Tatenda Zimbabwe

VANESSA SMEETS

“A heap of broken images where the sun beats, and the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief… And I will show you something different from either your shadow at morning striding behind you or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

vegetarian cat

SURVIVAL: In 2007, things were so desperate in Zimbabwe, that even my cat shared avocadoes with me. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

There is a haunting sadness as one crosses the Limpopo into Zimbabwe. It’s embedded in the empty streets of Harare and the HIV posters plastered all over the airport walls. There are two life-size portraits of President Robert Mugabe as you enter the airport and two as you leave.

He looks at ease. Funny then that his portrait makes you feel uncomfortable with his eyes watching your every move. The people at the counters are friendly and great marketing agents. “Don’t forget to visit this nature reserve and this one and that one. Welcome to Zimbabwe – the land of plenty,” the woman smiles.

Land of plenty – indeed. Plenty of starving people, plenty of dying dreams, plenty of cash, worthless cash. I’m given a plastic bag to hold my American dollars. Four years ago, Zimbabwean dollars had expiry dates on them. It was also about 65 000 Z$ to the Rand (on the black market) but this changed from day to day. Today, the American dollar has breathed new life into Zimbabwe’s people.

children

THERE IS HOPE: Children help as volunteers in one of the few running nature reserves near Harare. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

I sit down and order a chicken mayo sandwich. It arrives. It looks delicious. I smile. This is so different to 2006, when I had a chicken mayo sandwich for 1 million Z$, without mayonnaise. “We’ve run out,” the waiter explained. They also used to put every ingredient separately on the bill: bread, butter, mayonnaise and chicken. When they didn’t have change, it would be given in candles.

I was born in 1985. Zimbabwe was free. It smelt delicious. It tasted sweet. It was bustling with dreams, hopes and desires. Never did I think that our home would become so quiet. My father bought it back when he thought things would get better. But the paint on the walls has been scratched for the last thirty years. Never did I think I would have to worry or be stressed coming to visit him in the land of my birth.

Outside, the streets swarm with hitch-hikers – not many people can afford petrol. Petrol today is given with vouchers, ensuring everyone has a chance to fill up their tanks.

One can still witness the oddest events like a black businesswoman driving up the street in her Bentley with her messenger and cheque-book following behind on a bicycle. It’s a typical Zimbabwean winter afternoon – warm, sunny and green. Avenues are lined with banana and avocado trees. The empty streets add to the dream-like effect.

Some of the houses and buildings are pleasant to look at, like the ZANU PF headquarters dark grey in colour and immense in size. Mugabe’s home is impossible to miss – it’s surrounded by policemen and army officers. They question anyone who stops near it. No cameras, no stopping and no hooting. My father stops his car by the entrance to show me how things have changed. Within five minutes, two guards hold  AK47s to our heads. We drive away, shaken.

All kinds of food (despite popular belief) are still available, but only for those who can afford it. Be prepared to pay 10 US dollars for a loaf of bread in some areas.

The question is not how much money you have, but where are you going to stash it while you travel? In your pockets? Your socks? Your underwear?

1% of the population is labelled as “the elite,” these are the super-rich who you’ll spot now and then in the only Rolls Royce or Bentley in town.Women have a life expectancy of 35 years, men of 37 years. According to the Oncology Centre in Harare, the cancer rate has increased by 55% since 2001.

According to an ex-journalist who chose to remain anonymous the pre-requisites for a democracy just do not exist in Zimbabwe. He says, “It’s by traumatizing people that they become politicised. The majority here, however, remains apolitical. It’s not part of their culture or education, keeping the supposed Feudal System alive.”

Families have been torn apart for the sake of the children: the mother goes, the father stays behind. Suicide by the elderly is a daily occurrence – they realize too late the pension they worked so hard for is completely worthless. Also, houses are often left abandoned. Dogs and gardeners at work are the only evidence someone once lived there. Today, people are encouraging others to come back and start anew.

vic falls

SAVE THE QUEEN: The epic Victoria Falls is probably one of the last tourist attractions in the troubled Zimbabwe. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

In 2006, an ATM could only cope with distributing two million Z$ at a time and one was only allowed to remove about a maximum of nine million Z$ a day to ensure the banks could keep up with the “out-flux” of money. Today, things are surprisingly different: ATMs are normally full, but you still have to do odd things – like buy airtime at Nando’s.

The dual pricing system in 2006 ensured that the inflation rate of  4500% remained intact. At a bank, you could exchange 100 000 Z$ for a US dollar, but this was rarely the case. Banks often “ran out” of cash. Most people then exchanged on the black market at 450 000 Z$ to a US $. Today, restaurants and cafés work in units: 20 units on the menu means 20 US dollars, but it saves the place 50 000 US dollars in buying the licence to work with Forex.

Victoria Falls, a gem in Mugabe’s wasteland, has ensured some foreigners still bother visiting the country. But, it’s shocking how the locals are willing to rip tourists off out of desperation: “Pay in forex and we’ll give you a 60% discount!” They say this catchy phrase with a smile despite knowing that on the black market, they can make a profit of almost 400% using Rands or Pounds or US dollars.

Lake Kariba is another place that has suffered under Mugabe’s regime. It’s oceanic beauty does not attract tourists like in the 1980s. However, it’s a fun-filled place at Christmas and New Years, when students come home to relax on houseboats.

Safari lodges only an hour or two away from Harare are still beautiful – giraffes and ostriches walk amongst the tourists. There’s something strange though on how some of the animals are kept – caged. Poachers are in hiding everywhere, especially if you keep rhinos on your estate.

Just like the animals, it’s all about survival in Zimbabwe. You live, you try and you stay out of sight of any probable poachers. But, there is hope in your heart – “Tatenda Zimbabwe. Thank you for letting me share your pain, your trials and your re-birth”

Lake Kariba

YESTERDAYS PARADISE: Lake Kariba once attracted thousands of tourists. Today, it stands placid and empty. Photo: Vanessa Smeets