Zimbabwe: Welcome to the World of Mugabe

Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Zimbabwe  ,
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

There is a joke I heard while in Zimbabwe. "If you see a queue, you join it. Once you are in it, you ask what you are queuing for. If you need it, you stay. If you don't, you leave."

This is a country that has learned how to line up and wait. While in Harare, I saw lines over 200 metres long where people stood for hours so they could buy their allotted two loaves of bread. Many petrol stations simply locked their doors and closed up. The few stations with gas faced lineups where cars waited for hours to purchase fuel using a voucher system. Beef, once a famed Zimbabwean export, was simply not available. Entire sections of supermarket shelves stood empty, the manufacturers no longer willing or able to produce the goods. The Zimbabwe of today is a much different one than yesterday, but while most commodities are becoming scarce, one that is not, is hope.

I approached the immigration office on the Zimbabwean side of the border with a certain amount of trepidation. A delayed departure from Malawi had meant arriving at a closed border, and a restless night of sleep on the bus left me disheveled and a bit discombobulated. I had been told by many travelers that potential nightmares awaited me at the border. I was told I might be accused of being journalist, and have my camera confiscated or worse. One source, a Zimbabwean, said I might be arrested on suspicion of being a spy. For whom, I'm not sure. Robert Mugabe, the President for Life of this country under siege, had been fanning the flames of xenophobia by laying the problems of Zimbabwe on the doorstep of colonial and imperialistic powers, specifically Britain and America. While Danayi was part Zimbabwean, spoke Shona, and was visiting family in Harare, I was just a nervous white guy with a backpack.

Ironically, it was possibly the smoothest, most pleasant border crossing I have experienced in Africa. No hassle, no trouble; just an expensive visa, and a perfunctory bag search and that was it. When Danayi rolled up to the customs with her two massive suitcases, there was a moment of excitement, but the agent seemed perplexed and a bit intimidated by the sheer amount of underwear, personal items, shoes, and so forth and waved her through.

And just like that, we were in what many media outlets considered to be one of the worst, most desperate countries in the world.

We approached Harare by driving by some of the most elaborate houses I had ever seen. The roads were immaculate compared to nearly anywhere else in Africa I had been. We were dropped off at the Holiday Inn, where the doorman quickly put our bags on a trolley and wheeled them inside. Another approached us offering us a complementary newspaper. Clearly the newspapers had left out a few things.

One thing was immediately clear; the Zimbabwean economy was out of control. Inflation was astronomical. It was officially pegged at around 4500%, but estimated much higher by some sources. While I was there, the IMF produced a report stating that if the rate continued unabated, it could reach 100 000% by the new year. This has lead to the printing of bills of huge denominations, and unbelievably, expiration dates (although these seem to have been ignored for the time being). Just before I arrived, the government announced a new bill, the $200,000 bill.

To make the situation even more bizarre, the government had decreed that any bank or foreign exchange office could only exchange foreign currency at the rates they decreed. For example, $1 American dollar bought you $250 Zimbabwean dollars. On the black market, however, $1 American bought you $200,000 Zimbabwean dollars. It was illegal to change money on the black market, but only a fool would do anything else. Desperate for foreign currency, the government had made a law that stated foreigners had to pay for any accommodations in American dollars. You could not even use the country's own currency.

To give some perspective, let me give some examples. When Danayi and I arrived at the Holiday Inn, we asked to use the house phone to call her family to pick us up. The front desk agreed but told us it would be $50,000 for a one minute call. At the black market rates, the call cost us about 25 cents U.S. At the official rates, the phone call cost us $200 U.S. One day at a supermarket I bought a big bar of chocolate for $356,000 Zim. At black market rates, my chocolate treat was a reasonable $1.78 US. At official rates, my little bit of sugary goodness set me back $1424.00 U.S. While in Zimbabwe, I wanted to buy a new tent to replace the one that had self destructed in Malawi. I paid $8,330,000 Zim. At black market prices the tent was a deal at $41.65 US. At the official rates, my little nylon shelter would have cost me $33,320 American, or more than half of my annual salary when I used to teach in Toronto.

My time in Harare was wonderful, mostly due to the hospitality and friendship given to me by Danayi's family. They are upper-middle class, and well connected, and seemed a little less affected by the current situation. While they suffered as much as everyone from the power cuts and water shortages, they had a generator, water tanks, and vouchers for petrol when it was available. Danayi's father owns a business with his office headquarters in South Africa, giving him a steady supply of foreign exchange, essential in the volatile Zimbawean economy. In fact, compared to the style and quality of living I have grown used to on this trip, my time in Harare felt like I was living in the lap of luxury.

This is not to say Danayi's family was living like the French aristocracy just before the French Revolution. These are the kind of people that Zimbabwe needs to keep it afloat, and put it back on track after the dust settles. Daniyi's father and a business associate started an organization that helps out disadvantaged youth in Harare. It is a football (soccer) academy that has produced both male and female players on the Zimbabwean national teams. When I first met Danyi's father, he was in a meeting with men who wanted to discuss possible futures in Fifa for some their prospects. Danayi's father and step mother are people who have a deep love for their country, and are determined to see that country return to greatness. It is nearly impossible to find young people, especially educated professionals, between the ages of 25 and 40. They have left for greener pastures. In an economy that is imploding and downsizing, one cannot blame them. No so Danayi's family. They have stayed and are weathering the storm. They continue to help out family and friends, and are to be greatly respected for such behaviour.

Danayi's family is one of some influence and respect, and I had the opportunity to meet and have conversations with some very interesting and intelligent people while I was there. One thing that seemed to be agreed upon was the Robert Mugabe, or Uncle Bob, would not leave until he deemed it the right time. Mugabe is an incredible politician, a revolutionary hero, and a wily, incredibly stubborn, and healthy old man. While his party mans the helm of an economic sinking ship, the opposition in Zimbabwean has fallen into two opposing, squabbling camps. They are too busy fighting each other to mount any type of viable opposition to Mugabe's ZANU-PF party. While the intelligentsia flees abroad to seek their fortunes elsewhere, Mugabe plays to his traditional base of support, the poor and veterans of Zimbabwe's war of independence.

Mugabe is from another era of politics and another era of cultural prominence for both men and age. He represents Zimbabwe's throwing off of white rule, and while his actions in the last 10 years or so might be suspect or misguided, that fact and the sentiment attached to it, still carries a lot of weight. One man I spoke to told me that Mugabe represents a stubbornness and demand for respect that is very Southern Africa in nature. To illustrate his point, he told an anecdote about Nelson Mandela. Once when Mandela was visiting America, and after his divorce from his wife Winnie, he was at a press conference. One young American reporter stood and asked Mr. Mandela if the rumours were true that he might marry his long time girlfriend. It was, in all likelihood, a softball question; the type of question asked to break the ice before launching into a question of greater significance. In the North American culture of brashness and informality, it was not an unexpected one. Mandela looked at the reporter and said "Young man, how old are you?"

The reporter, a bit flustered, replied "I'm 32 years old."

Mandela peered at him and said, "Well, in my culture, a man who is 32 years old does not ask a man who is 82 years old such questions." He then went on to the next reporter, and any hope of another question was lost to the young man.

The man I was talking to told this story to make this point: no amount of finger pointing, talking down to or about, or outside criticism, especially by younger, non-African leaders was going to convince Mugabe to do anything Mugabe didn't want to do. And if the western powers didn't understand this important cultural, African bit of fact, they would never be effective in bringing about any change in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe is a country of remarkable mineral wealth, and vast agricultural potential. That is part of the sadness about the current troubles. It has an infrastructure that is better than any I have seen in Africa to this point. While it is beginning to deteriorate, one feels it could bounce back quickly given the right leadership and investment. Zimbabwe used to be an exporter of food, but since Mugabe's farm reclamation project, agricultural output has fallen to the point where they must import food to sell. When Mugabe seized farms from white farmers, most of whom were professional farmers and educated in the field, it was often given to veterans of the army or cronies of Mugabe's government. Most of these have either let the fields lie fallow, or lack the experience and expertise to reap from the land the potential it has. Many people are depending on backyard gardens to supplement their food supplies. Driving through the countryside one could see thousands of acres of land that used to be productive farms, rusting fences leaning over as a stark reminder of the bountiful fields they used to protect.

While there can be debates for ages over Mugabe's decision to take back land held by whites that many claimed were gained under a racist regime, it is more the manner in which it was done, and the use of that land since that had been one of the major causes of the current food crisis.

Another reason has been the disastrous economic policies of the current government. In the middle of this past July, Mugabe declared that all businesses must cut their prices back to the prices of mid-June. With the obscene inflation rate, this meant that for a few short days (while there was still stock), Zimbabwe was one the best deals on earth. People rushed out to buy anything and everything they could. Stores sold out stock in days. Since then, Mugabe has maintained these price freezes must stay. This flies in the face of the economic realities that hyper-inflation brings. Literally, within days, companies, stores, and buses were taking a loss with every item sold or ticket puchased. Many began to simply close shop, to go out of business until the storm abates. Others began to charge prices that were more in line with the inflation trends in order to survive. Mugabe's reaction? He had store owners, bus drivers, and shop managers arrested and charged with treasonous activity. He accused them of siding with imperialistic foreign forces who were trying to undermine the stability of Zimbabwe. He set up hotlines for people to call to report stores who were selling at above the accepted price limits. (In a great example of irony, we went a supermarket at Borrowdale Brook, THE most exclusive address of the rich and famous in Zimbabwe. The prices there were clearly above the imposed limits but the authorities seemed to be looking the other way in this case.) Farmers refuse to sell cattle at a price that losses them money. As a result, beef has become an incredibly rare and highly sought after luxury item.

Despite this, people still walk the streets of Harare. It is a remarkably friendly country when hospitality is still shown to strangers, even a white stranger in a country where black-white relations have been strained significantly at times. Families still gather when they can, and people take solace in the company of loved ones, making jokes about the situation even while they secretly wonder just how bad things can get. I was fed, transported, housed, and watched after by Danayi's family, both immediate and extended. Not once was I asked to pay, not once was I made to feel like I was unwelcome or an added burden on limited resources.

The truth about the Zimbabwe of today is, like most things, somewhere in between the alarmist claims of western media and the false assurances and accusations of the Zimbabwean government. In demonizing Mugabe, there has been an unfortunate tendency by the western press to publish any story about Zimbabwe so long as it shows people suffering and Mugabe as the cause. This has led to, if not untruths, then a strong bias in reporting on this country. While what is happening in Zimbabwe must be told, it should not be at the expense of truth.

In the same vein, nearly any public statement made by Mugabe's government seems entirely bent on playing down the monumental problems facing the country and laying all of it's woes on the doorstep of western, imperialistic powers. Freedom of press in the country seems to be fighting for its life. It is a government that seems determined to avoid responsibility for a sinking ship they are captaining.

Zimbabwe is a country filled with rich and poor, educated and uneducated, vast potential and wasted talent, and hope and despair. It deserves to have its story heard and a world audience who is media literate and willing to sort through the conflicting stories from all sides to try and get a real understanding of what is happening. It, meaning the everyday people who make up the country, deserves better, from all involved.

(I have refrained from using Danayi's family's names in order to keep their identities private. While vain to think anyone in the Zimbabwean government might be reading my blog, nothing could pain me more to think something I wrote might cause them problems with the powers that be.)
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