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Being Mr. Malou (standard:travel stories, 4199 words)
Author: Robin WyersAdded: Feb 25 2012Views/Reads: 1750/4505Story vote: 0.00 (0 votes)
A travel story describing the chaotic but beautiful country known as Zimbabwe. The story is based on a trip across the border from Johannesburg to Bulawayo and several days spent in what is Zimbabwe's second city.

Click here to read the first 75 lines of the story

passengers finally alight their buses. A larger group of fires can 
indicate a group of traders, looking to sell their bags of oranges for 
20 rand. The quality of their product is tremendous and their 
enthusiasm for chasing your slowing vehicle down for hundreds of metres 
is worthy of a reward in itself. You have to question the logic, 
however; just how many bags could they actually sell on a road where 
maybe one car or buggy passes every 3-4 minutes? You sit down and eat 
one of the oranges and breathe some life back into a fire's dying 
embers. Relaxing on the side of the road and gazing out into the 
darkness illustrates the true duality of this country – total serenity 
coupled with total chaos. Looking out into the star spangled nightsky 
cloaking the unconquered outback is a breathtaking experience. The only 
sound is the rustling of crickets and the bells of wandering cattle. 

You travel further and finally reach a real settlement – the town of
Gwanda. After filling your tank at a 24-hour Shell station that looks 
like it was built in the 1950s and has not been upgraded (or painted) 
since, you look at some of the other over-packed vehicles around and 
think about their stories in crossing the border. Car roofs have 
disappeared under a collage of multi-colored goods to soon be enjoyed 
by relieved fellow family members. You step inside a basic restaurant 
and watch travelers scrape together a few rand to dig into a meal of 
pap and stew with their hands. Then your train of thought is 
interrupted by a loud explosion. You remember the aging Toyota Corolla 
with four tyres that looked appropriate in a 1940s Looney Tunes 
cartoon. The driver has apparently been a bit ambitious in believing 
that he could get some more stability on the road by adding some air! 
The six people in the car will have a long and cramped night after 
pushing their car to the side. 

You drive on and are once again confronted with the cancer plaguing this
country – corruption. A police roadblock forces you to an abrupt halt. 
A routine drugs search – they claim. After at least five minutes of 
scanning the vehicle for any minor potential fault (although apparently 
not looking for drugs), they reach a conclusion – poor back reflectors. 
This is surprising, considering that you had had the entire vehicle 
checked before leaving South Africa that morning. How can you overcome 
the vehicle being impounded and a lengthy bureaucratic process? 50 
rand. Again this is a pretty paltry sum (the equivalent of 5 euros), 
but when you consider that a policeman only earns US$250 a month (the 
same as those in the armed forces or teachers), you can understand the 
need to earn a little more on the side, just to get by. Unfortunately 
that soldier or teacher will have to make up for the lost 50 rand in 
some way or other (legal or otherwise). This is how the vicious circle 
of the entire country robbing itself begins. 

We were stopped three times on the 400km journey from Beitbridge to
Bulawayo and needed to pay a bribe twice. But we were happy that our 
long journey from Johannesburg had come to an end after some 21 hours. 
But arriving in the city of Bulawayo in the early hours of Sunday 
morning is a surprising sight in itself. With few if any streetlights 
and little or no movement on the streets – this city of over 2 million 
inhabitants could well be the opposite of New York – Bulawayo well and 
truly sleeps. 

The city itself is surrounded by an urban sprawl of neighboring
townships, forming a neverending arrangement of all but identical homes 
to thousands of families. Billboards line the streets, promoting 
alcohol or featuring the major anti-HIV campaign currently ongoing in 
several southern African countries. Zimbabwe has one of the highest HIV 
prevalence in the world - 13.7% in the 15 to 49 age group according to 
Ministry of Health statistics from 2009 and the promotion of Male 
Circumcision (MC) is perceived as a key weapon to slow down the spread. 
A poster featuring a local footballer calls on young men to lower their 
risk of contracting HIV and “Get Circumcised Today.” 

You exit the main road and enter the township of your destination. After
driving down several dusty suburban roads, you have finally made it 
home and are greeted with a rousing welcome, despite the insane hour. A 
prayer of thanks is ushered by all, giving praise for the protection 
that you enjoyed over your long journey. Completely exhausted, you are 
forced to turn yourself in. The joy of sleep is short-lived however; it 
is already 4am and it will be just 30 minutes before the neighbour's 
rooster will commence his morning call. This is a timing that will 
become imprinted in your mindset over the coming days – indeed there's 
little need for an alarm clock on this particular street! 

I rose the next day and documented some of the peculiarities as I walked
around perplexed like Iron Maiden's Eddie - a true stranger in a 
strange land. You stare out at an apparently never-ending sprawl of all 
but identical homes. Building safety probably always has been the last 
point of call in this country – with all buildings topped off with 
corrugated sheets of asbestos. The interiors are a testament to a game 
of cowboys and Indians, with builders outsourcing new properties to 
anybody with time on their hands and skimming off the cream. The 
skeleton and framework of the constructions is all wooden, the walls of 
the houses spirit level free. Homemade lentils top doors and windows 
that are so crooked that even eyesight judging must have been done with 
the aid of a guide dog. Interiors are basic, with few having the 
resources left to finish off the ceiling, meaning that you awake in the 
morning looking up at corrugated asbestos, bare wooden frames and naked 

Lights out is an almost daily occurrence with an incredible euphemism
coined for saving on energy: “load sharing.” Virtually every day will 
include a significant period where electricity will be turned off for a 
six to eight hour stint, as different areas of the city take it in 
turns to share the load, sometimes with a warning, sometimes without. 
The government claims that it comes in response to an overuse of 
credits for electricity from its South African supply base. Therefore 
communities must “share the load” of this over-consumption, with 
rotating shut-downs. Newer communities do have less of an issue with 
power cuts, however, with estate agents using the continued supply as 
an argument to sell the properties to potential buyers. One can only 
assume, however, that the new occupants will face the same problems as 
older communities, as the city limits continue to expand into new 
domains and the spread out into the virgin bush continues. Overcoming 
the power cuts seems like a simple adjustment – after all various shops 
in Bulawayo sell generators powerful enough to provide electricity for 
a whole household for $270. But entering a township at dusk, where the 
only apparent light comes from flickering candles illustrates that this 
type of investment (equivalent to a month's salary), is too much for 
all to afford. 

When there is so little money to go around, people opt for a quick fix
and the country has this train of thought steeped into its national 
identity. This is after all a country that prior to the dumping of the 
Zimbabwean dollar battled inflation that could run from anywhere from 
200% to 2,000,000%. In fact they used to say that what you could buy a 
house for at one stage would be about enough to buy a single brick with 
several months down the line. It meant that if you received your wages 
in the morning you would be sure to spend your buckets of 
all-but-worthless cash by noon; otherwise it wouldn't be worth anything 
at all. This is a country that prior to its currency's demise felt that 
a trillion dollar note was not enough to be able to go shopping and 
therefore introduced a quant-trillion dollar bill. The plug was pulled 
before anyone had to endure the complexity of counting the zeros on a 
zillion dollar bill! Basic mathematics skills in Zimbabwe are in fact 
amazing, however – with transactions on the streets of Bulawayo usually 
occurring in rands and those in shops tending to use US dollars. If you 
are not used to it, it can be a little confusing to work out for 
yourself, as a dollar is worth seven rands on the street – but not to 
the locals. If they require 26 rands and you give them 4 dollars, you 
will receive the correct two rand in change, without the seller even 
thinking twice about it. 

What strikes you most about Zimbabwe is the lack of activity,
particularly by men. While women, and young girls in particular, are 
pretty much left with every household chore imaginable (even during 
periods of “load sharing”), bored young men hang around barricaded 
shops drinking alcohol, play football on the sandy streets or parks or 
sit on little walls taking in the rays. With anything of up to 80% 
unemployment, hopes and dreams of doing something of value with their 
lives are non-existent. Instead they look to make a couple of dollars 
selling some small items (e.g. individual sweets or ice lollies), which 
will allow them to buy a few of the cheaply priced beers or shake 
shakes to fend them through the next few hours. It is a tragedy; there 
is after all so much to do in this country: the roads require paving, 
the fields could be properly tilled for produce. Millions could ideally 
be employed by government programs that would in turn stimulate the 
private sector, as they spent their earnings in local businesses. But 
with no stimulus from the government for public sector work, most men 
hang around bored all day. One senses that the true victims of this 
idleness will be the women and girls of the country, with rape a sadly 
common occurrence. 

People here don't have much, but what there is, is cherished like a
Godsend. Children always seem to have glowing smiles on their faces and 
make up for their lack of belongings through ingenuity. Little kids can 
turn dumped pieces of metal coil into a handmade toy car to be rolled 
through the dusty streets. The passion within African churches is well 
documented, but the intensity needs to be experienced to be truly 
believed. Churches are continually packed by fanatical members, 
ushering praise and worship. You may walk past a house and feel that 
the most violent domestic argument possible is taking place. As the 
foundations of the building shake to the core through the intense 
shouting, you look on perplexed, wondering if somebody should 
intervene. Then you discover that the person inside is actually praying 
and giving God praise “for all he has done in their lives”! 

Having enough to eat is the most basic of human necessities and enjoying
meals together is a cornerstone of society here. Meals are regularly 
shared, with all eating from one dish or bowl. A meat stew coupled with 
maize flour (known as “pap”) is the most common meal. Special occasions 
are regularly marked by the slaughtering of an animal, often a goat, 
which is skinned and the hide later used as a mat or blanket. Lager 
beer is popular, but far more interesting is Shake Shake and other 
African beers based on sorghum malt. Shake Shake brands such as Ingwebu 
are packaged in 1 liter aseptic packs that require about a minute of 
shaking prior to consumption. The drink is made with maize, grits, 
sorghum, malt, barley, wheat and enzymes, with the non-sparkling beer 
containing just 3.5% alcohol. But what the drink lacks in alcohol 
content, it makes up for in satiating effect, with it regularly 
described as “both food and drink.” The drink is also shared among a 
group; who drink straight from the same pack or cup and pass it around. 
A few liters of Shake Shake will not succeed in getting you drunk, but 
you will certainly feel full and have a belly's worth of little sorghum 
pieces. Of course the advantage of eating and drinking at the same time 
is the avoidance of a hangover. 

To say that the infrastructure through this vast city is poor would be a
major understatement. Driving through this heavily populated zone 
requires a 4x4. The dust roads are laced with holes, dents and stones 
and only become worse for wear with each passing car. The sides of the 
roads are coated with rubbish, with people supposedly believing that 
“somebody is employed to clean them,” so they feel fully within their 
rights to add to the amassing tips that may apparently not be cleared 
for months. If you need to move around there's only one way to go – the 
Combibus is the true ship of the desert. Toyota Hiaces were mocked in 
Ireland during the 80s and 90s as “the Ship of the Gippos,” with 
travelers using this model as their main mode of transporting anything 
from batteries to donkeys. But when you see the main bus station in 
Bulawayo (where hundreds of Hiaces are parked at any one time) it is 
quite clear where they all went to! A Combibus features a sign inside 
that indicates that a maximum of 15 persons are allowed. But one feels 
that the intense sunshine may have eroded the driver's mathematics 
skills. The joke here is that a Combibus never gets full and indeed 
they should really think about transferring their skills to a “most 
people in a Mini” Guinness World Record attempt. 

The Hiace is neatly divided into four back rows – each seating up to
five their shopping and goods. One seat on the left on 
each of the back rows can be lifted so passengers can reach the back. 
Of course if someone from the back needs to get off earlier, a scramble 
is required to let them out. Each bus has a tag-team of driver and 
collector. The collector sits on the front row of the back of the van. 
It is his job to collect the fare for taking a ride, with fares 
routinely passed via all the passengers towards the front. More 
importantly, it is his task to virtually sit outside the van, shouting 
at pedestrians to let them know where the van is going. It is a 
remarkably ingenious policy – you hardly need to wait more than two 
minutes before you can find a Combibus heading towards your desired 
point of call. Should they not be going there exactly; money can talk 
and you will get within meters of your final destination eventually. In 
the meantime you can enjoy a good helping of your favorite music – that 
is, as long as your favorite music is incredibly loud Zimbabwean house. 

The Combibus is a good example of the extortion being conducted by the
Zanu-PF regime, however. Vans need to cover their overheads, as prices 
to board are surprisingly low – 3-4 rand, for a pretty standard trip. 
When you look at Zimbabwean petrol prices that are comparable to those 
in Europe and far higher than those in South Africa, you can understand 
why it is such a priority to have the Combibuses full all the time. 
This often works, but companies are regularly punished by numerous 
roadblocks. Here policemen regularly pull over dozens of vans at once 
and ask Combibuses to pay a “fine,” so they can continue down the road 
with exactly the same number of passengers on board. This is clearly 
not about road safety. Drivers are now complaining that such is the 
cost of paying bribes that they find it difficult to make a profit at 
all. This is why they regularly take crazy detours through dust-roads 
to avoid roadblocks that they have been informed about, which 
ironically makes the roads even more dangerous. This is a country where 
the notion of conducting any sort of enterprise is exploited rather 
than stimulated. 

It is difficult not to loathe the regime here, as the whole country
stinks of the foulest of proper propaganda. People watch South African 
soaps on television, as their own national television hardly deserves 
their attention. Programming consists of black and white documentaries 
portraying how the evil white dictators were overthrown and documenting 
their crimes. The misery that Zimbabweans encounter today are lost as 
praise is heaped upon a leader who should have stepped down decades ago 
and instead is perceived by his people as “the old man,” who simply 
won't go away. Domestic newspapers seem happy to steer clear of the 
real political roadblocks that are hampering progress in this country 
and instead paint a picture of the hardship without analyzing the 
reason behind it. For example one headline reads: “City Copes with 
Water Shortages.” 

You travel several miles outside Bulawayo and you see crumbling
farmhouses that used to belong to “the white oppressors.” But one 
wonders what's worse; somebody making a lot of money off land and 
employing dozens of locals in the process for little pay, or letting 
that land go to waste and having former employees scuttle back to 
cities looking to fight with countless others for the few menial jobs 
available? Tabloid newspapers are full of trashy content that makes one 
think of The Weekly World News rather than even The News of the World. 
Headlines such as “Dead Man Talks – Demands 10 Cows and 2 Women,” lead 
newspapers with editorial standards that could make The Daily Sport 
sound like Shakespeare. With a catalogue of stories on topics as 
diverse as sex, rape and orgies, there is no space left for articles 
documenting the plight that ordinary Zimbabweans are facing to get by. 

There are alternative media sources, but they are difficult to come by.
The Bulawayo Weekly Agenda and Harare's Legal Monitor illustrate that 
there is true resistance, particularly in the Ndebele south, as opposed 
to the Shona north. The newspapers of just several sheets bravely 
document wrong-doing and corruption by the government and the violent 
land seizures that have been particularly vicious in the south. The 
newspapers question the calling of elections when there is no 
foundation for fair ballots in place and no guarantee that Mugabe would 
accept defeat, should election rigging fail. Grim statistics like a 
UNICEF report that found that malnutrition claims the lives of 12,000 
Zimbabwean children every year are presented to a readership that is 
normally told that all of the country's problems are down to Britain's 
continued imperialistic meddling. 

The price of administering press freedom can be the loss of yours,
however. As an example, The Weekly Agenda reported in May that one of 
their reporters (Mziwandile Ndlovu) was arrested for “publishing lies” 
in an article published on May 9, 2011. The reporter was released on 
bail. Seeing the sacrifice that some people need to make in the hope of 
some day acquiring freedom of speech is belittling – you can look on in 
admiration and feel truly blessed to live in a part of the world where 
this is a basic right that is taken for granted. 

I unfortunately only experienced a tiny part of the true Zimbabwe and
can only provide a mere snapshot of life in this fascinating 
destination. As you leave the country you are regularly confronted with 
it's duality of beauty and chaos. Along the road you see basic huts, 
vast untouched lands, deserted farmhouses; but you may also see a 
giraffe or a group of baboons or other monkeys chasing down the 
oncoming traffic. Desmond Tutu once described modern Zimbabwe as a 
country that “turned from the breadbasket of Africa into a basket 
case,” and you get a sense of sadness when you consider what the true 
potential of this country can be if its incompetent government were 
ever to be removed and its wonderful people allowed to truly thrive 
without interference. But there is hope. Zimbabweans living in South 
Africa are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the hostility that 
they are facing there. Those with an entrepreneurial spirit realize 
that an untouched economy like Zimbabwe can hold enormous potential if 
you have the means of making a fairly small investment to set up shop 
there. Competition in South Africa is rife, but finding your niche in 
Zimbabwe can be simple, with potentially profitable land very cheap 
indeed. Those who can help take this beautiful but troubled country out 
of the mires of economic despair should be applauded. They will form 
the cornerstone of a new Zimbabwe. 


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