The Land That Coke Forgot

Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
Trip End Nov 17, 2005

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Flag of Zimbabwe  ,
Saturday, May 28, 2005

On the Zimbabwean side of the border crossing with Zambia, a bored trucker with a catapult takes pot shots at baboons on the roof of customs building. These animals are conspicuously absent on the Zambian side. Zimbabweans don't seem to have a taste for baboon meat.

From a cultural and economic standpoint, a lot more than a population of primates separate the two countries. Zimbabwe used to be a jewel in Africa; Zambia a poor cousin. For decades Zim was the destination of choice for Zambians facing constant shortages of basic foodstuffs like sugar and corn flour (or mealie-meal). Many Zambians and others from southern Africa emigrated to Zimbabwe and flourished there.

While Zambia gained independence from Britain in 1964, Zimbabwe remained a colony until 1980, and was much more developed. The capital, Harare, is crowned with banks, hotels and other buildings that would vastly overshadow Zambia's Lusaka.

Smart urban planning produced wide, tree-lined boulevards and stately neighbourhoods of colonial and contemporary houses and shopping areas. As an African city Harare stands out as an impressive example of what can be achieved with a healthy economy and prudent development. In the rural areas rich green farms covered the countryside.

Economically the country was practically self-sufficient. At the time of independence it had a ten-year surplus supply of corn, known here as maize. Zimbabwe was known as the breadbasket of central Africa, and not only produced export-quality crops but secondary industries turned such produce as maize into corn flakes, other cereals and snacks.

Fruit was not only exported fresh but canned and preserved in-country, and Zimbabwe's beef, wheat and sugar industries boomed while Zambians and other neighbours looked on with envy. Zimbabweans themselves were well aware of their economic superiority, and Zambians who travelled to Zimbabwe during those years talk of being treated with disdain and derision.

Zimbabweans may still look down their noses at their north-western neighbours, but now the tables have turned. Despite an infrastructure that once rivalled Kenya and South Africa, the last several years of political and economic instability in Zimbabwe has caused widespread misery and brought the country to it's knees.

The reasons for this decay are deceptively simple. In an attempt to shore up his power, Robert Mugabe, president since independence, diverted blame for Zimbabwe's economic decline by scapegoating foreigners, Western states, white farmers, and even homosexuals.

Finally, in the late 1990's, the government began a land-redistribution scheme, carried out by so-called war veterans, that unleashed a wave of violent repression in the rural areas. At least a dozen white farmers have been killed in recent years, not to mention the uncounted thousands of black labourers who have been harassed and beaten out of their livelihoods.

In the wake of this bloodshed, the IMF and other international bodies placed economic sanctions against Zimbabwe, and a country that was once virtually self-sufficient has visibly decayed. It's been four years since I last visited Zimbabwe, and the rot has set in.

Long stretches of the highway to Harare are without shoulders, the uncut brush and tall grass growing right up to the asphalt and obscuring signs for speed limits and livestock crossings.

Farms and roadside businesses sit fallow and empty. Fields that once grew export-quality wheat, corn and tobacco have been reclaimed by bush grass and even termite mounds. This region used to account for two-thirds of all tobacco grown in Zimbabwe, a major exporter of the crop. Many of the plantations that line the road are now abandoned, the roofs and walls of the tall, bulky red brick curing buildings crumbling.

Likewise, vast greenhouse complexes which used to produce flowers for export are now in tatters, their wooden frames collapsing and plastic covers flapping in the breeze. The mostly-white owners of these farms and hundreds, if not thousands of others have fled or been forced out.

Though petrol and diesel are heavily subsidized both are in short supply, and line-ups at filling stations can be measured in hours. In 2001 when I was here last, fuel shortages were so acute we could only stay for as long as we had gas in the car. This time, driving a diesel vehicle, we had a small advantage finding fuel in the rural areas, but still had to carry a full 20 litre jerry can and top up at every opportunity.

The stations themselves are bare, with little more than bags of chips, cigarettes and some cooking oil on the shelves. For a country that used to produce so much, sugar, eggs, milk and mealie meal are rare in the rural areas.

Perhaps most telling, a bottle of Coca-cola was almost nowhere to be found. Crates of empty bottles are stacked high in filling stations, depots and bottle stores, though very few are full. A local shopkeeper in a rural town on the way to Harare laughs when we ask for drinks. "Coke?" he asks, pointing to an empty fridge. "What's that?"

It may not be the acme of proof of how far down the country has slid, but the lack of Coke has become a kind of running joke in Zimbabwe. One looks enviously at another guzzling a bottle and asks after its origin. Hotels and restaurants stock up when they can. And all around, Coca-cola signs and billboards remind Zimbabweans of what they're missing.
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