The faces of a crumbling nation
A local couple discovers how native Zimbabweans overcome unprecedented adversity
By Chuck Graham 07/02/2009
The path to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe was eerily quiet. The last time I was here was in 1994. I recall running to and from one of the seven natural wonders of the world, to avoid encounters with the cornucopia of street hustlers, beggars, scam artists and salesmen. I remember finally trading my T-shirt for a hippo carving. Fifteen years later, those streets were silent.
I brought my wife with me this time and expected the streets to be much worse, with a country in the midst of a downward economic and political spiral. Yet, only one man approached us. His scraggly salt and pepper beard and tattered clothing accentuated the desperation in his dark eyes.
“Where are you from?” he asked calmly. “I’m an American from California,” I told him. “Why do you come here?” he inquired.
I told him I’d been here before, that I’ve been traveling back and forth to Africa for 25 years. I said Zimbabwe was a beautiful country, maybe a little forgotten, and certainly misunderstood.
The man in his late 30s was all smiles from that point on, grateful we had traveled to his country, ignoring all the negative media reports about this south African nation.
“Please tell others to come,” he said, and then he was gone, making his way to a trail shared by Zimbabweans and elephants.
Topping the list
In 2009, Parade Magazine ranked Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe the No. 1 dictator in the world, just ahead of Omar al-Bashir (Sudan) and Kim Jong Il (North Korea).
Born Feb. 21, 1924, Mugabe was a frequent political prisoner in the 1960s and ’70s during the Rhodesian Bush War. After the war and after Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, Mugabe became its leader and, at the time, was hailed a hero. The 85-year-old leader has been president or prime minister since 1980.
However, since 1998, Mugabe has expropriated thousands of white-owned farms, printed hundreds of thousands with Zimbabwean dollars, causing hyperinflation, and harassed and intimidated political opponents of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The country’s economic downfall has been accompanied by oil and food shortages. Since the expropriation of white-owned farms, agriculture production has plummeted. Zimbabwe was once the “bread basket” of southern Africa. One woman at a safari lodge said food shortages were so bad that her family had to boil poisoned fruit for three days straight before they could eat it.
In September 2008, a power sharing agreement was brokered by then-South African President Thabo Mbeki. Under the deal, Mugabe remains president, while Morgan Tsvangirai is prime minister. The MDC controls the police, and Mugabe still controls the army.
Even though life has improved slightly, there have been reports of Mugabe’s goons have tried forcing political opposition into granting amnesty for past crimes by abducting, detaining and torturing the opposition.
Hwange National Park, located in western Zimbabwe, was a virtual ghost town for wildlife. Some late season rains had kept the pans full of water and the savannah lush, but even typical plains game animals like impala, steinbok, zebra, kudu were eerily scarce.
This was my thirteenth trip to Africa, and I’ve never seen a south or east African country so devoid of plains game — significant prey items for lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and painted dogs were also missing.
Poaching has always been a problem in Africa; the elephant for its ivory, the black and white rhinos for their horns and various game for the bush meat trade. Since Zimbabwe’s plummet into economic ruin, poaching has come to the forefront, not only for economic reasons, but because people are starving.
The tool of choice for poachers is the wire snare, which can easily trap animals other than the intended species. My wife and I watched a zebra with a snare wrapped around its neck. It had tried removing it by stepping on it with its hooves to pull it off, only succeeding in peeling the skin from its neck. With a raw, bloody neck, the lone zebra had been ostracized from the herd. Without protection, it was only a matter of time. Arguably, the most notable and misunderstood species caught in the insidious snares is the critically endangered African painted dog.
Education seems to be the best way to combat the problem, especially with young Zimbabweans. The Painted Dog Conservation Society, located on the outskirts of Hwange, has received financial aid from international supporters, creating a large interpretive area for foreign visitors and providing education. It’s also a rehabilitation facility for injured and orphaned painted dogs. All the enclosures for rehabilitated dogs are made from confiscated poacher’s snares, as are bracelets and snare-wire animal sculptures. Proceeds from the sales benefit the artisans, raise awareness and funds to further support anti-poaching efforts in Zimbabwe. For more information, go to www.painteddog.org.
Ephraim, a native from the fishing village, Batonga, killed the engine 20 yards from shore, the small boat gliding up to the red earth that surrounds Lake Kariba. Immediately, inquisitive, wide-eyed children huddled around our boat, their smiles and big brown eyes fixed on our every movement.
As we stepped ashore, the children jockeyed for who was going to hold our hands while we visited the fishing village of the indigenous Batonga people. Subsisting on bream, tiger fish, catfish and others, the Batonga fared better than most when starvation engulfed many Zimbabweans from 2004 to 2008.
Behind one of the many mud huts, a man in tattered clothes started his morning fire, except he using Zimbabwean dollars to get the blaze going. The $5 billion note was half-burned when he turned and looked at my wife, Lori, and asked, “Souvenir?”
These days, it’s about all their money is good for. Burning Zimbabwean currency is illegal. Superinflation has snuffed the life out of Zimbabwe’s economy, rendering its currency worthless. In its place, Zimbabweans have adopted American greenbacks and South African rand.
When the $5 billion note was ash, the man looked up and smiled. “Zimbabwe is a safe place to come to,” he said. “We want the world to know we’re a peace-loving people.”
As unstable as Zimbabwe is, we didn’t get that from the people we encountered. They were easily some of the warmest, friendliest Africans I’ve ever encountered. Many were concerned how their country is perceived in America, and they were happy about President Obama. Their situation appears bleak, but everyone who wanted to talk about it was confident their situation would change for the better — their indelible spirit glowing like a Zimbabwean sunset.