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Zimbabwe: An Old Reporter’s Diary (I)

The author (left) at departure gate of Harare International Airport with old friend, Professor Chakanyuka Karase

My recollections of Zimbabwe stretch back more than thirty-five years. I have notes from a trip to Southern Africa in August and September 1983. My arrival in Harare on August 17, coincided with the return of opposition leader Joshua Nkomo from his brief exile in Britain. This would initiate an unhappy process of reconciliation between the two warring factions of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Patriotic Front), led by him and Robert Mugabe, which had united to liberate the country in 1980.

Since my notes, published in the New Nigerian Newspaper, are more reliable than my memory, let me quote some from them to try to recapture the flavour of that period.

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“Two years ago when I first visited Zimbabwe, the main preoccupation of the government was wresting control of the society from the small European elements who had dominated the country. The most talked about issues then were off-shoots of this grim struggle, for example in the Edgar Tekere case (a Mugabe rival who was murdered in suspicions circumstances) and the igniting of the Ammunition Depot in Harare, by what was suspected to be South African sabotage in August 1981.

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“It is a great pity that differences between former comrades in struggle, now looms larger than that between them and their former adversaries. Unlike in 1981, one now hears much less about ministerial visits to farm and factories, where European owners are ill-treating African employees or paying them below the minimum wage. Instead the venom of government controlled media is directed at the “dissidents” in Matabe land, an area that remains loyal to Mr Nkomo.

“With the exception of rural areas of Matabele land, the ‘dissidents’ problem’ has little affected life in the rest of Zimbabwe. The new government is ably maintaining the excellent infrastructure it has inherited in the cities. In Harare, Gweru and Bulawayo, which I visited, the streets are well-paved, with beautiful shopping complexes and residential areas everywhere. There are no power failures, the phones work and the standard of cleanness is very high indeed. One has the impression of being in small towns in America, especially with the racial mix in the streets.

“Educated Zimbabweans, many of whom were forced to live abroad during the days of the Rhodesian regime (and therefore know the deficiencies in other African countries well), are aware of the advantages in their country and very proud of it. On their return, many of them have acquired good jobs, cars and beautiful bungalows in former European-only suburbs, and are understandably in the glow of first love with their ‘new’ country.

“Like Americans, they are quick to ask you ‘how you like it here’, confident what your response will be. They also make comparisons and sometimes tell a few not-so-nice jokes about other African countries. I remember a good one about Nigeria told by a young medical doctor in the Senior Staff Common Room of the University of Zimbabwe. Many of the people on our table have been to this country and could therefore appreciate the story.

“It goes something like this: When Prime Minister Robert Mugabe (as he was then before becoming life President!) was on a state visit to Nigeria, he was shocked to see so many people answering the call of nature by the road side. He remarked to his host, President Shagari, that this was the kind of thing one never saw in Zimbabwe. Shagari replied that it was humanly impossible to control such behavior, but a confident Mugabe invited him over to see things for himself.

“Alhaji Shagari toured the length and breadth of Zimbabwe without seeing a single soul using the fields as latrine. At last he was forced to concede. But as he was being driven back to the airport, his sharp eyes caught the shape of a man crouching off the road, apparently easing himself. He triumphantly shouted to the PM, now there you are!

“The Comrade PM in anger asked the motorcade to stop, sending police escorts to bring the man who has brought shame to his country. The police came back to say they could not execute the order. When Mugabe demanded to know why, they lowered their eyes in embarrassment but kept quiet. The PM next sent an Army Platoon, which came back with the same answer. An enraged Mugabe now sent for a crack unit of the special Fifth Brigade, who marched the unfortunate man before Shagari and Mugabe. But who could it be, but the Nigerian High Commissioner to Zimbabwe, trying to enjoy a little bit of diplomatic immunity!!”

Harare aerial view

Nigerians who visited Zimbabwe in its first flush of glory in the 1980’s were subjected to such condescending jokes and much worse. Since most were young men looking for quick opportunities, there was much resentment about their black market activities, which included an occasional drug bust that gets gleeful coverage in the Zimbabwe Herald newspaper. With Lagos our capital and best known city, there were exaggerated accounts of how dirty, violent and corrupt the whole country was. The elite would say, with barely hidden contempt, that in the traffic hold ups of Lagos you could buy anything from matchsticks to a refrigerator!

Those were days when Nollywood was in its infancy, but even then many ordinary Zimbabweans were curious about Nigerian culture, especially fashion, food and music. There was a Balkan Airline flight to Harare almost every day from Lagos, but except for the odd government official, the traffic was mostly one way. I remember a Harare travel agent confessing to me, that due to the terrible reputation of Lagos airport she usually advised her clients to avoid the country all together!

Things were not much different at the official level. Senior Nigerian government officials felt Zimbabwe should be friendlier to us, since we after all helped them win their much cherished independence. But while Mugabe had a soft support for Ghana, where his first wife Sally came from, his coolness to Nigeria was very obvious.

There was much hugging and backslapping when he met Nigerian leaders, who were (and still are) keen to share our petrodollars with ‘brother African leaders’. But Zimbabwe avoided any special trade relations that would give Nigerian businessmen advantage. They pushed to get our oil at special rates, but declined to receive young Technical Aid Corps (TAC) officers that we were keen to send and were accepted by many countries in Southern Africa.

This was how the late Peter Afolabi, our cool-headed Ambassador in Harare in that era, whom I interviewed for the Today Newspaper in 1988, characterised the relationship: “It is like an electric current, with low and high voltage. Lack of focus on our objectives is responsible for this fluctuation. A country that just  won its independence does not want to be overshadowed.

The Zimbabweans do not want other masters in Africa. We require patience. The aim should not be immediate reward, but the satisfaction that we are doing the right thing.”

Well, I had the chance last November to see what thirty years of patience has done to Nigeria-Zimbabwe relations. Our Embassy is still located on busy Samora Michel Avenue, and walking to its gate without an appointment, I had some trouble going past security. But I was finally shown into the office of Tokunbo Falohun, the Minister Counsellor in charge of Information. From what he told me little has changed at the official level.

Zimbabweans are still guarded and regard most Nigerian visitors as unwanted economic migrants. There are many genuine businessmen selling mostly motor spare parts and electronic gadgets, but desperate attempts at economic regulation has created tempting opportunities in the informal economy, which young hustlers of all nationalities do their best to exploit.

Many Nigerian ‘business men’ operate just a few steps ahead of the law and the Embassy spends much consular time attending to those caught up in the legal labyrinth. Press and Political officers are still engaged in constant skirmishes to defend the country’s image from unfair attacks by media commentators and politicians.

Aerial view of a Zambezi lodge, Victoria waterfalls, Zimbabwe

Meanwhile, much has changed for the worse in Zimbabwe in a generation. The once proud people that used to look down on other African countries have been forced to eat humble pie, when they can find it. For bread is in short supply in Zimbabwe some days!

I used to marvel at the huge variety of pastries in Harare bakeries, at a time the only choice in my country was white bread, sliced or full loaf. But these days, when shortages have become common in Zimbabwe, bread can disappear for days from the shops. I saw desperate mothers loading up on the precious commodity in the Shoprite Hypermarket in Bulawayo, with the anxious looks of bargain hunters. In a few short decades, a country that was the bread basket of the region is now struggling to feed itself.

On this trip my entry point into Zimbabwe was Victoria Falls, a beautiful little town that still benefits from thousands of tourists who come to see the natural wonder named after it. Things look normal enough. There is a relatively new airport that looks sleepy at noon due to a decline in the tourist trade, which has shrunk with the economy. My base on this visit was some 20 kilometers across the border in Livingston, Zambia where I am attending a conference. But I lingered at the Victory Falls hotel, where years ago I had my first taste of crocodile meat (the grilled tail has more or less same flavour as fish). It has retained the charm of an old colonial hotel, languishing in the sun for decades on a landscaped outcrop overlooking the Zambezi river.

The local economies of Victoria Falls and Livingston, are buoyed by visitors to the Victoria Falls, which is one of the great natural wonders of Africa. I must have seen the Falls, from the two sides, half a dozen times, but it is breathtaking on each visit. The locals call it “Mosi Oa Tunya” or “the smoke that thunders” and when you hear the roar and are enveloped by the mist,  you will understand.

The Falls are on the river Zambezi, which begins its long journey to the Ocean from Kaleni Hill in Northern Zambia. The great river flows through Zambia, Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique to the Indian Ocean, a distance of 2,700 kilometers, making it Africa’s fourth longest river. Along most of it course the Zambezi is a smooth, majestic river, dotted with several islands and sandbars. But at about three kilometers upstream from the Falls, there is a sudden southward bend in the river. The current becomes faster and more uneven, and finally after a short stretch of rapids, the whole river, stretching nearly two kilometers in width, plunges into a chasm 108 meters deep, which cuts across it path. 545 million litres of water a minute is rushing past an overhanging cliff and descending in tumultuous torrent hundred meters below. This creates a sound like the permanent clap of thunder at midnight. The force of the gushing water sends spray clouds swirling high into the sky, from which billows a smoky vapour of continuous soft drizzle for miles around.

Rising from the bottom of the Gorge, is a four-coloured rainbow (red, blue, green, yellow) that sweeps upward before disappearing in the mist above. To do a satisfactory tour one needs a raincoat and a stout heart. Facing the Fall is a narrow bridge that spans the top of the Gorge. It is called ‘the Knife-Edged’ bridge and from it you come face to face with this terrifying natural wonder. You could stand for hours just watching this spectacle, or you could take a walk along the Zambezi river, ensuring, of course, that you avoid the areas infested with crocodiles!

To reconnect with Zimbabwe I took the intercity bus from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, the way middle class locals travel. It was a six hour trip, which provided a good opportunity to see the southern part of the country. The bus was full but comfortable, with mostly young Africans, but also a few elderly white Zimbabwean passengers. It was early morning, with most carrying a package for breakfast or lunch. The road was fairly good but empty for long stretches, with few private cars and only an occasional truck in the way of our quiet progress.

A young bus conductor tried to lead us in prayer as we began the journey, but despite his obvious religious fervor, he could only get few of us to mumble along with him. I do not remember Zimbabweans being particularly religious, but those were the years when life was easy and most were too busy making good.

For first two hours we drove through wooded vegetation on the border of the Hwange game reserve. Hwange is home to the big five beasts of the African savannah (elephants, lions, rhinos, buffaloes and tigers), so it was with some anticipation that one kept watch on roadside movements. We stopped for refreshment in the main hotel inside the game reserve. Fully thirty years ago a friend and I stopped over in this same hotel, on another bus trip from Bulawayo to Victoria Falls. We had lunch in the open air restaurant near a watering hole where on lucky days you could see a lion stalking or a troop of elephants ambling by. Either due to the pressure of time or lean resources, we did not stay long on that visit. I was tempted to make up for that by breaking the journey to spend the night in this enthralling clearing in the wilderness. I resisted the urge to be an idle tourist and continued with the bus. The second largest city in Zimbabwe, Bulawayo, is much smaller than Harare, but very well planned and pleasing to the eye. The streets are so well laid out and simply numbered; a stranger can drop his bag and plunge into town for hours without getting lost. This time I did not stay in a city centre hotel, but opted for the quieter suburb of Hillside, in one of the many guest houses that now dot the city, as couples with big homes turn them into hostelries to make ends meet.

So informal were these arrangements, it was my landlady, Mrs Ndlovu, who picked me up from somewhere in town on arrival. Chatting like old family friends, she first drove to an upmarket shopping complex for me to buy a few essentials. “Despite the economic crisis in Zimbabwe, there were well-stocked supermarkets like ‘the Foodlovers’, with shelves heaving with fresh fruits and vegetables, a bakery corner and refrigerators full of dairy products.”

Most of the processed foods and manufactured products were imported from South Africa, but could be afforded by the elite, both black and white. The prices at the Foodlovers, and other outlets that sell imported goods, reflected the market reality and not the artificial rate legislated by the government. But the quality was good and the quantity plentiful, the only limit what your pocket could afford.

This same logic, applied to existential items like medicine, flour and cooking oil, can create catastrophic consequences. There were persistent complaints that pharmacies were charging either in US dollars or three times the official rate in the local currency, which was pegged one to one to the greenback. The result was the local money buying less and less in the market and everyone asking to be paid in American dollars, including taxi drivers.

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