Originally published June 30th, 2008
Because I prefer to write content that will remain relevant for more than a few days, I don’t usually write about current affairs. We’re also coming out of World Domination Week, with the launch of my manifesto and everything related to that.
But I decided to postpone what I had planned to write about today, and tell you about Zimbabwe instead. In case you weren’t aware of what’s happening over there, here’s the latest news courtesy of the New York Times.
Two years ago I spent a week hanging out in the Victoria Falls area, on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Even back then, it wasn’t hard to see how bad things were getting.
The Zambian side was classic Africa, in all of the good ways. There was a lot of noise and activity in the market. Everyone was busy going about their business, and the kids were friendly to strangers without asking for much. If you’re looking for a great African experience, I thoroughly recommend visiting Zambia.
The Zimbabwean side, on the other hand, was pathetically sad. Beautiful wood carvings that should have been about $40 elsewhere in Africa were going for $10. The country has had the world’s highest inflation rate for several years now, recently estimated at more than 100,000% by the Sydney Morning Herald.
Speaking of Sydney, one seller ran up to me with a $20 Australian note that an Australian tourist had given him. He didn’t know how much it was worth, but he wanted to trade it for U.S. dollars—any amount would be fine, he told me.
To buy whatever they can find, Zimbabweans and foreigners carry around huge sacks of money, and because it’s an all-cash economy, large purchases may require a taxi to help carry the cash. Not that there’s much to buy—while buying a bottle of water one afternoon, I wandered through a twilight-zone grocery store. The store had a fair amount of people in it, but very few food items on the shelves.
I am not trying to depress you. There are a lot of good things happening in Africa. But while most Zimbabweans are suffering, it doesn’t seem fair to ignore the problems over there.
For a couple of nights on the Zimbabwean side, I ended up sleeping in a hut that was part of a guesthouse run by white South Africans. They were pretty much the only ones in the area who were doing okay.
One night I took a taxi back to my hut, and like I normally do, I asked the driver how things were in Zimbabwe. Asking the question like that is usually a good way to open up conversation without saying anything provocative, and it allows the respondent to say whatever they want.
My driver, though, wasn’t messing around. “Are you kidding?” he said. “Take a look around and see for yourself.”
I demurred from answering him directly, saying something non-political about how I had met a lot of nice Zimbabweans, it was a pretty place, etc. But he wasn’t buying it.
“Let me tell you, Robert Mugabe is a f—ing criminal. He should be thrown in prison for destroying our lives.”
I was pretty shocked at that statement. Most Africans I’ve known don’t usually drop the f-bomb in casual conversation like that, and even fewer would speak so openly about politics with a foreigner.
But my driver, it seemed, had seen enough not to care. I asked him what he hoped to do about the problems. He said was trying to leave the country as soon as possible.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked him.
“Anywhere, man,” he told me. “Anywhere but Zimbabwe.”
The $1 Million Dollar Diet Coke
The afternoon before I left, I headed over to the Victoria Falls Hotel do some journaling in front of the great view. I bought a Diet Coke, and when it came time to leave, the barman asked if I wanted my bill in U.S. or Zimbabwean currency. I had an enormous stack of Zimbabwean money in my bag, so I told them to price it that way.
I did a double-take as the guy put the bill on the table. The total was 800,000 Zimbabwean dollars.
Most of my Zimbabwean notes were in denominations of 10,000 and 20,000, so the barman and I began the laborious process of counting up to 800,000. I tipped the guy 200,000 dollars (!), bringing the total to a cool $1 million Zimbabwean dollars, or a few bucks in U.S. currency. It was funny and sad at the same time, and I called it my One Million Dollar Diet Coke.
Heading back to the Zambian side that afternoon for my flight, I said goodbye to the beautifully sad country. On the way over from Zambia the first time, the Zimbabwean customs officials had made a big deal about going through the truck I was riding in to make sure we weren’t bringing any meat or agricultural products across the border. Since there isn’t much on the Zimbabwean side, the Zimbabweans who can afford it tend to hop across the border to do their grocery shopping. Because it insists there are no food shortages or inflation problems, the Mugabe regime has made this practice illegal.
On the way back, though, there weren’t any customs checks, and the Zambian immigration officer waved me through without looking at my passport. Apparently, nothing is leaving Zimbabwe except Zimbabweans, so they weren’t worried about anyone smuggling something across the border. Judging from what I saw in the grocery store that day, there wasn’t much to take.
Back in my little part of the world, everything’s great. There are several thousand people reading the manifesto, and lots of bloggers linking in to the conversation. You guys rock! Please keep posting your comments.
Today I’m in transit to my next overseas adventure, and I’m excited about that too. I’ll be going to several new countries on this trip, including two that I am especially looking forward to visiting for the first time.
But when you hear the latest news about Zimbabwe, be sure and pay attention to that as well. It’s worth caring about.
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Image by Lee