Thursday, February 23, 2012

Traveling through Zimbabwe, a country in the twilight


By Philipp Laage Feb 14, 2012, 13:01 GMT

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe - The merchants on Livingstone Bridge at the border with Zambia are smiling amicably in the noonday sun. In their hands are thick bundles of bank notes, to be sold as souvenirs to the tourists.

Anyone who looks at such a colorful note, with a long row of zeroes on it, senses that something must have gone terribly wrong in Zimbabwe. Here, at Victoria Falls and in view of the mighty waterfalls in the background, visitors are entering a country which for many people is a dark foreboding, an African horror story.

Zimbabwe was once upon a time a model state, the breadbasket of Africa, until President Robert Mugabe took power. Ever since the white farmers were dispossessed of their land starting in 1990, the country's economy has been sliding ever deeper.

In 2008 the currency collapsed and hyperinflation made the Zimbabwean dollar worthless. A coalition government emerging from the ruins has remained fragile. So most tourists cross the border at Victoria Falls only for a brief visit, for a chance to see the waters of Africa's fourth-longest river plunge 108 meters over a 1,700-metres long edge. Scarcely anyone travels to the interior. Yet the country is relatively safe for foreign visitors.

On a recent visit to the interior, a group starts out before dawn in a mini-bus for the seven-hour ride to Bulawayo, 440 kilometers away. In what is Zimbabwe's second-biggest city located in the middle of the country, the political instability seems forgotten. Victorian-era houses line the streets, and there are shopping malls, internet cafe's and restaurants. Men in expensive suits are reading newspapers in a Swiss cafe, while American pop music thunders from the 'Baku Club' in the Bulawayo Center.

Hollywood films are showing in the cinemas and expensive all-terrain vehicles from Europe are parked on the sidewalks. During a stroll through the streets of Bulawayo, such impressions are confusing, considering that Zimbabwe ranks 6th in the 'Failed States Index 2011' of the US group The Fund For Peace.

The risk that the state may collapse is higher than Iraq.

From Bulawayo, travelers can go sight-seeing to two UNESCO-declared World Heritage Sites - the ruins at Khami and the cave paintings in the Matopo Mountains, where the British colonial politician Cecil John Rhodes lies buried. It was after him that Southern Rhodesia - today's Zimbabwe - was named.

In the marketplace of Bulawayo, a woman merchant is bemoaning the desolate economic situation. 'This here is the real ruins of Zimbabwe,' she says, drawing a link between the economy and the country's most important archaeological site, some 280 kilometers from the city of Masvingo.

The sand-colored ruins of Great Zimbabwe are warm from the afternoon sun. Lizards sit atop the rocks, while monkeys are climbing among the eucalyptus and the muhacha trees with their sweet fruit. Hardly any tourists are to be seen, while a park guard is dozing in the shade. The fallen city that he is there to guard is more than 500 years old. The powerful Mutapa Empire had existed here long before the first Europeans ever set foot in what today is Zimbabwe,

Great Zimbabwe was the capital and seat of its kings.

A path now leads up to the fortress ruins, from which one can look up at the large enclosure and hillside ruins. The builders set the granite blocks atop each other without any use of mortar. In the evening, the view from Great Zimbabwe stretches across the plains. The setting sun lays a layer of warm red across the countryside's contours. The land is quiet, with only a light breeze to be felt.

In the evening at Cariba Lake, the last stage of the trip, the tropical warm air of the day hovers over the small jungle bar situated right on the shore.

Stacey and Dale, two Zimbabweans, offer travelers a place to stay for the night. From the veranda of their house the view is of the dark lake. Suddenly there is a snorting sound in the garden - a hippopotamus is moving through the shadows and trots off into the dark.

'More people are killed by hippos than by crocodiles,' Dale says. It is late when he closes the bar and blocks out the sounds of the night.

The next morning, the guests are taken on a ride on the lake in a motorboat. Elephants, zebras and giraffes are grazing along the shore. Everything is wilderness around the 280-kilometre-long lake, created by a dam on the Zambesi River. Hippopotamuses are standing in the water, while occasionally a crocodile swims by. Cariba is located on the border and the farewell is not without a sense of wistfulness.

Many people in Zimbabwe would be happy if the despotic Mugabe would finally disappear, both from politics and from the thinking of people in the West. But the future is uncertain: Zimbabwe is a country in twilight, and it is not yet clear whether it will soon turn bright or go completely dark.


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