Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dirty Money and Southern (African) Hospitality

My last stop before returning to Johannesburg was the often newsworthy and politically volatile country of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe, known as Rhodesia until the end of the civil war in 1980, is still run by one Robert Gabriel Mugabe, one of Africa's most notorious "Big Men." Since the toppling of Big Men in north and west Africa seems to be a trend of late, Captain Safety was a bit nervous about this foray of mine. But I was assured by native Zimbabweans and some of Sister's friends that as long as I kept my mouth shut I probably wouldn't end up in a Zimbabwean prison somewhere. So I ditched my copy of Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, made plans with Sister's friends living in Mutoko, and read a somewhat worthless chapter on Zim in The Lonely Planet before crossing the Mozambique - Zimbabwe border on April 6th.

Zim was, by far, my favorite African country I visited, perhaps my favorite country in the last 13 months. It has stunning scenery, gracious people, and it was the backdrop for my final reflections on this last year + of peregrination.

I started of in Harare, the capital, with some of Sister's Princeton friends who are starting an NGO focused on treating bilharzia, a waterborne parasite that can cause serious organ damage. Laura, Sister's Princeton roommate and fellow Mississippian, took me to the African bush for a few days to see the Methodist mission and community where they carry out most of their work. We returned to Harare a few days later, I bid the team adieu, and sojourned south to the Great Zimbabwe ruins before turning west to the city of Bulawayo and Matopos National Park.

Bilharzia can be found in freshwater sources all over Africa
  • Ever wonder where old, dirty American money goes when Americans think it is too foul to be of actual use? Zimbabwe. Don't ask me how, exactly, it gets there (a fascinating journey, to be sure), but it does. A few years ago Zim's own dollar suffered so much inflation as to be completely useless--the 10 trillion (yes, with a T) dollar note was worth about $1 US. To fix the inflation problem they just switched over to the US dollar and let us control the inflation for them. The result is that the entire economy runs on old, gross US currency.
  • Turns out that even countries who don't use their own currency don't really like the penny either. Instead of using US change, anything less than $1 US is quote in South African rand (about 7R = $1USD). This makes going to the grocery store a somewhat hilarious adventure. Upon my first purchase of wine, bread, and peanut butter the register read $10.18. I handed the clerk a $10 bill, a dime, and one South African rand. He turned his nose up at the dime and insisted on 2R for the change. I started to argue that 2R is actually worth closer to $.30, but soon recognized this would be a futile argument.
  • What I learned the next day was that the easy way around the confusion was to just round up your purchase with lollipops, gum, or a box of TicTacs. For example, for a $10.18 purchase you just hand the clerk $11 and ask for a handful of lollipops. This reminded me of going to the bank as a kid and the teller would give you a free sucker. This kind of arrangement quickly changed my attitude about shopping, although I am sure much to dentists' lament.

  • Day trip to a site outside of Harare with cave paintings and a great view

  • Some estimate that up to 25% of the population are informants for ZANU PF, Mugabe's ruling party. This figure means that extreme caution should be exercised with anyone who wants to talk politics with you. My friends in Mutoko even practice such caution with their 15 year old neighbor who complains about being a poor farmer and wanting political change. It's hard not to encourage the kid to fight for real democracy, but doing so jeopardizes their work as well as their life not in jail.

  • Fishing near the Mission outside of Mutoko

  • I hitched my way to and through Matopos National Park, a gorgeous park with rock outcroppings and the final resting place of Rhodes, the man who lent Rhodesia his name, endowed the Rhodes Scholarship program, and founded the de Beers Diamond Mining Company. The park is stunning and if it's location was in the US, would be as popular as Yosemite. Instead, it was nearly vacant. I was the only camper in the entire park for the two days I was there. Others came for an afternoon or spent a night in one of the lodges, but Elbert (my tent) and I were alone in the campgrounds. I enjoyed the solitude, but couldn't shake a strong sense of isolation.
  • One afternoon I hitched a ride with a group of older white Zimbabweans, who promptly insisted I join them for their afternoon braii (cookout). I hardly met a Zimbabwean, white or black, who didn't invite me to a meal or give me their number in case I ran into any trouble. "Please tell people how nice Zimbabwe is," was a frequent refrain, as if I alone could bring back tourists. People I met were incredibly gracious, which made hitchhiking a rather pleasant endeavor and the source of some engaging conversations.

  • Elbert (my tent) pitched in Matopos

  • The older gent in this particular party told me a story of how his bank account one day had a figure with 27 zeros behind it ("and that was after the government lopped off 3 zeros to try and 'solve inflation'!"), and the next day the bank account had nothing. Not one cent. No one knew where the money went, no one cared. People, white and black, referred to this time as "when things got bad," but would often follow these stories up with, "when things get better..." Stunning optimism and resolve, if you ask me.
All-in-all, I found Zim fascinating to travel through and not once did I feel threatened or unsafe. I loved feeling like the lone tourist, and reveled in the conversations with curious locals (One gent: "How is it that I find a lone lady in the Zimbabwean bush!? Where, pray tell, are you from and how did you get here?" He then proceeded to take a picture of me and my tent, as if we were as rare as the elusive white rhino, "No one's going to believe this!").

Sadly, I am in Johannesburg now, due to make my final return flight tonight. I won't stop for long, though my grand peregrination is over. I'll make my way north to start rehearsing for the Munny & the Cameraman tour (Maine, Boston, NYC, Philly, and DC are all already on the docket), which, with any luck, should carry me through July. The next step from there is still uncertain, but it will come, it always does.

This is my final entry from abroad, but I'll make a final post on figures and my booklist for anyone interested. It's impossible to accurately sum up the last 395 days, so instead I'll leave you with a quote from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which I read somewhere along the shores of Lake Malawi:

" 'I could tell you of my adventures--beginning from this morning,' said Alice a little timidly: ' but it is no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.' "

Sunset from Pomongwe Summit in Matopos National Park

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