June 30, 2008

Zimbabwe: Great Place, Bad Government

Zimbabwe Victoria Falls Border Crossing

Because I prefer to write content that will remain relevant for more than a few days, I don’t usually write about current affairs. We’re also coming out of World Domination Week, with the launch of my manifesto and everything related to that.

But I decided to postpone what I had planned to write about today, and tell you about Zimbabwe instead. In case you weren’t aware of what’s happening over there, here’s the latest news courtesy of the New York Times.

Two years ago I spent a week hanging out in the Victoria Falls area, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Even back then, it wasn’t hard to see how bad things were getting.

The Zambian side was classic Africa, in all of the good ways. There was a lot of noise and activity in the market. Everyone was busy going about their business, and the kids were friendly to strangers without asking for much. If you’re looking for a great African experience, I thoroughly recommend visiting Zambia.

The Zimbabwean side, on the other hand, was pathetically sad. Beautiful wood carvings that should have been about $40 elsewhere in Africa were going for $10. The country has had the world’s highest inflation rate for several years now, recently estimated at more than 100,000% by the Sydney Morning Herald.

Speaking of Sydney, one seller ran up to me with a $20 Australian note that an Australian tourist had given him. He didn’t know how much it was worth, but he wanted to trade it for U.S. dollars—any amount would be fine, he told me.

To buy whatever they can find, Zimbabweans and foreigners carry around huge sacks of money, and because it’s an all-cash economy, large purchases may require a taxi to help carry the cash. Not that there’s much to buy—while buying a bottle of water one afternoon, I wandered through a twilight-zone grocery store. The store had a fair amount of people in it, but very few food items on the shelves.

I am not trying to depress you. There are a lot of good things happening in Africa. But while most Zimbabweans are suffering, it doesn’t seem fair to ignore the problems over there.

For a couple of nights on the Zimbabwean side, I ended up sleeping in a hut that was part of a guesthouse run by white South Africans. They were pretty much the only ones in the area who were doing okay.

One night I took a taxi back to my hut, and like I normally do, I asked the driver how things were in Zimbabwe. Asking the question like that is usually a good way to open up conversation without saying anything provocative, and it allows the respondent to say whatever they want.

My driver, though, wasn’t messing around. “Are you kidding?” he said. “Take a look around and see for yourself.”

I demurred from answering him directly, saying something non-political about how I had met a lot of nice Zimbabweans, it was a pretty place, etc. But he wasn’t buying it.

“Let me tell you, Robert Mugabe is a f—ing criminal. He should be thrown in prison for destroying our lives.”

I was pretty shocked at that statement. Most Africans I’ve known don’t usually drop the f-bomb in casual conversation like that, and even fewer would speak so openly about politics with a foreigner.

But my driver, it seemed, had seen enough not to care. I asked him what he hoped to do about the problems. He said was trying to leave the country as soon as possible.

“Where do you want to go?” I asked him.

“Anywhere, man,” he told me. “Anywhere but Zimbabwe.”

The $1 Million Dollar Diet Coke

The afternoon before I left, I headed over to the Victoria Falls Hotel do some journaling in front of the great view. I bought a Diet Coke, and when it came time to leave, the barman asked if I wanted my bill in U.S. or Zimbabwean currency. I had an enormous stack of Zimbabwean money in my bag, so I told them to price it that way.

I did a double-take as the guy put the bill on the table. The total was 800,000 Zimbabwean dollars.

Most of my Zimbabwean notes were in denominations of 10,000 and 20,000, so the barman and I began the laborious process of counting up to 800,000. I tipped the guy 200,000 dollars (!), bringing the total to a cool $1 million Zimbabwean dollars, or a few bucks in U.S. currency. It was funny and sad at the same time, and I called it my One Million Dollar Diet Coke.

***

Heading back to the Zambian side that afternoon for my flight, I said goodbye to the beautifully sad country. On the way over from Zambia the first time, the Zimbabwean customs officials had made a big deal about going through the truck I was riding in to make sure we weren’t bringing any meat or agricultural products across the border. Since there isn’t much on the Zimbabwean side, the Zimbabweans who can afford it tend to hop across the border to do their grocery shopping. Because it insists there are no food shortages or inflation problems, the Mugabe regime has made this practice illegal.

On the way back, though, there weren’t any customs checks, and the Zambian immigration officer waved me through without looking at my passport. Apparently, nothing is leaving Zimbabwe except Zimbabweans, so they weren’t worried about anyone smuggling something across the border. Judging from what I saw in the grocery store that day, there wasn’t much to take.

***

Back in my little part of the world, everything’s great. There are several thousand people reading the manifesto, and lots of bloggers linking in to the conversation. You guys rock! Please keep posting your comments.

Today I’m in transit to my next overseas adventure, and I’m excited about that too. I’ll be going to several new countries on this trip, including two that I am especially looking forward to visiting for the first time.

But when you hear the latest news about Zimbabwe, be sure and pay attention to that as well. It’s worth caring about.

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Comment on this article

12 Responses to “Zimbabwe: Great Place, Bad Government”

  1. Thank you for your first-hand update from Zimbabwe. It puts things into perspective for me!!!

  2. Ah…perspective. This blog sure makes my personal problems seem minor. Sometimes I think we forget how unimportant we are in the whole scheme of things, as individuals. Don’t worry about making this post seem to much of a “downer”. It’s reality. And I think my ego could use a good dose of it today. Much needed and appreciated Chris.

  3. Interesting comparisons between the two countries and traveling across the borders. I didn’t know that 100,000% inflation was even possible, nor do I think I can even comprehend what that must be like. Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. I don’t usually drink sodas, even diet ones (I’m caffeine sensitive so I keep them to a minimum), but the next time I have a diet coke, I’m sure I’ll remember that you paid $1M for it in Zimbabwe. Wow, is all I can say.

  4. I was in Zimbabwe with my Mum and sister in 1996, travelling around in a beaten up car borrowed from my uncle who lived in Botswana. We stayed at a fancy hotel in Victoria Falls for a couple of days. I had an ice cream that cost $Z16, about $2 Australian (I think – I was converting from Australian dollars to Botswana pula to Zimbabwean dollars and getting fairly confused in the process). That was pretty expensive but we put it down to mild inflation and the aforementioned fanciness of the hotel. It blows my mind that ten years later you paid a cool million for a Diet Coke.

    Back then we were told Do Not Go To Zambia – we wanted to at least drive over the border for the day and check it out, but everyone said our tires would get stolen in a split second. They also said that if we’d traded a Zimbabwean dollar for Zambian currency we’d need a bucket to carry the loose change. Sounds like their roles have reversed now.

    There are a lot of checkpoints in Botswana where we were not allowed to take any meat. They were concerned about mad cow disease. Every few hundred kilometres we were stopped and interrogated. At one veterinary checkpoint the guards asked us if we had any meat, and we said no. They insisted on searching the car. Once they were satisfied that we really had no meat, they asked, ‘But what are you going to have for dinner?!’ They couldn’t believe it. (Couldn’t believe I was a vegetarian, either.)

  5. I left Zim in 2002 after voting in those elections, having lived there virtually all my life, 52yrs. Not so long ago the Zambians used to cross the border & virtually cleanout the supermarkets on the Zim side.It seems now that the tide has really turned!Zim will always be a great country with a really friendly, happy people who, one day soon, will be free of living under a dictator. Great site, Chris.

  6. @Roy,

    Nice to meet a Zimbabwean reader, and thank you for your comments. I have tremendous respect for the people there and I really do hope the situation improves soon. (Although sadly, I am not sure it will for a while.)

    Thanks to the others as well for your comments – @Kate, @Cheng, @Cheryl, and @Chloe.

    @Chloe, yes, the vegetarian thing is often hard to explain in a lot of places in Africa.

  7. July 2, 2008

    solomon

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for the factual article. Being a Zimbabwean myself and a loyal fan of this blog i never imagined you had been as far as Zimbabwe in your travels because without exaggerating its the last place a tourist would feel comfortable visiting. Not that its not nice or not peaceful but cost of living is a challenge. For the record the 100 000% inflation mentioned in the newspaper is for “official prices” of which goods with official prices are never found in shelves of supermarkets, goods are found on the black market. Many suggest inflation based on black market prices is around 2 000 000% at the moment.

  8. Hi Chris,
    Seems you are right on your assumption that the Zim crisis will ‘take a while’. So many of us ex Zim are absolutely shattered at what took place at the AU. The mind boggles. Now that the despot is back in power, we will see the start of Operation Red Finger begin in earnest. Again, will the innocents be brutalised, tortured & live in absolute fear & terror. Our prayers & thoughts are with the people of Zimbabwe.

  9. That much for coke?! Outrageous currency conversion rates. LOL

  10. great story and love the part of the price of diet coke WOW!!!

  11. Am heartbroken again.

    Quote: (Cabdriver) “Anywhere but here…” His daily life must be an extraordinary grind filled with exceptional bitterness and disappointment.

    There is something so very absurd about a million dollar coke. And of course, sad.

    This is a very revealing post. You saw the poverty before your own eyes, as a tourist. This is a good reminder on how much work there is to do to help each other.

  12. Hi Chris,

    I enjoyed reading your post on Zimbabwe. I returned from South Africa 3 weeks ago, traveling through and around Cape Town, Johannesburg, and in the Soutpansberg mountains bordering Zimbabwe.

    I, too, was struck by the bone-crushing poverty when touring the villages around Elim, in the remote mountain areas. As a white Westerner, however, I think it’s important to remember I am seeing this through a prism of privilege. Also, I think it’s important not to reduce a country’s problems to a single cause (e.g., a ruthless dictator). [BTW, both of those remarks are just my reflection on my experience, not a commentary on anything you wrote...]

    Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is currently on press tour for her new book, “The Challenge for Africa.” I encourage anyone interested in this beautiful country and social justice to check out the Q&A with Wangari on Amazon.com’s website at: http://www.amazon.com/Challenge-Africa-Wangari-Maathai/dp/0307377407

    An excerpt: “Quite often in the case of Africa, people will just present one aspect–for example, poverty–without having the time or patience to explain that poverty is manmade and created both by the local leadership and the international community in the way it deals with Africa. A Western person looking at poverty makes a judgment, without understanding that that poverty is partly caused by the way their government is dealing with Africa.”

    And thanks for your blog, Chris. The world needs you.

    Gail