Our guide, Tuhafeni, had last visited Zimbabwe 11 years ago, and was still emotionally bruised from the experience. Taking another group like ours, he was fleeced of all the money the tour company had provided him by bogus demands from the border guards, until he literally ran out of cash. They then held him in a police cell for ten hours, trying to squeeze more out of him. Eventually, finally convinced that he had indeed run out of money, they released him into the night when he retreated back to the resort at Chobe where the group awaited his return.
Understandably, Tuhafeni seemed a bit on edge the next morning, prior to our entry into Zimbabwe. We all did. He had gone to the border the previous afternoon while we were on the cruise to make sure all the paperwork for our visas and the truck had been organised. As we approached the Zimbabwean border post, a long line of trucks stood outside the gates.
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We filed into the immigration office. A photo of Robert Mugabe, ‘Uncle Bob’, dominated the most prominent wall in the room. The immigration officials were not smiling, as distinct from previous border posts we had visited. As I handed over my passport I was chastised for not having the immigration form in my passport (it was still in my pocket) and the correct money, in US dollars, for the visas. It cost us all $US30 each, except for Toni who, being English, had to pay $US55; the price of colonialism I suppose.
While I, flustered, embarrassingly and awkwardly retrieved notes and forms from money belts and pockets, Sam commented that Dad was ‘being a dork’. He was right, of course.
Chop, chop, hurry up. Hilarious, given the delay that followed. An official scowled at Sam sitting and stimming in the corner of the room. Martina, Guenter’s lovely wife, a clinical psychologist, scowled at the official in return. I tussled Sam’s somewhat greasy hair and gave Martina an appreciative but ‘leave it’ expression.
It soon became clear there was a stuff up. What a surprise! It seemed the man who had spoken to Tuhafeni yesterday had apparently given him the wrong information, and the fee for the tour group and truck to enter was twice what he had quoted.
We moved outside into the glaring sun and languidly sat outside the immigration office for over an hour. Sam played with the sand while sitting on the cement steps. Tuhafeni tried to keep his cool while dozens of phone calls to officials somewhere went here and back, round and round. The group postulated on the reasons for the delay. Corruption? Maladministration? Just toying with us? Eventually the border officials just waved their hands and said we could go.
A clearly relieved Tuhafeni hit the pedals and we zoomed past the boom gates. It was corruption, of course; they were just trying to rip the company off.
Coming into the town of Victoria Falls, we stopped to ask for directions to our accommodation. As soon as we stopped, a man approached the windows trying to sell small wooden carved statues. Another waved Zimbabwean bank notes in an attempt to change money. The notes I saw were for 5 billion and 20 billion Zimbabwean dollars. Sam, I knew, would have been impressed by these.
We entered our accommodation where the rest of the group would be camping, Sam and I staying in a room. Our room was expensive, basic and poorly lit, the staff edgy, and security intense. The whole feel of the country was different to anything we had previously experienced; money and security equal first, daylight third. My senses remained on high alert.
The group had dinner at the restaurant inside the facility, not wanting to venture out the gates at night. A group of male singers appeared in the open dining room, singing traditional songs in tribal dress. They were very good, but we waited for the inevitable request for money for the unsolicited performance. Did the facility get a kickback? Probably.
They sung a fascinating Africanised version of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot which brought the musical path a full circle. What started in Africa and was taken to America on slave ships, returned to the home continent. The last song was Shosholoza, they were Ndebele tribal singers after all.
In the afternoon, while shopping in town, the first hawker lined us up even before we had passed the security guards and boom gates marking the exit to our accommodation.
‘Hello Sir, how are you?’
‘You want white water rafting? Bungy? Zimbabwean billion dollar bills? Change Money? Taxi?’
Ignore. I was used to being hassled, but not like this. His street colleagues lined me up, one by one. It was like there was a queue. They were also more aggressive and persistent than I’d been used to. If you didn’t engage, the tone became insistent; they would walk beside you for minutes at a time. To them I was a big bag of money, bigger than anything they could imagine.
Sam had the perfect manner for street hawkers. He didn’t have to pretend to ignore them or not notice them, it came naturally. I tried to follow his lead.
Zimababwe is the second poorest country in Africa and indeed the world, second only to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This is a monstrous crime. A country so resource-rich has been devastated by corruption, mismanagement and violence since Uncle Bob came to power in 1980. He has been rated as the second worst dictator in the world after North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and Zim consistently rates highly on the most corrupt countries list.
There are two major ethnic groups in Zimbabwe; the majority Shosa and minority Ndebele. In the mid 1980s, 20,000 Ndebele were massacred by Mugabe’s thugs to prevent any political uprising. In 2000, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF supporters, led by unemployed war veterans armed with axes and machetes invaded and seized white-owned farms with the President’s open support. In the same year Uncle Bob was awarded the winning prize in a lottery run by the state bank. What a surprise!
Politically motivated beatings, rape and murders were common, and rose prior to planned elections. In the 2005 election, the opposition, mainly supported by the urban poor who suffered most under the regime, dared to win some seats in parliament. Operation ‘Clean the Filth’ burned markets and homes across the country. 700,000 people lost their homes or livelihoods, and 2 million people were driven further into poverty.
In 2009, hyperinflation of over five billion percent finally led to a suspension of the currency and foreign currencies were allowed as legal tender, but not until the ridiculous scenario of 100 trillion dollar bank notes being issues. Food sources became scarce. The plummeting life expectancy, exacerbated by rampant HIV, has dropped to the mid 30s. The country holds its breath waiting for the vicious old criminal to die, but who knows what will come next.
As we walked back to our accommodation a warthog marched importantly down the footpath towards us. We crossed the road to avoid him; he had big tusks, he got right of way. That night Sam and I shared a warthog schnitzel for dinner, which was another impressive win on the food front. I felt a bit guilty eating Pumbaa, but it did taste good.
In the morning monkeys broke into Toni’s tent and ate her antimalarials. A Zimbabwean monkey or two was going to have bad diarrhoea that day. On the way into town an adult male baboon glared at me from atop a car. When we returned, small monkeys surrounded our chalet. Sam approached one, and he screeched and advanced towards Sam aggressively, before I shouted at the little blighter, frightening him off. Sam thought it was hilarious. In the chalet, the monkey glared at us through the window while he sat on the sill outside.
When Sam and I went into the supermarket, I saw a blind old lady begging outside. She had sunken eye sockets, sunken cheeks, and a sunken spirit. Inside, as I looked at which juice bottle to buy, a young girl approached me and offered me ‘favours’ if I bought her one too. When I returned outside, a young boy, presumably her grandson, led the blind woman away by a stick. Sometimes all you have left is family.
I felt a seething anger well from within. This should never have happened. I hated that ubiquitous portrait photo.