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.