A Racing Miracle

VANESSA SMEETS

Peter Whyte (21) was flung against a tree from his motorbike at 160km/ hour last December at the Bulawayo 3-Hour Endurance Race in Zimbabwe, breaking his 9th vertebra. The 9th vertebra is one of the lowest positioned of the thoracic 12 (T12). Breaking it could have resulted in paralysis of the lower limbs, loss of control over the bladder and bowels.

Peter White_seated ball

DETERMINED: Peter Whyte’s recuperation programme was a lot of hard work. In only 6 months, he is walking and talking again. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

He was in a deep coma for six weeks, leaving doctors convinced he would be brain dead. Today, he is walking and talking just like any other person his age. What makes him different? His extreme will and determination to survive and now recover completely.

Peter remembers nothing from that day, except driving to Bulawayo. His body is dotted in scars: a tracheotomy, an hour-long lung puncture to drain all the blood that had leaked into his right lung. His uncle saved his life through CPR and chest compressions.

Peter White_puncture far

BREATH OF LIFE: Peter shows off the puncture marks, where doctors had to drain his lung from blood. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

Although he walks a bit like a robot, his mobility is improving daily and his speech is at 100%. A true miracle, he explains:

“I am alive to share my story, that’s for sure.”

Much to his parents’ disbelief, he is determined to get on a motorbike again. But his physiotherapist, Didier Smeets, at the Sports Injuries Clinic in Harare disagrees: “One must realise your reflexes have to be 100% to participate in races like that. Next time, he may not be so lucky.”

Peter White_walk

HARD WORK: Peter and his physiotherapist, Didier Smeets, practised regularly for four months. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

Didier helps him with stretches and exercises once a week, building up the muscles that were as strong as jelly only a few months ago. Didier has been working as a physiotherapist for over 30 years and cherishes this as one of his most special cases: “You get people who come here because they are forced by family or friends. Peter came here out of sheer will.

The recipe to success is: a good operation, good aftercare and a great support system. Much can be done daily. There is no limit to one’s will to get further.

Each case for me is a new challenge, where both the patient and I have to work on their flexibility, stability and places of attention.”

Peter’s eyes sparkle as I ask him why he keeps getting back on after every accident (in his last accident, he broke his shoulder): “There’s something incredible in driving a bike: the freedom, the glide, even the graze against your leg. Once I can, I will! This has only made me appreciate life even more.”

Peter White_foot

FOOTWORK: Peter shows his weekly progress, getting his feet at equal length again. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

Another racer walks in the surgery and gives his support:

“Peter is a hero to us all. His will to survive is incredible. His will to recuperate even stronger. For those who don’t believe in miracles, just talk to Peter about his story.” 

Peter is currently back at work and has stopped his physiotherapy for now.

Watch the video here: 

Paradise Lost: Zimbabwe

A little bit of paradise lost found again…


Happy 31st, Zimbabwe!

VANESSA SMEETS

bob marley rufaro

NO PROBLEMS, NO CRY: Bob Marley sings to a packed Rufaro Stadium during independence celebrations. PIC: Online

Independence Day

18 April, 1980. The ground shakes in Harare with stamping feet. Buildings tremble with jubilant voices. The crowds rush to see him speak. He is handsome, well educated and a great orator. A person for the people: calm and collected. Prime Minister Robert Mugabe is 56 years old when he is inaugurated, with Canaan Banana as president. But Mugabe is the stern favourite, speaking to the core of the masses.

“Long live our freedom!
Long live our sovereignty!
Long live our independence!”

Mugabe and Banana

CHEERS: Banana steps down as president in 1983, giving the reigns of power to Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. PIC: online

The Shona people claim Rhodesian soil is red with the bloodshed of civil war. They are tired of 16 years of fighting and tired of Ian Smith’s policies. Rufaro Stadium is packed to its maximum capacity. John Moyo*, a civil servant at the time, attended the celebrations. He claims the media went mad: “Long live Mugabe!” and “Good old Bob!” ran as headlines for days.  The Union Jack is lowered and the new Zimbabwean flag soars above the crowd. Zimbabwe means “house of stone” in Shona, with the bird representing a statuette found at the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.

rufaro stadium

PACKED: Rufaro Stadium in Harare is packed to its maximum capacity to celebrate Rhodesias transition into Zimbabwe. PIC: online

The atmosphere is electric. The new national anthem Ishe Komborere Afrika “God Bless Africa” echoes through the crowd, in homes and on television screens. Bob Marley sings as the crowd departs with eyes glistening with hope.Mugabe’s address to the nation on the eve of independence resounds today, thirty-one years later, as a haunting echo. Promises lay shattered besides potholes, beggars and hitch hikers. People are unable to read balanced stories, as the media today is constantly monitored by the government.

 Changing faces

From 1965 to 1980, there was a strong focus on the casualties of war, but those who reported on “classified information” had to face the Officials Secret Act and Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA) and twenty years of imprisonment. In 1980, Mugabe kept most of Ian Smith’s media policies, but added the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament Act, which made it illegal for the media to report on debates in parliament.

The Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust (ZMMT) in 1981 aimed to “give back” the media to Zimbabweans, after being for years under foreign control.

Kariba

EMPTY PROMISES: Lake Kariba, once bustling with tourists, families and students, now stands most of the year empty. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

Media and tourism

According to Cindy Hudson*, a travel agent in Harare, the tourism business is at its worst. She says:

“Thirty years ago, I would have told you all flights would be booked out to see the independence celebrations. Thirty years ago, I would have told you Zimbabwe would have been hosting the Soccer World Cup, not South Africa, its struggling neighbour. Thirty years ago, I would have told you Zimbabwe was a leading nation in African exports and imports. Today, I’m struggling to see the light.”

Embassies have closed down, yet Moyo claims things have improved since the US dollar was officially introduced in 2009. For two years, businesses were working in “units,” a code name for forex. But the cost of living has become very expensive. Petrol is now 1, 28 US$ a litre. The government has also changed the exchange rate at their leisure. 1 US$ = R10.

Empty promises

There are still water shortages and daily power cuts, with some people investing in generators. According to Moyo, Mugabe impressed the world with his “political maturity and statesmanship.”

If one looks back on his independence speech, the hopeful vision was potent: “Zimbabwe is now a free, independent and sovereign state, free to choose its own flight path and chart its own course to its chosen destiny.” Its destiny remains today in shackles, unable to perform with a lack of resources.

Mugabe continued:

“Tomorrow we are being born again; born again…as a viable nation of Zimbabweans. Tomorrow is thus our birthday, the birth of a great Zimbabwe, and the birth of its nation.”

Some will argue it was its death day. From 2000, when the ceasing of farms began and hundreds of farmers were massacred, the country began to fear and mistrust its media and government. Mugabe first turned the Shona people against the Ndebele and later white against black and black against white. So began the birth of a broken nation. In Mugabe’s haunting words: “An evil remains an evil whether practiced by white against black or black against white.”

In the speech, he also said: “Everyone should be a new man, with a new mind, new heart and new spirit.” Today, the majority like Dr Ray Burger* (73), who left the country just before independence, sees this replaced by an old man with a bitter spirit. Suicide of the elderly is a daily occurrence. Pensioners realise years later the pension they worked hard for all their lives is completely worthless through inflation.

Promises of infrastructure have been replaced by the reality of potholes and vacant municipalities. A lack of medical care has killed innocent individuals. Mr George Witman* (62) died last year, because the only cancer specialist left in the country performed the wrong operation. The specialist is 82 years old and removed a chicken-sized tumour before trying to shrink it through chemotherapy.

For Dan Tim,* his best friend, the hardest part to forget is the bulging stomach of his friend, puss oozing from his belly button. He did not get a chance to see Zimbabwe rise to her feet again. The Oncology Centre in Harare claims the cancer rate has increased by 55% since 2001.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai

PARTNERS? Many Zimbabwean people have questioned the coalition government between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. Is the power truly balanced or will there always be an obstacle between them? PIC: Online

Petty partners

According to Moyo, the coalition government is the weak partner in the “all inclusive government.” Just recently, Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai flew in separate planes to Tanzania. The information was leaked to international media, while national media led everyone to believe “the coalition is going strong.”

But, locals claim things have been rocky in the partnership since ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema publicly rebuked the MDC at a press conference in Luthuli House. He also congratulated Mugabe on his land reform policies saying: “In Zimbabwe, you are already very far. In South Africa, we are just starting.”

Moyo claims there is a definite increase of Chinese traders in the country, forcing local factories to close down. He also claims local taxes at borders (a Visa tax, entry tax for national parks, river usage, road tax, toll gates, tourism levy) make it very hard for tourists to travel. Some hotels still charge three times the rate to foreigners through the two-tier system.

The travel agency claims locals are coming back in small numbers, but the new law on indigenisation has caused financial stress in many local companies. Companies with an asset value higher than 51% have to have a majority black Zimbabwean ownership, hindering the revival of the economy.

Thirty-one years after independence, press freedom comes and goes, according to the government’s temperament. Today, the BBC and CNN can report in certain areas, but are constantly monitored. The Herald, known for its government propaganda, still remains the locals’ favourite. Yet, it hardly speaks about the MDC partnership. It speaks of hope for a new generation, includes articles on music and movies and even has entertaining obituaries. The obituary for musician Sam Mtukudzi (17 March 2010) read: “Sam’s father’s right hand has been amputated and it’s not an easy thing to forget a hand.”

Zambezi river

DIVIDED: As beautiful as Zimbabwe is, it has failed to attract tourists like in the past. This years elections will determine whether things have changed. PHOTO: Vanessa Smeets

Unwritten pages

In thirty-one years, locals have witnessed dozens of robberies and attacks on family members and friends. The media only reported on a small percentage. But, the media could not hide the facts: in July 2007, streets and shops stood empty. Harare became a ghost-town. Locals urged family members in South Africa to bring them food, but half the stock would be taken by police at the border. Still, local media reported on none of this.

Today, the country itself is hungry for change, for tourists and for action. According to Burger, it is an achievable dream:

“Once a Zimbabwean, always a Zimbabwean. The country has a special magic to it. It has the potential to be the best country in Africa, filled with a blessed climate, rich soil and natural wonders.”

Maybe one day the vision will return to a country blinded by bitter memories. The Shona people continue to pray for rain, believing it will wash away yesterday’s dried up hopes. The red dust settles at their ankles. For many, it stopped raining thirty-one years ago.


Current Zimbabwean flag

TALES OF COLOUR: The Rhodesian flag changed with political changes in the country. British colonial rule was extremely important in its founding years. In 1979, it adopted the Pan-African colours of white, red, black and green. In 1980, the Union Jack was lowered at the ceremony, replaced by the new Zimbabwean flag. PIC: Online

Tales of colour: Independence Flag

  • Yellow: the wealth of minerals in the country
  • Black: the heritage of the now combined Shona and Ndebele people
  • Green: the agriculture and rural areas of Zimbabwe
  • Red: the bloodshed during the first and second civilian wars
  • White triangle: peace
  • Zimbabwe Bird: the national symbol of Zimbabwe
  • Red Star: the nation’s hopes and aspirations for the future (as well as ZANU-PF’s socialist beliefs)

 Those who insult the flag face a fine of $1000 or two years imprisonment. 

SOURCES:

  • www.wikipedia.org
  • personal interviews
  • people from Human Rights Watch and ex-Zimbabwean journalists
  • Website: Lloyd Msipa’s blog (online Zimbabwean journalist)
  • Website: www.cpj.org – Committee for Protected Journalists

The value of LIFE in Zimbabwe

LESS THAN TOILET PAPER: In 2007, the Zimbabwean dollar was more worthless than toilet paper. Today, the American dollar is in use. COURTESY: online

VANESSA SMEETS

As a child, I valued all living things. I would collect crickets and dragonflies in the kitchen and set them free in the garden. As I grew up, those small things transformed into valuable assets: the values of patience, integrity, honesty, courage, kindness and forgiveness.

During the June holidays, I was on my way to Zimbabwe, the land of my birth, after living in South Africa for the last 20 years. It was time to go back to the garden filled with those noisy crickets.

Patience

The plane takes off from Johannesburg an hour late. My brother and I wait patiently, knowing our dad has been expecting us for the last three hours.

In Harare, we are greeted with sour faces: “Why are you here? What do you want?” At R300 or $30 US (the country has decided its own exchange rate), we finally get our Visas. I have to swallow my pride and smile gratefully for the tattered pink Visa in my passport. Welcome home.

COUNTRY IN DISTRESS: A collage of what once made up one of the most powerful countries in Africa. COURTESY: online

 

Integrity

At church, a farmer tells his incredible story of loss and betrayal. John Miller* almost lost his life after debating with ZANU-PF militants on his farm. The room fills up with tears.

He is the epitome of courage. “What man intends for evil, God intends for good,” he tells us. “You can choose to flee, forgive or forget.”

I decide to forgive the nasty people at the airport. I decide to forget my dad shouting at pedestrians, as we were late for church. I decide to flee my negative thoughts of my documentary not going as planned.

While my Journalism classmates are celebrating the festivities of the World Cup in South Africa, I wanted to focus on “life after independence” in a forgotten paradise.

There’s magic in Zimbabwe. Some describe it as extreme spirituality. The Shona people are known for praying for rain. It symbolizes hope. For many, the red dust of Zimbabwe settles at their ankles. It stopped raining thirty years ago. Their integrity and strength remain intact. It will rain again.

1980 was filled with the promises of a new government that would benefit all people. Today, Zimbabwe has no currency of its own, with thousands of people still struggling to buy food. The American dollar is a luxury few can afford.

Courage

John’s story inspires me to start working. A woman and her two children have been squatting outside my dad’s house on the street for the last month. I’m not sure how to approach her. My video camera is hidden in my coat’s pocket.

It takes a lot of courage for us to start talking. She stutters as I ask her name. I look deep into her eyes. Somewhere beyond the pain of raising four children on her own (two of them are home alone), I want to get to know her.

Esther is my age. But unlike me, she has never gone to school. She has never gone a day without being hungry. Instead, she fell pregnant at 15. She can’t work because her four-month old baby cries constantly. It has been sun burnt by weeks of standing on the side of the street attached to its nine-year old sister.

The little girl comforts the crying baby. She dances between the cars. Her mother doesn’t flinch. “Isn’t it dangerous?” I ask, pointing at a car hooting for them to get out of the way. “Yes,” she whispers, “But they know I have many mouths to feed.”

Honesty

VALUE OF MONEY: 100 billion dollars was equivalent to three eggs at a stage. COURTESY: online

I tell Esther I need to film her. At first, it is awkward. She can’t look at me in the eyes anymore. But, her child is fascinated with being on film. She smiles, laughs and shows off her pretty but dirty dress.

As the little girl walks away, another man appears. Edson is a street vendor and Esther’s friend. They met on the corner of the road. “If I have bread, I will share with her,” he tells me, “But life is hard. I cannot feed her every day. Business is slow.”

He disappears into the cars as the traffic increases. People are rushing home, but his colourful stock of balloons continues to hang on to his arms. He has incredible patience. A Mercedes stops and buys one. He smiles and waves at me.

His honesty is made apparent when he warns me: “The police are here. They saw you filming us.” I hide my camera. If Edson hadn’t warned me, the government’s police would have erased all my film. They hate journalists.

Kindness and forgiveness

In the house, I gather up avocadoes and juice for Esther and Edson. Their kindness has made me realize how insignificant my problems really are.

These people choose to endure, rather than fight. Every day is about survival of their families, not themselves. Life for them is not about the value of money, but the value of food.

Life for them is also not about the value of politics, but the value of listening. There is healing in listening to each other’s pain. We have all suffered under this regime.

There is value in forgiveness. There is value in hope.

John’s words haunt my mind: “I’d rather forgive than flee. You cannot flee your own hatred. Hatred is like drinking from a poisoned chalice hoping your enemy will suffer.”

Zimbabwe’s people have suffered enough. There is value in sharing their tale with all those who read this.

*name has been changed

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