Day 29: Leaving Zimbabwe
The last week in Zimbabwe has been nothing but spectacular. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, and there are so many reasons to visit. Unfortunately, this country – once the breadbasket of Africa, the “land of milk and honey” – has been utterly decimated by the policies of its autocratic president Robert Mugabe. Unemployment is near 90% and average life expectancy has plummeted from one of the highest in Africa to a mere 37 years (thanks to malnutrition and AIDS, which afflicts 25% of the population).
Zimbabwe has the world’s fastest shrinking economy, and the standard of living is now half what it was in 1980. Inflation over the last few years has been extravagant, so much so that the country switched over to using US dollars as their main official currency in 2009. Before the change, 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars equaled about 50 US cents! Imagine carrying around a wheelbarrow full of cash to buy a coke! Prices are out of control — $10 for a kilo of bananas, $10 for a cart of 24 eggs. Fresh groceries are very difficult to find, the supermarket shelves only have wilted lettuce.
Even though USD is the official currency, it’s very difficult to get access to it. It took me 3 days to cash some traveler’s checks. All this, while the government spends money on its friends and family: the local police have brand new 335i BMW sedans, while the people starve for work and food. 70% of the black middle class has fled, largely to neighboring countries, and an estimated 25% of the country’s population has emigrated in the last five years.
We arrived in beautiful Victoria Falls in the northwest of the country after traveling through Botswana. We were greeted by an a cappella group of Zimbabwean men singing “In the Jungle”. It was a great flashback to my college a cappella days and made me feel right at home. We were staying at a local lodge next to the Kingdom Hotel and the famed Victoria Falls Hotel. The Kingdom has a brand new casino inside, but it was totally empty. Not a single gambler inside due to lack of foreign currency in the country!
Victoria Falls is one of the largest waterfalls in the world, where the Zambezi river falls 108 meters down into a narrow cliff gorge, creating one of the best river rafting experiences in the world. We went out on a day-long paddle, assured that we would experience class 5 rapids and have the time of our life. Never did I think they really meant it!
It was a gorgeous day as we started our paddle down the mighty Zambezi, surrounded by 250 meter high cliffs. We had a relatively easy warm up with class 3 rapids, but as the Zambezi roared through a narrow gorge, we came face to face with a class 5 rapid aptly called “Terminator.” I was sitting in front of the boat and as we climbed a massive wave, I was convinced we would crest it with no problem, just like the others. But I was wrong.
Suddenly I heard our guide – a member of the Zimbabwean river rafting Olympic team – yell “Oh Fu*$!” And then all I remember is seeing the sky and getting catapulted 15 meters away from the boat head first. We had capsized into the river and suddenly became the “Zambezi Swim Team.” I came up for air immediately, but as luck would have it, we got pushed through a class 6 rapid called “Terminator 2” and we all got sucked down into the next set of waves, where I lost my sandals. We literally had to swim for our lives. Our kayak rescue team kept screaming, “Swim or die! Swim or die!” Deep under water, all I could think of was to grab a breath of air every time I surfaced so that I could have some air before I got hit with another massive wave and got sucked under again. I was pretty calm under water, held my breath and just went with the flow of the river, knowing that to resist it would be futile and would just exhaust me. A couple of my friends, however, were not as lucky. They got stuck in deep whirlpools (the Zambezi is 90 meters deep!), and they couldn’t get any air as they tumbled through the class 6 T2 washing machine and almost drowned.
Thankfully we were all wearing life jackets, and they did their job – every time we got sucked under, they eventually popped us back up to the surface. It took a massive rescue effort by a crew of experienced kayakers to get us all out of the river safely, but those 10 minutes were pretty hairy. A couple of my mates thought that they were about to drown and saw their lives flash before them and were in tears afterwards in the rescue boat. Oh and did I mention that the Zambezi is crocodile infested!? We all made it out OK and celebrated that night with many, many thanksgiving drinks to have survived one of the most challenging rapids in the world.
The next day, my friend Linda and I had a face-to-face encounter with lion cubs at a lion reserve. Words and pictures don’t do justice to the amazing experience of sitting next to lions, petting them and taking them for a walk. While these cubs were only 8 months old, these little guys had sharp teeth and claws and could easily do some major damage to you. But they were very chill – they had just been fed and all they wanted to do was to sleep – so we got to play with them, grab their paws (massive!) and shepherd them through the bush. A little later, we got to walk with their 15 month old siblings. This sister and brother couple was HUGE and they could easily kill you with a swipe to the face. It was exhilarating to share their environment, even for a little bit. They are very classy animals.
That same afternoon, Linda convinced me that we should do a tandem jump off the Zambezi gorge, plummeting 70 meters down the side of a cliff into the Zambezi. I’m terrified of jumping off things from a bad memory during childhood – which is why I would never bungee jump – but Linda said that she had done this sort of jump before in New Zealand and that it was much tamer than bungee jumping. She told me, “you sit in a harness and they just drop you like a roller coaster.” How hard could that be? It sounded fun, so I agreed.
Well, Linda was totally wrong. This jump was nothing like the jump she had done previously in New Zealand. This was in fact, JUST LIKE A BUNGEE, except the rope was attached to a harness to your waist, as opposed to your feet. You had to jump off a plank off the side of the cliff, just like a bungee. They harnessed us in together, each holding the other’s waist. Suddenly, I started to panic.
As a kid, we lived on the 33rd floor of a building – the same building where the first scene of “Another 48 Hours” was filmed where a woman jumps from the 33rd floor balcony to her death. Growing up, I was always tempted to jump off this same balcony and copy her move, but obviously my attempt would prove fatal, and not cinematic. To this day, I am terrified of balconies, and I grip balcony rails tightly, fearing that my subconscious will one day tempt me to somersault over the railing, just like the lady in the movie.
On the plank, I suddenly felt the urge to go to the bathroom. I told Linda, “if I pee on you today, it’s not my fault.” We started our crawl towards the edge of the plank, and I couldn’t believe I was about to jump off this cliff – my worst nightmare. The jump master kept pushing us closer to the edge, starting the countdown “ 5, 4, 3…” and then I lost it. I started yelling at the jump master, “Don’t f#&*ing push me!! Don’t f#&*ing push me!” I wanted to back out, but I was harnessed in to Linda, and there was no way back. It would’ve been too shameful. Linda kept reassuring me that it would be OK, despite the fact that she too was now getting scared – the same person who yesterday almost drowned in the Zambezi. I took a deep breath, looked at the horizon and…
I jumped off the plank, hurtling down the side of the cliff, accelerating towards the great Zambezi river until I suddenly got yanked by the rope and started swinging across the river like Tarzan. It was just like skydiving, but much scarier for me. Now I know what it would be like if you hurled yourself off a cliff to your death and saw your life flash by you. As soon as we jumped, we tumbled upside down and ended up going down head first (Linda screaming all the way down) – instead of feet first as we intended. All I remember is the side of the cliff accelerating past me as we rushed towards the whirling waters. As we roared across the river, I finally laughed and exhaled. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever forced myself to do. But I’m glad I did it, because it pushed me to my boundaries, but I can’t say I exactly enjoyed it or would do it again. I liked skydiving much more. Afterwards, I told Linda that it would be her fault if I was found dead one day on the ground, after overcoming my fear and jumping off a balcony…
After several near death experiences in Victoria Falls, we left for Hwange national park (pronounced “Wankie”) to go on a game drive. Hwange is on the border of Botswana and Zimbabwe, on the edge of the Kalahari desert, but is almost totally devoid of tourists and people, except for 46 bushmen. You could tell how badly the tourism industry has suffered here; we went to a lodge where only one room out of 101 were occupied, and the lodge was only being kept open on government orders to create a pretense of normality for potential tourists like us. The tourist infrastructure in Hwange used to be excellent, almost like South Africa, but there haven’t been any tourists here for almost 5 years because of Zimbabwe’s political turmoil. Things are rusting and falling apart, and the bush is slowly growing back. If the government spent some money on a minor paint job of these facilities, they could welcome back tourists by the truck loads. Unfortunately, Uncle Bob’s misguided policies continue to wreak havoc on this beautiful country.
We had a couple safari drives in the afternoon, evening and early morning. The highlight was a night drive where we got unexpectedly surrounded by a herd of elephants. They were incredibly quiet and we had no idea they were walking around our parked jeep, until we turned on the spotlight, imagine the fright we all got!
After Hwange, we drove to Bulawayo – the second largest city in Zimbabwe – where we spent two incredibly educational days. Bulawayo is a beautiful, leafy, colonial, tree-lined city, with manicured gardens, unlike most other southern African cities. In fact, the gorgeous trees reminded me a lot of Shanghai.
We stayed with a white Zimbabwean family who had a lovely campground and took us on a game drive the next day around the Matopo hills. The Matopos are a rocky outcrop estimated to be the oldest mountains in the world. Bushmen have occupied them for over 100,000 years, and they have left their imprint in numerous caves through detailed rock paintings. Our bush guide was incredibly passionate about Bushmen – he has studied them for 30 years and speaks their click language fluently. It was refreshing to see someone so passionate about something, and reminded me that one of the things I want to do in Africa is to rekindle my interest in things I’ve been previously passionate about.
The most fascinating thing I learned was that these Bushmen are the original inhabitants of southern Africa. The Bantu (black African) people migrated from central Africa to southern Africa starting in 1000 AD, displacing the Bushmen. White Europeans started arriving around 1650 AD. Over the last fifty years, many African politicians have claimed “Africa for the Africans” as a slogan to take away political and economic power from the whites. Some politicians have claimed that whites should leave Africa because they invaded black lands. Interestingly, they don’t even know that they too were invaders of another people’s lands – namely the Bushmen, who were the original inhabitants of southern Africa. There are literally hundreds of situations where black politicians have conveniently forgotten this fact in pursuit of their own agendas, and it continues to happen to this day in Zimbabwe with Mugabe’s government. Just goes to show that things aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface.
One afternoon in Bulawayo, we went for a walk in the bush in search of rhinos. There is massive rhino poaching going on in the Matopos, mostly because of unemployment in the surrounding region. Each kilogram of rhino horn can earn $50,000 on the black market thanks to demand from China and Japan. Considering each rhino horn is 10-12 kilos, one can understand why rhinos are in high demand – each horn can fetch $500,000-$600,000! In January alone, 27 poachers were either caught or shot in Matopo-Rhodes national park. So obviously, we weren’t about to go rhino sighting without guards armed with AK47s (which you could buy for $5 with the right contacts!).
We walked for hours and hours in the bush, in very tall grass in search of rhinos and were about to give up as sunset was setting in. But on our way out of the park, we suddenly ran into the “terrible twins”. We jumped out of our jeep and started sneaking up to the twins to get a close up look at them. We had to crouch down so as not to startle them, otherwise they could charge us. If that happens, the worst thing you could do is to run! You have to stand still, or behind a tree and hope that the rhino doesn’t get you. They run MUCH faster than humans, so running is no use. We got as close as 10 meters away from them and sat down to enjoy their stunning presence. It was an amazing feeling to be so close to these giants – until they got fidgety, made a false charge at us, coming as close as 5 meters, and then ran away. I often have wondered over the last few weeks why people would want to live in Zimbabwe given all the turmoil of recent years, and I figured it out on this afternoon. It’s such a special place; you can’t but be happy in this beautiful environment!
That evening, we went back to camp where I had a fascinating conversation with our host – a white Zimbabwean businessman – in the middle of a rolling power outage. He is heavily involved in opposition politics with the MDC (the Movement for Democratic Change), and for his safety I will keep his identity undercover and will just refer to him as Nick.
Nick was a former military officer in the Rhodesian army during the 1960s and 1970s. Since independence in 1980, Nick has been threatened several times by black Zimbabwean “war veterans” who wanted to take his land. In 2003, the wife of Bulawayo’s ex-mayor fancied his property and she placed an eviction order on his place, but Nick fought it successfully in court arguing that his place was in the city limits, and no property in city limits could be appropriated. Boy was she pissed. Since then, Nick has been bullied and threatened repeatedly, but he refuses to leave because he was born in Zimbabwe and he feels Zimbabwean.
Nick joined the MDC because he thinks it has a long-term policy for the country’s development, unlike Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party which has an entirely short-term view to power. Unlike in South Africa, where the ruling African National Congress party tried to keep whites in the country after the end of white minority rule to help blacks with training and long-term development, the ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe just kicked out all the whites from managerial roles without training up the black population. The result? The country went from one of the most prosperous in Africa to one of the poorest in just a decade. In 1963, Zimbabwe’s GDP was nearly the same as South Korea. Forty something years later, South Korea’s GDP is over a hundred times that of Zimbabwe’s.
Nick is a local polling agent for the MDC, which Mugabe has tried to ruthlessly repress. His job is to go around his community to make sure things are calm, get his fellow party members to the voting booth, and make sure violence doesn’t erupt. Very recently, a couple 23-year-old thugs stood up during a local community meeting and threatened to kill anyone who supported the MDC. Nick stood up and said that violence had no place in a free society, and that while they could voice their different political opinions, no one wanted violence. The crowd of 200 black people started cheering and ululating for a white guy who stood up to local thugs. The one thing that Robert Mugabe has unintentionally done is to bring about black and white unity – racial unity in the face of oppression by the state towards all Zimbabweans by the Mugabe regime. As a whole, Zimbabweans are tired of violence and political instability. They want peace, they want to make a living, they want what we all want. Nikes.
I asked Nick what he thought would happen when 86-year-old Robert Mugabe finally dies, and he thinks total chaos will reign, as no one is being groomed to take his place. Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader and current prime minister, is seen as a good speaker and rabble-rouser but not as a good administrator, which is what the country badly needs. After the stolen 2008 presidential election, Mugabe has finally caved into a power-sharing government with the MDC after intense international pressure by the SADC (Southern African Development Community). The national unity government is working on a new constitution – due mid-year – that would limit the power of the president and create a more democratic political arena. Once the new constitution is finished, it needs to be approved by a national referendum, and will be immediately followed by a presidential election, likely this fall. So given that there will be an election year, Nick thinks that violence is sure to erupt again leading up to the election, as Mugabe’s thugs try to intimidate the people to vote against a new constitution and continue his autocratic reign.
The following morning, we left for Masvingo, where we camped to see the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, Africa’s version of Machu Picchu. Great Zimbabwe was built between the 12th and 15th centuries, and at its peak was the largest city in sub-Saharan Africa during the middle ages. The city started a steady decline in the 16th century and is now just a shell of its former self. While the ruins were interesting, I was astounded that we were the only visitors that day to this world heritage site – one of the greatest wonders of the world. Just goes to show how much tourism in Zimbabwe has been decimated by Mugabe’s policies.
On the 9th, we entered Harare, the Zimbabwean capital. We walked around town for a few hours, strolling through the botanical gardens and the national gallery – rife with political art critical of the regime. Harare is a refreshingly nice city, much like Bulawayo, with grand, leafy avenues, and art deco architecture. There is a lot of buzz around the city, but you can tell that the economy is not doing well. It’s almost impossible to find any imported item.
In the evening, I went to have dinner with a friend of a friend who lives in Harare. He is a very prominent local black Zimbabwean who has studied abroad and won numerous international awards for political journalism. I will nickname him Bob to protect his identity. Bob has been banned several times in Zimbabwe from covering presidential elections, but he continues to work undercover and make magnificent documentaries highlighting the state’s repression.
We went to northern Harare, where the estates were as grand and as lush as those in Beverly Hills. I was astounded to see so much wealth in a country that has collapsed economically. Most of the wealthy are friends of Robert Mugabe or serving in the government. Driving around town, we were repeatedly stopped at numerous roadblocks, and the policemen were surprised to see a white guy and black guy in the same car as friends.
Bob had a fascinating perspective on the state of events in Zimbabwe. He felt that it was impossible for Mugabe to give up power and that the only hope for change was for him to die. He did say that he – along with many Zimbabweans and Africans – are disappointed in President Obama’s policies towards Africa – or lack thereof, really. Bob thinks that it would be quite easy for 200 American marines to take out Mugabe’s regime, since the Zimbabwean army is so weak. Obama could be a loud voice for democracy and anti-authoritarianism in Africa. But Africans are disappointed that Obama has done little to help oppressed Africans, even though he himself is half-African.
Like Nick, Bob also thinks that 2011 is likely to be a tumultuous year for Zimbabwean politics. Once the referendum for a new constitution gets into full swing, he thinks the government will pull out every card to stop any chance of reform in the country. After already taunting the white community for the last 10 years and blaming all of Zimbabwe’s ills on the whites in order to win previous votes, Mugabe has now turned to a new tactic. His party, the ZANU-PF, has just forced a new law through the rubber-stamp parliament that requires all foreign-owned businesses worth $500,000 or more to be 51% owned by Zimbabweans. This too, is another tactic to distract the people and win votes in the upcoming election. On Monday, half of Harare was empty as a group of nearly one thousand thugs poured into town to beat up Nigerian and Chinese owned businesses. Whether this tactic will work again is to be decided; Bob reassures me that Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has virtually no political support amongst the people, and if a clean, fair election were held today, Mugabe would lose in a landslide. The only people who support Mugabe are the military folks who have gotten rich off his largesse. In such an environment, it’s no wonder that the economy has collapsed and foreign direct investment has dried up.
Most interesting, the Zimbabwean government is getting increasingly cozy with the Iranian and Chinese regimes – two other autocratic bullies. Iran has built a brand new multimedia center for the Zimbabwe state broadcaster (the only allowed channel in the country) and Iranians are training the state broadcaster on censorship and propaganda techniques. Iran’s version of Al Jazeera (called Press TV) is the only other English language international news channel allowed in the country, though that too is full of propaganda. And the Chinese are buying up Zimbabwe’s diamonds and minerals left and right. The Chinese foreign minister was in town earlier this week with a $10bn investment package for Mugabe, promising to press the international community to remove sanctions against the regime. With friends like these, who needs Obama?
Zimbabwe has been the most fascinating place I’ve visited in Africa so far. I highly urge you to visit, it’s people are begging for tourism, even if the regime is an ugly toad. I’m off to Mozambique tomorrow as I wind my way up East Africa. Ciao for now!