal security guard? They may pine for the good weather and the domestic help, but the short answer is no, they do not pine for the razor wire. They tend to become instant converts to "the cause", if there is such a cause. They marvel at the fact that they don't have to live behind walls topped with razor wire or broken glass; they are amazed that they can get sugar at the grocery store every time they go; they're happy that their children don't grow up in a culture of fear; there's no iron gate to lock at night; they don't have to watch what they say and who they say it to; and so on. For the first time in years, or perhaps even their lives, they can relax a bit.
I wrote earlier of anecdotal evidence of the monitoring of e-mail in Zimbabwe. Here is some of that anecdotal evidence. A friend of my host in Zimbabwe received, unsolicited, an e-mail message with news of a planned stay-away, or general strike. She deleted the message, but the CIO (Central Intelligence Organisation, roughly the Zimbabwean equivalent of the American CIA) raided the offices where she worked, "discovered" the offending e-mail (received, I stress again, unsolicited), arrested her and threw her in prison for four days where she was beaten. She was then released without charge. That's just for receiving the message, not for sending it. She quickly decided she no longer wanted to live in Zimbabwe, and left.
Recent Violence in Zimbabwe
What else? Shortly after leaving Zimbabwe I heard from a friend that friends of hers (husband, wife and two children) were severely beaten for three hours on their farm. Nothing new -- it just makes it more real when it is friends. Also in the news is that, in November, the governor of Manicaland province (where Nyanga is located) was been fired by mugabe because she was considered too friendly to the few remaining white farmers in the province. She has been replaced by a retired lieutenant-general of the Zimbabwean army who was in charge of the troops protecting mugabe's diamond mines in the "Democratic" Republic of the Congo (formerly Zäire). It doesn't take much to speculate on his agenda. Since then, to quote ZWNews.com, "The chief accountant for a British-owned tea estates in Zimbabwe's eastern mountains [where I was] died ... after he was abducted and forced to drink acid. Phillip Laing, who was married with two young children, was found chained to a tree in the bush yesterday and it is not known whether he died during the night or instantly."
Much of the international outcry over Zimbabwe is driven by people in countries outside of Africa -- Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States, etc. What do people in sub-Saharan Africa in general and southern Africa in particular think of Zimbabwe? (For those not familiar with southern Africa, it is not a country; it is a region comprised of a number of different countries, including South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Moçambique and Angola. People refer to "sub-Saharan Africa" because that is "black Africa", as opposed to north Africa [again a region, not a country] which is Arab.) First let's separate the so-called leaders of these countries from the people in these countries; the leaders of these countries do not necessarily represent popular opinion. The obvious leader to examine first is Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. Being the leader of the (as yet) largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, Mbeki's action (or, more appropriately, inaction) on the Zimbabwe issue is not of little consequence. Mbeki prefers a policy of "quiet diplomacy" towards Zimbabwe. What this means, in another well-worn phrase, is "trust me". Sorry, but I don't, because I prefer another cliché: "Actions speak louder than words." I don't believe that, behind the privacy of closed doors during lavish state dinners while the people in your respective countries are dying of starvation or at the hands of the police, army or thugs, you are applying the thumbscrews to mugabe. If anything you're probably asking him for pointers so that you can do the same thing in your country, when the time is right. Then there's Sam Nujoma of Namibia (formerly South West Africa) who openly admires mugabe's policies with respect to land distribution and is trying to implement them in his country. There are other leaders who are either strangely silent on the issue or openly supportive. What little opposition there is among southern African leaders to mugabe is driven by selfish concern for the damage he is doing to the economies of southern Africa.
What of the ordinary people of southern Africa? Hell, I'm not really sure. The subject of Zimbabwe seems to elicit a clucking of the tongue and a shake of the head. I've heard some say, "Ag, it's just Africa." Well, maybe it is just Africa, but that shouldn't be an excuse. It's one thing to say, "Ag, it's just Africa" when the power goes out for the third time in two days, or you can't buy sugar, or you can't talk to anyone at the phone company... wait, that's "just Canada", a "civilised" country; it's another to say, "Ag, it's just Africa" when a country that was formerly the bread basket of southern Africa has to rely on international food aid, and some of their population still dies of starvation... those that are not dying at the hands of state-sponsored terrorism.
At the risk of sounding corny and naïve, why can't we all just get along? Think about it; this isn't a racial issue, it's a power issue. Dictators like mugabe have turned their countries into their own personal fiefdoms, the basic rights of those under their rule (black and white) completely ignored. The people in countries like Zambia seem to be able to get along, so why can't they in Zimbabwe? Well, I actually answer that question and make comparisons further along. It's because mugabe is the last of the leaders of the "struggle" against European colonialism; he is a relic of the past, a racist with a vitriolic hatred for whites (and other identifiable groups like homosexuals) that rivals Adolf Hitler's hatred for Jews, blacks, homosexuals, and anyone else that didn't fit his narrow stereotype of a good Aryan. (Again, we're supposed to learn from history.) For mugabe, it's payback time. Never mind the fact that European colonialists never inflicted on black Africans the genocide they carried out in North America; mugabe would like to see Zimbabwe "cleansed" of whites once and for all. He fails to realise that whites are no longer aliens in Africa; they have migrated there over time and have been born and died in Africa just as black Africans have migrated all over Africa and have now migrated to Europe. How does putting a young child, too young to have learned any history yet, through a three-hour ordeal of pain and terror and killing his parents build a nation?
Going Back to Zimbabwe to Live
A question I am often asked, especially since this trip, is, "Would you go back and live in Zimbabwe?" (Of course, such a question assumes I have the right to do such a thing. Despite the fact that I was born there, I do not.) The answer to that seems obvious, especially when I know of no white person who has gone back to Zimbabwe in recent years (which isn't to say there are none), but know of many who have left or who would like to leave. As I told a friend, there is an atmosphere in Zimbabwe that is familiar to me; I could see myself living there again. The only thing is that it certainly would not be under present circumstances. As I said earlier, one has to learn from history, and forty or so years of post-independence African history is very instructive. If there was a transition to a democracy there tomorrow and I felt it stable enough to live there perhaps a year from now, I might. However, I would never burn any bridges (financial and citizenship-wise) and in fact would actively maintain them. What has happened in Zimbabwe and Rhodesia before it over the last 40 years (but especially in the last ten) has done so much to undermine the basic fabric of society. For example, how do you turn a police force bent on murdering the populace and destroying its property into one committed to protecting the populace and its property (while busy issuing speeding tickets)? And how do you turn a populace afraid of the police into a populace that respects the police? For your answer, look at the situation in the Balkans fuelled by hatred nurtured since the Second World War and earlier; look at the situation in the American south, fuelled by slavery that ended two centuries ago. The answer is that, if it will happen, it certainly won't happen in my lifetime, and most likely not for many generations.
But I can be Murdered Anywhere in the World
A common response to the assertion from someone like me that the situation in Zimbabwe is not "safe" is that one can be murdered anywhere in the world. (This is a slightly more important issue than whether or not you can get sugar at the grocery store on any given day.) That's absolutely true -- no argument from me there. However, the chances of you being murdered by the police or the army or by thugs under the command of the president in any country not at war (and Zimbabwe is supposedly not at war) are slim, which is not the case in Zimbabwe. In any country where there is reasonable faith in the police and justice system you don't need to surround your property with walls topped with razor wire, have a lockable iron gate inside your house (I've heard them called "rape cages") to seal off the bedrooms while you sleep (which makes one wonder about escape routes in the event of a fire), have dogs whose primary purpose is to guard the property not to be a pet, and have a security guard from dusk to dawn. And if you are abused or murdered by the police in a country where the rule of law prevails, at least there is a reasonable chance that you or your survivors will have recourse to justice and that the cops, soldiers or thugs will go to jail for their crimes; the chances of that happening in Zimbabwe are laughable. Am I saying that the First-World, "civilised" (I put that term in quotation marks on purpose) country where I now live is paradise and Zimbabwe is hell? Far from it. However, there are certainly advantages to both the individual and society as a whole if one doesn't have to devote so much of one's mental energy on a daily basis to worrying about one's personal security.
A Sick Society?
This leads me to roll a few of my observations into one point. I am neither a psychologist nor an anthropologist, but I can't help feeling that an abundance of stressors on individuals and a society as a whole leads to undesirable consequences. Apparently the divorce rate among former farmers is higher than it is for the rest of the population. Do you think that might be related to what is happening to farmers? Do men who are generally happy with their lives beat their wives or girlfriends, threaten them with a loaded gun, or go looking for love in the arms of another woman? I think not. Do women who live in happy, stable relationships drink to excess on a regular basis? I'm guessing not again. Can it ever be normal in a society where anarchy does not, supposedly, prevail to live in a fortress? How do you talk to your neighbour over a two-metre-high wall topped with razor wire? So, although Zimbabweans have accepted their current lot as "normal" for them (or at least no big deal), I can't help feeling that it isn't. Then again, where else in the world do you judge who your real friends are by who will help you in the middle of the night to find a few litres of petrol (through personal and business contacts vital to everyday survival) to get you back home? I suppose that the good goes with the bad -- nothing is ever cut and dried.
Dealing with Ever-Present Danger
So how does your average white person in Zimbabwe manage to live with the threat that they could lose everything instantly? I have asked this question, in one way or another. Zimbabweans are famous for "making a plan"; right now the country seems full of opportunists, willing to make a buck on the back of someone else in the country. As I mentioned, usury is apparently common and people dealing in foreign currency are making a mint while pensioners starve to death. On the one hand you can look askance at this and question the morals of people willing to live the high life while their fellow citizens are starving and being beaten and killed. On the other hand, the whites are a tiny minority in the country and have almost no political power, so it's not as if they can have any effect by being altruistic, banding together, and agitating for change, democracy and good government. (Such actions would be branded "neo-colonialism" by mugabe, considered seditious actions by "Rhodesians", and dealt with accordingly, further reducing the white population in Zimbabwe.) So, it seems, white Zimbabweans live for the moment with one ear to the ground. Personal and business contacts are vital, especially if you have black contacts who may even have contacts within ZANU; if something "serious" was to be in the pipeline, you might hear of it and be able to act proactively. Apparently some companies have made commitments to employees to evacuate them if things ever get hot in Zimbabwe, and I have heard of an example where this happened during the 2000 parliamentary elections.
Conclusion: The Proverbial Frog
But, in a country where people are so used to living in fear, how do you define "serious"? I am reminded of the story of the frog in the pot of water, and I'm sure I'm not the first to draw the analogy in this situation. Apparently, if you put a frog in a pot of room-temperature water on the stove and slowly raise the temperature of the water, the frog will adjust to the temperature of the water. Eventually the frog will be cooked alive because it never realises when the situation becomes "serious", and so never jumps out of the water. Are white Zimbabweans frogs in a pot of very hot (on the brink of boiling) water? We, outside the country, keep yelling, "Jump!" Are we right? If we are, we may not know until it's too late.
The original of this essay is located on the World Wide Web at thetourist.rhonet.org. Permission is granted by the author to circulate and publish this essay without personal attribution, but please include a link or reference to thetourist.rhonet.org. Thank-you.
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