Waiting for an opportunity
June 26, 2018
After two months in Malawi, I spent the past three weeks travelling through Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The journey started again under the motto “God is always good”: I took a bus from Blantyre to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. After 5 minutes on the road, a man stood up and began preaching aloud that God may protect us and guide us safely to our goal. He didn’t, however, stop at that point, but continued to preach for around 50 minutes. Mostly in Chichewa and quite an aggressive tone, so not necessarily what you long for at 6:30 in the morning. Shortly before we arrived in Harare 12 hours later, there was another short prayer to thank the Lord for his guidance. Another interesting feature of the bus ride was the music. As soon as the sermon had finished, the bus driver switched on Zimbabwean music at almost full volume, accompanied by cheaply produced, self-made music videos showing people dancing in front of their houses. I don’t know how all the other passengers survived the trip (the volume was kept up for around 11 consecutive hours); I did only thanks to earplugs. At some point, I also realized that they were actually playing the same 10 songs in a loop.
In the following weeks, I experienced various other means of transport: First, there are long-distance buses which, however, don’t have a fixed schedule. Rather, they operate after the minibus principle: The bus starts when it is full. And when a lot of people disembark at one stop, the bus simply waits until it has filled up again. This makes planning of your arrival time quite impossible. Luckily, I was in no hurry and had good books on me. That way, you can/have to accept it as a different way of travelling than what you’re used to from Europe. Next means of transport: the train. Zimbabwe, also a former British colony like Malawi, has a quite decent railway network from colonial times. Or, maybe I should rather say: its railway network used to be decent in the 1950s. Since then, and especially in the last 10 years, no more money was invested into maintenance of the system. As a consequence, both rails and trains wear down more and more. Therefore, the maximum speed at which trains can travel has to be reduced every few years. It used to be 90 km/h in the good old times, nowadays, it’s only 60. But this gives you the rare opportunity to experience going by train as it might have been in the 1950s, so I decided to take the night train for the last 400 km to the Victoria Falls. Regular travelling time was 12 hours. It took us 16 (yes, for 400 km). But besides the delay, the journey was fine. I was in a sleeper cabin, and luckily I had brought a sleeping bag as since some years, they don’t provide bedding anymore (although it was first class). Also, the board restaurant is out of order. I shared the cabin with two elder Zambians who use the train quite regularly and said that some ten years ago, it was still way better maintained. But the nice thing about the train is that it passes through a big national park, so that we saw a giraffe shortly before we arrived to Victoria Falls.
Due to the long delay, I was planning to take the bus to go back some days later. But then one of the Zambians told me that his friend (who was not in the cabin at that moment) had actually lost 4 fingers in a bus accident on exactly that route some months ago. Which is quite horrifying, so I decided that it might be better to also take the train to go back. Which resulted in a funny story: The train left on time at 7 pm. Five minutes later, the conductor came into the cabin and told me that 25 minutes ago, a locomotive had jumped the rails some three hours ahead of us. As this was a part of the track with only one rail line and “most of the workers have already knocked off”, he expected “several hours” delay. When I asked him why the train had actually left Victoria Falls and not stayed there (then I could have still taken the bus from there), he said that the incident had only been posted in an internal WhatsApp-group by one worker, and that “the management” had been too slow to make the appropriate decision of stopping the train. But he told me that directly before the site of the accident, we would reach another station from where I could try to catch a bus in the morning. At 3 am, he woke me up to tell me that the locomotive had been cleared and we could proceed to our destination. The train started moving and I went back to sleep, just to be woken up again at 6 am. Now he told me that the locomotive had not been cleared after all, and somehow we were also back in the station where we had been at 3 am.
At that point I decided that I wouldn’t wait the whole day in the middle of nowhere until “the management” had finally figured out an appropriate way to deal with the situation. So I packed my stuff and went out to the main road with another passenger who also wanted to catch a bus. He had a small shop for hygiene articles in Bulawayo (our destination) and was importing nappies from Zambia for that. So I spent the next three hours with him and large bundles of nappies sitting on the side of a dusty road in no man’s land. The two buses that passed by during that time didn’t even slow down when we tried to wave them down. After three hours, a white Zimbabwean farmer stopped and, after laughing at us for sitting there in the middle of nowhere, took us all the way to Bulawayo. He turned out to be very kind and even brought me to the bus that I needed to catch from there. So, quite an adventurous journey.
But obviously I also did some other things beyond evaluating public transport systems in different East-African countries. It was a very exciting time to travel around Zimbabwe: Last November, Robert Mugabe had been forced by the military to resign from his presidency after 37 years in power. He was followed by his vice-president, and in two weeks, there will be the first (hopefully) fair elections in many years. While travelling, I was reading the book “The Fear” by Peter Godwin, a white Zimbabwean journalist and author reporting about the incidences after the 2008 elections: Mugabe had lost the elections to the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. However, he did not accept the defeat, but manipulated the results such that a re-run would be necessary. In the weeks before the re-run, he applied extreme violence against anyone who had voted for the opposition in the last election: Thousands were tortured, murdered, their homes burnt down. In the last decade, an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans left the country fleeing from this terror (out of around 16 million in total). In the book, Godwin gives very detailed descriptions of the violence that had happened, risking also his own life during the investigation. I found it very striking to realize that all this has happened only 10 years ago, meaning that the people I encountered on the streets today are the same who either suffered from or committed all this violence only a few years back.
The book was then also an excellent starting point to discuss with the various people I met about how they experienced the incidents. In Zimbabwe, I stayed mostly with locals from the Couchsurfing platform which was good to get to know different perspectives: For example in Victoria Falls, I stayed with two brothers, Martin and Chang, young black Zimbabweans. Martin is working at the local gas station as a manager. Chang, however, is a car mechanic who used to work and live in Harare until some months ago. As business was going worse and worse there, he moved to Victoria Falls, “waiting for an opportunity” to gain ground there. I spent quite a lot of time with him, and actually the term “waiting for an opportunity” seems to describe his professional life quite well: He went to South Africa for some months, “looking for an opportunity”, then back to Harare, now to the Falls. Somehow, I find this expression symptomatic for a lot of (especially) young people I met during my travels. They all have small businesses which run more badly then well, they are all waiting for better times to come. Officially, 95 % of Zimbabweans are unemployed, meaning that only 5 % have a formal job. Seeing that 50 % of Africans are below 18 years old, this situation will probably get worse in the coming years.
In Masvingo, I was hosted by an old white Zimbabwean couple who used to run a farm until they were expelled from it in the early 2000s when Mugabe pushed through a land reform overnight. This reform basically stated that all white people had “stolen” their land from black people, even if they owned it since generations or had bought it formally. As a consequence, most were driven off their farm some days later by mobs of armed veterans from the war for independence in 1980, without any form of compensation. That was also what had happened to the couple from Masvingo. When they told the story, they sounded very bitter and resentful, so that I asked them if they ever thought about emigrating from this environment that was (and in some parts still is) quite hostile against white people, even if they are Zimbabwean since several generations. But they said that they never really thought about emigrating as they still see Zimbabwe as the best place for them to be. I encountered this pride of their native country also with some other white people who had experienced similar stories. This is clearly different for the generation of their children who mostly live abroad to study or work. I was quite touched to hear all these stories first hand.
The badly managed land reform had severe consequences for the country: White farmers had owned most of the farmland in the country, with well-established production schemes and high harvests, making Zimbabwe the “bread basket” of Southern Africa. A lot of grain and maize was exported to neighboring countries in the years before the reform. Then the reform came, and almost all white farmers were chased away. Sometimes, they either destroyed all their machinery themselves, like tractors and windmills to pump groundwater. But in other cases, the equipment was destroyed by the war veterans who were chasing them away. Just to realize some months later, when they tried to take over the farm, that it was maybe not the best idea to destroy your water source if you need to water your crops. So in essence, Zimbabwe dropped from the “bread basket” straight into a severe food crisis and famine, having to import tons of food from the World Food Program to prevent millions of people from starving.
Also in the beginning of the 2000s, the Zimbabwean currency experienced ever-increasing levels of inflation, up to an incredible 11.200.000 % in 2008, the second-highest inflation rate ever. At that point, the Zimbabwean dollar was suspended, introducing the US dollar as one of the officially accepted currencies. However, most of the US dollars present in the country were flowing abroad quite quickly, partly through excessive spending of government officials, partly to China. When I arrived in Harare, I asked the taxi driver how life is going and he said “hard, we have no money”. While “no money” is in most other countries rather used in an abstract way, it is actually true in a literal sense in Zimbabwe: There is no physical money in the country. ATMs don’t give out any money anywhere in the country, meaning that as a tourist you have to bring all the money you want to spend with you in cash. To keep the economy running, the Central Bank introduced a bond note, which is basically fake money which can only be used within Zimbabwe. Officially, the exchange rate bond note:US-$ is 1:1, but as everybody who wants to trade with any place outside of Zimbabwe needs US-$, the black market exchange rates range from 1.2:1 to 1.45:1. So as a tourist, you can actually profit quite strongly from this situation by exchanging your US-$ to bond note and paying everything in bond note. Crazy.
The list of public services which declined in quality during the last years of the Mugabe era could be continued to the health sector, education, transport… In all these sectors, Zimbabwe used to have one of the best performances on the whole continent. Now, all of them lie scattered in pieces and it is somehow a wonder that the country is still functional in daily life. With this background, I find it surprising that ZANU PF, the ruling party and also Mugabe’s party, which is responsible for all this, still has good chances to win the elections in July. But I guess that there are some underlying dynamics in voter behavior which are hard to understand as a tourist travelling through the country only for a few days.