The International Writers Magazine:Hacktreks in Zimbabwe
Matt Brown in Zimbabwe
movie theater was hot and stuffy, but I hardly noticed. I wasnt
really there. I was hanging out in suburban Detroit with Eminem
and Kim Basinger.
As Eminem was singing, "You gotta lose yourself in the music,"
I was lost in the movie 8 Mile. I have always liked going
to the movies while traveling for this reason. For two hours,
I wasnt on the road. The familiar images on the screen transported
me to a place I knew better than any guide book writer.
wasnt even a good movie. Yet, somehow the story of a white kid
growing up in an all black neighborhood and trying to make it in the
all black rap industry made me wistful for a home I hadnt seen
in a long time.
The movie ended, the house lights went up, and I was ripped from the
comforts of suburban America, thrust back into unfamiliar territory.
It was only then that I noticed how sweltering the theater was, how
bad it smelled of body odor, and how mine was the only white face in
a packed theater of Zimbabweans.
Outside, the weather was not so warm. Spring had brought freezing rain
to Bulawayo, Zimbabwes second largest city, and I bundled up to
walk the streets of downtown. I was basically just trying to kill time.
There wasnt much to see in the mainly industrial city, and yet
I was stuck there without a way to move on. Earlier that day, I had
been to the train station to enquire about the night train to Victoria
Falls. However, I was informed that all train services in Zimbabwe had
been suspended because of a fuel shortage. The same was true of the
buses. In fact, looking around, the streets of Bulawayo were mostly
devoid of any traffic.
The fuel shortage was just a symptom of the greater economic crisis
that had been plaguing Zimbabwe. People I met on buses and in restaurants
talked of how prosperous Zimbabwe once was, how it used to be a dynamic,
thriving place to live. In recent years, however, the countrys
economy has ground to a catastrophic halt. The reason is quite simple.
As one taxi driver told me, "Mugabe is running this country into
Indeed, that was the common sentiment on the Zimbabwe street. Since
wresting power from the white minority in 1980, Robert Mugabe has ruled
the country with an increasingly heavy iron fist. A committed Marxist,
Mugabe has silenced opposition voices, and placed stringent limitations
on press freedom. In 2000, Zimbabwe began a land reform program that
has elevated the countrys economic crisis.
Zimbabwe once had a thriving economy based largely on the cash crops
of tobacco and coffee, and had a food surplus. Most of the large commercial
farms were owned by a small minority of white farmers. However, during
the land grab, white farmers were forced to flee their farms, and their
prosperous land was divided up by peasant subsistence farmers. Without
the income from the countrys cash crops, the economy crumbled,
and Zimbabwe had to rely on foreign aid to feed its people for the first
time. Inflation rose to 700 percent.
It would have been more profitable for me to blow my nose with a Zimbabwe
dollar bill rather than invest it on a tissue. The official exchange
rate had the Zim dollar at 50 to one U.S. dollar, but the black market
was offering 5,000 to one. Entering the country via the land border
with South Africa, I met a shady looking man who said he was a money
changer. He led me to a utility closet of a nearby gas station which
he claimed was his "office," and we proceeded with the transaction.
For $100 U.S. he gave me four cinderblock sized stacks of 100 Zim dollar
bills that barely fit into my backpack. To complete the deal, he also
gave me a few $5,000, $10,000, and $20,000 dollar bills.
The Man who killed Zimbabwe
large denominations hadnt existed in Zimbabwe before the economic
crisis. Due to rampant inflation, the government was forced to hastily
print these notes that looked a lot like Monopoly money. The bills
even had a two-year expiration date on them, when the government
optimistically hoped inflation would be back to normal.
Turning a $20,000 bill over, I saw that the back side was blank
and immediately suspected that the money changer had ripped me off.
However, a man on my bus assured me that the bills were legitimate.
In an effort to save money, the government only printed one side
of the bills.
I had more than
just time to kill on the streets of Bulawayo. I had a backpack full
of nearly worthless Zimbabwe dollars that I couldnt exchange for
U.S. dollars. All the buses and hostels would only take hard currency,
so I had half a million Zim dollars to get rid of on the streets before
I left the country. Ive never felt so rich.
Spending that much local currency, however, would prove harder than
I thought. The movie that I watched cost 25 cents U.S. I surfed the
internet for an hour which set me back 30 cents. Hoping to spend some
cash, I visited a few supermarkets, but found only aisles of bare shelves
punctuated by a few bags of staples such as rice and bread. It was reminiscent
of stories Id heard from Soviet Russia.
Besides a lack of goods in the stores, and streets empty of cars, I
noticed something else missing from Bulawayo. In a country with a sizable
white minority, the only other white person I saw in Bulawayo was the
old woman who owned the hostel where I was staying. A third generation
white Zimbabwean, she waxed nostalgically about a better time in Zimbabwes
"Since the land reform," she said, "the country has gone
She told me stories of friends, white farmers, who were attacked in
the middle of the night by peasants seeking to forcibly take their land.
"All the whites are scared. Most have left for Australia or the
U.K. But we wont fit in there. We are not Australian or British.
We are Zimbabwean."
She had a point. The whites in Zimbabwe are just as African as I am
American. While there was a large disparity between blacks and whites
in Zimbabwe, taking land from whites who have been farming it for generations
does not seem like a viable solution. If Native Americans came to power
in the U.S. and began taking back large Iowa corn farms, surely people
would be up in arms.
The old woman who owned the hostel told me that many white Zimbabweans
had moved to Victoria Falls. Realizing that tourism from the Falls is
the countrys biggest income earner, the government has taken great
measures to ensure this region is relatively stable. Most tourists fly
directly to the airport at Vic Falls, stay long enough for a photo in
front of the cascade, then fly home. This is all they will see of Zimbabwe.
"My son," the woman said, "was forced off his land a
year ago. Now he owns a hostel in Vic Falls." She made a reservation
for me to stay at her sons hostel, and arranged for a tourist
minivan to take me the six hours from Bulawayo to Vic Falls for which
I would have to pay the extortionate price of $20 U.S.
Zimbabwes land reform policy has not only hurt white farmers.
The whole country has suffered from the resulting economic crisis. The
next morning, I found myself in a van with four other tourists from
Mauritius. It was an overcast day, the sky the color of ash, and the
countryside we passed looked brown and withered. At one point, we must
have been a ways behind a grain truck that was either overflowing or
had a hole in it because, for a few miles, a steady stream of corn kernels
littered the side of the road. As we rounded a curve, we came upon a
troop of baboons who had ventured from the surrounding forest and were
gathering the kernels from the side of the road. A mile down the road,
we passed through a small village. As we slowed, I could see many of
the villagers, mostly women and children, bent low, sifting though the
roadside dirt, and collecting corn kernels in rusty metal bowls.
If I had visited Zimbabwe a decade earlier, I was told many times, I
would have seen a much rosier place than the harsh, depressed country
that drove whites to expatriate, and people to forage for sustenance
like baboons. Many friendly Zimbabweans, both black and white, that
I met were proud of their country and embarrassed that I was seeing
it in its worst state. I wish I could have offered them am easy solution
to their problems, but, as a traveler, thats not what I was there
for. I was there to see the country and to try and understand its problems.
And to tell others about it.
© Matt Brown Jan 2005
Brown recently lived in a rural village in Guinea, West Africa for two
years where he taught English with the Peace Corps. He has lived in
and traveled to 60 countries on six continents. A freelance writer,
his work has appeared in many online travel websites as well as the
magazines Transitions Abroad and Travel Africa. He is currently working
on a masters in journalism at San Jose State University. Contact
Matt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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