Puzzled by Harare

Trip Start Feb 20, 2007
Trip End Jun 2007

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doogles backpacker

Flag of Zimbabwe  ,
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Another eight-hour bus journey took me to Blantyre, Malawi's commercial capital. Blantyre is a more pleasant city than Lilongwe, at least having some sort of a meaningful center - a triangular grid of streets lined with banks, shops and the odd restaurant. I was there over a weekend, however, so the streets were quiet. Like Lilongwe, it is dangerous to go out at night, so I found myself confined to my hostel, a backpacker's place named Doogles. The bar there was always quite busy with ex-pats, the usual batch of misfits, Aid workers and businessmen. They didn't mix with the tourists, and we were happy to keep ourselves apart in a little room to the side.

I met my Norwegian friends from Nkhata Bay there, and spent most of my time with them, chatting, playing cards and having a few Kuche-Kuches (the delicious Malawian beer) in the evenings. My day in Blantyre was spent sorting out money for Zimbabwe. Because of the situation in Zimbabwe I had no choice but to bring all my money with me in dollars. To do this I had to withdraw Malawian Kwacha from ATM machines, which was a problem as Visa had once again decided to block my card. Luckily I got this sorted out and didn't have to wait any longer in this city which I was eager to leave.

I have had a keen interest in Zimbabwe and its politics for the past few years, and it is one of the countries in Africa that I looked forward to visiting most. Doris Lessing is one of my favourite authors, and her descriptions of this wonderful country had planted images in my mind that I wanted to become real before my eyes. Zimbabwe has been in the international news quite a bit over the past few months, largely because Morgan Tsvangirai, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition leader was arrested and brutally beaten up by police on March 11th. The world saw pictures of him leaving hospital in a wheelchair, with a badly swollen black eye. Doctors say his skull was cracked when he came in for treatment. Countless people had been advising me not to go to Zimbabwe because of all this, but my desire to see this country at such an interesting time was too great. From talking to other tourists who had passed through Zimbabwe recently I learned that there was nothing to be afraid of; the problems are political in nature, and once I was careful I should be perfectly safe.

I took a direct bus from Blantyre to Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, in order to get what could have been a two or three day journey on matatus over in a day. We had to go through a sliver of Mozambique that separates Malawi and Zimbabwe, which meant crossing borders twice. The first border took nearly two hours to cross, because of bribe-greedy officials. Many of the bus's passengers were Zimbabwean women, who go to Malawi to buy rice, clothes and other goods that they then bring back to Zimbabwe to sell at higher prices. Technically they are supposed to pay duty on these exported goods, but it is more traditional to bribe the guards to ignore this rule. Thus, much discussion took place between the women and the guards, and there were a few bags of grain that mysteriously had no owner when the guards found them. We eventually trundled on through the border, and entered Mozambique.

It is difficult to compare levels of poverty between African countries, just by looking from the window of a bus, through western eyes. This section of Mozambique appeared, at the surface, to be poorer than Malawi. The people lived in very simple huts, often entirely made from grass or straw, thatched around a timber frame, with plastic sheeting under the thatch to keep the rain out. Rain, however, appeared to be a problem for all the wrong reasons here - the land was scorched yellow with drought, and fields of failed maize showed that the rains had not been generous this year. Nearly every river we passed through was either completely dried up or reduced to a timid trickle. The exception was the great Zambezi River, which we passed over after driving through Tete. The Zambezi is one of Africa's greatest rivers, made famous for its thundering drop over Victoria Falls, at the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia.

I was quite anxious about crossing the border into Zimbabwe, not quite knowing what to expect. I had heard rumours of tourists being forced to change money at the official rate ($1 US = $250 Zim, which remains fixed), instead of the rapidly changing black market rate, which stands at $1 US = $30,000 Zim (it was half that, at $1 US = $15,000 just a month ago, inflation here is about 2,200%). I had also heard that you have to state how much foreign currency you bring in with you, so that it can be checked when you leave, and so that you can be asked for receipts showing that you changed all your money at the official rate. Changing money on the black market is, of course, illegal, but everyone obviously has no choice but to do it. To give an example, this morning I paid $40,000 Zim for a rather expensive (by Zimbabwean standards) cup of coffee. Having changed my money on the black market, it cost me the equivalent of a euro. Had I changed my money at the official rate, it would have cost me a whopping $160 US.

When I reached the top of the queue to get my visa I nervously stepped forward, expecting the worst. Most of my US dollars were hidden on my person, in case I was searched when asked about how much money I had. I was met with a welcoming smile, and the process was straightforward, apart from having to fork out $55 US for my visa. Visas for Irish nationals were free up to a year ago, had I been aware of having to make such a significant donation to Mugabe I might have given more thought to coming here. It would have been pointless to get up on my high horse at this stage, so I coughed up the money with a smile, thanked the lady, and made my way out.

I had my bag searched after, the first time this has happened to me in Africa. I was worried that the guard would open my "valuables pocket", that houses my camera, MP3 player, new phone and radio. Seeing all this wealth in one little place could tempt a weak man to invent a bribing situation - I have heard of tourists having their camera confiscated, only to have it returned after giving a little "present". I joked and chatted with the man while he looked through the main pocket, where he found nothing of any interest, and he left it at that, waving me through. I sat out under the hot afternoon sun across the border, feeling excited to be finally in Zimbabwe, as I waited for the other passengers to go through the formalities. I got a bit of a fright then, when a man walked by me, and ordered me to follow him into an office.

I followed him into a disorderly office, where another sullen-looking official was sitting. The two of them spoke in Shona for a minute, and I grew more worried as to what was going to happen here. Casual glances around the office didn't reveal what its function was. Finally, one of the men spoke to me, and told me that this was a military office. I couldn't believe what I was hearing - what could the military possibly want with me? I repeated what he had said, to make sure I had heard correctly. The two men looked at each other, and erupted into laughter. No, it was a medical office, and they just wanted to see my vaccinations certificate. Breathing a sigh of relief, I produced the necessary documents. I spoke to the man who carefully inspected my list of vaccinations, hoping to distract him from the missing Cholera jab. He mustn't have noticed, as I was handed back my papers a moment later, flashed a warm smile, and told to enjoy my stay in Zimbabwe. It's amazing what a little paranoia will do to you - what was in fact a completely uneventful border crossing became a drama of possible nightmare situations in my mind.

We had only about another two hours of light on our way to Harare from the border. The countryside we passed through was beautiful, and very different to anything I had seen so far in Africa. The trees were coloured shades of auburn, red and gold, as well as green, and the ground was scorched yellow. It hit me then that I had entered a completely different climate, here I was almost in the Southern winter, and their autumn had just ended. Since coming to Zimbabwe sweaters have been needed in the evenings, and warm blankets at night.

The land didn't look too populated, at least by the roadside. The homes that I saw were small circular mud-brick huts, with well-thatched conical roofs. They were grouped in little compounds, or villages, maybe five to ten huts in a rough circle, surrounded by a few fields of maize or sunflowers. Many people sat or stood by the roadside, with what looked like all their possessions bundled around them. Were they going to Harare, to market? Or perhaps fleeing their desperately poor rural lives?

Kopjes (small, round hills) dotted the landscape, studded with huge, smooth granite boulders. Many of these boulders balanced impossibly one upon the other, looking as if a strong wind could topple them over, sending them rolling destructively down the hill. Zimbabwe's famous bush has been thinned to almost nothing in places, leaving golden elephant grass and yellow-brown gritty soil beneath. Where there was bush, it was wonderful, with a huge variety of trees, nearly all no higher than five metres, the leaves painted with the warm colours of autumn. Lemon and apple trees were hidden here and there, and I saw baboons jumping around the branches of several of them. I saw fields of cotton then, which looked almost like those heavily frosted fields of Irish winter mornings.

As the sun slipped behind the horizon the colours of the leaves and grass glowed brilliantly for ten minutes, as if reflecting the red-orange sky, before a velvety darkness enveloped the sky, welcoming the winking stars and a near-full moon to their home - a Zimbabwean night, my first. We arrived into Harare in complete darkness, and I peered out my window, trying to get some sort of an impression of this famous city. I was surprised to see the outlines of big houses, as we drove along wide avenues lined with huge, leafy trees. At first glance, it appeared to be quite an affluent city.

I got a taxi from the bus stop (unfortunately Harare is yet another African city where walking at night is not an option) to a quiet little lodge near the centre of town. Here I had to negotiate to pay for my room in Zim dollars ($150,000 = $5 US per night). Law requires foreigners to pay for hotels rooms with foreign currency (which is in great demand by the government here). The prices, if paid in US dollars, are usually twice to three times more expensive if you pay in foreign currency ($10 US here), as most of this money is taken in taxes by the government. The exception, of course, is if you can produce receipts showing you changed your money at the official rate. In this case, my room would have effectively cost me $600 US a night. The lodge's manager agreed to allow me pay in local currency, understanding my situation. This meant my stay there would not be recorded, as the police regularly come to check that these rules are being properly followed. The money I paid would not, thus, be taxed, which suited me fine. The less money Zimbabwe's government manages to collect from my visit here, the better.

As I fell asleep that night I heard gunfire being exchanged a few kilometres from the hotel. I excitedly thought that maybe something revolutionary was happening, and then began to wonder if excitement was the correct emotion to be feeling in such a situation. The next day I asked if anyone knew what had happened. They didn't, but postulated that it was probably thieves, or police firing at thieves. The other nights I was in Harare I didn't hear any more gunfire.

The next day I set off to explore the city for myself, and was quite surprised by what I found. From reading about Zimbabwe in the news, all you hear about is the poverty, and how things are deteriorating so rapidly that everything seems to be spinning out of control. As a result, I expected to find a very run-down looking city, with many beggars and poor people, potholed streets and rubbish everywhere. What I encountered was almost the complete opposite to what I had imagined. The city is a planned one, and is essentially the collision of two grids of streets, arranged in blocks. The streets were wide avenues, clean, rarely potholed, and lined with wonderful, tall, leafy trees. The centre of town revealed impressive, tall buildings, several so large that they could almost be described as skyscrapers. Shiny Mercedes cars whirred by, housing (black) men in three-piece suits. The people who walked the streets were well heeled, too, most smartly dressed in suits, or fashionable western clothes. There were classy boutiques along the streets, and South African fast food joints everywhere.

I was quite shocked at this Harare, which didn't match any of my mental images of what this city should be like. Where was the poverty? Where were the beggars? Why did it feel like an American city, and not the capital of one of the world's worst-off countries? I knew that the rich, politically connected elite had managed to gobble up a lot of the country's money since Zimbabwe's independence, twenty-seven years ago. But there were too many rich-looking people here, surely not everyone I saw here had connections to the ruling party.

I had a conversation with a local woman a day or two later which somewhat clarified my puzzlement over Harare and its affluence. She said, firstly, that only the centre of the city is well maintained, with its lovely parks and clean avenues, impressive mansions, and shiny shopping malls. This is the part of the city that tourists and visiting businessmen will see, and it is important for this part of the city to project the right image. As soon as you leave the centre (and I did, eventually), you see (as I did) rubbish on the badly potholed streets, shantytowns, and much poverty. This woman also told me not to be fooled into thinking that everyone with a tie was well off. The middle class was now feeling the squeeze because of the inflation. Prices rise almost on a daily basis, and wage hikes are slow to follow. Everyone, she said, was finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet at the moment. I shouldn't be fooled by a suit, she said, these people were going to work, where they had to look well.

One of my principal reasons for coming to Zimbabwe was to talk politics with people, to hear their opinions about what was going on in their country, to listen to their hopes for the future, and to how they felt things might change, if at all. My few days in Harare revealed to me that this would not be as easy as I had hoped. The race issue felt to be still very much present in Zimbabwe. I am cautious to make sweeping statements which should be read as truth, but I am compelled to record what I felt was the case. Harare still has many white citizens, you see them zipping around in their large cars or doing their shopping in the large commercial centers. They are rarely in the company of blacks, and seem to keep to themselves. I had thought there would be less whites in the city than I saw, but I was told that those who had left the country were nearly all farmers, the white businessmen are still needed, as they manage much of what is left of Zimbabwe's crumbling economy. For the first time since Kenya, I felt that cautious suspicion of me from the locals. I believe I didn't see a single other tourist in Harare, so it is natural to assume that the locals thought I was a Zimbabwean white. They didn't say hello, or come up to talk to me, as locals would in nearly every other African country I have been to. They rarely met my eye when passing me on the street.

That said, I have found the Zimbabweans to be one of the friendliest, and kindest of African people. As soon as I introduce myself as an Irish tourist I feel a barrier is almost visibly broken down, I'm no longer a "white", but a European visitor. When this is realized they talk much more openly, and warmly. But this barrier has proven enough to limit the number of casual acquaintances I usually meet every day in Africa to very few indeed, despite actively going out every day hoping to meet people. Another problem is that because of the money shortages, the city's coffee shops were empty. The only restaurants left open were fast food places, with prices excluding everyone but the very rich (and nearly me); a fast food outlet is not the kind of place where you will make a friend.

One morning I decided to visit the University of Zimbabwe, where I secretly hoped to meet some students with revolutionary ideas, who would speak openly and frankly about their country's problems, perhaps even the very people who might be tomorrow's leaders. I walked the four kilometres or so out to the University, passing impressively large mansions, always surrounded by high walls further protected by coils of razor wire on the top. My route (deliberately, admittedly) brought me along Chancellor Avenue, which is where President Mugabe has his enormous Presidential Palace, measuring perhaps a kilometre squared. I walked along the side of the twelve-foot high wall surrounding it, and paused to inspect a sign that was there, advising you not to walk here between 6pm and 6am. If you are seen here during these hours, when the road is closed to traffic, you will be shot at; the guards are under instructions to shoot first, and ask questions later.

I heard someone whistling at me, and turned around to see that it was a guard on the other side of the road, dressed in full camouflage combat gear, complete with a large gun and helmet with fake green leaves hanging from it. He angrily waved at me, indicating that I should cross over to where he was immediately. I walked over to him, said hello, and approached to shake hands with him. "Stop where you are!", he barked at me, and questioned where I was going. I told him I wanted to go to the University. He looked me up and down suspiciously, and then told me to proceed, quickly, and without stopping again. He said I should stay on the side of the road opposite to the palace.

On I went, as ordered, trying to catch a glimpse of the palace within the walled compound. A combination of high walls and enormous trees in the grounds made any sightings of anything interesting impossible. Just to be so close, within a few hundred metres of where the President was, was exciting in itself. I toyed with the idea of presenting myself as a tourist at the main entrance, wondering if I might be granted an audience with President Mugabe, so that I might try to talk some sense into him. Thankfully I am not crazy enough to have let this idea leave the realm of imagination.

The University campus is vast, measuring maybe 2km by 4km, and is mostly undeveloped bushland. In the northwest corner of the grounds there are a dozen or so large buildings, built in that dull, drab style of the sixties. There was a happy buzz around the campus, students mingling, chatting, playing football, and going about their daily business. I hoped to find some sort of a student bar, or at least restaurant, where I might sit and hope to attract a curious student. I learned that there was no bar, or common room, and the restaurant was closed until dinner-time. So I bought a coke for myself, and sat on a wall, drinking it. After half an hour I realized that I wasn't going to get talking to anyone. People looked at me a little suspiciously - I was the only white on campus (that I noticed, anyway). The only person who spoke to me was a young man with very bloodshot eyes, offering to sell me weed.

I left after a while, a little disappointed in Zimbabwe's students. I reflected that if a black man had come to sit on a wall in UCC, it is unlikely that any of Cork's finest would approach him to talk to him about Irish politics. I read in a newspaper the following day that Zimbabwe's students are increasingly apathetic about national politics; all they care about is "getting the hell out of Zimbabwe". This apathy towards national politics doesn't extend to student politics, however. Another newspaper I read this morning reported that demonstrations on campus connected to Student's Union elections had turned violent last Thursday, two days after I visited the University. Apparently several of the security staff were injured, and rocks were thrown at windows in the library and the student residences. The local police had to be called to put a stop to the violence (by meeting it with more violence, of course). A police spokesperson reported that they were suspicious of "outside agitators" being responsible, using the sort of vague language of propaganda that litters the Zimbabwean press.

I made friends with two lovely young women who worked in an advertising agency near my hotel, which was my internet base for Harare. One evening they offered to take me on a tour of the city in the company car, which they were allowed to use. The "sights" these two cosmopolitan young women chose to show me were the city's enormous shopping centres. We drove from centre to centre, stopping to walk around these enormous complexes, which would not have been out of place in the US. The last of the malls we visited was seen in darkness; there had been a power cut. They girls explained to me that Harare uses a "power sharing" system; certain parts of the city go without power at certain times, on a rotational basis. The city's taps also run dry for much of the day, meaning I had to go without a shower for a few days. The water is turned off for economic reasons, not because of any shortages.

I tried to engage the two girls in a political conversation, asking them what they thought of Zanu-PF, the ruling party. They both giggled nervously, and said they would prefer not to comment. I couldn't help but wonder why; we were alone in the car, and they knew I was just a tourist. Were their fathers connected to the party? I'd imagine that to get work in a successful company at their age (early twenties) you'd need to be connected to someone, somewhere. Or were they afraid that I would talk to someone else, and repeat what they said? The silence amongst Zimbabweans about their country's politics both frustrated and worried me. When I was in Myanmar last year I found that everyone was eager to talk to tourists, if carefully, about their country's problems. Although these people were scared, and in despair, their willingness to talk, and to criticize, was encouraging. At least they were confronting their problems, and were thinking about what could be done about them. I only hope that Zimbabweans have such conversations amongst themselves.

The one short conversation I did have about the country's problems was with the owner of my guesthouse, and a friend of hers. It was these women who told me to be careful in assuming that Harare was as affluent as it looked. They said that the inflation was affecting absolutely everyone in the city, and making life difficult even for the relatively rich. They said that they had little hope for next year's elections, Mugabe would almost certainly be returned as president. They said that the vote rigging is incredibly blatant, one of them said that perhaps 95% of Harare's population would vote for Tsvangirai, but that the results always spoke very differently. Come polling time, the queues in the city are so long that many stand in line all day and still don't get a chance to vote. This is because the number of urban polling stations have been shut down - one of the measures taken by the ruling party to ensure the strong support for the opposition is suppressed. They said they were worried about where the inflation would go. It was time for the government to take its head out of the sand, and to admit to the exchange rate problems. The official rate should be changed to match the black market rate, in order to put a stop to the black market, which they believed was fuelling the inflation. One of them suggested that using US dollars as the official currency for a while could help solve the problem. I would have liked to talk further with these women, but their dinner was served, and it would have been rude to continue interrogating the first people I had met who seemed somewhat happy to talk about their country's problems.

I didn't frequent Harare's bars in the evenings, for two reasons. Firstly, everyone warned me of how bad the city's crime is - some even said that taxi drivers couldn't be trusted not to be in cahoots with thieves. Secondly, while touring the city with the two girls I noticed that most of the city's bars had enough whites in them that I wouldn't stand out, and almost certainly wouldn't be approached by a potential friend. The whites, as usual, kept to themselves in these bars. My evenings were instead passed indulging in that lovely western luxury of lying in a warm couch, watching DVDs. The hotel's lounge was really a sort of sitting room, where some of the guests (all Africans), the staff, and I all sat watching pirated DVDs. It was nice to take a break from reading, or writing, and instead allowing American culture rot my brain a little again.
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huyatitambe on

Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with people who are well educated and acomplished. To have he Idea that people would come running to you just because you are white is quite condescending. The average Zimbabwean has high self esteem such that there is no need to try and make converstion with someone simply because they are of a different race. the fact that you came with preconceived ideas and a wishlist comprising seeing a population with revolutionary ideas actually spoiled your stay and your chances of making friends. Security is of great importance to any nation. In which country would you be able to make conversation with someone on duty and worse still guearding the president's residence? Hope you arrange for another tour of Zimbabwe and realise that it is not only revolutionary action that is a solution to African political challenges.

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