Vic Falls or Bust – Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Vic Falls or Bust
Zimbabwe

The movie theater was hot and stuffy, but I hardly noticed. I wasn’t really there. I was hanging out in suburban Detroit with Eminem and Kim Basinger.

As Eminem was singing, “You gotta lose yourself in the music,” I was lost in the movie 8 Mile. I have always liked going to the movies while traveling for this reason. For two hours, I wasn’t on the road. The familiar images on the screen transported me to a place I knew better than any guide book writer.

It wasn’t even a good movie. Yet, somehow the story of a white kid growing up in an all black neighborhood and trying to make it in the all black rap industry made me wistful for a home I hadn’t seen in a long time.

The movie ended, the house lights went up, and I was ripped from the comforts of suburban America, thrust back into unfamiliar territory. It was only then that I noticed how sweltering the theater was, how bad it smelled of body odor, and how mine was the only white face in a packed theater of Zimbabweans.

Outside, the weather was not so warm. Spring had brought freezing rain to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city, and I bundled up to walk the streets of downtown. I was basically just trying to kill time. There wasn’t much to see in the mainly industrial city, and yet I was stuck there without a way to move on. Earlier that day, I had been to the train station to inquire about the night train to Victoria Falls. However, I was informed that all train service in Zimbabwe had been suspended because of a fuel shortage. The same was true of the buses. In fact, looking around, the streets of Bulawayo were mostly devoid of any traffic.

The fuel shortage was just a symptom of the greater economic crisis that had been plaguing Zimbabwe. People I met on buses and in restaurants talked of how prosperous Zimbabwe once was, how it used to be a dynamic, thriving place to live. In recent years, however, the country’s economy has ground to a catastrophic halt. The reason is quite simple. As one taxi driver told me, “Mugabe is running this country into the ground.”

Indeed, that was the common sentiment on the Zimbabwe street. Since wresting power from the white minority in 1980, Robert Mugabe has ruled the country with an increasingly heavy iron fist. A committed Marxist, Mugabe has silenced opposition voices, and placed stringent limitations on press freedom. In 2000, Zimbabwe began a land reform program that has elevated the country’s economic crisis.

Zimbabwe once had a thriving economy based largely on the cash crops of tobacco and coffee, and had a food surplus. Most of the large commercial farms were owned by a small minority of white farmers. However, during the land grab, white farmers were forced to flee their farms, and their prosperous land was divided up by peasant subsistence farmers. Without the income from the country’s cash crops, the economy crumbled, and Zimbabwe had to rely on foreign aid to feed its people for the first time. Inflation rose to 700 percent.

It would have been more profitable for me to blow my nose with a Zimbabwe dollar bill rather than invest it on a tissue. The official exchange rate had the Zim dollar at 50 to one U.S. dollar, but the black market was offering 5,000 to one. Entering the country via the land border with South Africa, I met a shady looking man who said he was a money changer. He led me to a utility closet of a nearby gas station which he claimed was his “office,” and we proceeded with the transaction. For $100 U.S. he gave me four cinderblock sized stacks of 100 Zim dollar bills that barely fit into my backpack. To complete the deal, he also gave me a few $5,000, $10,000, and $20,000 dollar bills.

These large denominations hadn’t existed in Zimbabwe before the economic crisis. Due to rampant inflation, the government was forced to hastily print these notes that looked a lot like Monopoly money. The bills even had a two-year expiration date on them, when the government optimistically hoped inflation would be back to normal.

Turning a $20,000 bill over, I saw that the back side was blank and immediately suspected that the money changer had ripped me off. However, a man on my bus assured me that the bills were legitimate. In an effort to save money, the government only printed one side of the bills.

I had more than just time to kill on the streets of Bulawayo. I had a backpack full of nearly worthless Zimbabwe dollars that I couldn’t exchange for U.S. dollars. All the buses and hostels would only take hard currency, so I had half a million Zim dollars to get rid of on the streets before I left the country. I’ve never felt so rich.

Spending that much local currency, however, would prove harder than I thought. The movie that I watched cost 25 cents U.S. I surfed the internet for an hour which set me back 30 cents. Hoping to spend some cash, I visited a few supermarkets, but found only aisles of bare shelves punctuated by a few bags of staples such as rice and bread. It was reminiscent of stories I’d heard from Soviet Russia.

Besides a lack of goods in the stores, and streets empty of cars, I noticed something else missing from Bulawayo. In a country with a sizable white minority, the only other white person I saw in Bulawayo was the old woman who owned the hostel where I was staying. A third generation white Zimbabwean, she waxed nostalgically about a better time in Zimbabwe’s history.

“Since the land reform,” she said, “the country has gone to hell.” She told me stories of friends, white farmers, who were attacked in the middle of the night by peasants seeking to forcibly take their land. “All the whites are scared. Most have left for Australia or the U.K. But we won’t fit in there. We are not Australian or British. We are Zimbabwean.”

She had a point. The whites in Zimbabwe are just as African as I am American. While there was a large disparity between blacks and whites in Zimbabwe, taking land from whites who have been farming it for generations does not seem like a viable solution. If Native Americans came to power in the U.S. and began taking back large Iowa corn farms, surely people would be up in arms.

The old woman who owned the hostel told me that many white Zimbabweans had moved to Victoria Falls. Realizing that tourism from the Falls is the country’s biggest income earner, the government has taken great measures to ensure this region is relatively stable. Most tourists fly directly to the airport at Vic Falls, stay long enough for a photo in front of the cascade, then fly home. This is all they will see of Zimbabwe.

“My son,” the woman said, “was forced off his land a year ago. Now he owns a hostel in Vic Falls.” She made a reservation for me to stay at her son’s hostel, and arranged for a tourist minivan to take me the six hours from Bulawayo to Vic Falls for which I would have to pay the extortionate price of $20 U.S.

Zimbabwe’s land reform policy has not only hurt white farmers. The whole country has suffered from the resulting economic crisis. The next morning, I found myself in a van with four other tourists from Mauritius. It was an overcast day, the sky the color of ash, and the countryside we passed looked brown and withered. At one point, we must have been a ways behind a grain truck that was either overflowing or had a hole in it because, for a few miles, a steady stream of corn kernels littered the side of the road. As we rounded a curve, we came upon a troop of baboons who had ventured from the surrounding forest and were gathering the kernels from the side of the road. A mile down the road, we passed through a small village. As we slowed, I could see many of the villagers, mostly women and children, bent low, sifting though the roadside dirt, and collecting corn kernels in rusty metal bowls.

If I had visited Zimbabwe a decade earlier, I was told many times, I would have seen a much rosier place than the harsh, depressed country that drove whites to expatriate, and people to forage for sustenance like baboons. Many friendly Zimbabweans, both black and white, that I met were proud of their country and embarrassed that I was seeing it in its worst state. I wish I could have offered them am easy solution to their problems, but, as a traveler, that’s not what I was there for. I was there to see the country and to try and understand its problems. And to tell others about it.


Matt Brown recently lived in a rural village in Guinea, West Africa for two years where he taught English with the Peace Corps. He has lived in and traveled to 60 countries on six continents. A freelance writer, his work has appeared in many online travel websites as well as the magazines Transitions Abroad and Travel Africa. He is currently working on a master’s in journalism at San Jose State University. Contact Matt at matterikbrown at yahoo dot com.

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