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The Global Erosion of Zimbabwe July 10, 2008

Posted by Reginald Johnson in Africa, African-American, Culture, Government, International, Life, Minority Issues, News, Travel.

When you ask most people what do they think about Africa, they turn to issues like AIDS, starvation, and corruption. They can quickly tell you about the Rwandan genocide. And thanks to “The Last King of Scotland,” they can tell you about Idi Amin’s regime. Amin’s death camps in Uganda were horrific – far beyond the small snipits of what you saw in the movies. They didn’t show how the corpses of his enemies had been bound with wire and pressed into grotesque bales that were forklifted onto trucks.

Here lately, people have quickly go to ‘the Zimbabwe Problem.’

It seems funny to some that Zimbabwe has become a problem for democracy in Africa. The nation of Zimbabwe was once considered one of the southern jewels of Africa.

Those who have traveled there can vividly recall the old glory the nation once held. I traveled there in 2005. It may be true that in the three years since I’ve traveled there, some things may not have changed, but there are a few things that definitely have gone through a transformation.

I saw two Zimbabwes.

I saw the beautiful landscape and breath-taking sunsets. I went to areas where I saw the grasses of the veld waving in the African breeze. I had the joyful scent of millet beer caressing my nostrils. I had my turn churning the coals of the cooking fires. I even had the pleasure of hearing the music of native Zimbabwean Oliver Mtukudzi blaring out of dilapidated speakers from a nearby boombox (although I had no idea who he was and furthermore did not know I would see him in concert in Washington, D.C. about a year and a half later). I witnessed smiles attached to bodies that had put in a full day’s work – and heard warm and friendly hellos from people near and far.

That was one Zimbabwe. The other was less picturesque.

I saw scarred lands ravaged by infighting. I saw people who dreaded the night because the thugs were harder to see. I saw other areas that were once a beautiful field of promise, turned to the realisation of now. I saw fires that were created buy local gangs. These fires were once delipadated homes, citizens lived in. In these areas, I didn’t have the scent of millet beer – only the smells of poverty and dismay. I saw and heard things that I cannot even put in words.

Even more unsettling is the life expectancy is 36, the lowest in the world. Annual inflation at an unofficial rate of 4 million percent, which is, you might have guessed, the highest in the world. Grocery store shelves can be empty for weeks at a time. There are power failures for a few hours every day and clean water shortages most days. You can easily find yourself at a roadblock on almost all the main roads. These roadblocks are generally controlled by armed thugs who often will steal your food and remind you that the West is the enemy.

My purpose for going to Zimbabwe was to do a story on the increase of HIV in the country. While there, I also visited various medical organizations dealing with Zimbabwe’s growing problem.

One organization, in particular, was pushing an iniatitive that had men serving as primary care providers to other men who were suffering from the deadly disease. This was especially important because in many African cultures [and sub-cultures] this type of work is reserved for the women. With the nonprofit organization, Africare, many in Zimbabwe were determined to change the status quo.

As a reporter, I was still nothing more than a tourist, the difference between me and the regular ones was: I had a pen and pad. I had my share of gin and tonics, and I did get a chance to go a on safari. I saw animals you’d expect to see: elephants and whatnot. I saw termite hills that towered over me.

Zimbabwe could easily just be viewed as yet another nation making the switch from tyranny to independence. If some of you have missed the news, there was a presidential election the other day that doesn’t really mean anything because the old man running the country has made it clear, in his megalomaniacal kind of way, that he will kill any number of black people so that he can spend the few years he has left in a deranged version of comfort.

Late last year, I talked to Morgan Tsvangirai’s spokesperson in writing a small piece about Tsvangirai’s brutal beating by thugs who support the current regime. Tsvangirai is the presidential contender who would be king – if not for the old man.

Morgan Tsvangirai has taken shelter in the Dutch Embassy.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, the old man has been determined to lead the country over a cliff.

There was once a time when Mugabe loved having the foreign press around. He said it was good for him and for Zimbabwe. In the last last few months he has ordered many meida outlets be sent out of the country. And reporters?! Well, reporters are no longer able to get close to the president.

My time there was no paradise. It wasn’t romantic. I don’t think I will try to convience my wife to go there on a honeymoon. White farmers owned way too much land (like many places in Africa) and the government was corrupt, and still is. AIDS was catastrophic, and getting worse. When I was there, I had a sense things were going wrong. But the nation could sleep and it could dream and there was room for some sort of hope.

In preparing for my trip I studied up on Zimbabwe. I learned that in 1998 the Zimbabwean dollar fell to 15-1 against the U.S. dollar. People talked about the “malaise” in the country. People would talk about the way you couldn’t get a mortgage without passing an AIDS test. Companies wanted you around long enough to pay them back.

Today, it takes around one trillion Zim dollars to make $100 U.S., and nobody bothers with words like “malaise” anymore.

The so-called ‘democratic and free’ election has come and gone. Without a doubt things will go on like this until it all collapses into itself. It would be easy to assume that this will continue until Mugabe runs out of money to pay his thugs? Or maybe until South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, decides Mugabe is too much of a problem?

If I ever go back to Zimbabwe during the Mugabe reign, I will be sure to be more careful. I will also make sure I have a ‘prison survival kit.’ You have to be sure to have some strong sleeping pills, lice and mosquito repellents, remedies for dysentery and money for bribes.”

Zimbabwe: uneasy its sleep, uneasy its dreams. I pray we will meet again.


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