I was asked “what is Zimbabwe like?” This is my answer…
Growing up, I heard two stories about Zimbabwe, my country of birth. There was the story that I saw on BBC news and CNN, a pariah state, notorious on the News for reasons that I never truly understood. I saw interviews with President Robert Mugabe, in which he was depicted as an old, screeching, senile dictator. I saw the headlines: HIV crisis, hyperinflation, land reform and rigged elections. This was not the image that I had come to embrace, but rather it was the image that I knew my friends had embraced. But there was also another story, one of a country that was once full of potential, but did not quite understand what to do with it. I saw the Zimbabwe of my relatives, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents, living their lives just as I had been in the UK, with dreams and hopes and passions. I saw a people who had been heartbroken by their president, who was once their hero, but eventually became their tyrant. The conflict between these two Zimbabwe’s made me want to see for myself. I wanted to know the story through my eyes – no filters and no opinions. Last month, I had my chance to discover the country for myself, and specifically the city of my birth, Harare.
Landing at Harare international airport was not what you would expect of a “broken” country. The atmosphere was mild and rather relaxed for an “international” airport. This calmness, I would find, was a reflection of the city itself. The airport was clean and tidy, and there were a few Zimbabwean people sat around a bar and a group of white Zimbabweans around a table nearby. Once again, this social segregation ended up being another key feature of Harare. Despite a long wait to get through immigration control, it was refreshing to hear the authorities speaking in the same language that my mother spoke at home. It was different, but it made me feel as if this was a country where for once I would be part of the “norm”.
We drove to my mother’s family home in an area called Glen Nora, and all through the drive I could hear my mother talking to her sister about how much things had deteriorated. They reminisced about certain areas that were once respectable, but were now covered in litter. After sleeping at home, we checked into a hotel the next day. This was for two main reasons. Firstly, there had recently been a cholera outbreak in the city, so we didn’t want to dodge tap water for the entire trip. Secondly, we agreed that both me and my mother were not willing to sleep at home. I guess you could say that we had been too westernised to sleep in a house that didn’t have Wi-Fi. The hotel we stayed in was once seen as a “posh” hotel, hence why my mother booked it, but when we got there, we realised very quickly that the hotel had deteriorated so much that it would have been better to stay at a Holiday Inn Express. This deterioration was not just the case in our hotel, decay was coursing through the veins of Harare. Every building in the city centre represented a shell of a previously functional version of itself. Skyscrapers that lined the main street were crumbling on the inside, just like Zimbabwe had been crumbling for over 20 years. There was also an abundance of shops, some where licensed shops, while most were stalls that were set up in any free spaces. For example, I once noted how impressive the city post office building looked, but when we went inside, we saw that the building was full of vendors selling phone chargers, dresses, shoes, food and money transfers.
I quickly learned that Harare was cheapest for the locals, who knew the nature of the financial situation. After hyperinflation peaked in 2009, the finance minister decided to “dollarise” the economy, meaning Zimbabwe adopted the US dollar. This provided temporary stability, but that’s all it was; temporary. Eventually, the government, cash-less from an unproductive economy, started printing bond notes which were meant to substitute as an unofficial currency. This financial situation made it necessary for us to transfer money basically every day, and this made daily life expensive. Zimbabwe is a country where organisation in the system is weak, yet transactions happen almost constantly, strictly cash only.
On one hand, Harare was a city of disillusionment, and broken hopes, but on the other hand, the city harboured a life force that was overwhelming. Allegedly, the name Harare comes from the Shona phrase ‘Havarare’, which means ‘they don’t sleep, and to some degree this is true. Walking through the city at night with my cousins, I saw streets filled with people. It made me wonder what could possibly be happening at night in a city that has been stagnant for so many years. Harare is many things: tired, crumbling and anarchic; but it is by no means lifeless. Walking through it, it is very easy to see why it is still considered a “city”. After all, a city is not just a collection of buildings, it is a collection of people, voices and stories, all contributing to a unique culture that reflects the shared energy of the city folk. The people of Harare are approachable and mostly harmless. Crime is not something that is endemic – just don’t wave your bundles of money in the air. People are open and informal with strangers, probably because it is part of Shona culture to greet strangers the way you would greet a friend. The sellers in the markets say “$1 for 1 cup of beans” and then they give you an overfilled cup worth of beans with an extra handful, as a thank you for the transaction. If you are from Harare, you are also likely to come across friends and family almost everywhere you go, because the Shona definition of family extends to the farthest corners of relation – a distant cousin will still be called a brother or sister.
It must also be stressed that Harare is not a microcosm of the rest of Zimbabwe, in the same way that London doesn’t represent all of England. I heard from many people that other cities were not in the same state of deterioration: Bulawayo was still beautiful, and Mutare was also still decent. The problem with Harare is one of corruption and mismanagement. The money is going into the wrong people’s hands. Perhaps this is the one key way in which the city represents the entire Zimbabwe situation. After hearing that Harare was worse than other cities, I started to think about how despite the years of corruption, much of Zimbabwe is still beautiful.
Finally, there was the social segregation. Harare is not a “poor” city, it is an unequal city. Take a drive through Borrowdale Brooke and Sam Levy village shopping centre, and you will find top class luxury living. Here, the population is more diverse – there were far more white and brown faces than before. This shows something that still hasn’t completely changed from the days of segregation. In earlier times, the white population was saturated with wealth while the black population was cripplingly poor. Today, the situation is not the same but is still similar. Before, every rich man in Zimbabwe was white, but now, it is only that not all rich Zimbabweans are white, but most white Zimbabweans are relatively rich. This was just an observation I made. A trend that you might see in countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa that have come out of apartheid is that liberation made opportunities become nationwide, yet this didn’t redistribute wealth, it just meant that more black people could become rich. This is what I saw in the Borrowdale area: rich black families in a traditionally white neighbourhood.
You may wonder why I chose to write about this. Well, Africa is often tarnished by the western media, sometimes unfairly. Of course, there is poverty in Africa, but there is also wealth. The BBC rarely ever talks about the recent success of Rwanda, or the economic growth of Ethiopia, or the stabilisation of Somalia. I want this article to say to you that Zimbabwe is like any other country – complex and diverse. You cannot generalise countries just because they are African. If you want to understand Africa, then forget everything you have been told and visit them with an open heart.
At the end of my stay, we drove back down the airport road, and I reflected on the observations that I had made. Looking out my car window, I saw a distant silhouette of the elegant skyline; a city of beautiful trees and beautiful people, of skyscrapers that stood tall but were collapsing from the inside. I saw the flag hung outside the airport building, and it waved softly, gesturing back towards the city with a brooding calmness to it – as if it were alive, looking over the land of Zimbabwe, and mourning the country that could have been.