By Jamis H. MacNiven
There we were at the Victoria Falls Airport having flown at 500 mph over 10,000 miles from the other side of the world to now shamble inch by inch in a line that oozed sluggishly forward as the immigration officials meticulously penned-in wordy forms, periodically swiping exhausted carbon paper between the leaves. Ahhhh, African time. This pace was so different than that of Silicon Valley where our search results are reported in the millionths of a second. Zimbabweans are good at figuring in millions though if not millionths. More on their remarkable math skills later.
Margaret MacNiven, cofounder of Buck’s, was born in Gwelo, Rhodesia back between the wars. (the Boer War and Rhodesian Bush Wars) Rhodesia was a British colony founded by Cecil Rhodes (of scholarship fame) and for most of the 20th century it was a prosperous country. It was not only untouched by the strife of WWII but it actually thrived as it was a bread basket, a manufacturing center and a place where the Royal Air Force trained pilots unmolested by the Luftwaffe. After the war it did even better with a shiny economy based on agriculture and mining. By every measure it was booming.
Margaret’s father was an engineer and he was responsible for building the main roads in the country. As a result the family (with four kids) moved frequently and even lived in caravans (trailers) in the bush. It was a time of peace and relative happiness in the 50s and 60s. Of course the white folks were running the show and the indigenous Africans (even if relatively well off) were second class citizens.
Life for the colonials was all jolly hockey sticks and country clubs. Because of the booming economy, Rhodesians remember the time with fondness…to a point. By today’s sensibilities being the overlords is hard to reconcile. But in Zimbabwe today there is almost no one who would not trade the current situation for the old days even with the over and under class structure.
In the mid 1960s Ian Smith decided to throw off the shackles of British rule and he declared independence, with himself as the leader. No more would he have to put up with the delicate foot resting tenderly on his neck by the young Queen of England. The English were pulling the plug on the whole colonial thing anyway and those Monarchists who felt Smith insulted the Queen reeled down the Union Jack, folded it up and packed it up with the tea cups, doilies and Shakespeare and shipped out to an England many had never visited. Margaret went to University in England and the rest of her family moved above a laundromat (it was warm) in damp London. None of the family ever went back until our whole family went there in 2016. Our eldest son Dylan came up with idea of the homecoming and this is how we found ourselves in the long line at immigration.
Out on the street we met our driver and a troop of singers chanting Shosholoza a Ndebele folk song which has become a second national anthem. You hear it all over southern Africa and it wove the various towns together as we drove across the country. Check out the Drakensberg Boys Choir for one of the best renditions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saJmOw0GGyI
We began our journey at Victoria Falls. It’s impressive and made more so when you see the world’s highest bungee jump. Thrilling! Really, really thrilling! Especially when the cord snapped on a young woman who plummeted into the Zambezi River. It’s been labeled the most dangerous river in the world due to the terrific population of crocs, hippos and bungee jumpers. The woman hit the water at speed with her feet tied together but managed to escape with a few bruises. You can’t kill an Australian with this. They are far too tough.
Vic Falls is okay but we were itching to get out to the country with the lions and tigers and bears. Of course there aren’t actually bears and tigers and another thing they don’t have much of are dogs. In America dogs are everywhere but in Africa the dogs tend to end up being eaten by cats. There are elephants, lots of elephants which the cats don’t tend to eat though the cats can be found snacking on the horizontal elephants which die like everything else. In the bush it takes just two weeks for an entire elephant to be a clean scatter of bones. We stayed in camps of crazy elegance and saw the rhinos, wildebeests and all the rest. There is a lot to say about the African animals and conservation but this is a story about the people and Margaret’s connection to the country.
Like many places of extreme poverty the local people are kind and laugh easily. And here everyone speaks English which makes connections easy. I think of the Zimbabweans as big huggers when they greet you but if you are traveling with my son Tyler, who hugs everyone everywhere, it is actually hard to say if they would hug otherwise. In any case they are gentle and open hearted people for sure. I’d like to say this is true of all cultures but there are a few where the people are not happy to see you and let you know it. We really wanted to see how people lived but were advised not to drive across the countryside as it could be dangerous. We did end up driving but there was no danger from brigands but rather from the road conditions.
Margaret recalls her childhood in Rhodesia as idyllic. I have always imagined that Africa was hot all year round but that isn’t true. We were there in the winter which is the dry season and It was 70 during the day but in the 40s at night. And there were no mosquitos at that time of year. Out in the bush we were escorted by a revolving squadron of lovely people. They were being paid sure, but you can’t fake joy and these people were joyous. Not only that but many of the folks we met were quite worldly. With one our guides we had a spirited discussion of Breaking Bad.
Though the national language is English the indigenous Africans all speak a tribal language as well. They all have western names like Albert and Sally but they also have African names. This dualism is common when cultures merge like when you see the American Southwest Indians going to the Catholic church on Sunday and then into the kiva to dance.
I can’t pretend to know exactly how the races are getting along today. We were with some of our drivers for days and we tried to include them at dinner and pull them closer but they were generally reluctant because there is still as distance and not just due to the roles of driver/visitor but there is still an obvious white/black divide. The white population is about 40,000 and the black is around 16 million (less than Florida). We had dinner one night with a white woman of an age and she came with her domestic. These helpers had been called houseboys back in the day until Mugabe decreed the new term would be domestic. So Collins, the domestic, joined us. These two had been together for half a century and looked more like an old married couple than anything else but they had their roles and they were living them. Actual intermarriage is rare but it does happen.
The political situation today is perilous and it seemed to me that the current strife has had a unifying effect between the races. Blacks and whites are now on the same side. They talk openly about their disregard for Mugabe but privately they call for his blood.
One guide we had was a white Zimbabwean in his mid 30s who had seen his family turfed out of their family farm and he, like so many, had patched together a life of guiding, game preserving and archeology. He said he wasn’t a registered guide because he didn’t want to shoot and kill three elephants as a required part of his training because they really do attack people. He was unaccountably cheerful and had a deep love for his country. He did hanker, though, for a time he never knew and took us with some reverence to see a statue of Cecil Rhodes which had been demoted from the city center to the back side of the national museum. It’s telling that it wasn’t melted down and Rhode’s grave, with those of the other founders, is a national monument. Just as we in America have a good handle on how our history has fallen into place they know exactly what the situation is but, like us, they can’t tell you what will happen next. There’s a lot of political uncertainty in the world today, no? Uncertainty is generally the case. It’s just that we are here to witness it in the present. Times are always a-changin.
Our goal was to not just see the spectacular physical beauty of the place but to visit Margaret’s childhood homes and connect with people she had known so we drove for several days on the roads her father had laid down so long ago. These main roads have never been repaved and in were in very good condition. The local roads are a mess, more pot than not, as is the infrastructure in general. Along the way we stayed in country hotels and even private homes. One guesthouse looked as if it had been transported from the English countryside. It had animal heads in the drawing room, four poster beds in the bedrooms, tiny aperitif glasses in the bar but it also had bars on the windows and may of the doors were screwed shut. An elderly man and his ancient mother were barely getting by and they were overjoyed to have us.
Across the entire nation the overwhelming theme is sense of dread and regret.
Driving though the countryside we were often in view of wildfires; whole regions enveloped in smoke with long lines of red and gold creeping like a burning wave across the veld. These uncontrolled fires are a result of an ongoing drought and the inability of the feckless kleptocrats in the government unable to take action.
The best neighborhoods in the capital city, Harare, are barbed wire wrapped strongholds. Burglary is endemic but violent crime is not so common. For instance South Africa has the 7th highest murder rate, United State is 17th and Zimbabwe is 42nd. As we drove we encountered police roadblocks every few miles. In fact stopping vehicles and looking for defects to extract a few dollars is one of the principal occupations in the country.
Policing in general is a pretty good job and they were very nice to us even when we were detained for a civil aviation infraction. We flew a photo drone too close to a national park…wellll, in the park actually. It turns out that if your guide says you are allowed to do this, but really aren’t, it’s you who goes to jail. Fortunately, we were very good at singing Shosholoza and they found us too numerous and good natured to imprison for long.
The rural areas look dissipated, the small towns are filled with people slowly wandering around and in the cities the once graceful downtowns are a collection of heaving sidewalks and drooping powerlines. In Harare the municipal water system is floundering and the streetlights lie by the roadside gutted for their copper even in front of the presidential palace.
The litter is years deep giving the place an end-of-the-world feel. Teachers are going unpaid and the unemployment is around 80%. Just 20 years ago Zimbabwe had the highest literacy rate in Africa and one of the highest in the world but the new generation is struggling.
We went to one marketplace which was all local folks rarely visited by tourists. We saw prices posted for eggs. 10 cents each. This is about half the retail price in America and many of these folks have no incomes at all. How do people do it? Well I can’t answer that. We saw many selling simple bark weavings, carvings and candy. Amazingly there are well stocked stores in the cities selling groceries not far removed from an American Safeway. I imagined that the food would be far cheaper than it was but most of it is imported.
When Ian Smith declared independence the country continued to prosper and then Robert Mugabe came along. He was a revolutionary who seized power with the help of the North Koreans. This was in 70s when North Korea rented out their army. Bob took over and Smith was kicked to the curb (back when they still had curbs). You would think they would have hung Smith from a lamppost (they still had those then too) but he continued living undangled in the capital city for decades. Many people were killed in the revolution but compared to the deaths in Ruanda, Mozambique and many other African nations it was not so bad, unless it happened to you of course.
At first they loved Mugabe. In the 80s and 90s things we looking good. They exported food, the diamond mines expanded and they had a growing GDP.
Mugabe had an understandable grudge against the whites and in 2000 he ordered the white landowners off their farms. You were given a couple of hours to grab the cat and skedaddle. Mugabe told his supporters they could have the farms. The large farms now lacked management and they failed in a matter of weeks. Then hyperinflation took hold and the famous Zim money began it’s now famous run. A Zim dollar used to buy a dozen eggs. Soon a million then a billion would buy a single egg.
Toilet paper, if you could get it was far more expensive than a billion dollar bill so it became a thing to use it as such but it didn’t degrade in the septic systems so you had to call a plumber but the plumbers had left the country along with about 3 million others. The monthly inflation in Venezuela today is 200%. In Zimbabwe it had a high of 79.69 (or so) billion percent a month. Seems high to me.
People reported going to buy a tank of gasoline with bushels, literally hundreds pounds of bills for 15 gallons (it was the larger imperial gallon but still…). Prices changed hourly and finally the last note printed was 100 trillion and the printing house refused to go higher as they had not been paid.
Finally the cash had no value and today souvenir bills are sold by kids to the few tourists who come. Zimbabwe uses the U.S. dollar now though they are once more trying to reintroduce this crazy money. The spiraling slowed but then Uncle Bob ran low on cash (those designer sunglasses don’t come cheap) so his next move was to clean out all the citizen’s bank accounts and give everyone ious. First, the money became worthless and the little that was left was seized.
So how does he retain power? Well the money and much of the talent has left the country. The countryside and the cities have been ravaged so the people figure they could riot and get killed but then another power-mad dictator will take the little they have left.
Traveling with my family is the highlight of my life and it was particularly so as we went from villages to cities and into the bush digging deep into Margaret’s past. At her high school we found the auditorium/cafeteria and there on the wall we saw plaques emblazoned with the names of girls who went on to make the school proud. There was Margaret Reid listed as the first Rhodesian girl to go to Oxford. It was a surprise to her to see herself remembered there and one of the sweetest moments.
She says now that she left the country a reluctant Rhodesian, not happy to have come from the ruling class but now she sees herself as a proud Zimbabwean feeling a deep kinship with the people she met on the trip.
As of this writing Rowan is headed back to the Zimbabwean bush as a principle member of a dinosaur dig at Lake Kariba. He is, after all, half Zimbabwean.
Shosholoza! It means: help the next person.