First visit to Zimbabwe

First visit to Zimbabwe

It was while walking in the starry dark through the sidings yard at Harare Rail Station discussing whether the minister would be able to get me some dollars changed on the black market, since he was a family friend of one of the guid

es walking me home from the high density housing (slums), that I realised I really was in Africa.

The moon kept the children from disappearing in the night as I was introduced to some other member of my partner’s extended family, sizing me up as a new member of the extended network of kinship and friends that was the only thing keeping everyone and everything in Zimbabwe going.

When I had flown into the airport, the customs officer waved me past the large African ladies and their collections of electrical goods, not believing I could smuggle anything in one small case and a shoulder bag.

It wasn’t until I tried to change some traveller’s checks that I started to realise why BA was being used to import freight as excess baggage. Finally, after being told I had to wait 21 days for them to be verified to make sure that I hadn’t stolen them from myself, by which time I would be back in the UK, I got a friend to change them. Possibly out of the back of the same banks that wouldn’t do it out the front.

Apart from the tourists being used to import hard currency by making them pay in dollars or pounds at the resorts, it is this impossibility of following the rules that forces everyone in Zimbabwe to collude with corruption, selling even their souls if they had a market value, and paradoxically gave me hope for the country’s future.

For two weeks of wandering around looking for something cheap to do no-one asked me for identification, and there were very few police and soldiers. But there were hoards of private security guards in the town centre, at cash machines and supermarkets, where they would check your receipt even if you paid in front of them – giving a hint as to how desperate the thieves and the food situation was.

My visa card did work, but at £1.50 commission a time for about £5.00 (Z$2,5million), I saved it for emergencies and got used to carrying wads of 50,000 notes. I also think the Zimbabwean government should be congratulated for the efforts they made to promote a cashless society, because no-one’s got any money, and the rich all pay on plastic to avoid counting out notes.

To show me around Harare my partner first took me to a shopping mall, and after having a tantrum (Why would I want to come to Africa to go to a Pizza Hut?) I sat back with a coke and watched the rich, interracial crowd, understanding how they could be insulated by their money from even the winter weather, as warm as an English Summer’s day, as they bought their fancy food and interior decor.

However, as I saw more, and poorer, neighbourhoods the more black and beige became the standard colour, on a sliding scale inversely proportional to money, and the more I stood out like a designer bikini at Bognor. And the more I saw people cultivating what little garden they had for maize and vegetables.

Ignoring the newspapers, which were empty of news which wasn’t one form of propaganda or another, even in the reports of traffic accidents, I travelled around in ‘combis’ – informal and unregulated buses.

And it was in these death traps, sandwiched four abreast that I found my first stirrings of hope for Zimbabwe. Handing Z$50,000 (25p officially) to the people in front to pass on, I realised that I’d never trust strangers to do that in England, though the consequences of an altercation in such a small space, confined between large, irate, black ladies, probably dissuades cheats.

When an old “Mrs Johnson”, stumbled getting off, there was concern and embarrassment all round as the black Zimbabweans held back from helping her in case she misinterpreted or rejected their help.

Only one person was ever rude to me, possibly because he had stolen a bus from my home town and driven it to Africa, which is why he didn’t want it photographed. Everyone else was fairly happy to talk about the situation with a stranger, though without making specific comments and only going so far as to suggest old men don’t live for ever, symptoms of the general uneasiness and mild paranoia.

Passing people selling single packets of cigarettes on the street corners, I found a moment of magic as a blind man sang a blessing on those who gave him money as he begged, and later the first numbing of complacency as a woman and her child cried on the pavement. Another day I discovered there was no toilet paper anywhere in the meeting hall of the Zanu (PF) headquarters, sure signs of petty theft and trouble within the ranks of the ruling dictatorship.

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