Big Brother’s African Brother #44: Harare, Zimbabwe, South Africa

Souvenir heaven in Harare

Harare, Zimbabwe
September 2002

(US $1 = 655 to 700 Z$)
Harare is a great, compact little city to chill out in – the closest we have
ever come to urban utopia. Tom loved it so much that he said he could
live here (praise indeed), wanting to stay another week. I’m sure this was
more to with the fact that he was slowly working his way through the endless
flavours of home-made ice cream in ‘Scoop’, indulging in freshly made
waffles, visiting the cinema for the princely sum of Z$180 (18 pence) and
spending hours shopping for dirt cheap souvenirs. I think it is every
accountant’s fantasy to find a country cheaper than India.

Of course, this utopia was only made possible by exchanging our hard
currency (US dollars) on the black market. We changed money at Edgars (an
upmarket department store) where officially the rate was 52 Zimbabwe dollars
to a US dollar. This rate is written on the receipt, but unofficially we
were given Z$655 to a dollar. The largest denomination bank note is Z$500
worth only 50 pence, so the wadge of notes received after changing US$100
was a nightmare to carry around, filling our day sack. Do not, under any
circumstances, change money on the street. Hustlers will offer Z$800 or
even 850, but even if you do receive bona fide notes (not a roll of blank
paper), they may threaten to report you to the police.

There is always some consolation in knowing that whenever our former tour
leader said a place wasn’t worth visiting, i.e. Harare where the truck only
stopped for one night in a camp site 20km out of the city centre, the
opposite is true. We were in raptures about Harare after visiting the
Avondale Centre, across the road from our hostel. We were just like
children given a free rein in a sweet shop. Overnight we had stepped into a
civilised first world of ample eating opportunities, a cinema, arts centre,
hairdressers, two well stocked supermarkets, post office and market selling
clothes, videos, CDs, soapstone sculptures and wood carvings. The
hairdressers was another revelation. For Z$850, I had a shampoo, hair cut
and free head massage. I could not believe that the country was in economic
meltdown, facing inner political turmoil, on the brink of disintegration.

However, day by day, the atmosphere subtly changed. The queues for bread
got longer, more and more beggars appeared on the street, white Zimbabweans
balked at the prices in the supermarkets and rumours of fuel shortages
abounded.

To collect our souvenirs dropped off by the truck, we took a taxi out to
Backpackers and Overlanders camp site. Our taxi driver was an ameniable
fellow, divulging information on the current state of Zimbabwe. To quote
his words:

“Robert Mugabe is killing us.”
“A hungry man is an angry man, liable to do anything.”

He said he felt no animosity towards British or Americans, contrary to the
Government’s warped view. Most Zimbabweans want Mugabe out and another
election called since the last election was rigged. The problem is that any
opposition candidates or supporters are denied food aid or conveniently
disappear. He agreed in principle to land reform, but what good was it when
the farm went to rack and ruin afterwards. He stressed that local people
were subsistence farmers, having no knowledge of how to run a commercial
farm. Mugabe was paying the war veterans and his supporters money to carry
out his dirty work, maintaining a tenuous grip on power through corruption
and intimidation. He also told us that there were long queues for mealie
meal and bread and we were not to venture out into the villages as people
were desperate and starving. He admitted he often felt afraid of working at
night as there were a growing number who had no qualms about using violence
to steal money and were not interested in justice.

Under normal circumstances, he cannot voice these views or even contemplate
supporting the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) as he fears for his
life.

Security is an issue here. In the white populated suburbs, all the houses
are enclosed by a walled or electric fenced compound. Additional barbed
wire is thrown in for good measure. A heavy metal gate across the entrance,
barred windows and doors, and a night watchman employed to guard the gate,
are mandatory.

A visit to the market at Avondale resulted in us returning with green
soapstone hippos and two abstract family sculptures for Z$1800. We made a
conscious effort to share the wealth by buying from three different stalls
after stall holders begged us to buy from them so that they could feed their
families. All the artists engrave their names on the bottom of the
sculptures.

In African Unity Square, we were hassled constantly to buy from their
stalls. The prices were much higher than Avondale but Tom fell in love
with a carved stone head of a man; his features were so detailed down to the
furrows in this forehead. It was a beautiful piece, 12 inches high,
weighing 6 kilos. We negotiated the price down from Z$7000 to Z$4000. All
of our souvenirs were sent back using air mail as the postage rates were
ridiculously cheap. One of our parcels weighed an awesome 30 kilos but only
cost US $30 to air mail.

If ever there was a case for long drop dunnies it was in the African Unity
Square public toilets. Forget dignity or modesty, I was confronted by
ladies with knickers round their ankles, bums hovering over filthy toilet
bowls. No cubicle doors, no toilet seats, no flush and no running water
from the sink taps. After all the bush camps and toilet stops on the side
of the road (I fondly remember waving to passing trucks in Tanzania), I had
no qualms about joining them having perfected my toilet bowl hover long ago.

To return to Avondale from Harare city centre, we often flagged down
unmarked taxis, but only if other locals got into the vehicle as well. Many
of these vehicles weren’t even unmarked taxis but respectable business men,
earning extra money on their way home from work. One of the vehicles we
flagged down was a plush 4×4 with a guy impeccably dressed in a crisp, clean
blue suit at the helm. I couldn’t believe it was worth his while to earn an
extra Z$125 by picking up five passengers.

The car before had appeared full; this did not deter one Zimbabwean from
hopping into the boot – he waved goodbye to the rest of us with a broad grin
on this face, pleased with his ingenuity.

One of our last suppers in Harare was at St Elmos who specialise in enormous
pizzas, pastas and salads, adding in a weird tomato-like fruit called
‘elmodew’ that tasted hot and sour. The Thai chicken salad was heavenly and
the Tandoori chicken pasta superb. However, it was noticeable that nearly
all the patrons were white. This fact made me feel distinctly
uncomfortable. I was wolfing down a lavish meal in first world luxury
served by courteous black Zimbabweans, while the country was descending into
chaos, violence reigned in the countryside and people were on the brink of
starvation. Suddenly, Harare was not so attractive anymore – it was
definitely time to leave.

In our travels in Africa, we have met many South Africans who refer to their country as
“having had the best years” or “the country has gone to the dogs now”. It
is only possible to enjoy this fantastic lifestyle at the expense of others
who work for paltry wages in poor conditions. That was how it felt in
Zimbabwe – there was such a gulf of wealth between black and white.
However, the tide was turning – it was the end of an era whether the whites
liked it or not.

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