November 28, 2005

a home at the end of the world

I swear, I could look at the sea all day.

They say most accidents occur within a mile of home. Following that rule, the closest I came to smashing up my hire1 car was within about 100 metres of AroundAboutCars, the company that foolishly gave me one. As I very gingerly tried to conduct a wrong-side-of-the-road stick-shift for the second time ever, and the first time in 2.5 years, through busy Cape Town traffic, I turned into a side street and found myself on a one-way street, with a minivan barreling towards me. It screeched to a stop maybe six inches away from my front bumper. I froze a moment, then looked up at the driver with apologetic, pleading eyes, sure that I was the one at fault. Then I looked more closely at the street signs and parked cars. He had been going the wrong way. I opened my mouth to shout something - I'm not sure what exactly, but it was going to begin with "Hey, asshole!" - but my near-collidant was already reversing away at high speed. He nearly crashed into *another* car getting back onto the road.

The only amazing thing about this is that the minivan wasn't a taxi. South Africa's taxi drivers are legendary for their speed, unpredictability, unroadworthy, vehicles, lack of formal training, and their apparent belief that they are immortal and invulnerable2. Oh, yes - and they're heavily armed. Gunfire breaks out regularly between rival taxi syndicates (at least once in every major city I've visited so far this trip, while I was in said city) and recently, in Johannesburg's notorious Hillbrow suburb, a group taxi drivers fought a blazing firefight with a police unit that had the temerity to try to arrest them for things like driving with a lengthy list of outstanding warrants but no license. The police retreated. Several innocent bystanders were wounded.

(I should probably stress at this point that I have yet to feel unsafe here.)

Why are there taxi wars here? Because there's a lot of money in the South African taxi business. And why is that? Apartheid. Blacks - ie 80% of SA's population - were forced to live in vast townships located some distance away from the white cities. Apartheid is gone, but the cities and townships remain. It's a little unnerving to see. It's not just Soweto and co around Jo'burg, and the Cape Flats in Cape Town; in big cities, this kind of segregation is somehow less surprising. But even little towns, like Knysna and tiny Struisbaai, have their own black townships a few K down the road. And they in turn will be divided: orderly areas of small block houses with electricity and running water, in which two or three families live; and filthy, squalid wood-and-tin-roof shantytowns.

The government is trying to improve matters, but progress is slow. And as my friend here pointed out to me the other day, the government's whole approach is suspect - when they build new township housing, they build new "community center" halls, but there is a complete absence of any space for commerce: market squares, shopping stretches, etc. And so the residents have to walk (you're likely to see (black) people walking, holding their thumb out in the forlorn hope for a ride, anywhere within about 10K of a town in South Africa) or take taxis into town, rather than shop where they live.

Jeez. This is turning into a political-economic rant. It was supposed to be a travelogue. Let me go back to the beginning:

The N2 from Cape Town. Actually I was going to take the N1 but missed the exit and thought "what the heck, why not?" East, past the airport, across the vast Cape Flat townships, steeply up the dramatic hills that cup the townships, and then into an endless landscape of rippling hills, green fields filled with new wheat and gold fields littered with hay bales or ostriches, all overseen by the Overberg range of old, folded mountains to the north.

Driving rocks. Driving in South Africa is interesting. I was instructed to open the lid of the hatchback trunk at night, and leave the glove compartment open, to show would-be thieves that there was nothing inside. The fuel tank can only be opened with the key. The hard shoulder is a valid other lane, except when it isn't. The speed limit is 120, and is actually reasonably well obeyed. (Mind you, my Fiat Palio - I'm pretty sure Palio is Italian for "piece of crap that occasionally makes horrible grinding sounds when you try to put it into reverse" - wasn't going to go much faster anyhow.) Stop in for gas at one of the highway service stops, much like those in Canada, and one attendant will wash your whole car while the other fills your tank. Ah, cheap labour. Outside the gas station, people sell bouquets full of wildflowers like nothing I've ever seen before. Which is not surprising, as the Cape has literally thousands of endemic species, including two whole families of vegetation, protea and fynbos, found nowhere else in the world.

Anyhow. Four hours after leaving Cape Town, I reach, and navigate through the dysfunctional traffic lights of3, the seaside town of Mossel Bay - first its townships, then its town - which marks the official beginning of the Garden Route. A 200-km stretch of coast so named, allegedly, because the region was called "the Garden of Eden" by its early (white) inhabitants. Which sounds like tourist hype, and the Garden Route is definitely overtouristed, but honestly? It's easy to believe. Knysna, at the heart of the Garden Route, bills itself as "Nature's Playground," and that sounds right too. Miles and miles of glorious coastline, all the beaches and all the rugged rocks you could want; just a bit inland, lakes and rivers surrounded by forest; and beyond them, the ribbed, batwinged shapes of low, green-clad mountains. You can swim, surf, dive, fish, hike, parasail, bungee-jump, ride horses, or go on private-reserve game drives. Yesterday, I spent three hours of the morning hiking through a thickly forested national park (and I didn't meet a soul on the trail), then bodysurfed in the pounding Indian Ocean for an hour, and spent the night in a magical old forest house built in 1874 with a glorious sunrise view of the mountains. And I was taking it easy.

But again I get ahead of myself. From the surfers and fishermen of Mossel Bay to the town of George, which is well-located, has the area airport, and boasts two wonderfully quirky museums, but doesn't have much else going for it: through an area named Wilderness, though it's heavily touristed and really reminds me more of Canada's cottage country; a sojourn among Knysna's little shops and bistros; and then to Wildside Backpackers, with a spectacular location at Buffels Beach, immediately next to a nature reserve that runs for a good fifteen miles, so you can walk along the beach all day if you want. It's a little remote, but hey, I had a car. Did I mention that driving rocks?

If I had a spare half-a-million dollars, I swear, I'd buy a place here4 - nothing fancy, just a little hillside cottage with a sea view, a short drive from beach - come settle in for a few months each year and write an epic fantasy series. It'd be a good place for it. It'd also be a good place to come for a month - out of tourist season - and spend the time exploring all its little back ways and side routes.

Oh well. Some day. Maybe.

Today I drove down to the southernmost tip of Africa. Cape Point, south of Cape Town, is an incredibly stark, steep, romantic rocky promontory. It is not, however, the end of the world: that honour belongs to Cape Agulhas, a low-key, non-obvious spot in the midst of windblown bushes and jagged rocks. (There is, however, a rather dramatic lighthouse.) I considered overnighting there, but decided to keep going, and am I ever glad I did, because the road between Agulhas and Hermanus, where I sit and type, is absolutely glorious. I didn't take pictures. I did take a few of the Garden Route and Agulhas, but I don't expect much of them. You can't really capture all this magnificence in pictures.

It's such a pretty country, this. And it has such a bright potential future. And at the same time it's still so schizophrenic and troubled. South Africa is like some impossibly brilliant and beautiful teenager who's also badly damaged, traumatized, volatile and self-destructive. Heshe's in therapy, and on the right medication, and has caring if distant parents; things are a lot better than they could be; but nobody involved is anywhere near out of the woods yet.

1Commonwealth-but-for-Canada English for "rental."

2See joke.

3There was some problem at the nuclear power plant. Paging Mr. Simpson.

4Of course, this would actually be my second second home, after the equally hypothetical flat in Paris.

November 21, 2005

it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that spin

So there1 I stood, clutching my bared Swiss Army knife2 in my trembling fist3, alone4 and otherwise unarmed, surrounded by a thousand5 bloodthirsty6 Zulus7. The witch doctor8 fixed me with a baleful glare9. I knew there was no escape10.

No word of it a lie!

1The Warwick Triangle region of Durban, which my Rough Guide calls, not without reason, "an Africanized Blade Runner cityscape": a gargantuan agglomeration of mercantile humanity that clogs several massive warehouse-sized market buildings and taxi parks, connected by equally thronging covered walkways, and then spills out into the streets around it for several blocks in every directions, a riot of noise and colour and crowd and goods for sale that makes Las Vegas seem a bit like a sensory deprivation tank.

2Bared to initiate the peeling of an orange I had just purchased.

3I mean, not like "but I shoot with this hand" trembling, but my hands aren't rock-steady, so I imagine I twitched once or twice in mid-peel.

4"We live as we dream -- alone." - Joseph Conrad. Also, I was, in fact, on my own, and also the only white person in sight, which is probably why three white South Africans independently warned me not to go to the Warwick Triangle. To generalize, white people here who were over 25 when apartheid ended seem to treat "all-black area" and "high-crime area" as perfect synonyms. Black South Africans, meanwhile, blame the country's crime rate on Nigerians and other immigrants from the rest of Africa, although this is no more convincing than the white prejudice.

5Well, tens of thousands, really, but only about a thousand of them could reasonably described as bloodthirsty -

6- those clustered around the nyama choma (grilled meat) stands, in whose vicinity I happened to be standing. Hey, I never said they were thirsting for my blood.

7It's not like I had them fill out ethnicity questionnaires, but, I mean, I am in kwaZulu-Natal, so it does seem likely.

8Across the street, an old dude was selling wares identified by his cardboard sign as "traditional native medicines", which seemed to consist largely of animal skins, bones, and skulls. In Africa there's a fair amount of overlap between traditional healing and muti, black magic, which very many Africans take very seriously indeed, sometimes dying from sheer fear when afflicted by a curse. (And you got occasional newspaper stories about goblins or tokoloshis.)

9OK, there may be a little poetic license here, but who am I to measure balefulness? He did give me something of a look. Although the meaning behind it may have been more along the lines of "I wish you would come over here and overpay me for this dried duiker fetus" than "no one here gets out alive."

10The situation being entirely innocent, there was nothing to escape from; hence, logically, there was no escape. Also by this point I'm just kinda makin' shit up.

Durban is a hot, crowded tropical city, with a busy industrial harbour, a pretty-but-scuzzy beachfront, and a seamy downtown overlooked by hilly, very pleasant suburbs. Lines of beach hotels and white-flight suburban shopping malls sprawl down the Indian Ocean coast in either direction. It reminds me a bit of Florida.

The ocean here is warm enough to swim year-round, but the waves are so rough that getting past the breakers is actually something of a physical challenge. And the jagged Drakensberg mountains are just a couple hours to the north. (I meant to stop off there for a couple days of hiking, but all the lodges I called were fully booked for the weekend. I've now just accepted that I'm not meant to do any real hiking/trekking this trip, and I'll make up for it nest year.)

I'm staying a little ways down the coast from the city proper, in a region called the Bluff, at a beachfront backpacker lodge which would be the greatest place in the world if I were a surfer, or a doctor, or better yet a surfer doctor. As is it's merely splendid. (I tried surfing once. I might eventually be able to learn the requisite balance, but my high centre of gravity and low flexibility mean it's not for me.)

South Africa is stunningly beautiful, full of all manner of diversions - Big Five wildlife parks! surfing/sailing/swimming/scuba diving! exotic culture! wineries and galleries and posh boutiques! deserts, jungle, mountains, oceans, cities! Charlize Theron lookalikes everywhere! - and ridiculously easy to travel through. I'm surprised it doesn't get more tourists than Australia. Give it another decade, though, and it probably will.

November 13, 2005

last-day-in-the-country blues

Tomorrow I'm scheduled to fly to Johannesburg, where apparently I'll be staying with my, um, second-cousins-once-removed?, at least for a couple of nights. Actually I'd rather stay at one of Jo'burg's very pleasant-sounding flashpacker lodges and just have dinner with my relatives, but they sounded offended by the notion.

Friday I drove with my relatives here out to a game park about 100km from Harare. We passed more land that once were huge commercial farms and are now wasteland decorated with a few wooden shacks and rondavels. Can't be an easy row for the 'war vets' to hoe either. The government promised them schools, clinics, running water, etc., which never materialized, and now those few that remain - for many, after moving onto a farm, soon gave up and moved back to town - have to scrape an existence out of subsistence farming.

We did pass two still-functional commercial farms; those have had black owners for decades, and are thus exempt from government land seizures. Seizures of white land is still going on; an acquaintance of my relatives' lost his farm just a couple weeks ago. Came back after a day in the fields and there were a crowd of war vets who wouldn't even let him back into his own home. Racial politics aside, it's just insane. Large-scale farming is an advanced science. What they're doing here is like expelling all the mechanical engineers from a country, then grabbing random people from the street, herding them into a newly abandoned factory, telling them "now design and build us some aircraft engines, stat!" - and then being surprised when it doesn't work out.

And it's not like they're actually giving the 'war vets' the land, either, you understand - it all becomes State land, they're just allowed to live there, but since they don't have title to it, they can't borrow against it for little things like seeds or fertilizer or tractor fuel. And so they take over thousand-hectare farms and plant and harvest maybe a hectare of it with hands and hoes, hoping to grow just enough food for themselves, if they're lucky. Madness.

The property we went to is half farm, half game park, and white-owned; it's still operational only because it runs the most successful black-rhino breeding program on the planet, and the government (which owns the rhinos) presumably doesn't want to look bad by shutting it down, although apparently they did seriously suggest, last year, that they close down the farm and instruct each of the nearest groups of war-vet farmers to care for one of the rhinos. I am not making this up. Cooler heads have yet prevailed, but I don't expect the place to be around this time two years from now. If the government doesn't get them, violence might. The owners' parents, in their eighties, had their home on the property invaded, and their car and valuables stolen by armed thugs, just a couple weeks ago. The farm manager's pickup truck's windscreen is adorned with a large bullet hole, courtesy of a poacher about a month ago.

The park is a spellbindingly beautiful place, bush adorned with the uncanny and seemingly unnatural stacks of huge granite boulders called "kopjes", with a few dams and rivers. It's home to lions and hyenas (caged, and fat and lazy - wild predators ripple with muscle, but these ones are soft); a few elephants, including one who was raised by buffalo and is now the matriarch of a buffalo herd; giraffe, kudu, nyasa, impala, and elegant sable antelopes; and a half-dozen rare, highly endangered black rhino. The owners' home and guest ronadeels are in a green oasis of jacaranda and pomegranate trees around a shaded lawn and pool. The farm buildings, by contrast, are large, low, single-room brick warehouses, out in the sun, half-full of feed bags and stacked cattle hides, around which about a dozen black employees work.

On the way back into town, we saw the presidential motorcade: three widely spaced motorcycles (sirens and lights blazing), two police cars (again), a Jeep full of a dozen helmeted, heavily armed troops, several dark bulletproof BMWs, another Jeep full of soldiers, an ambulance, and another screeching police car. Mugabe was back from some African summit, where, in you-couldn't-make-it-up irony, he had chaired a session on "African democracy."

November 10, 2005

acquired immune deficiency syndrome

The rains have come, and the nation breathes a collective sigh of relief. Some years the rains don't come at all. Hopefully they will stay for months. In times not long past, when commercial farms had reliable power and elaborate irrigation systems, the rainy season didn't matter so much: but nowadays, drought means famine.

Mind you, rain doesn't mean plenty. This is the planting season, but lack of forex and fuel means lack of tractor diesel, spare parts, seed, fertilizer, workforce, everything. On the minibus from Mutare to Harare yesterday, I passed field after field that were once commercial farms and are now mostly unkempt weeds, with a few small patches being sown with just enough food for the new farmers' family and friends. Zimbabwe will need food relief next year, too, count on it. And once upon a time it grew enough to feed itself and half of its neighbours.

On Tuesday I got a ride in the diplomatic-plates Land Cruiser through a hammerblow storm - when I say "rains," understand that I mean serious tropical downpours, maybe twice a day, for maybe an hour - to Mutare, where I squelched my way to 99 Fourth Street. Twenty minutes after I entered Ann Bruce's home/lodge, soaking wet, I was changed, dressed in my most formal clothing (which isn't saying much), and sitting with four Dutch NGO workers and six white-haired Zimbabweans in the faded century-old colonial splendor of the Mutare Club, eating very good Thai food. It was a little surreal.

Everywhere else I've been in Zambia and Zimbabwe, unofficial moneychanging has been done by burly dreadlocked rasta guys. (This is in part due to my prejudices; I prefer to deal with rastas and/or Muslims, my theory being that they're more trustworthy, albeit for very different reasons.) In Mutare, the transaction was handled by a portly white-haired grandmother who kept calling me "dearie". That was a little surreal too.

I explored Mutare, which didn't take long. It's a nice city, planted with flamboyants, surrounded by big round hills covered by huge granite boulders like eggs in a nest. Supermarkets, departments stores, an interesting museum, a Nando's, etc., and its proximity to the Mozambican border (about 10K) means that fuel is relatively easy to come by. By day it's entirely safe.

At night I sat in Ann's comfy living room, watched a very bad British soap named Doctors and Samuel L. in a kilt in The 51st State, and went out with Jaroon for a beer run. Jaroon and his (utterly gorgeous) wife Karin are from Haarlem, the Netherlands, and are working in Mutare on a twin-city volunteer-exchange type of program. They've been there six weeks. The contract is for a year and a half. They don't expect to remain that long. They'd like to; but they think they'll be pulled out.

Initially they moved into their own house, with an alarm system, an armed guard, and a guard dog. Their home was invaded by gunmen a few weeks ago. Since then they've stayed at Ann's until a more secure place becomes available. Ann has three (very friendly and playful) German shepherds; we took them all on our beer run. "99 times out of 100 you wouldn't need them at all," Jaroon explained. "But a couple weeks ago, a Japanese tourist went out with only one dog and got robbed."

The word on the street in Mutare - partly rumour, partly based on the arms and tactical sophistication of the home invaders - is that many of them are army soldiers supplementing their hyperinflation-ravaged pay. This is the most worrying thing I've heard since getting here: it'd be far from the first time that an African army started preying on its own citizens - a la Mobutu telling his troops to "live off the land" - and every time it's happened, to the best of my knowledge, it's led to some kind of violent collapse.

human immunodeficiency virus

I haven't really talked about AIDS since coming to Africa, which, to use the world's most tasteless simile, is a bit like going to the Playboy Mansion and writing home only about the food. But what the hell is there to say that hasn't been said ad nauseum already?

"It is encouraging to note that 83 per cent of Zambians are HIV negative," said an editorial in a newspaper I read in Lusaka, a truly breathtaking attempt at spin-doctoring. And that's only if you accept the government statistics, which of course no one does.1 In Uganda - the continental poster child for AIDS policy - there are already more than half a million AIDS orphans. And counting.

In Zimbabwe, estimates of HIV incidence among the adult population range as high as 50%. People can't afford antibiotics, never mind antiretrovirals (in the unlikely event they're available at all) and of course hunger and stress speed the disease. A lot of Zimbabweans spend a lot of their time going to funerals. My guide in the Matopos this time around told me knew my guide in the Matopos last time around, and told me that she'd passed away. Ten years ago, people here didn't tell you that someone had died of AIDS because of the profound social taboo. Today they don't tell you what they died of because it already goes without saying.

Get into a minibus in Zimbabwe, and you'll notice that you're more comfortable than you would be in that same minibus in Uganda. Because people tend to be skinnier. Hunger feeds AIDS feeds hunger; when it hits, in the space of a few weeks, victims often go from being the breadwinner of their family to being a heavy burden, and poof! their whole family's hope for the future is just gone. And then there are the truly grotesque side effects, like the widespread myth that sex with a virgin will cure you of AIDS, which leads to frequent2 rapes of young women, children, even infants.

I gather that most people here don't even want to be tested. They don't want to know. And so the epidemic continues. NGOs, not wanting to sound judgmental, delicately refer to "cultural and social factors" that contribute to the epidemic. What they mean are that a whole lot of HIV-positive Africans are having a whole lot of promiscuous unprotected sex. And years of public education campaigns don't seem to have made much difference.

But, hell, if you live in Zimbabwe, it's not like you're living for tomorrow anyways, right?

1 Basically, all statistics emerging from that part of Africa between the Sahara and South Africa are somewhere between "a good guess" and "a random number". And that's without accounting for political massagery.

2The frequency is pure guesswork on my part, but I've seen several references in local newspapers, and I'm thinking such crimes go massively underreported here.

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.

November 04, 2005

Gukurahundi Murambatsvina

Reading log this trip: Adam Hothschild King Leopold's Ghost. Ryszard Kapuscinski The Shadow Of The Sun. Giles Foden The Last King of Scotland. Philip Gourevitch We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed Along With Our Families. Andy McNabb Bravo Two Zero. Albert Camus L'√Čtranger. Dian Fossey Gorillas in the Mist. Armistead Maupin Tales of the City. Russell Hoban The Mouse And His Child. Michela Wrong In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz. Graham Hancock Lords Of Poverty. JK Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Jon Ronson The Men Who Stare At Goats. Patricia Highsmith Edith's Diary. Doris Lessing Shikasta. Gerald Seymour Archangel. I might be forgetting a couple. On deck: JM Coetzee Disgrace and Sandra Brown Hello, Darkness.

Salisbury no more

Harare is a very pretty city. Much greener than Bulawayo. There are trees anywhere, and not just anonymous greenery; many streest are lined with long processions of tall trees, flamboyants and jacarandas aflame with brilliant orange and purple flowers, whose branches arch into one another to form a colourful arboreal shade structure. There is modern architecture, glass and chrome; there are many stores and banks; there is a golf course and a Botanical Gardens, and pleasant suburbs of large houses on large estates. It certainly looks bigger and wealthier than Nairobi, although it's neither.

You'd never know there was a fuel shortage. When it first hit, maybe a year ago, the city shut down. Bulawayo is still semi-paralyzed; but here in the capital city, between the black market that has swelled to meet the enormous new demand, and the 'fuel coupons' you can buy at banks - if you have foreign currency, and if you line up for an hour - the streets buzz with activity. People line up everywhere, often at ATMs. Money is so cumbersome that ATMs run out quickly, so everyone takes out their maximum daily amount immediately, which usually means four separate transactions, which means a very slow line indeed. Some things are rare or unavailable - SIM cards for phones, March 4 razor blades - but mostly, you can get what you need, if you've got the forex, and if you can stand the hassle.

Driving with relatives of mine - which is as thorough a description as I'm going to give in this medium - some ten kilometres west of the city proper, we passed a capsule history of the country's last six years.

"You see that field over there?" my relative asked. I looked over. A mostly flat field, studded with the granite boulders and kopjes so common in the Zimbabwe landscape, strewn with trash, rubble, tufts of grass, and occasional one-room tin-roofed shacks. "That was a big commercial farm, grew maize and potatoes, some tobacco. A white farmer. The war vets came, five years ago, and stole it from him."

"You know what we mean, when we say 'war vets'?" my other relative asked. "They didn't really fight in the war."

I nodded. I'd followed the news from far away; I knew. A big, chaotic militia of mostly-young toughs who had, over a period of a year, taken over most of the country's white farms, often by violence. A militia too disorganized to earn the name 'paramilitary'; a militia led and supported by the government.

"After they took the land, they started putting up buildings on it. Shacks, like those new ones, but also little houses, vegetable gardens, there was a market, all this land here was covered with them, people everywhere. And then, earlier this year, the government, the same government that put them there, sent in bulldozers and flattened everything, destroyed everything, threw them all off the land. And now there's nothing there at all."

Operation Murambatsvina, they called it. "Clean up the trash." Bulldoze thousands of houses, whole shantytowns, trading stalls, markets - sometimes markets that had been officially constructed by the government, and inaugurated by government officials, within the previous year. Beat up and throw out the flower sellers and artists who have sold their wares outside the hotels and parks of Harare as long as anyone can remember. Render an estimated 700,000 people homeless. Attempt to 'clean up' the entire informal economy. More than half of Zimbabwe's economy, at a conservative estimate, is informal. Destroy houses built on stolen land by the same "war vets" you sent five years ago to steal the land.

"The more you think about it," my relative said, "the less sense it makes."

Those "war vets" weren't war vets; but there was a war here, of course, a long and bloody one, and the country is run by its veterans. Mugabe's Korean-trained guerrilla army fought Ian Smith's regular forces and Selous Scouts paramilitary for years, until finally, in 1980, in the face of overwhelming numerical superiority and international pressure, Smith handed over the reins of power.

Mugabe, a member of the country's majority (80%) Shona tribe, had as his chief lieutenant one Joshua Nkomo, one of the minority Ndebele, historically as warlike as the Zulus, with whom they were linked. Two years after independence, Mugabe ousted Nkomo from his cabinet; this sparked civil unrest that resulted in the arrest and massacre of tens of thousands Ndebele near Bulawayo by the Korean-trained Gukurahundi brigade. (See Peter Godwin's excellent book Mukiwa for details.) The newly independent country was already on the verge of cracking and disintegrating -

- but it didn't. In fact, despite years of terrible drought, it began to thrive. Mugabe turned out to be an intelligent and pragmatic leader. He and his cronies lived the high life, of course, but a lot of money trickled out to the rural poor as well, and with some of the richest agricultural land in all Africa, and a three-stooled economy built on mining, tobacco, and tourism, the country prospered. It wasn't quite Botswana or South Africa, but it was miles, leagues better than Zambia or Mozambique, or anywhere in Central or West Africa. It was a success story.

And then, as far as I can tell, about six years ago, Robert Mugabe went crazy.

Samora Machel, the hero of Mozambique, had one piece of advice for Mugabe: "Don't make our mistake. Don't throw the whites out." Mugabe didn't - and fifty thousand white farmers, twenty years after independence, continued to own and farm most of Zimbabwe's best land. (A brief land-buyback plan, financed by Britan, was cancelled after it was discovered that Mugabe's cronies were getting all the land.) I suppose that stuck in his craw. Rather than wait to buy them out, or wait for the next generation to abandon Zimbabwe for other pastures - which would have happened in many cases, I assure you - he sent the "war vets" to take them all by force. Some of them were turned into shantytowns; many, most, were given to friends and cronies of the government. Almost none of the farmland went to people who knew anything about farming. And the tobacco crop vanished; the food crop vanished; the tourists, spooked by the reports of widespread violence, vanished; and the economy went into its current nosedive.

The story is so old it's almost tiresome. Idi Amin and Mobutu did the same thing. Nationalize the economy; blame everything on a local ethnic minority (Asians, in Amin's case; the Belgians, for Mobutu); steal everything they own, then give all the farms and businesses and other assets to people who know nothing about managing them; watch, sometimes genuinely bewildered, as the resulting businesses are run into the ground, rather than becoming the expected endless supply of golden eggs; then blame Foreign Powers and the weather, as the government-mouthpiece Herald newspaper here never tires of doing.

In the Congo and Uganda, economic disaster was followed by the rule of the gun, simmering violence throughout the country, and eventual civil war. I don't think that will happen here. But you can't rule it out.

Talk to any Zimbabwean about The Situation, and eventually they'll mutter something like "Mugabe is an old man." Then they'll look at the ground and say "You shouldn't really talk about it. People will think you're a spy or something." They'll half-laugh. Then they'll change the subject.

I'm very aware of being white here, unlike in any other African country; because here, the assumption is that I'm a white Zimbabwean. It's not an assumption I'm comfortable with.

We went to the Bird Park the other day, my relatives and I, an idyllic spot on the shores of Lake Chiveru from which Harare gets its water. Twenty years ago, it was a patch of barren, swampy land. Today, along with the bird sanctuary from which it gets its name, it has a simple hotel, a swimming pool, a pier for yachts, docks for powerboats, horses and Shetland ponies to ride, a cafe, a football pitch, waterfront restaurant under construction, a planned game park, and a playground for the underprivileged Zimbabwean schoolchildren who come every day. The owner employs sixty people.

The owner, a white Zimbabwean, middle-aged, bluff and sturdy, intelligent eyes in a weatherbeaten face, also, while I was there, sent two of his employees, armed with clubs, to beat and drive off people who had walked for five kilometres to fish from the lake from the edge of his land. When asked why so many wild birds came to roost and feed on his land, he said, squinting with anticipation, "Because they know they're protected. They know if any coon comes here, I'll whip his ass with a stick until his nose bleeds!"

Mugabe may have gone crazy - that's the only explanation for Operation Murambatsvina that comes to mind - but he's crazy like a fox. His latest brilliant political stroke is to reintroduce a Senate, which he abolished in 1985. With this he has thrown the opposition into disarray, and maybe destroyed it.

The leader of the MDC opposition wants to boycott next month's Senate elections, saying fighting them would be a waste of time and energy, and would simply allow Mugabe to set the agenda. Which is true; between direct appointment (of 16 positions), violence and vote-rigging, and Mugabe's continued undoubted popularity in poor rural regions, the government would almost certainly win any contested Senate election. But not fighting means that government Shona officials will represent Matabeleland, scene of the Gukurahundi massacres, and that thought incenses the Ndebele, who form a large part of the opposition. So the MDC is riven with arguments and infighting; there is widespread speculation that they might divide or even disappear, victim of their own internecine squabble.

And meanwhile the country continues to rot.

If there's a lesson in Zimbabwe, I think it's this: progress is highly evitable. Places that once had bright futures can and do decline and fall.

November 01, 2005

The missionary explorer and the diamond tycoon

This is a history lecture. I'll try to make it entertaining.

The history of modern Zimbabwe begins with two dead white men. Extraordinarily famous dead white men: both are more than a century deceased, but you probably know their names. Conveniently, their stories dovetail nicely with where I've been over the last few days.

Almost exactly one hundred and fifty years ago, on November 16, 1855, David Livingstone (as in, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?"), who was in the midst of an expedition across Africa - primarily to carry the word of God to the heathen, but also to survey the continent and open trade routes - was led by his native guides to what, from a distance, looks exactly like a bushfire. Then, as you get closer, it sounds like thunder. Hence the African name Mosi-oa-Tunya, "the Smoke that Thunders." But Livingstone was a loyal royalist Brit: and so, once he picked his jaw from where it must have fallen - because this mile-wide, 100-metre-deep curtain of falling water really is a stunning sight - he promptly rechristened it Victoria Falls.

It may not actually have been a mile wide at the time. It would have been, like now, just the end of dry season; and as I type, the entire Zambian side of Victoria Falls is dry. You can walk right along that edge of the basalt gorge that is the Falls, if you like, on massive water-worn stones whose bored holes and smooth, fluted edges make look uncomfortably like jumbled bones, and peer over the edge. Not that there's nothing to see. The Zambezi still tumbles in huge cataracts over the slightly lower Zimbabwe side, at a rate of tens of millions of litres per minute, into an opaque white maelstrom beneath, across which arcs a standing rainbow. On a full moon's night, you can see a moonbow.

Even at this minimal flow rate, spray rises high into the sky. When I looked up from the Zambian side at midday, I saw, to my amazement, a perfect rainbow ring around the sun. The colossal gorge over which the river tumbles is narrow enough that you could hurl a well-thrown baseball across, and sheer on both sides. Mist from the falls settles constantly on the patch of land that stands just opposite the permanent Zimbabwe side of the waterfall; this has perpetuated a tiny standing jungle maybe 500 feet long and 100 wide, wet and thick with ferns, creepers, and other jungle vegetation not otherwise found for a thousand kilometres in any direction. Between the falls and the microjungle, it's an amazing sight.

Other explorers followed Livingstone - one Frederick Courtney Selous, in particular - and discovered that the high plateau to the east of the Zambezi was fertile farmland, relatively malaria-free thanks to its height, and just about dripping with gold. Gold has been mined in Zimbabwe for two thousand years, carried to the Mozambican coast and traded with Arabs; this is the wealth that built the civilization that in circa 1400 built Great Zimbabwe, by far the greatest ruins of sub-Saharan Africa. (Which admittedly isn't saying much.)

When Livingstone discovered Victoria Falls, a little boy in England named Cecil was two years old. Seven years later, Cecil was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His parents were told he would not live past twenty-one. At age seventeen, in the hopes that the southern air would aid his lungs, his parents sent him to visit his brother, who had recently emigrated to South Africa.

Cecil died before he was fifty. But he had quite an eventful life. During his five decades, two countries were named after him (Northern and Southern Rhodesia); he was named the Prime Minister of a third (South Africa); he was also - at the same time! - the Managing Director of one of the most powerful companies in the world (the British South Africa Company); oh yes, and for the last decade of his life he was widely believed to be the richest man on Earth.

Today, he is now best known in North America for the scholarships he endowed in his will. Every Rhodes Scholar attends Oxford on the tab of Cecil John Rhodes' estate. It's not clear what exactly happened with that section of his will which left money "To and for the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world"; his trustees are clearly, to say the least, falling down on the job.

Rhodes made his fortune from the diamond fields at Kimberley, where there was initial find, a diamond rush, and then, after all the easily accessible diamonds had been mined, a collapse. Rhodes' shrewdly bought up all the claims that other miners were selling cheap; then, new pumping technology allowed access to a prodigious amount of previously unaccessible diamonds, and Rhodes' De Beers Mining Company (named after the farm on which the original discovery was made) owned almost all of them.

A millionaire (in nineteenth-century pounds) by age 27, Rhodes turned his attention to the colonization of Africa. His creed was summed up with the modest words: "I contend that we (the British) are the finest race in the world; and that the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for the human race." He - decided to build a railway from Cape Town to Cairo, to cement British domination of the Dark Continent. He began with the rich areas then known as Mashonaland and Matabeleland, after the Shona and Matabele people who inhabited them, just north of South Africa (known as "the Cape Colony" at the time). One leg of the railway extended north from Johannesburg; another began at Beira, at the Mozambican coast, and went west; and Rhodes himself designed the city that came to be at the place where they met, the city of Bulawayo, in which I sit. (And I have to say, he did a hell of a job. It's one of the best-laid-out cities in the world.)

From Bulawayo, the railway went west to Victoria Falls, across a bridge that was built to span the Zambezi in 1895, and continued north until it reached the Congo border. En route, Rhodes, the British South Africa company, and the pioneers it financed and encouraged conquered (or signed extremely unequal treaties with) the Shona and Matabele, and created two new countries; Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

The railway never made it to Cairo. The Boer War interfered; then Rhodes died of ill-health in 1902, and no one shared enough of his vision to force the railroad on. I'm sure he'd be pleased to know that today, though the line to Beira long since ceased operation, and much of the Zambia line isn't currently running, at least you can connect from the same tracks that he built as far as Dar es Salaam.

Rhodes' grave can be found at a place called Malindzidzi - "World's View" - in Matopos National Park, where I spent yesterday. During my last visit, my Lonely Planet said, in a flight of fancy which has surely since been edited out, "You don't have to believe in ley lines and crystals to know that the Matopos Hills are one of the power places of the world." It's an otherwordly place. Incredible crystalline hills and ridges of granite jut out from the African bush, where leopards and rhinos roam. Malindzidzi, a natural ring of colossal boulders atop a huge solid-granite hill, rising above the rest of the park, is one of the most starkly beautiful places I have ever been. I'm grateful I got the chance to see it for a second time.

Rhodes wrote that he chose it for a resting place because of its "grandeur and loneliness." I know exactly what he meant.

Let's jump forward to 1948. That's the year that the British Airways Overseas Corporation inaugurated its weekly passenger flying-boat service from England to South Africa. Passengers flew from Southampton to Sicily to Alexandria to Khartoum to Port Bell (now Entebbe) to Victoria Falls to Jo'burg, flying one leg a day, 12,000 feet above the planet, overnighting at each of those destinations. From Vic Falls, you could ride Rhodesian Railways' luxury first-class cars north to the Congo, east to the Mozambican coast, or south to Cape Town.

Does that sound fabulously exotic and romantic? It should. It was. It was the glory age of African colonialism.

In 1948, my father, born in what was then Umtali and is now Mutare, in Eastern Zimbabwe (hence my deep and abiding interest in this country, in case you're curious) was nine years old, and attending a more-British-than-British boarding school in the leopard-infested Vumba rainforest. 1948 was also, note, one year after India became fully independent. That's an important fact about Rhodesia; it was, in many ways, the absolutely last vestige of true British colonialism on the planet. When my cousin visited here, a decade ago, somebody at an all-white braai asked her what she thought of the Rhodesians around her; and she answered, memorably, "You're like the seaweed flung onto a rock by the highest wave of the highest tide, and left there to dry."

(Yes, my cousin is a genius.)

Here's something else you should know about colonial life: it was wonderful. Oh, it was hard, challenging, too - but whites in Rhodesia lived, for the most part, as well as those in the Raj. No; better. Big houses with spacious verandahs, massive farm properties, vistas of extraordinary natural beauty all around, braais and fresh mangos and just-laid eggs, expeditions to Cape Town or Mozambique or to hunt the leopard that's preying on the cattle, days spent on horseback riding across your domain, a tight-knit community of fellow whites, servants to cook your food, make your bed, prepare your saddle, work your fields, build your house - many if not most Rhodesian whites lived, literally, like medieval kings.

(And many expats in Africa live much the same way today. If you have hard currency - a European pension, say - you too can have that life, those servants, that community, those expeditions. With foreign money, you can live a life here that makes a city or suburban existence in the West seem mean, ugly, cramped, plastic, filthy and unfriendly.)

There was, however, that inconvenient fact that all this splendor was built on the back of colonized Africans who were little more than serfs.

Why did otherwise intelligent and often kind people fight so hard for the vicious, obscene, evil system in which they lived? Because they knew that if it changed, their lives - and the lives of those they loved - would never be anywhere near as good. It couldn't last, and it didn't - but note that Rhodesia became Zimbabwe only twenty-five years ago.

That ends this lecture. There will be more to come, I'm afraid. Pay attention. Take notes. There will be a test.