Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Zimbabwe - to visit or not to visit?

I have wanted to write about Zimbabwe since I entered the country for the first time on the 3rd May.  It dawned on me however that maybe I should wait until I had left the country before I actually posted anything – paranoia perhaps:-)  Before arriving in Zimbabwe, I was very excited.  When choosing my African trip, I had deliberately chosen an itinerary which went to Zimbabwe.  I was attracted to the idea of lesser visited countries and those with intriguing history.  However, while approaching from Mozambique, it felt strange to be entering the country occupied by Robert Mugabe.  Was I supporting his regime by visiting?

It was noticeable on the truck that the non-Brits/Irish were not really very conscious of “Uncle Bob”.  In many ways, I was surprised that Brits could get into Zimbabwe by simply buying a visa at the border ($55).  This money may have gone straight into the regime’s pockets but otherwise, for the subsequent nine days, there was little sense of his presence.  We were very welcomed as tourists. At the National Gallery in Bulawayo, we wandered around some artist studios and chatted (and yes, I bought a couple of pieces).  They commented that we were the first tourists they had seen in a couple of years.  They were excited to see an overlanding truck in town again as this would offer them more chance of a revenue stream in future.  It has been two years since the Zimbabwean Dollar spiralled out of control and the country descended into crisis.  A mixture of US Dollar and South African Rand is now used and this has stabilised the situation.  This however does not change the fact that unemployment stands somewhere between 94-7% - people are desperate.

Nonetheless, there were marked differences as soon as we crossed the border from Malawi into Zimbabwe.  Gone were the mud huts and whilst the properties were still thatched, they were all made of brick and the thatch was reed and not banana leaf.  As we approached Harare, we saw a lot nice properties and even a suburban housing estate.  It is very easy to see that people have previously lived through better days.  Things however are changing quickly.  To use the example of our campsites: our crew had visited just over a month ago and were able to point out the progress made in a short period of time.  At the Backpacker Campsite outside Harare, the swimming pool had been restored to service and at Norma Jeanne’s, fast Wifi had been installed.  Elsewhere, shower blocks were being refurbished and hot water becoming more reliable.

Things seemed slightly less male orientated.   Dress sense felt more western and I was thrilled to see a young women wearing a Liverpool shirt and driving a motorbike.  Such a sight would have been unthinkable in East Africa.  The landscape was less dominated by small businesses along the side of the road.  The cities of Harare and Bulawayo felt fairly modern.

We went on various early morning, afternoon and night time game drives in the Matobo and Hwange National Parks.  We didn’t manage to succesfully track the rhinos on foot but we did see some spectacular bushmen cave paintings and learn a lot from our guides Ian & Andy (disco donkey = zebra).  I saw giraffes run for the first time and an elephant swim!

We also visited the wonderful Great Zimbabwe Ruins (the National Monument after which Zimbabwe is named).  A UNESCO World Heritage site, Great Zimbabwe is a ruined city which was first constructed in the 11th century where it was thought to have been a royal palace for the Zimbabwean monarch.  Here our guide was a charming and intelligent young man called Philip.  Philip’s parents had been a head teacher and a nurse but the ruling party decided that his father had been promoting the opposition.  They sealed up their house with Philip’s father, mother and younger brother inside and burnt it to the ground.  It is very humbling to hear a young man tell you this story (we had asked about his family) so matter of factly, adding that “such things happen in life”.  I may be a soft Westerner but I can’t agree that this should be the case.

In addition to the overwhelming welcome reception from the Zimbabwean people, what I will remember most about Zimbabwe is the red sunsets, the boulders in the landscape and the crisp golden wheat in the fields.  This is a country that will shine again in the future.  I remembered not to mention the BBC.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Top ten East Africa wildlife shots

Ideally I would give you a top 30 but I have limited wireless upload so here is a taster for now:

Either link should work:


Sunday, 1 May 2011

Visiting East Africa

I am writing this from the shores of Lake Malawi at Kande Beach.  The waves are lapping loudly in the background and Liverpool just comfortably beat Newcastle 3-0.  All in all, a great afternoon.  We left Tanzania for Malawi two days ago and it seemed to me that a month in East Africa required some reflection.  Today is exactly half way through “Africa Encompassed”.

East Africa is made up of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania & Uganda and the only one not visited on this trip is Burundi.  I hear it isn’t very open for tourists (although Uganda hasn’t been so stable since I left, a bit like Syria).  The Lonely Planet “East Africa” has only a very small section on Burundi and re-iterates its potential for instability.  As you may recall, the trip started in Kenya and went into Uganda, Rwanda, back to Uganda, Kenya and then into Tanzania.  The first thing to note about all of these countries is the staggering beauty.  Sometimes when looking out of the truck window for hours at a time, you forget about all the poverty and basic living conditions – it just doesn’t seem to add up.

The geography of all of these countries is very diverse as you move from North to South, East to West.  Visiting the region during rainy season, the Ugandan and Rwandan countryside seemed the lushest.  This is fertile soil and the hillsides were beautifully terraced and the fields full of patchwork quilt crops.  Northern Tanzania felt more arid but the Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti seem to provide well for their wild animal populations.

Entering Uganda from Kenya, things instantly felt more prosperous.  There was more evidence of industry (pharmaceutical factories, Tilda signs in fields) and the children seemed to be more consistently dressed in bright, smart school uniforms.  However, shoes to go with the uniforms only became apparent in Tanzania.  The vision of prosperity in Uganda was slightly shattered as we passed the slums outside Kampala on the way to our campsite.  Our understanding is only as good as the roads we take.

However, wherever you go, the children come running.  Their vivacity is rich indeed.  If you are walking they want to hold your hand and have their photo taken (and giggle at the screen afterwards) and if you are driving past in the truck then you need to make sure that your right hand is ready for some enthusiastic waving.  It is hard to say no to all the children looking up and asking for pens and money, but necessary.  Contributions of pens and pencils should be given to a teacher and contributions of money direct to organisations that you visit/come into contact with.  The odd football can come in handy though, particularly for young boys with good chat at border crossings.

In all of these countries, 6-8 years of primary education is provided by the government, although is not always compulsory.  Secondary schooling is fee paying and so the reserve of the well-off and beneficiaries of foreign aid.  University education is beyond the means of all but a few.

Small businesses were prevalent in all the countries but seemingly less so along the roadside in Rwanda.  Many of the premises are brightly coloured and have often been painted to advertise a mobile phone network.  In Kenya it seemed that butchery was a business that could be attached to any other – Hairdressers & Butchery, Hotel & Butchery, Mobile Phones & Butchery… the list could go on.  People are obviously enterprising.  In many of the tourist destinations, locals have been encouraged to focus on their traditional carving and art skills as a way of making a living.  In the case of the National Parks, this often provides revenue which replaces that previously earned via hunting or poaching.  Preservation of game parks is high on the agenda and sustainable tourism represents an important source of income in a region bereft of high value natural resources.  Beauty alone does not pay the bills.

Helen and I spend many hours on the truck pondering how to solve the problems of Africa.  Funnily enough we haven’t identified any magic solutions when so much basic infrastructure is missing and so many people live on subsistence farming.  One of the reasons why the Ugandans are so upset is because the government has just spent millions on arming the military but yet have not provided sufficient funds for primary schooling.  And food prices are rising... 

Having read “The State of Africa” during my month in the Middle East, I arrived in Africa feeling fairly sceptical:  so much corruption at the highest levels, brutal dictators, collusion from Western governments.  I’m not sure that my opinion on that has changed much but I have been overwhelmed by the beauty of these countries and the welcome from the local people.  I’m not sure that those assets alone can drive forward change across East Africa but if the focus remains on keeping people healthy and improving access to education then hopefully over the coming generations, lasting change can be driven from within.

Apologies that this seems a little rushed.  Apparently tonight is my last opportunity to connect my netbook to t’interweb until I get to South Africa at the end of May.  Hopefully I shall be surprised on the way but I doubt that will be the case in Zimbabwe!  We start the drive to Zimbabwe tomorrow where we stay for ~ 10 days before spending the rest of the time between Botswana and Namibia, arriving in Cape Town on the 31st May.