Zimbabwe: Dollar Dollar Bill, Y’all
Another country, another blog post named for the lyrics of one of my favorite songs (OK, OK, I like the Dixie Chicks). I am writing this post in the Harare International Airport, sipping on a Coke from a glass bottle and watching planes prepare to take off from a wet runway. My Kenya Airways flight has been delayed four hours, and I figure this was a better way to spend my time than watching episodes of the Simpsons or the Big Bang Theory on my laptop. What can I say about Zimbabwe? For years Zim was nothing more to me than a prime example of an African country that had sadly taken the wrong direction. Wrecked by hyper inflation, severe economic recession, and a controversial government land grab policy that lead to the misuse of countless acres of farmland, Zimbabwe was once a shining example of a successful transition to democracy and was even called “the bread basket of Africa” at one time. All this being said, in ignorance I wasn’t expecting to find any sign of order when I came to Zimbabwe, let alone people living normal lives and actually considering themselves optimistic about the future.
My introduction to Zim entailed flying in over the mighty Zambezi (I eventually experienced firsthand why it is called mighty when some friends of mine from South Africa and I attempted to go white water rafting. Each rapid has a terrifying name like “The Gnashing Jaws of Death” and yes, your pants will be wet by the end of the trip) and seeing what appeared to be smoke rising from the largely flat landscape. I would soon find when I arrived in the town of Victoria Falls that this smoke also had a constant rumbling sound accompanying it. In an attempt to avoid misspelling the native word for the falls, I will simply say that this is why the name translates into “the smoke that thunders” (Isn’t that cool?). While I’ll let the pictures of the falls do the talking for themselves, the town of Victoria Falls is very touristy. You can’t walk down the main street without having at least five people try to sell you everything from carvings to Zimbabwean dollars (You can buy a whole stack for one US dollar. The US dollar has been used for a few years here in place of the old currency and yes, using it makes me a little homesick every time I open my wallet).Yet among these merchants are really cool people. Prince, one of the nicest guys I’ve met here, actually took my friends and I to his township where we visited with his family one afternoon.
For all its cool people and free roaming warthogs and baboons, though, I thought that Victoria Falls had to be an exception. Surely the rest of Zimbabwe had to have been nothing but chaos. The next town I visited was Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city located near the western border. It was here that I met Steve Shirko, one of the contacts for my project who also turned out to be a great guy. Steve and his entertaining family eventually treated me to Sunday lunch and drove me out to the Matopos, which was the most beautiful place in Africa I’ve visited besides the Cape (Again, I’ll let the pictures do the talking). From Bulawayo I travelled to Masvingo by a packed beyond safety guidelines chicken bus (so called because in the rural areas chicken cages are packed on top of them, leading to the bus leaving a trail of feathers behind it). It was here that I met Justice, a young Zimbabwean who helped me get transport out to the ruins of Great Zimbabwe simply because “he felt like helping me”.
It was people like Steve and Justice who eventually led me to seriously question my previous perceptions of Zimbabwe, and they would only be further tested by a trip to Mutare, where Africa University is located and Dr. Abercrombie and Dr. Davis have worked at one time. It was here that I met Petra Krumpin, a German immigrant who was teaching at the university (There are so many Germans in Africa. I visited the ruins of Great Zimbabwe with a great couple named Inca and Torbin). Petra not only let me stay in her home for two days, but also is the foster parent of five very cool African guys around my age. Did I also mention she gave me a ride back to Harare, a four hour trip?
Thus, I come to the end of an unusually long blog post sitting in the airport of Harare wondering how Zimbabwe has so effectively blown my mind (Harare is big by the way, the biggest city I’ve visited since Johannesburg. It is also very well developed with several buildings built within the last decade, unlike those of Bulawayo, which admittedly look old and run down). In seeking an answer to this question, my mind naturally drifts to my last interaction with an incredibly interesting Zimbabwean. For now, I will just call him Trevor to protect his identity. He had at one time been a ZANU-PF congressman and knew Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and Queen Elizabeth (I don’t know how or why Trevor agreed to meet with a little old American like me. I’m just glad he did). Being a member of ZANU-PF (the party of Robert Mugabe), Trevor and I certainly had differing viewpoints regarding Zimbabwe and America. Yet somehow, toward the end of the conversation he and I simply focused on the future of the world and how we both undoubtedly wanted to make it a better place. I am proud to say that Zimbabwe, therefore, has given me one of those quintessential revelations everyone seeks when studying abroad. This seems to be that no matter how chaotic a country’s situation appears to be, simply travelling there and finding that it is full of humans with the same hopes and concerns as anyone else will do you a world of good.