When I mentioned to friends and family at home that I planning a lengthy visit to visit Africa, and Zimbabwe would be my first stop, it was met with reactions of surprise, outright shock and frequently the question ‘why?’.
Strict media controls mean news rarely filters out of Zimbabwe and what little we do hear is bleak. After months trawling the internet for recent reports from people who had lived, travelled, worked or merely visited Zim, and after re-reading the FCO website more times than I care to remember, I was convinced that as long as I stuck to the tourist trail and made pre arranged travel arrangements with reputable companies then I was unlikely to be at risk.
Many times I questioned my own reasons for wanting to visit a country who’s politics and human rights policies were questionable (a consideration that could be applied to many countries around the world), where good health and basic sanitation facilities are only for the wealthy or friends of the government, where fresh locally grown food is only stocked in tourist hotels and where fuel supplies are unpredictable. But the draw of this mysterious country and the location of the worlds only lion breeding and rehabilitation project was enough. So I finally made up my mind to go and see for myself, to spend my money in locally owned businesses and to find out about Zim from the real people.
My preconceptions, along with recent unfavourable media coverage, probably made me less relaxed in arrival than I would be if visiting anywhere else. But during 6 weeks volunteering and travelling around the country I always felt sale and was constantly rewarded by the friendliness of the people. Within days of arrival I could very quickly see why Zimbabwe is widely acknowledged as one of the most beautiful countries in Africa with abundant natural attractions and a welcoming population. A decade ago it was the 4th most visited country on the continent, today just a trickle of travellers are received.
On the flip side, women die younger in Zim than anywhere else in the world and due to the onslaught of AIDS the average life expectancy is below 40 years. As a result, 1 in 3 children are orphaned and yet despite the economic crisis, 90% of orphans are still cared for by extended families. This tells a lot about the generosity and kindness of the people.
Unemployment is over 90%, inflation has gone through the roof with the currency being devalued by 15 zero’s in the last 6 months. In 1980 US$1 was worth ZW$ 1.50, in 2006 US$ 1 was worth ZW$ 400,000. The biggest bank note printed just before I arrived was 100 trillion and people regularly talk in quadrillions and quintillions, terms I had never even heard of. Employees are paid a pittance in ZW$, but the banks wont let them withdraw it and, even if they did, it isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on as the majority of shops will only accept Forex (foreign exchange). People I worked with tell me how almost everyone is a multimillionaire, but in reality, a trillion wont even buy a loaf of bread. Despite endless conversations about the state of the nation I still don’t know how the people get by.
At Antelope Park (Lion Beeding Project in Gweru), 3 overland trucks would pull in each week providing vital income to the project and local population, now there may only be one truck in 2 months. In Victoria Falls town (home of the world famous waterfall of the same name), there would be a dozen overland trucks at one campsite, a dozen rafts a day on the Zambezi River, a string of daily bookings for the multitude of adrenalin activities, now you might bump into one or two tourists around town and most tour operators and hotels have gone out of business.
Zimbabwe does however have a good infrastructure, fantastic climate, rich soil and a leading education system which should provide for a comfortable lifestyle for all. Instead, people eek out an existence trying to survive below the poverty line and the rest escape to neighbouring countries in search of a better life. People I talked to remain hopeful that things will get better - mainly because it’s difficult to imagine it getting any worse.
The attractions are diverse making it a country worth of a decent length of stay not just a hop across to Victoria Falls from Livingstone in Zambia.
In summary, Zimbabwe is not a cheap destination but the country is politically intriguing and rewarding with it’s ancient ruins, magnificent wilderness, friendly people and choice of adrenalin activities. There is something for everyone and I’d go back tomorrow.