November 08, 2005

zimbabwe african national union - patriotic front

"If you're willing to play the game," said D., "this place can be a fucking gold mine."

We were in Harare's sole surviving backpacker lodge, which attracts an eclectic mix of travellers, traders, NGO workers, and university-educated, well-employed, been-overseas Zimbabweans - most of them black, like the lodge owner - who you would call yuppies in most places. Here, though, where everything and everyone is only downwardly mobile, they're just those descending more slowly than the rest.

When D. says "gold mine," he means it, sometimes, literally. While many if not most of Zimbabwe's 14 million people are down to one meal a day, several hundred people are profiting extremely handsomely from the country's economic ruin. Forex arbitrage, mineral rights in exchange for offshore payments, outright smuggling of gold and fuel - ranking government/ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe is a classic fascist state where the party and the government are one and the same) members and their cronies are doing very well. Rumour has it that one Gideon Gono, head of the Reserve Bank - and in fact one of the country's hopes, a man who's acting pragmatically to try to head off hyperinflation, and who has publically stated that the takeover of the white farms was a disaster - is building an enormous mansion complete with an Olympic-sized swimming pool on the outskirts of Harare, decorated with top-of-the-line luxury goods imported from Europe. Curious how he manages to do this on his on-paper extremely skimpy government salary.

D. has a good, prestigious, professional job, but since January, his salary has only doubled, which means his real income has halved. So he was going to get up at 5AM on Saturday morning to drive to and from the Mozambican border, carrying ... something ... in both directions. I didn't ask what, exactly, and he didn't tell. But whatever is conveyed on this weekly expedition keeps his car in good repair, and D. himself in petrol-and-parties money.

Art, maybe. Seriously. There are thousands of artists in Zimbabwe, still churning out soapstone sculptures and colourful tapestries for tourists - what else are they going to do? In fact most Southern Africa memorabilia comes from Zimbabwe. Traders come here, where supply is enormous and demand almost nonexistent, buy up a truckful of art, and take it Johannesburg where it's sold for eight times the price, or to London, where the multiplier might be more like eighty. Exploitation? Maybe. Feeds families, too.

36 hours later, after another late and less-than-comfortable overnight journey on Zimbabwe's once-plush, now rotting and roach-infested trains, I was within sight of that Mozambican border myself. The train left two hours late, because the first locomotive didn't work. Wires stick out of holes in the walls, every surface is covered by a patina of filth, you're lucky if the lights and fan work, and even if your fan is operational the compartments are uncomfortably hot. And that's in first class. But at least they're cheap; Z$260,000 from Harare to Mutare, less than US$3 at the unofficial rate.

Mutare itself, where I am now, is a nice little border town just south of tiny Penhalonga where my father was born, which in turn is just south of the Rezende gold mine my grandfather once managed, from which this website takes its (phonetically spelled) name. It's a pretty town, planted with flamboyants. Once you could take the train from here to the Mozambican coast. Once, more recently, there were informal open-air markets, carpentry shops, even auto shops. Then they were all razed as part of Operation Murambatsvina.

From a certain point of view, destroying the informal economy makes a certain amount of sense. After all, if you're in the government, the informal economy is that sector from which you can't mandate the theft of your twenty or thirty or fifty per cent. And if you can't take a slice, why not just bulldoze it, eh?

I didn't go north, towards my roots; instead, having decided it was past time for a splurge, I forked over ten British pounds to a taxi driver to take me thirty-five kilometres the other direction, to the Leopard Rock Hotel.

Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands, even today, are a little slice of paradise; rippling ridges of steep, folded hills and valleys covered by green grass and greener rainforest, shot through by burbling, tumbling rivers. The rivers drain east, into Mozambique, and the slopes get rain year-round from the Indian Ocean, keeping the forest green even while the rest of the country is parched and brown.

The Leopard Rock is a four-star hotel which boasts, aside from the usual luxuries, a breathtaking view over the Burma Valley, a game park, one of Southern Africa's premier golf courses (wasted on me; I'm in the good-walk-spoiled camp), horseback riding trails, elegant dining rooms, a fair-sized casino, and a profound sense that one has entered a bizarre colonial time warp. All that for US$90 a night. My room was between Princess Margaret's Room and the Presidential Suite, and just across from the Queen Mother's Room. They stayed there some decades ago, and their rooms have been consecrated to them ever since. Scratch an African, find a royalist.

Seven years ago, I stayed just up the road at the Ndundu Lodge, which, amazingly, is still open, as is Tony's Coffee Shop, next door, which serves extravagant cakes. Once upon a time this was a tourist playground. Those two establishments, and a few other restaurants, have survived because this is a still a deliriously wonderful place to visit. Their market today consists of very occasional tour groups, the local/NGO/ex-pat market, and backpackers coming in from Mozambique (which has seen a backpacker boom over the last few years) to spend a few days in sketchy, exotic, quasi-dangerous Zimbabwe. An exact reversal of roles from seven years ago.

The Ndundu's Dutch owners know both the owner of the Harare lodge and the owner of the place I stayed at in Bulawayo, not surprising considering how tiny Zimbabwe's tourist industry is today. Their sprawling house-turned-lodge is smack between the Bunga Forest Reserve and the Vumba Botanical Gardens, five minutes' walk to either. The gateman at the Gardens and I came to the tacit agreement that he would charge me the Zim-resident rate of Z$75,000 (rather than US$10) and I wouldn't ask for a receipt (meaning the money would go straight into his pocket). Normally I'd feel bad about this, but otherwise the money would go to the Zim government, and it's not like I want to contribute to them. Another of the many ways in which poor governance leads to corruption, which leads to worse governance, which leads to worse corruption. Feedback-loop death-spiral.

This is one of the few places in the world where, between the height, the climate, the rain, and the soil, you can plant just about anything and it will grow: mango and oak side-by-side, pine and bamboo mixed with jungle ferns and creepers. The Botanical Gardens are just as beautiful as I remember. But they're growing increasingly wild, too. The monkeys have grown aggressive, jumped around me in the trees, emitting loud nasal snorts, and I swear one of them threw a stick. The little cafe has long since been closed, and its iron security bars are covered with rust. The main walkway, the lawns around the central pool, are still cared for and groomed, but the pathways around the periphery are slowy returning to the wild. There are places you can barely see the trails, others where thick vegetation grows through cracked concrete; what was once park is returning to jungle. Those seeking a metaphor for the country could do worse.

There are still a few working farms and timber plantations up here, growing tea, coffee, fruits, pine, mahogany. Other farms have been taken over by 'war vets' who live in the rusted, cracked, dilapidated barns and farmhouses, till fields by hand, and just grow enough for themselves. Eagle School, once the boarding school that my father attended, is now a war-vet headquarters; several people independently warned me not to go there. Some estates are open-concept, with colourful signs announcing the name of property and owner. Others are walled, gated, and anonymous, guarded by snarling, howling dogs.

At the Leopard Rock, between lengthy hikes through the glorious landscape, I met a man I'll call K., a South African who works in what I'll call a lucrative and interesting business. We drove in his black diplomatic-plates Land Cruiser to have lunch in an upscale restaurant by the road, which was excellent except for the glass in the bread, then kicked back and smoked dope imported from Malawi. K. is by far the best-connected and best-informed person I've met in Zimbabwe. He's also the most pessimistic about its future.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post - enjoyed the read but it induced aching sorrow. I went to Eagle School and one of my classmates' parents ran the Leopard Rock Hotel so we used to go there once or twice a term.

Western Australia

9:52 AM  

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