Sunday, 19 May 2013

Final thoughts on Zimbabwe

I've been trying to understand what makes our good Zimbabwean friends so passionate about their country. I have no wish to be offensive, but want to be honest in trying to explore things and gain some insight. On arriving I said to our hosts that I wanted to observe and try to capture first impressions before everything became familiar, and I think they were a little surprised at what I 'saw' in those first days.

I have very mixed feelings about the countryside.

While there are some spectacular bits, like Vic falls and Lake Kariba (and the 'great Zimbabwe' area, plus Mana pools that we did not visit) most of the land I saw seemed flatish and scrubby with short trees, and was frequently described as being too poor to farm intensively. If you put me down there without telling me where I was then it could have been somewhere in Greece, India or Australia – there's nothing unique to say THIS IS AFRICA.

The countryside is very lightly populated, which is nice, but rubbish abounds by the roadside and exploring away from settlements etc. seems too difficult/dangerous. Yet at the same time, when we stayed at Lokuthula with the open woodland directly in front of us (and all kinds of warnings about not walking into it) there were times when it was quite lovely in the rays of the setting sun. Maybe the countryside did not seem so special because we only drove past it, and were never able to actually venture in? Perhaps if I'd grown up running freely through the bush I'd have a love for it too, but to do that we'd probably have to go on a safari, and that seems something that wealthy foreign tourists do that doesn't sit well with me. Yet in the end, if we ever were to get a feel for the place, it's probably what we'd have to do.

Despite some joking over here I'm not sure the 'endless summer' weather is really such an attraction either, since the words brutal and incredible were used to describe summer heat. Tales were told of getting up through the night for cold showers, returning to bed wet in order to try to cool down enough to sleep. Cue heat rash for Chris.

Houses for those with money are positively palatial compared to typical small British homes, but all have a highish wall, frequently topped with an electric fence or razor wire to keep out would-be thieves. This does create a bit of a sensation of being under siege, but the people we met were almost universally friendly and welcoming, from both sides of the wire: so at odds with the fortifications. While writing this up as we were travelling I instinctively left out the names of most people we met, not because I didn't want to recognise them, but because it felt like there could be repercussions from the trip and their interaction with us. Crazy, no? But despite never being seriously threatened, there was still something in the background that made me cautious, and there were a couple of occasions when our hosts were also cautious when dealing with people.

Most of the white guys we met were strong, directive alpha-male types, used to being in control and successful at what they did, and in discussion with them I think I started to understand the attraction.

Zimbabwe seemed to be a country of opportunity, and a place that someone could really make a difference. It has its troubles: apart from the immediate issue of political instability and corruption, there is the severe difficulty of obtaining finance for business since the credit structure has broken down, and that has the obvious knock-on effect. In addition there is no guarantee that at some stage everything you've worked for might not be taken away by some greedy or jealous individual. Yet these people are resourceful and determined to make a difference personally, and it's that side that seemed to me the strongest factor. It really felt like a place where I, personally, could move and make a real difference, rather than my tiny bit of work being buried in among the millions of others, all doing the same.

Now, Chris tells me that I think too much about places, jump to conclusions and try to understand people with insufficient information. That's probably all true, but I'm pretty sure this is why Zimbabwe/Rhodesia (and it is still appropriate to call it by that name, since much of the good there IS Rhodesian, and not Zimbabwean) calls to it's children so strongly. And there is a different atmosphere there, spiritually too, where, despite all the bad things that have happened, people are still feely able to express their Christian faith. There has been amazing restraint and forgiveness practiced, and it's hard to take part in that kind of thing without being deeply affected by the power of God. There was also a healthy understanding of suffering and hardship, of discipline and perseverance, that would shame many in the UK with our attitudes of self-comfort, pleasure and protection.

Could I live there?

Possibly. The hardest part is the fortress approach to living and the apparent separation between black and white. These, I think, are not really divided along lines of colour, but of wealth, since the majority of black people are not wealthy. It is likely also that re-possessing farms and other assets in the name of equality will not alter this divide, but will instead deepen the divide, if the practice of scrabbling to acquire and retain wealth does not change to one of investment and employment of ordinary people en masse. Judging by the number of new, big and shiny cars we saw, there is no lack of money in Zimbabwe for a small number, and I noticed few white faces driving these new cars.

We understood many English that move out have no difficulty adapting to the lifestyle, particularly the idea of employing locals as servants, but it was something we both struggled with, even knowing each one employed was providing income to feed and house a family. It is easy to come in with a western first world attitude of 'freedom at any cost', both wishing to set everyone 'free' and to display indignation, but that simply wouldn't be appropriate because both cultural and synergistic reasons have helped create this situation.

There's still so much I don't know and haven't seen either.

I'd certainly go back, and there's still stuff to see that we didn't visit, but if I did I'd like to try to become a bit more immersed in the culture if my nerves could take it, because that's hard work – on both sides - in order to understand more and extrapolate less. Despite my determination not to 'bring stuff back' we have a small bottle containing a few ounces of African soil upstairs now, and I wonder if that's also symbolic of anything?

And I know we'd love to see M&M again on their home turf.

This may get re-visited/corrected, since the visit was over only 2 weeks ago, and we are still processing much of what we experienced.

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