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Sunday, February 17 , 2019, 6:05 am | Fair 49º

 
 
 
 

Zimbabwe a Study in Contrasts with a Glimmer of Hope

15 years after first trip, a visitor finds a warm reception amid an eerie emptiness

The path to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe was eerily quiet. The last time I was here was 1994. I recall running to and from one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World to avoid encounters with the cornucopia of street hustlers, beggers, scam artists and salesmen. I remember finally trading my T-shirt for a hippo carving. Fifteen years later those streets were silent.

I brought my wife with me this time. With the country in the midst of a downward economic and political spiral, I expected the streets to be much worse. Yet, only one man approached us; his scraggly salt-and-pepper beard and tattered clothing accentuated the desperation in his dark eyes.

“Where are you from,” he asked calmly. “I’m an American from California,” I told him. “Why do you come here,” he asked, his curiosity growing.

I told him I’d been here before, that I’ve been traveling back and forth to Africa for 25 years. I said Zimbabwe was a beautiful country, maybe a little forgotten, certainly misunderstood.

The man, in his late 30s, was all smiles from that point forward, grateful we had traveled to his country and had ignored all the negative media reports about his southern African nation.

“Please tell others to come,” he said, and then he was gone, making his way to a trail shared by Zimbabweans and elephants.

Topping the List

In 2009, Parade Magazine ranked Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe the world’s No. 1 dictator in the world, just ahead of Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il.

Mugabe, 85, was a frequent political prisoner in the 1960s and ‘70s during the Rhodesian Bush War. After the war and when Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe, Mugabe became its leader and at the time was hailed a hero. He has ruled continuously since 1980.

Since 1998, however, Mugabe has expropriated thousands of white-owned farms, fueled inflation by printing hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwean dollars, and harassed and intimidated political opponents of the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC.  Zimbabwe’s economic downfall has been accompanied by oil and food shortages. Since the widespread seizure of white-owned farms, agriculture production has plummeted in what was once known as “the bread basket” of Africa. One woman we talked to at a safari lodge said food shortages were so bad that her family had to boil poisoned fruit for three days straight so they could eat it.

Last September, a power-sharing agreement was brokered by then-South African President Thabo Mbeki. Under the deal, Mugabe remains president while the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai is prime minister. The MDC controls the police, and Mugabe still controls the army.

Even though life has improved slightly, there are plenty of reports of Mugabe forces trying to strong-arm the political opposition into granting amnesty for past crimes through the use of abductions, detentions and torture.

Poached Out

Hwange National Park, located in western Zimbabwe, was a virtual ghost town for wildlife. Late-season rains had kept the pans full of water and the savannah lush, but even typical plains game animals like impala, steenbok, zebra and kudu were eerily scarce.

This was my 13th trip to Africa, and I’ve never seen a south or east African country so devoid of plains game, significant prey for lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas and painted dogs.

Poaching has long been a problem in Africa; the elephant for its ivory, the black and white rhino for its horns and various game for the bush meat trade. Since Zimbabwe’s descent into economic ruin, poaching has come to the forefront — not only for economic reasons but because people are starving.

The tool of choice for poachers is the wire snare. Many animals get trapped in them, even though it was intended for another species. My wife and I watched a zebra with a snare wrapped around its neck. It had tried removing it by stepping on it with its hooves to pull it off, only succeeding in peeling the skin from its neck. With a raw, bloody neck, the lone zebra had been ostracized from the herd; without protection it was only a matter of time before it lost its life. Arguably, the most notable and misunderstood species caught in the insidious snares is the critically endangered African painted dog.

Education seems to be the best way to combat the problem, especially with young Zimbabweans. The Painted Dog Conservation Society, located on the outskirts of Hwange, has received financial aid from international supporters and has created a large interpretive area for education. It’s also a rehabilitation facility for injured and orphaned painted dogs. All the enclosures for rehabilitated dogs are made from confiscated poacher’s snares, as are bracelets and snare-wire animal sculptures. Proceeds from the sales benefit the artisans, and raise awareness and funds to further support anti-poaching efforts in Zimbabwe.

Self-Sustainability

Ephraim killed the engine 20 yards from shore, the small boat gliding up to the red earth that surrounds Lake Kariba. Immediately, inquisitive, wide-eyed children huddled around our boat, their smiles and big brown eyes affixed to our every movement.

As we stepped ashore the children jockeyed for who was going to hold our hands while we visited the fishing village of the indigenous Batonga people. Subsisting on bream, tiger fish, catfish and other species, the Batonga fared better than most when starvation engulfed Zimbabwe from 2004 to 2008.

Behind one of the many mud huts, a man in tattered clothes started his morning fire, except he used Zimbabwean dollars to get the blaze going. The 5 billion-dollar note was burned half way when he turned and looked at my wife, Lori, and asked, “Souvenir?”

These days it’s about all their money is good for. Burning Zimbabwean currency is illegal. Super inflation has snuffed the life out of Zimbabwe’s economy, rendering their currency worthless. In its place, Zimbabweans have adopted U.S. dollars and South African rand.

When the 5 billion-dollar note was ash, the man looked up and smiled.

“Zimbabwe is a safe place to come to,” he said. “We want the world to know we’re a peace-loving people.”

— Local freelance writer Chuck Graham is editor of Deep magazine.

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