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Returning to Zimbabwe

Impact’s Simba reports on the troubles of his home country.

I grew up in Zimbabwe, but having not been there in nearly six years I was needless to say very nervous. I was travelling with Air Zimbabwe, and despite the excellent service, and relatively good safety record, I couldn’t help but wonder how their planes were still flying. This is a country with 12.5 million percent inflation and an intermittent fuel supply. How were they even sourcing the parts to service the airplane?

The Zimbabwean lady seated next to me sensed my fear. “Don’t worry, Air Zim can’t afford to have any of their planes grounded. They have the best engineers, building the parts at a warehouse in the airport.” This was not as comforting as she had intended it to be.

That inflation figure was mind boggling, but something I would have to get used to since I was working with an international bank in the capital, Harare. This was also going to be an opportunity to see for myself what was happening in the country I had grown up in. It couldn’t be as bad as people were saying, could it?

As we landed (safely!) at the Zimbabwe National Airport, the first contrast with England was clear to see. Having flown in from the hectically busy Gatwick airport, the once crowded Harare international airport was deadeningly quiet.

My dad, who still lives and works in Zimbabwe, was waiting there for me. I see him every other month when he flies to visit us in England. It was surreal hugging him back in Zimbabwe. I threw my heavy suitcase into the car – 28 of the 30 kilogrammes in it was food. “It’s good you managed to bring all that,” he said. “I haven’t seen pasta in the shops in weeks, and whenever you find it it’s outrageously expensive.”

My mind worked overtime on the drive home, recalling all the places I had forgotten since I was last there. It was the same city, albeit a little run down and tired. My dad swerved to miss another set of potholes in the road. “They say that the police stop you if you are driving in a straight line here,” he said. “You’d have to be drunk to drive your car straight with all these potholes!”

“Just a quick detour, you have to see this for yourself,” he said. My dad pulled up next to our old local store, and motioned towards it. I walked apprehensively towards the doors, and braced myself as I entered. My jaw dropped. It was empty. Row upon row of empty shelving, in a store where you could once buy anything you ever wanted. I took out a camera from my pocket and took a few hasty, hidden shots. I had heard too many stories of foreign reporters being detained and “manhandled” to want to suffer this fate myself.

As I walked to the tills I saw the only merchandise available: three dishevelled iceberg lettuces, a 2-litre bottle of coke, and stacks upon stacks of condoms. I glanced at the prices and got another shock. To put the inflation into perspective, when I left Zimbabwe six years before 10 Zimbabwean dollars (Z$) could buy you a 2-litre bottle of coke. That bottle now cost Z$400 billion. The pack of condoms were Z$200 billion – twice the weekly wage of a labourer. It was unsurprising they were still on the shelves; this is not something that bodes well for a country in which one in seven adults are living with HIV.

I ate breakfast watching Gordon Brown’s antics on BBC World News. It felt like looking at another planet. It was the only way to get something near to a balanced news story. The media on the state-controlled ZBC was heavily censored, and the entertainment viewing is even worse than Channel 4 on a Friday night.

As we pulled onto the main road off to work, we promptly got stuck in a traffic jam. Here was the proof that, against all the odds, the country was still managing to function. Even ordinary car owners were giving lifts for cash to the many hitchhikers dotting the streets. It wasn’t unusual to see five or more people in the back of open pickup trucks. Health and safety in England would have a field day!

I was going to be working in the front office of the global markets division of the bank. As I got a tour around, it struck me as very much like an average western office. The people here were hard-working and intelligent. Most of them had Master’s or second degrees. Zimbabwe’s biggest export is said to be its brains; in the 1990s it had an adult literacy rate of about 90% – among the highest of all the developing countries. Sadly, since troubles erupted, this rate has steadily decreased.

The front office was busy, but a lot less hectic than in most countries. Although many businesses still run at a profit (albeit a reduced one), few want to put much cash into an inflated money market, and most prefer to put their funds into fixed assets like cars or property.

The person I was working with was your average twenty-something guy, talking about football and movies. He wanted to know how bad the recession was in England, how it was being affected by all the terrorist activity of the past years, and why Juande Ramos was selling off all his strikers. I had to constantly remind myself I was sitting in an office in Zimbabwe.

It took me a while to get accustomed to working in billions and trillions of Zimbabwean Dollars. I even got used to seeing people carry money in plastic bags, due to the quantity needed for even basic commodities. However, at the end of the first week I would have to get re-accustomed to a new currency, as the Zimbabwean Dollar was revalued. A total of 12 zeros was crossed off it, so that 100,000,000,000,000 (100 trillion) became Z$100.This was a move by the government to counteract the inefficiencies in the business and banking sector. Many balance sheets were by now running in the Quadrillions and Quintillions.

Due to the revaluation, for the first time in 10 years the black market rate of purchase of USD was equal to the inter-bank rate of Z$100 to 1USD. This was only temporary, though, as the underlying inflationary issues had not been tackled by the revaluation. Just three weeks later, after I had left Zimbabwe, the black market rate had jumped to Z$6,000 to the USD – or 60 quadrillion to one Zimbabwean dollar before the revaluation.

On the day of the recent power sharing deal, I had a view of the real mood of the public. For the first time ever I heard open, public jeering at Mugabe. They laughed at him, mocked his age and jeered at his oft-recited hatred of colonial enemies in Britain. This would have never happened years ago when I had left the country. For the first time I felt things were changing for the better.

By the end of my three weeks in Zimbabwe I had seen and heard a lot. It was clear to me: the Zimbabwean public has had enough of Mugabe. This was not the country I had left nearly six years before. There is great hardship, and things are run down and chaotic, but I was humbled to see how many people still got to work, sent their kids to school, fed themselves and their family despite the great odds stacked against them. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, with vast natural resources, captivating wild beauty, and some great infrastructure – dams, roads, buildings. One has only to see Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya (the Smoke that Thunders) – by some measures the largest waterfall in the world – to envision the potential brimming in the country.

Zimbabwe takes its name from “Dzimba dza mabwe” meaning “Great House of Stone”, after the awe-inspiring Great Zimbabwe ruins from around the twelfth century. Zimbabwe is a sturdy house of stone that has been severely shaken, but has somehow not completely toppled.

I’m back in England now, and although I hear ever more worrying headlines about the fragility of the power sharing deal, I am happier. I think the times are changing. The deal was a step in the right direction. I feel the Great House of Stone, Zimbabwe, will soon return.

Simba

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