Zimbabwe: country of sadness and hope

2016-07-25 13:38
THE SMOKE THAT THUNDERS: the magnificent Victoria Falls deserve to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

THE SMOKE THAT THUNDERS: the magnificent Victoria Falls deserve to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. (Linda Longhurst, The Witness)

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When we moved from South Africa to Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1995 as a newly married couple, my husband was going home and I was dragged along kicking and screaming.

I did not want to live in a Third World country in deepest, darkest Africa and I certainly did not want to be so far away from my family. We didn’t have a choice, however, as my husband’s work permit had been declined and he had to leave. So we started our married life in a charming one-bedroom thatched cottage in Zimbabwe’s capital city and I soon fell in love with the country that we would call home for the next eight years.

I found a job and we settled into the relaxed and easy going Zimbabwean lifestyle. We reconnected with Zimbabwean friends and family, and made new ones. Our lives moved forwards to bigger houses, better jobs and the certainty that this was our home, where we would bring up our children and grow old. We took full advantage of the beauties that that wonderful country had to offer and had no doubt that this was where we were meant to be. Alas, as you know, we were wrong. Fast-forward to 2000. Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change threatened Robert Mugabe’s hold on power, which up to that point had been largely benevolent. Shocked and enraged at losing a referendum that he had called for in a bid to change the constitution, Mugabe mobilised and unleashed the war veterans. That was the beginning of the end and no longer able to endure the escalating prices, the queues for fuel, the breakdown of services, but mostly the beatings of our friends (including my husband), the blatant injustices, intimidation and violence that were meted out on all Zimbabweans all the time, we fled back to South Africa. We left devastated that one man’s greed and megalomania had destroyed a vibrant, growing country with a glowing future in the space of two years. All around us families, black and white, all heartbroken but with little choice, packed up and left.

Fast-forward another 14 years, and we found ourselves for the first time since we left on our way back to the country we had left so reluctantly so many years earlier. Filled with excitement at meeting up with family and reconnecting with the country we had called home, we set out on our long journey. Forewarned that the Beitbridge border post was a no-go zone, we opted to go via Botswana and enter Zimbabwe at the Plum Tree border post. My first encounter with Zimbabwe’s attitude to the media was when I unthinkingly wrote “editor” under “occupation” on a form I had to fill in. The Zimbabwean immigration official immediately zoned in on it and issued me with a “Notice to visitor”, forbidding me from working in the country: “Just in case you feel the urge to do some editing,” she said darkly.

Within 10 kilometres of the border post, we encountered our first police road block, about which we had been warned. We had been told that they were used to solicit bribes under the guise of fines for not carrying the obligatory fire extinguisher, triangles, reflective vests, among other requirements, some blatantly trumped up on the spot. During our 10-day stay in Zimbabwe, we went through no fewer than 30 of these road blocks, some as close as five kilometres from each other. I think we were lucky in that we encountered no problems and were waved through most of them, but it’s clear that their intention is intimidation, pure and simple.

Once-grand Bulawayo with its wide streets, big trees, rambling houses set in large gardens is dirty and derelict; a shadow of its former elegant self. Our first foray into Zimbabwe’s supermarkets left us gobsmacked at the cost. Everything that’s available in South Africa is available in Zimbabwe but at least double if not triple what we pay here. Our very basic accommodation was equally expensive, which we had to pay for in cash. Very few outlets, garages included, accepted bank cards as there is simply no cash in Zimbabwe so we had to be very thrifty with our U.S. dollars.

Trying to escape the deep sadness we felt at the state of Bulawayo, we visited the Matopos National Park. Contrary to my petulant comment of “what’s so exciting about a bunch of rocks?” to my parents as a teenager on my very first visit to the Matopos, this World Heritage Site is indeed amazing. Enormous boulders balancing precariously one on top of the other make massive towers that stretch up into the sky, as if a giant had made piles of pebbles, delicately placing one on top of another as a child would. Although very dry, the bush seemed to be in good condition, but apart from the odd buck here and there, we saw very few animals. A visit to Chipingale Wildlife Orphanage hammered home the dire state of Zimbabwe’s wildlife parks and animal refuges. They are doing the best they can in the circumstances, but Chipingale is in a run-down state. Once filled with all manner of wildlife in various stages of rehabilitation, the institution is now concentrating on the big cats, none of which can be released back into the wild. They are in good condition and their enclosures are clean and secure, thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers who are doing their best to keep Chipingale running.

We were in Zimbabwe when the stay aways were planned and while Harare escalated into violence (primarily police beating civilians), Bulawayo was quiet as shops and businesses closed their doors and people stayed at home. Saying that, however, leaving Bulawayo on our way to Victoria Falls, riot police loitered on street corners and there was a menace in the air that made us uneasy, and we were pleased to be going.

There is no describing the magnificence of the Victoria Falls, and they deserve to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Our tour of the falls left us chilly and drenched to the skin but astounded at their beauty and power. The precinct of the falls is clean and well-maintained, and the town is bustling. Everything in Victoria Falls is breathtakingly expensive, and we had to stop converting our U.S. dollars into rands to preserve our sanity. Watching the sunset from a boat on the Zambezi above the falls, a glass of chilled white wine in hand, it seemed that we had entered another country, far away from the fight that many Zimbabweans have bravely taken on in a bid for change.

We could not afford more than a night at Victoria Falls, so we made our way to our final destination — Lake Kariba in the Binga district, where we would spend a week with family. The Masumu River Lodge overlooks the lake, which still fills me with awe. The fishermen in the family (father, husband, son, various brothers and a sister-in-law or two) could not wait to get on the water and try their luck against the resident tiger fish and bream. Although they were warned that the fishing might not meet expectations this time of year, they were pleasantly surprised and we all enjoyed fresh bream on a daily basis. For my son, fishing on Lake Kariba in the country of his birth was a dream come true for him and I have no doubt that one day he will make his way back there.

Despite our wonderful holiday, I left Zimbabwe with a feeling of profound sadness. This was not the country that I remembered and had loved so much. While Zimbabwe’s natural wonders are as magnificent as ever, I’m sure that a sight-seeing trip around the Matopos, a leisurely boat ride on the Zambezi or a restful stay at Lake Kariba are not on the bucket list of the majority of Zimbabweans for whom daily life is a struggle. But they have finally had enough and are standing up to the tyranny of Mugabe and his Zanu-PF. I hope they keep fighting. I hope they prevail. I hope they get the Zimbabwe of their dreams.

Read more on:    zimbabwe

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