Thursday, December 06, 2007

Steaks and cricket, starvation and poverty: diary of a surreal week in Zimbabwe

from The Times Online

This week President Mugabe will claim international legitimacy when he sits down with world leaders at the EU-Africa summit. He will probably not be talking about the chaos he has created at home

Martin Fletcher in Harare

From the air you see thousands of acres of abandoned farmland reverting to nature. Our Air Zimbabwe flight lands in Harare at 9.30am, the only plane at a shiny new airport built in 2001 for non-existent tourists.

Foreign journalists face imprisonment if caught here. Heart thumping, I approach the visa desk with a passport full of stamps for places like Iraq and Somalia. If asked, I will claim to be an academic specialising in conflict resolution. Happily, I am waved through. This may be a brutal police state, but it is an incompetent one.

Surprisingly, you can still rent cars. Maps of Harare are unobtainable, however, as there is no paper left to print them on. I rely on memory to find the safe suburban guest house where I plan to stay, the capital's hotels being infested with government informers. I arrive to find it has no electricity and not a drop of water.

I also need cash, but it is in desperately short supply. The Government cannot print enough to cope with inflation. Banks offer only the official rate of Z$30,000 per US dollar. A friend rescues me with a brick-sized wad of Z$20 million at the black market rate of Z$1.1 million to US$1. The official rate exists only for Mugabe's cronies, enabling them to buy US dollars at a fraction of their real value and amass enormous wealth. The friend also finds me alternative accomodation with a white professional couple in a suburb less crippled by power cuts.

Outwardly Harare appears unchanged. Handsome homes in avenues with names like Argyll Street and Bath Road are ablaze with jacaranda, bougainvillea and brilliantly-coloured flamboyant trees. Then you notice the telltale signs of economic meltdown: the paucity of cars, empty petrol stations, broken traffic lights, blank billboards, legions of hitchhikers, roadside hawkers selling pathetic piles of firewood.

You also see great snaking queues outside banks and supermarkets. Cash-starved banks restrict withdrawals to Z$5 million per person, but Zimbabweans with jobs are desperate to cash and spend their weekly salaries before they lose their value. Supermarket shelves have been almost empty since draconian price controls made it impossible for producers to cover their costs, so occasional deliveries of bread or sugar cause frenzied excitement.

Over dinner my friend has to go into the neighbouring restaurant to light his cigarette because matches are hard to find. He pockets the sugar sachets that came with coffee. Even toilet paper is scarce. He has a fine line in black humour. “What did Zimbabweans have before candles?” he asks. “Electricity!” He occasionally drives 1,400km to Botswana and back to buy a carful of provisions.

Friday, November 16

Richard Mills, the Times photographer, flies in clutching a fishing rod and posing as a tourist. I spend the day meeting contacts who will pass us on to opposition activists around the country. That is the only way foreign journalists can operate. You assume telephones are tapped; you snatch surreptitious pictures. It is dangerous for people to talk to you, even anonymously, but they do so because they want the world to know what is happening.

A contact has organised a dinner in a restaurant. One guest arrives late — he had found eggs and a chicken being sold on the black market. Another discovers the restaurant has tonic water, so snaps up a dozen bottles. “We've become a nation of scavengers,” a third observes. And of broken families. The diners have 13 children between them. Eleven have emigrated, and the last two intend to.

Money dominates the conversation, and Zimbabweans have of necessity become proficient mental mathematicians. Someone produces a Zimbabwean one cent note printed in August 2006 and calculates that it is worth 0.0000007 of a US cent — the world's most worthless banknote. The dinner costs Z$102,950,000 — US$34,000 at the official rate. I can just see it on my expenses form.

Saturday, November 17

Most whites have access to foreign currency, enabling many to buy generators, water storage tanks, and food on the black market. Most blacks do not and live on crumbs, with the conspicuous exception of the few thousand who enjoy Mugabe's patronage.

We spend the morning in Mbare, a Harare slum, with two plucky black church workers who introduce us to destitute women who are forced into prostitution knowing that Aids will kill them. They show us parentless children living alone in brutal, run-down housing projects. They trick a cemetery official into opening his voluminous register by saying we are priests. In one week there were 244 funerals, mostly of 20 and 30-year-olds.

We offer our guides lunch. They order T-bone steaks. We realise they are half-starved. They tell us they scratch a living by making 16-hour bus rides to South Africa and buying soap or cooking oil to sell on the black market at a tiny profit. Later my friend ropes us into a cricket match on the well-tended, sunlit grounds of Prince Edward's School, a colonial legacy. Surreal.

Driving home, we swing past Garvin Close, a suburban cul-de-sac guarded by armed soldiers. This is the home of Mugabe's “special guest”, Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former Ethiopian President responsible for 1.5 million deaths during a 14-year reign of terror. Do he and Mugabe ever meet for a dictators' dinner, I wonder?

Sunday, November 18

Out to the township of Mabvuku where women dredge muddy water from the bottom of deep holes because their taps have been dry for months. A local doctor says cases of diarrhoea and dysentry are soaring. He also says that of the 65 doctors he trained with 50 now work abroad, and that he no longer sends patients to government hospitals because there are no doctors or drugs to treat them.

We leave for Bulawayo, 450km away. Outside Harare we pass endless barren fields. The Government is predicting the “mother of all agricultural seasons” on every radio bulletin, but there is a woeful shortage of fertiliser, seeds and irrigation. Nowadays, snorted a farmer in Harare, a “bumper crop” is one that reaches the height of a car's bumper.

Monday, November 19

We need more fuel and cash. Our hosts direct us to a suburban bungalow where two middle-aged white men siphon petrol from a plastic container. They visit Botswana twice a week and bring back 3,000 litres a time to sell to trusted customers. We also change US$100 into a carrier bag full of notes. The unofficial rate has risen to Z$1.3 million. It jumps towards the end of the month as the central bank buys up black market dollars to pay Zimbabwe's electricity and other foreign bills.

An English friend asked me to bring out a food parcel for his sister-in-law. We find her in a rundown area of north Bulawayo, one of the last whites still living there. Her spartan bungalow is ringed by wire fencing and padlocked gates. “Hallelujah!” she cries when she opens the bag.

Her story is sad and absurd. She and her husband, a farmer, lost all their savings to hyperinflation. They have no source of foreign currency. For weeks she has lived largely off porridge. “We have no water, no power, no food. You name it, we haven't got it,” she says. They still have land outside the city, but they grow nothing on it because it would be seized the moment they did.

We are shocked by Bulawayo. Once Zimbabwe's industrial hub, its factories are mostly now silent. Its power station is shut. Four of its five reservoirs are empty. The Government has ordered shops to stay open, but they have nothing to sell. “You'd think you were in shops that sell shelves,” our hostess remarked.

There is hardly any newsprint for the local paper, or bottles for beer. Pius Ncube, the city's outspoken archbishop, has left for Rome after being caught with a woman in a government sting. A hospital doctor we knew has left in disgust after a patient died for lack of saline drips.

A cavernous supermarket offers seasonings but no meat; jams but no bread; cereal but no milk; food for pets but precious little for humans. The manager says he must stay open or lose his licence. He cannot dismiss any of his 40 staff. He doubles their pay every month, but that fails to counter inflation. On the rare occasions he gets a delivery of sugar or cooking oil he gives each employee a small allocation to sell on the black market. “Customers used to come to buy whatever they needed. Now they buy whatever they can get,” he says.

For his own needs he visits South Africa once a month, or buys black market goods outside his shop at five times the official price. He has just put up Christmas decorations: “Although there's nothing to buy at least the spirit is there.”

Tuesday, November 20

The Bulawayo mayor, a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, gives us an interview. He has hung the statutory portrait of Mugabe behind his desk so he always has his back to the man.

A cleric takes us out to the bush where 500 families whose homes were destroyed by the Government live in abject poverty and rudimentary shelters unfit for animals. The children are barefoot, dressed in rags and play soccer with a ball made of rolled-up plastic bags.

Back in town, we watch policemen running from a supermarket, clutching packets of sugar, while several hundred people queue outside. They have free rein to supplement their pathetic salaries through plunder and extortion.

In the afternoon we visit a secondary school whose headmaster faces what he calls “challenges”. He has lost 6 of his 27 staff since February, and expects 5 more to leave when term ends in December. Some simply vanish overnight. They cannot survive on their US$11 monthly salary, he says. 200 of his 600 students are orphans; he reckons 100 are HIV-positive. Despite the risk, girls are selling their bodies to get food. How many of them? I ask “Almost the whole school.”

The day ends bizarrely. We dine at Nesbitt Castle — a Scottish baronial castle built by a local magnate in 1904 and now a hotel. It is full of stuffed animals, fading pictures of 1930s cricket teams, suits of armour. We eat minestrone soup, roast lamb and pear crumble in a magnificent candlelit dining room. The black staff sing happy birthday to a white guest at the only other occupied table. After dinner we drink scotch and play snooker. We could be back in Rhodesia.

Wednesday, November 21

At a rural clinic way out in the bush we find children who are literally starving. Most of the adult patients have Aids, and half are seriously malnourished. The doctor says the clinic sends the terminally ill home before they die because it is cheaper to send a live body on a bus than a dead corpse on a donkey cart.

Returning to Bulawayo we stop at a farm seized by Mugabe's henchmen a few years ago. The main house is now a roofless, windowless shell stripped of everything except the bathtub and a lavatory. Fetid black water sits in the bottom of the swimming pool.

The land around is littered with broken farm machinery, rusting silos, empty water tanks and fallen trees. Fields that once rippled with maize and wheat lie abandoned. Where the drive rejoins the road, a couple of ladies hawk a pathetic bowl of onions and tomatoes.

Back in Bulawayo we visit Ascot, the old racecourse. People cannot feed themselves now, let alone horses, and it has not been used in five years. The racetrack is overgrown, the rails broken, the stands empty and forlorn. Faded hoardings advertise the Castle $150,000 Classic and the 100,000 Guineas — prizes worth less than ten US cents each today.

On the edge of town we also find the old Formula One motor-racing course. There are no locks on the gates. The tyres that formed the crash barriers have been burnt. But the starter's podium survives, the grids are still visible on the track and the surface is fine. Nobody is around. The temptation is too great. I'll wager our Avis rental car has never moved so fast.

Thursday, November 22

Before dawn we drive 30 miles south. As the sun rises, we climb a vast dome of smooth rock. On top is a low granite tomb with a plaque inscribed: “Here Lie the Remains of Cecil John Rhodes”.

Surveying the spectacular panorama of rocky, bush-covered hills stretching away in all directions, I wonder what the 19th-century adventurer from Bishop's Stortford would make of today's Zimbabwe.

How long will it be before the European structure he imposed on this beautiful bit of Africa vanishes altogether?

“Mugabe,” Richard remarks as we leave, “is in serious danger of giving colonisers a good name.”

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