A Fistful of Dollars

THERE’S a tale from the weekend Karla and myself spent in Bulawayo that sums up a lot about Zimbabwe.

Having popped out for breakfast on the Sunday morning – eventually giving up finding a cafe open and installing ourselves at one of the myriad of pie/pizza/chicken places which dot the city – we went into a shop for Karla to buy something.

After paying in US dollars, she was given the change in South African rand.

Not wanting to be saddled with coins from a country we had left, in the next shop she asked if they would accept the rand to pay for a drink.

Having been told no, she again paid in dollars – only to be given the change back in rand.

Not sure if that is better than the chews and lollipops often given out in lieu of small amounts of change, but it does show the confusion and hurdles which need to be overcome if Zimbabwe is really to emerge from years of turmoil.

Zimbabwe is far from alone among African countries in not being able to sort out change. Coins are very much an afterthought (and largely worthless), while nobody in shops appears to have a stock of smaller notes, bar Namibia and South Africa when actually being handed the correct change came as a major shock.

Instead, we have been given too much change, too little, had staff rifling through their own bags for notes, given credit which the person serving can never remember when you come to get the next drink or offered anything from sweets to packets of cigarettes to make up the change.

Whatever Africa’s economic woes, somebody, somewhere is making a fortune from all the change which is never given out.

But in Zimbabwe, the mix of two other nations’ currencies sums up the state of flux which continues to run through the country.

Unlike many of the less developed countries we passed through on our way down the west coast, Zimbabwe clearly has – or had – an infrastructure in place. Both Bulawayo and Harare are cities waiting to be brought back to former glories, boasting most of the requirements for a thriving modern metropolis.

But the emphasis is on the waiting. As it stands, the country is fraying badly at the seams as years of mismanagement and neglect have taken their toll under the leadership of Robert Mugabe (though doubt the power cuts which hit the city pretty much daily occur around his plush pad).

Pretty much all major buildings you walk into in Zimbabwe, be it hotels, banks or (trust me on this) doctors’ surgeries, have a big picture on the wall of the man who has, pretty much single-handedly, led the country since independence.

For how much longer remains to be seen.

He is 91 and at some point in the not too distant future, he will get his wish to have been President for Life and somehow the void he leaves behind needs filling if the country he has run into the ground over the past three decades or so is to continue the improvements we were repeatedly told had been slowly happening since the days of land grabs (which removed not only white farmers, but also their knowledge and experience in producing crops – much of which is now being utilised in neighbouring Zambia to export food back to their homeland) and hyper inflation.

Who takes over is critical for a country which is so rich is so many areas – the people were unstintingly friendly during our stay and it boasts enough natural wonders (Victoria Falls, mountain retreats, abundant wildlife and the huge man-made Lake Kariba, our final port of call before popping over the dam which created it into Zambia) for the slowly increasing trickle of tourists returning to the country to become a flood.

And, depending on who you talk to (and who is willing to talk to you without fear of being overheard in a land where free speech and a free press is some way off), there are tales of untold riches to rival those which have helped the likes of Angola, Botswana and Namibia become economic success stories.

All of this, of course, is watched closely from around the world. The Chinese are making their presence felt across Africa – providing an ever-improving ribbon of asphalt through previously tricky terrain – while even North Korea has close contacts with Uncle Bob.

Watching on even closer is the local powerhouse of South Africa, while the dollarisation of the currency and historic links suggest the US and UK are going to be watching what (or who) happens very carefully, to say nothing of the rest of Africa and the Commonwealth.

Internally, opposition leader Morgan Tsangverai appears the obvious alternative to any pre-ordained succession to wife Grace, having already had a taste of leadership in a power-sharing experiment, but who eventually steps into Mugabe’s shoes – and how far they are willing or able to walk in them from Uncle Bob’s path – has a massive job on their hands.

Ideally, this post would be extolling the virtues of a country which has so much which is easy to like.

Our final farewell on the banks of Lake Kariba was hardly action-packed – bar those who opted to stroll from our base into town, only to be picked up by a passing car as walking through a national park containing so many wild animals was not the best idea.

For those of us who stayed in base camp, we did not have to strain too hard to spot those animals – a quartet of elephants spending a good hour or so splashing about in the shallows, surrounded by the bobbing heads of numerous hippos, while those who ventured closer to the water assured us there were plenty of crocodiles hanging around as well.

Elephants even paid a visit to camp, strolling among the tents, while the noise of the hippos throughout the night provided a soothing, if initially startling, soundtrack to the evenings.

Wherever we went in Zimbabwe, we met people delighted to see us and proud to show off the considerable delights their country has to offer. But there is no ignoring the issues which face a country which has the ability to punch its weight as a real African powerhouse.

We began our journey across the country on the Victoria Falls to Bulawayo train, which a reader of a previous post thought was portrayed as a disappointing trip. Far from it, the night and following morning on the train providing a hugely enjoyable change of pace and chance to chat with the locals.

But the train, in many ways, sums up the malaise which has beset the country.

Far from the pristine carriages which Michael Palin recalled from his 1991 journey along the same route, the whole thing was falling apart. On the tour he provided for his privileged white passengers, the train manager mixed pride in his steed with frustration at the way things had been allowed to decay.

From a train and railway system that worked, it has suffered years of neglect to the point where pretty much nothing works.

Somehow, there are still enough people willing to keep things just about rolling forward, from the guy who helped us at the platform and said he had not been paid for 10 months but still turned up for work each day to the employee who chatted to me while at a station stop in the early hours.

“It’s politicians,” he said. “We need businessmen, but we get politicians. That’s why nothing works.”

Whoever succeeds Mugabe should heed those words. Zimbabwe needs reforming from the ground up, not from the top down.

And getting the railway back on the right tracks would be a pretty good start.


Carry On (Not) Screaming

THERE are more notable locations around Fife Avenue in Harare. The city’s Test cricket ground and Robert Mugabe’s presidential palace – complete with heavily-armed men in uniform patrolling the perimeter in case anybody takes an ill-thought out selfie – for starters.

But the setting which drained my time, my money and… well, let’s not go into exactly what was drained just yet, was a rather bland doctor’s office.*

The reason for the visit was initially dismissed as merely a blister on the side of my foot, a side effect of my switch to flip-flops and my lifelong habit of walking on the side of my feet. Right up until a quick check after stepping out of the shower in the Zimbabwean capital discovered what had been a lump of hard skin was now a suspiciously squishy shade of yellow.

Throw in a collection of bites which were just not healing and it was time to give in to the inevitable – and the urgings of a couple of people since a brief bout of sickness in Bulawayo, which was not followed by the normal swelling of one of my legs, well not much – and seek medical help.

It has all added to a week of doing, largely, not a lot since leaving the big beasts of Antelope Park.

Quiet Spot – Pulling over at the side of the road has its advantages

It even, courtesy of a sore back and generally feeling rundown, had me retreating to my bed before it was even dark as most of the rest headed up to investigate the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, the former thriving civilisation which gave its name to the new country upon independence.

Which made a trip to Heaven, our home away from home overlooking the Chimanimani Mountains, a pretty ideal spot to kick back and relax (let’s be honest, the chances of me heading out on one of the long walks through the mountains or one of the adjoining hills were slim at best, even with non-aching feet).

My foot, at this point, still enabled a walk down into the village and a trip to the local bar to celebrate Gareth’s birthday and add our names to the legions of former Oasis groups who have sought refuge in the same watering hole and left their mark on the walls.

Not sure what was our main motivation to stay out late, more beer or avoiding going to bed as the altitude added to the falling temperatures, although an improvised nest involving my sleeping bag and Moroccan rug ensured it was all nice and toasty, as long as the heavy dew did not intrude too much. Still no sign of the rug’s supposed aphrodisiac qualities mind.

The pattern of hot days, cold nights continued as we rolled into Harare and set up home in the back garden of Oasis’ African base, complete with workshop containing four other trucks and the equipment Gareth needed to give Nala some much-needed TLC.

Pure Heaven – Our base in Chimanimani

But as others struck out to investigate the delights of the capital city (once they had managed to get further than the Black Banana bar down the road), the garden became my home for much of the next few days – bar that rather longer than intended trip to the doctors.

Let’s get some things straight from the start. There was no crying out in pain. There was no squealing. There could easily have been (and nearly was), but there wasn’t. There was plenty of giggling, not all of which could be attributed to large quantities of painkillers injected in various parts of my body.

Once, that is, the doctor had turned up half an hour after the start of surgery, which remained devoid of other patients until he arrived, followed by a crowd of people who wanted his attention and providing the signal for his receptionist (who had also taken my blood pressure, then disappeared) to start relieving me of some dollars.

When he arrived, he conducted a thorough investigation which saw him fill first the rather large index card bearing my details and then the prescription form which was then handed to me with the instructions to go next door to the pharmacy, get everything on the lengthy list and head back so they could start administering them.

Which is when it all went a bit weird.

They were very polite and friendly in the pharmacy. But as quickly as the cashier got stuff off the shelves to fill the order, one of the pharmacists changed them for something else, only for the woman from the doctors – apparently not just a receptionist, but also the nurse (least hope so, given her later part in proceedings) – to repeatedly return, change the order and add things to the list.

And then started the discussion of just how much was needed. Was 10 bottles of antiseptic necessary (having gone halfway down one bottle in three days, suggest not)? And did we really want a whole litre of something nobody was sure was actually needed?

The doctor, it appeared, had decided we needed some extra to look after the rest of the group as the need arose. With me paying.

Finally we had it all worked out and, armed with a cardboard box full of drugs, ointments and dressings, it was back to the doctors and a treatment table set up with some worryingly sharp-looking bits of equipment.

Details of what happened next is all a bit hazy, mainly because of my desire to look anywhere but in the direction of what the doctor was doing with a long syringe and what appeared to be a razor blade.

What is clear is that the two injections of local anaesthetic (think my first for anything not involving teeth as all my stitches, both rugby and beer related, have been done without) hurt. A lot. An awful lot. That’s where there was very nearly a fair amount of screaming, but instead just a badly-bitten lip.

Thankfully, the injections worked and the actual cutting of the abscess was pretty straightforward, if rather disgusting, judging by the mess nobody appeared in a hurry to clear up. With the rest of my wounds treated, it was time for a couple more injections – not in the arm being proffered, but in my bum. Only having dropped my shorts did the nurse explain that rolling up my T-shirt would have been sufficient.

And so, with my wallet lightened, foot bandaged, box full of drugs under my arm and under orders to stay off my foot, they ushered me out the door and told me to walk 10 minutes down the road to drop off a sample at a lab.

Instead, it was a limp over the road to grab lunch, supplies for the next few days and a taxi down to the lab – the driver kindly waiting the half hour it took me to fill in a form, sit in a queue, be relieved of more money and have a previously unannounced blood test, before running me back to base and spending another 10 minutes running around everybody he could find in search of some change. All of which was highly amusing to somebody rammed full of antibiotics and painkillers.

And that was pretty much my Harare experience, up until our final night trip to a barbecue and drinks at the home of fellow traveller Kris’ sister Sophie and her boyfriend Giles, who works for the EU.

Not sure quite what was going through their minds when they kindly invited us lot back into polite society (with me struggling with my first experience of crutches dug out of the house by Mark, an Oasis tour leader recuperating from a joint bout of typhoid and malaria), but we were on our best behaviour as we did what comes naturally and huddled around the fire pit.

* The last mention of my ailing legs had several people asking about my well being, be it relatives, friends or staff at Oasis HQ. Believe me, I’m fine. The wounds are healing nicely and the heel – as long as it doesn’t have to bear too much weight for too long – doesn’t hurt that much. Most of the time. Hopefully, by the time we’ve actually got wi-fi to get this post published, it will all be cleared up. Now, did I mention my knee…


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