Always Say Yes to a Springbok!

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National Art Gallery, Harare, Zimbabwe. (Photo:Andrea DuFour)

Someone: “What are your Travel Plans for Winter Break ?” (2016/17)

Me:“I’m going to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania.”

Someone: “Oh wow!  So do you take flights between all the countries?”

Me: “We have a flight from Harare to Victoria Falls and then Mbeya TZ, to Dar Es Salaam, TZ.  The other times we will take a bus.”

Someone: “You guys need to be careful, (doom doom doom) I’ve heard that people get scammed/robbed/raped/murdered/decapitated/ maimed/ and otherwise have a shit time in Africa.”

Me: “Not going to AFRICA, I am going to 4 fairly safe countries on the continent of AFRICA…you ignorant tool.  Is what I say in my head, diplomatic me says something like:

“Zimbabwe is experiencing a cash shortage but I think the only concern there is that we bring enough cash for the 4 days that we are in Zim.  We are simply transiting through Zambia because the bus schedule situation is unfortunate.  Otherwise I have been to Tanzania and its a lovely country full of marvelously friendly people and never once did I feel unsafe.  As for Malawi, I have heard its about the same as TZ; so I’m not worried at all.”

Someone: “Well, still be careful”

Me: “Sure”

Read a country’s travel advisory, exercise caution in areas of concern, but chill out.  For example, before going to Zimbabwe I read a news article that said they were experiencing an upsurge in Typhoid and Cholera so I did some research and found out that travellers rarely contract these diseases because we are already exercising a high degree of caution with regards to the water and food we consume and that the people who are contracting the disease are usually living in areas with poor sanitation facilities.  No problem then…carry on as normal.

This is not hard evidence based on statistics but I would say that 95% of the world’s 7 billion people are mostly good people who do not wish anyone harm; who may be just as xenophobic as you, who may be a little or a lot racist, who may judge you, who may downright hate you…but they won’t do anything to you.  Because most people are good people who just want to go about their lives.  It’s true, as a foreigner in most countries, expect to be overcharged for everything..maybe do your research or ask your hostel/hotel receptionist how much something normally costs..after all while the scam price may still seem fair..you definitely don’t need to be contributing to inflation and should have a reasonable sense about the cost of goods and services.  9 times out of 10..that reputable tourist agency online or the resort “outings” are going to charge you double the price of hiring a perfectly reliable and wonderful person on the spot; and then usually you are paying the person directly instead of through a third party agency, thus contributing to the local economy and well being of your hard working tour guide’s family.  Overcharging is about the worst thing that’s going to happen to you.  And just because you know someone who got mugged in some country doesn’t give you irrefutable evidence to claim that the entire country is bad and unsafe and full of terrible criminals because I could counter that one story with several from Montreal (one of the safest cities in one of the safest countries)…These fears are based in xenophobic ideals..fear of strangers, fear of the unknown;  I may be shit scared of birds but people and places, rarely; basically not once have I been shit scared of a person or place (just uncomfortable).  

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Roadside Vendor, Harare, Zimbabwe (Photo: Andrea DuFour)

Harare, Zimbabwe

I never really saw myself visiting this city, it didn’t hold much interest to me other than being the home of the notorious Robert Mugabe.  I of course could not be more interested to see Victoria Falls though and thus the idea of somehow travelling through Southern Africa with a stop at the Falls was born.  Originally I had thought about going to Madagascar but after much research I realized the weather was questionable in December, making some areas impassable and tickets prices were exorbitant.  Then I thought about flying into Johannesburg and heading up through Mozambique which I’d heard has some of the world’s most impressive beaches, making my way north into Malawi, but then I read that northern Mozambique is currently quite unstable verging on civil war and that many people were seeking refuge in southern Malawi so I thought maybe that wasn’t the best idea.  So then I decided to fly into Johannesburg and head north through Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to Vic Falls, through Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania.  But it turned out that flights were approximately the same to Jo’burg as to Harare and that we would shave a day or more of travel off if we flew to Harare.  Other considerations were the cheap flight from Harare to Vic Falls instead of buses and overnight trains from Jo’burg and that South Africa seems like a whole trip on its own..save it for another time.  So Jackie, Andrea, and I decided to fly into Harare and make our way from there.  Very little research was done about what to do in Harare but there was of course the usual craft market and we figured we’d just ask the hostel owners.  As much as I’d like to give Andrea and Jackie credit for some trip planning, they basically just helped research flight tickets.  I effectively ignored my duties at work for a little while and concentrated on researching each possible stop, the best route for time and economics, credible hostels and things to do throughout.   It was wise of me to book all of our accommodations ahead of time as we found out that December is high season and with only a 1 or 2 cheap hostels in each place we could have ended up in some pretty awful or pretty expensive places.  

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In the end for Harare, I chose “It’s a Small World Backpackers” Hostel.  We decided to mix up our adventures between dorm and private triple rooms.  Most of the time we actually had a 4 person dorm to ourselves.  At Small World we were in a 12 person dorm which is mostly fine except when people don’t know dorm room etiquette.  First of all, if people are sleeping at night don’t turn on the overhead lights unless it’s crucial..we all have smart phones..use that light.  Certainly NEVER turn on the overhead lights to read a magazine while 8 other people are laying in bed ready to sleep, proceed to have a conversation with someone and go through all your ziploc bags looking for your toothbrush.  Normally when I get to the hostel I pull out tomorrow’s clothes, my book, chargers, and toiletries during the day, that way if I have a late night I do not need to disturb everyone searching through my pack.  If I forget to do this…I suck it up and wait to brush my teeth till morning (one night won’t ruin your life).  

Anyway such was our experience in Harare backpackers but apart from this, the hostel was clean, quiet, and well maintained with lots of cold Castle Lagers!

Fun fact about Zimbabwe:

Zimbabwe’s President – Robert Gabriel Mugabe – is one of the current oldest and also the longest serving leaders of a non-royal country in the world. He has served as the leader of this country for the past 36 years and is still in service to the nation. He served as the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe from 1980 to 1987, and then assumed office as the President of Zimbabwe on 22 December 1987. He was born on 21 February 1924. (thefactfile.org)

Prime Minister turned President Mugabe came into power in 1980 after gaining independence from the UK. Mugabe grew up in UK occupied S. Rhodesia but eventually left for Ghana.  When he returned in the 1960’s (36 ish years old), he discovered that colonial rule was in full effect, black voter suppression and black voter majority rule rescinded, black leaders arrested, black families displaced from their land, and an explosion of white land owners. Mugabe joined in the protests and discussed the Marxist ideals of Ghana’s independence.  They made him the public Secretary of The National Democratic Party which was outlawed.  Eventually, under Joshua Nkomo, they formed the Zimbabwe African People’s Union but Mugabe and his supporters were not happy with the speed of change, so they formed the Zimbabwe African National Union.  Mugabe having been vocal about guerilla warfare, was jailed for 10 or so years.  Ian Smith, the Prime Minister of S. Rhodesia during the 70’s let Mugabe out of jail to go to a conference in Lusaka, Zambia.  Mugabe escaped somehow and snuck back into S.Rhodesia, gathered troops and waged war on Smith’s British majority rule government through most of the 70’s.  Eventually the colonial’s back was against the wall (neighboring Mozambique had won Black majority rule and other colonial powers had or were falling throughout the continent) Smith seceded and an election in 1980 between Joshua Nkomo (ZAPU) and Robert Mugabe (ZANU) ensued.  Mugabe won but tensions were high and fighting between the two factions continued through the 80’s.  Ultimately, they reached a peace agreement, merged their Unions and Mugabe won the Presidency and made Nkomo a senior minister in his government.  At this point they made economic growth a priority, trying to boost agriculture, mining and manufacturing.  They built public clinics, and schools and things appeared to be on the up and up for Zimbabwe.  During the mid-nineties people began to question his politics- seizing white owned land without compensation, increasingly high inflation, government official pay raises, a one party constitution and eventually accusations of ballot stuffing and voter suppression.  The economy that appeared to be on the rise was now crumbling, Inflation caused by corruption, national deficit, bill printing, and poor economic policies that lead to the printing of billion dollar bills and an eventual collapse in their currency altogether, they abandoned it and moved to mostly US dollars..  In 2000 Mugabe lost the election to Morgan Tsvangira but Mugabe claimed that the election was rigged, demanded a recount and Tsvangira’s supporters were attacked and killed. Tsvangira concluded that the runoff election would skew in Mugabe’s favour due to his use of violence and he forfeited the Presidency.  Violence broke out and Mugabe and Tsvangira decided to share power but Mugabe seized control over the country again and now holds full power.  The next election in Zim is supposed to be in 2018, Mugabe will be 94 years…well past due for retirement.  

Once a wealthy nation in Southern Africa, Zimbabwe currently has one of the world’s highest unemployment rates, hovering around 90% according to various sources however according to some, this rate includes underemployment or self subsistence employment and is not a true indicator of actual unemployment..so it’s hard to say. According to tradingeconomics.com the unemployment rate is actually somewhere around 11.35%.  However despite the economic hardships, Zimbabwe has an extremely high literacy rate (90%), the highest on the continent as of 2015 and a well educated population overall.  

I have a few friends from Zimbabwe, one of whom happened to be visiting home at the same time I was there.  They were young when their parents sent them away as refugees, first to the USA and then to Canada, where they are now citizens.  He told me that he felt things had changed alot since the last time he was there and continues to change for the worse, his mother has been working in England for years and his brothers have been spread out all over Canada and the USA working as well; they have started families and new lives but their father still lives in Bulawayo.  I can feel the heart stretching between the feeling of home and the feeling of  “where I’m supposed to be”.  I catch this feeling from time to time when I think about the various “homes” I’ve known but the hardship is that I can return but there is nothing to return to in Zim these days.  Even when Mugabe dies, will there be a fair election,who steps up to the plate then, will there be more violence and if things settle into a fair and just society, how long will it take for the economic situation to stabilize.  

So that’s the rundown of what I know about recent Zimbabwean history.  Let’s talk about what I know about Zimbabwe that doesn’t involve depressing economic stuff and political corruption.  Lot’s of animals, LIONS, beautiful landscape, Victoria Falls OMG!!!!, Sadza, Ndebele dance. What I learned while visiting:  Acacia trees are amazing, the art gallery is awesome, there are high security buildings near the botanical gardens guarded by machine gun toting soldiers, Harare and Victoria Falls are well kept, clean places but according to my friend, the rest of the country is not.  Sadze is filling but would not be my favourite dish, and there are a lot of mosquitoes there (do bring DEET).  

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Acacia Tree at The Harare Botanical Garden

Harare airport was a mass of lineups at customs with no clear picture of which one we were meant to be in.  We eventually made it through; my american companions paying a mere 30$ to my 75$ for an entry visa.  We didn’t have any trouble in Zimbabwe but when we checked in for our flight at the Dubai airport they gave us quite a hard time about not having a flight out of Zimbabwe.  We showed them all of our hostel reservations and flights through other countries and finally our return flight out of Tanzania but the poor guy at the desk didn’t quite understand that we would be travelling over road out of Zimbabwe..quite literally walking across the Zim/Zambia border.  He called the manager over, and he relented giving us an ominous warning that we may have a hard time upon arrival.  In Harare, I don’t even think they asked us how long we were planning on staying.

We arrived knowing that the country was experiencing a cash shortage, we arrived with enough USD for 4 days or more, struggling in exchange centers trying to get smaller than 100$ denominations of bills.  As is my custom when I have to travel with loads of cash, I tuck them away into various pockets bra, and purse compartments.  So stuffed with cash like a taxidermy oil tycoon, I walked out into a country that just quite literally didn’t have enough physical currency to go around.  

On the way from the airport to our hostel we passed banks with massive lineups of people waiting outside, our cab driver told us that people were sleeping outside the banks hoping to be among the few who could get money out in the morning.  Our driver tells us that unfortunately as a country that doesn’t export much, all the money leaves but doesn’t come back in.  According to worldbank.org, Zimbabwe’s exports in 2015 total 2,704,095 US$ per year while their imports are more than double at 6,002,231.85 and their country growth which is based on the Gross Domestic Product and adjusted for inflation, has been declining and as of 2015 was at -10.63 (http://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/ZWE).

Investopedia explains economic growth rates in the following terms:

While economic growth is most often assumed to refer to positive movement, economic changes can be positive or negative. If an economy experiences two consecutive quarters with falling growth rates, it can be said that the associated economy is falling into a recession. If the economy begins to shrink, the percentage rate can be expressed as a negative to demonstrate the income lost over the time period being examined.

(http://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/realeconomicrate.asp.)

Our taxi driver also briefly mentions that the Chinese take away a lot but bring little in.  

ZIMBABWE has become a haven for dodgy and corrupt companies amid revelations that China Jiangsu International Economic and Technical Co-operation (CJI), a firm contracted by government to undertake the refurbishment and expansion of the Harare International and Victoria Falls airports, was blacklisted by the World Bank and African Development Bank for fraud and corruption. (https://www.theindependent.co.zw/2016/06/24/chinese-companies-zim-blacklisted-internationally/)

The article mentions other companies operating in Zim and the corruption that appears to be quite prevalent.  

So with all this mismanagement, corruption, inflation, and general economic decline, people are deprived of their cash and are forced to sleep outside banks in order to take out THEIR money so they can sustain a basic level of life.

And this deprivation is evident as we walk through the streets of Harare and children follow us, asking for money. During the cab ride from the airport as our taxi driver tells us about the situation in Zimbabwe, he shows us the famed billion dollar bills that were printed to try and keep up with extreme inflation and a young boy approaches the car at a stop light, asking for money.  Our driver immediately rolls up the windows and says “this one is a troublemaker, he just wants money to sniff glue.”  And as I looked around at the people hanging around, I was reminded of images from The Great Depression; listless men, women and children hanging around downtown in the middle of the day, lineups outside banks.  I don’t know how to take it all in.

Despite all of these uncomfortable truths, Harare is actually a very nice lush, green, clean city.  The economic vitality that once was, is still evident in the planification and architecture of the city.  We arrive at our hostel in Avondale; it is charming, tranquil, clean, and perfect for a nap after a long overnight flight.  

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Artwork at The National Art Gallery

The next morning we catch a cab to the National Art Gallery.  The exhibition is about Nkhala Ilifa- a tradition of inheritance- and its effect on on present generations.  It is a group exhibition and each artist’s perspective is so different, rich, powerful, and engaging.  The artwork is striking and unpretentious and it reminds me of what it was like to see art that actually has a purpose rather than the sterile, censored, superficial stuff you see constantly in Abu Dhabi.  

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Artwork at The National Art Gallery

The National Art Gallery wanted to tell a story that connects to their people, their generation and to open a dialogue about an issue that is of concern to them and its helps us (tourists) gain insight and a sense of understanding to the culture and society of Zimbabwe that we are simply passing through.  I don’t often visit galleries and museums, I didn’t visit The Louvre when I went to Paris (gasp!), because I feel like it’s often a superficial representation of culture but there is nothing superficial about the exhibition on display at The National Art Gallery of Zimbabwe.

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Artwork at The National Art Gallery

Afterwards we went to the Botanical Gardens where we walked around for a few hours observing a wedding reception, and some happy monkeys playing in the trees.  Everywhere we looked there were these large, gorgeous acacia trees, the sky was so blue and everywhere we looked, so green and fresh!  We saw some interesting plant life and then decided it was time for food and drinks…it’d been a long day.  On our way back to the main road we passed some very official looking places guarded by soldiers holding machine guns, they politely informed us that we were on the wrong side of the road; you don’t question a man with a machine gun as much as I wanted to ask “what’s behind the gate?” I just said “thank you” and crossed the road.

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Monkeys at the Botanical Garden in Harare

After a long day exploring in the sun, we sat down at our hostel for a nice cold Castle Lager and journaling time.  When you stay at a hostel you usually always end up meeting some very unique characters from all over the world although if I am honest you mostly meet people from countries of privilege (Australia, Canada, Denmark, USA, Norway, etc..).  Interesting people nonetheless but I do prefer hanging out with local people and one good way to do that is through Couchsurfing or occasionally if you go on a guided tour your guide might be a fun loving, young person like our Safari guide, Mohammad in Kenya.  Unfortunately we did not meet any Zimbabweans in Harare but we did meet a young Aussie chap named Ollie who had been to Zim a number of times.  He convinced us to put our “party pants” on; the leggings I’d been wearing for 2 straight days; although Jackie with her enormous pack pulled out a fresh pair of pants (show-off).  

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Cold Castle Lagers at Small World Backpackers

Me: Jackie, you’ve got Maysa in there don’t you..you’re going to surprise me in Malawi for Christmas aren’t you??!?!?!?!?!

Andrea: cackles gleefully

Jackie: Shut up

So Ollie took us to a bar called the Tin Roof which appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, and by my count might possibly the whitest place in Zim.  Ollie told us that the whites in Zim are very segregated from the blacks and since they can’t really leave the country this bar is like a escape for them.  I must look more into this:

Upon researching the relationship between black and white Zimbabweans, I learned that Robert Mugabe seized white owned land and as such, many white people were displaced from their livelilhoods and homes and thus you can sympathize that these young adults had no choice in what happened previously and are living the consequences of colonialism and President Mugabe’s regime as well. 

Anyway we still had a blast, dancing up a storm; drinking too many Windhoek’s and Springbok shots  (layered shot of Amarula and Crème de Menthe).  

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Springbok Shots (Amarula and Crème de Menthe)

The next morning, Innocence, our recurring taxi driver brought us to the airport; and off we went to Victoria Falls!

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Delicate flowers at Harare Botanical Garden

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