As we leave overlanding Zimbabwe for the second time on this trip, we think it worth reflecting on the whole of our time spent in this controversial but extraordinary country: ‘controversial’ because of the political regime – is it right to come here and tacitly support the odious ‘Mugabe Bandwagon’? Yet ‘extraordinary’ because of the exceptionally friendly and welcoming people, the stunningly beautiful countryside and the wonderful attractions the country has to offer the tourist. Fabulous safari parks, spectacular mountains, intriguing jungle, quirky granite boulder landscapes, ancient caves and rock art, not to mention the world-class Victoria Falls (which incidentally, is far better seen from the Zim side than from Livingstone in Zambia).
One of the tragedies of modern-day Zimbabwe is the ubiquitous presence of signs indicating a ‘glorious’ recent past: crumbling streets and pavements in cities, decaying picnic sites in parks, faded and peeling signage to tourist attractions, dilapidated offices and accommodation in national parks. The tragedy is that the infrastructure is (or was) all there! They had it all! Not so long ago, it was amongst the best in Africa… but with insufficient resources it has totally fallen apart.
The people are still proud and with little or no official resources, they do what they can to maintain things. It is worth briefly repeating one of the most telling stories from our travel blog: in the once popular tourist area of Bvumba Mountains, the hideously potholed access-road is being botch-repaired by local men using rubble from the sides of the road. The sign on the verge reads: “Road works by volunteers – Please donate”. Where else in the world do local people freely give their time to repair a crumbling infrastructure?
Whether it is right to tacitly support the regime by becoming part of the country’s ‘tourism income account’ is a matter of personal conjecture. We can’t say that we don’t have any reservations about the matter. We have tried to enhance the positive side of our contribution to the national economy by spending money with local traders. But it is difficult to avoid contributing to the government coffers when so many of the country’s best attractions lie in national parks.
Our park fees contribution to Mugabe’s income is of some concern to us, but it is a fact that these do create much needed employment for the park staff. The park staff could not take more pride in their work: the smiles and the welcomes that you receive on arriving at their gates are heart-warming. And the Zimbabwean people are not work-shy shirkers: their facilities may be run-down through lack of investment, but they are as well cared for as is humanly feasible without any budget for maintenance. Gardens are poorly stocked but well cared for, with lawns cut by hand with scythes and fallen leaves regularly swept away with home-made brooms. Bathrooms are unattractive and falling apart, but spotlessly clean and wherever possible, wood-fires are lit to heat tanks of water for the showers. The look of pride on their faces as they show you around the attractions is clearly evident.
So few tourists visit Zimbabwe that it would be understandable if the people had, out of sheer apathy, given up caring about the attractions that they are charged with caring for. But they haven’t given up – they keep going with an infectious smile and friendliness, waiting for the occasional day when someone turns up at their gate. We find it extremely difficult to feel guilty about contributing to these people’s lives when they have worked so hard to provide something worth visiting.
In most of Africa the people are disadvantaged and extremely poor by comparison with our European background. We are therefore totally understanding of the commercial exploitation experienced by a western traveller in most of Africa: the children constantly expecting hand-outs of free sweeties and the street-traders with ‘$$$$’ in their eyes as they see us approaching. But extraordinarily, this has not been our experience in Zim. On the contrary, the friendliness here seems to be far more genuine than a mere commercial opportunity. If we are wrong and this is not the case, then Zimbabweans are truly a nation of Oscar-deserving actors 🙂 !
One of the many feelings we have on leaving Zimbabwe is one of great sadness: it is truly tragic that what was clearly once a great country with so much to be proud of is now reduced to this sorry state of political and economic affairs. What made this sadness even harder for us to swallow, was witnessing these circumstances happening to such nice people. Whilst no nation has universally nasty people, we can certainly say that there are countries we have visited where in some areas, we were made to feel less than welcome – it would be ungracious to name names… but Tanzania springs to mind!
Desperately trying not to gush here… but if it is possible to ‘fall in love’ with a country and a people, then this is it! No-one could, or should, overlook the nation’s problems, particularly its abysmal leadership record. We are certainly not in a position to defend or even to comment with any authority on the political or socio-economic situation; but we do know what we saw and experienced over six weeks travelling around the country. We would suggest to anyone who focuses on the unfortunate aspects alone: look beyond the problems and see a truly delightful people who desperately want to regain their long-lost tourism from the international traveller.