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.


On The Right Track?

IN the book Pole to Pole, describing his 1991 journey from the North to South Poles, Michael Palin described the train from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo as keeping the past “assiduously preserved”.

Having made the same overnight journey across Zimbabwe, it appears the train has been “assiduously preserved” by doing absolutely nothing to it across the intervening 24 years. Not sure parts of it have been cleaned in that time.

Looming Presence – Robert Mugabe

The National Railway of Zimbabwe – as with much in this fascinating, frustrating country with its somehow joyful, stoic population – has been through tough times since one of my travelling inspirations made the journey.

Plenty has changed since those relatively early days of independence (although the RR logo for Rhodesian Railways, picked out by Palin, still dots the carriages – along, seemingly, with the same paintwork and fittings, albeit in a less favourable state of repair) under the unbroken watch of Robert Mugabe.

The fact our pockets are stuffed full of US dollars says much about what the country has been through. Hyperinflation, mass unemployment and a Government programme of land grabs all but turned the country into an international pariah.

“Assidiously Preserved” – Karla and me settle in for the night on the train

But Mugabe hung on and even well into his 90s, remains the dominant figure (his picture hangs in most public buildings and roads bearing his name sweep through the centre of towns) in a country eager to move on, but seemingly held back by one man’s vision of how things should be, not how it could be,

Yet people remain unmistakably proud of this beautiful country. Their first question is invariably “Are you enjoying Zimbabwe?” or “What do you think of Zimbabwe?” and on any journey you will get to chat to plenty of locals. They are friendly, eager to help, chat, hear about your trip and tell you about their country.

And then you begin to hear tales of the troubles which have beset the country and how, even with things improving since the days of needing large bags of money just to pop down the shops (when there was nothing to buy anyway), many are still struggling to eke out a life in a land rich in natural resources. Just not, it would seem, too many that benefit the vast majority of its inhabitants.

On Track – Watching Zimbabwe roll past the window

Palin describes Victoria Falls station as “in immaculate condition… a low, elegant, Greek-revival gem with freshly-painted sky blue doors and matching detail, and on the platform an ornamental pond, palm trees, frangipani and striking red flamboyant trees.”

Immaculate is not the way to describe it now. Rather like the rest of the railway system, it has been allowed to decay. The pond has gone, some of the trees remain, but it needs some more fresh paint and the only visible addition since Palin’s arrival is a plaque commemorating a visit by Mugabe himself in 1998 for a visit of South Africa’s famed Blue Train.

There is no faulting the helpfulness when we – Karla and myself, escaping from the confines of the group to Bulawayo a couple of days early – rock up to confirm our booking an hour before the train is due to leave at 7pm.

The guy we have been told to ask for is the only person in the ticket booth, while an older gentleman does some running around on our behalf and the train manager appears to sort out our bookings by vacating in his carriage, allowing us to stay together.

As we sit and wait with our bags and supplies for the night – on the floor, there are no seats and the chances of any food and drink on the train are slim – our helper comes over for a chat (and a tip).

Having worked on the railways for 30 years, he has not been paid for 10 months. Yet he turns up everyday, “just in case” things change.

Full Flow – Victoria Falls. Just a bit of it

He sends us off wishing us a good trip through Zimbabwe and ending a whistle-stop visit to Victoria Falls, which we rolled into after an early, relatively quick crossing from Botswana.

While many of the others raced to sign up to throw themselves off bridges and cliff edges on a variety of ropes and harnesses, my choice was a bit more sedate – a walk along the Zimbabwean section of the mighty falls (having confirmed the design for the trip T-shirts).

Not that that was without peril, especially for the relative novice flip-flop wearer as the spray thrown up by what the locals call Mosi-oa-Tunya  (The Smoke That Thunders) turns the path opposite into a shower, complete with slippery surface not that far from a huge drop over the edge and a whole host of rainbows.

And that’s before you remember your passport is still in the pocket of your shorts and needs to be kept dry ahead of being despatched back to London in the quest for Ethiopian visas.

Over The Edge – And another bit

But despite limited vision and the need to stay out of the worst of the spray to avoid a total drenching, the walk is a staggering experience as the water just over the gorge pounds over the drop at a remarkable rate, creating an amazing experience. And noise.

Sorry Niagara, you are no longer my favourite waterfall.

Dried out and stocked up for the train, that was pretty much that for Victoria Falls as we settled into our carriage and rolled away, pretty much on time, towards Bulawayo.

It was a shame not to see more of the town, but for all that our group has meshed together remarkably well over the past six months (we hit that landmark when we were all reunited in Bulawayo), each of us needs some time away to clear our heads, get refreshed and prevent any minor irritations turning into anything more substantial.

Raging Torrent – The first part of the falls you come across on the Zimbabwe side

Karla still had to put up with the irritation of my snoring whenever the train stopped and retreated to the dining car – completely devoid of food – and bar (selling local brews in plastic bottles to local people) for much of the night.

She could have slept undisturbed for one of our longer stops as a visit to the (limited) facilities ended with a lengthy chat with one of the staff who was clear who should take the blame for the decline of the railway and much of the country – the politicians.

Businessmen are needed, he was clear, but politics keeps them away.

Like several Zimbabweans we have met, he admitted it was not wise to criticise Mugabe (a subject we had been warned to avoid at all cost), but went ahead and did it anyway. Having, of course, asked how we were enjoying his country.

We rolled into “Friendly Bulawayo” – as the welcome sign still declares, as it did on Michael Palin’s arrival – at noon, only three hours late, which is something of a success for this particular train line.

With a Saturday afternoon to fill, a girl from New Zealand and a boy from Gloucester did what comes naturally and found (after much searching and debate among taxi drivers) a brand new bar showing rugby.

IMG_5120Ensconced early (first ones in) on stools which needed a bungee rope to get off as the evening wore on, we settled into an afternoon of televised sport and chatting to the locals, one of whom remarkably used to live just a few hundred yards from my old school, while another finally drove us home as the last ones out the door.

Sunday morning saw us checking out what Bulawayo has to offer, which seems to largely consist of pie shops. Along with fried chicken joints and pizza places. Very handy for late-night eats, not so good the following morning when everything else is shut.

Actually that’s a bit cruel. It seems a pleasant enough place. A lick of paint here and there would do wonders and, like much of Zimbabwe, it leaves you wondering what it could be with the proper direction.

Refreshed and reinvigorated by a pie and a nap, we headed out again and found ourselves minor celebrities in a bar round the corner from our hotel, photographed by the management for their Facebook page and introduced to the director and several of the clientele.

One was determined to have his picture taken with us, despite not having a camera on him, and equally keen to get hold of the ones we took for him, while another regaled me with his string of grievances at the government which, with a guy claiming to be an officer in the army at the adjacent table, was slightly unnerving and the onset of a, thankfully, brief bout of sickness was a good excuse to head back to bed.

It has been a feature of this week, hearing about the problems of a country which people love but are very cagey about criticising in public, then reading about the British election online with people attacking all sides and the country as a whole.

“Britain is broken” wrote Armando Iannucci in a very good article in the run-up to the vote (a phrase which then seemed to appear countless times in other items with no credit). Zimbabwe is broken and has been for some time, but nobody is writing that or saying it. Because they cannot.

Perhaps those who will be moaning about another Conservative election win – confirmed by an alert on my phone a few minutes ago – might remember that whoever won, most people in Zimbabwe would love to live in a country as “broken” as the UK. And would love to be able to complain about it as openly.

But let’s not, as we rejoined the rest of the group camping at a very pleasant site just outside town and playing with the owners’ young black Labrador, leave this on a negative.

Zimbabwe, at least what we have seen of it so far, is a wonderful country filled with almost universally friendly people, eager to help and even more eager for you to enjoy your time here.

And whatever problems they may still have, you’ll find no complaints from here on that ground.

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