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Meltdown In Zimbabwe
Nathan Davies

My girlfriend is one of those people who volunteers for things that she knows are going to help others. She has, what you might call an "international conscience". She's also got that whole 'see the world' bug, and is absolutely mad about elephants. So, at the end of 1999, when she heard that the VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) was dramatically expanding its range of 'destinations' for its graduate volunteers, especially in Africa, it came as no surprise to me that she was planning to head out there and then. Well, at least as soon as she could, considering she still had roughly six months of her degree to go. She'd finish her course, tend to some trees close to home (she was studying forestry), learn some handy, practical, out-doorsy type of skills and disappear for two or three years while I was supposed to concentrate on my writing, get a good job, and sell my first bestseller. Or at least, that was the plan. Her plan, I might add, but it never came to pass, mostly because the country she had decided that she wanted to go to was Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe is a place of outstanding natural beauty and cultural interest, and is accordingly preserved by the state in the form of several vast national parks. First and foremost of these are the famous Victoria Falls; an immensely powerful cascade of water 1700 metres wide that plunges into the deep gorge of the Zambezi river. It is boardered by two other water based national parks, one upstream that takes its name from the river and spans 56,000 acres along its banks, and one a weeks worth of white-water rafting down stream, at the submerged forests of Lake Kariba. However, although she would be interested enough to see all of the above, as well as the Mana Pools, the granite outcrops of the Matapos, and even the Great Zimbabwe (the medieval city that was once the centre piece for a great African civilisation that gave the country its name in 1980), Sarah's main reason for wanting to take her skills to Zimbabwe was the promise of seeing elephants in the wild. South of Victoria Falls lies the Hwange national park. One of last great elephant sanctuaries left in Africa today it has been claimed that you can see herds of up to 100 animals at a time making their way to the various watering holes that sustain them, at sunset. In addition to the elephants this 14,000 square kilometre stretch of land is also home to over 100 other species of animal and well over 400 species of birds. I have to say that I was so impressed by what I learned of the place, I began to want to go as well.

However, as we entered the infamous and rather disappointing Y2K the scales that balanced power with tolerance in Zimbabwe shifted and fell apart. In the February the continuing debate over the ownership of farmland (caused by the government's fast-track re-distibution programme to put the Black majority in charge of the county's means of production) exploded. Armed militia groups attacked and occupied White owned farms throughout much of the country surrounding Bulawayo and to the south. Where they were opposed by residents, they injured and killed, and the police forces did nothing to stop them. Suddenly Sarah was less keen on commiting two years of her life to living and working in a country where the colour of her skin could put her in mortal danger.

And it didn't end there.

Despite the apparent reduction in such attacks since last March they have not all together ceased. In December, for example, a seventh White farmer was killed by ruling party militants in an attack that left his son seriously injured, and just this month (March 2001) the mother of another victim was murdered by people claiming to be veterans of Zimbabwe's war of independence because she spoke out against President Mugabe's seizure of White owned land. Paradoxically, at about the same time this was going on the Commercial Farmers Union began its debate on whether to elect a new, pro-Mugabe leadership, that would give one third of their fertile lands to Black labourers immediately, as a way of escaping further conflict.

Although we did not know it a year ago, freedom of speech in Zimbabwe has also come under heavy attack from the government and its supporters. A number of foreign journalists including a BBC correspondent were expelled last year and dissenting newspaper, the Daily News, was bombed in an attempt to silence its persistent criticism of Mugabe's regime. Increasingly, it seems, Zimbabwe is becoming a place where free-thinkers, fact-finders and apparently all white people are unwanted. This is both a shame and a potential disaster as it is often these people who can offer the most in terms of expertise and aid. Because of Zimbabwe's continuing economic crisis, partly caused by the negative reactions foreign investors have had to certain policies and situations such as the farmers crisis and the election violence, people like the VSO volunteers, people like my girlfriend, are increasingly needed to help support the poorer sections of society in areas such as health, education and subsistance farming or small business.

More than 76% of the population of Zimbabwe live in poverty, and most of them on over-crowded communal lands out in the country. The supply of clean water in many of these areas does not match the demand, and a similar lack of adequate sanitation continues to put the health and safety of certain marginalised groups at risk. These people are also being starved, because inflation has driven the price of necessary commodities through the roof, and when many of them cannot afford to eat there is no way that they can afford to get an education with school fees having been recently re-introduced. This prevents many people (mostly women according to current VSO statistics) from finding work because they lack the necessary skills or training, and causes an urban drift that adds pressure to the already strained social services within the towns. It's not the image we are used to of Southern Africa's second most profitable country, but it is a reality that can only be fixed with ground level assistance as financial aid is not getting through, unfortunately neither will the volunteers if things don't begin to change. Too many people are being pushed out of Zimbabwe at the moment, and it is going to take a lot more than the African eclipse in late June this year to get people to want to go back.

Read about the illegal activies of Mugabe's Government here
or here

© Nathan Davies 2001

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