Harare, Zimbabwe

I arrived in Harare, Zimbabwe by car on the evening of May 2 after a long day on the road.  That morning I left Malawi and drove about 400 miles (700 kilometers) through Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe.  Although it was a fascinating trip with incredible sights, I was exhausted.  I didn’t know what to expect in Harare.  I read so many negative news stories about Zimbabwe that my expectations were tempered by preconceived notions.

Once known as Salisbury, the capital of the former British colony and country known and Rhodesia, Harare was at one time of the most prosperous cities in Africa.  Three decades after Zimbabwe’s founding, however, Harare had fallen on hard times.  I’d read many cautionary tales.  Hyperinflation of the Zimbabwean dollar denominated in the trillions before it went out of circulation.  Outbreaks of cholera and other pandemics.  Unavailability of basic goods, including fuel and food.  If one believed the stories told by the international media about Harare, one would think that it had nothing good to offer.

Hence, I was pleasantly surprised to find Harare a relatively modern and livable city.  Perhaps low expectations tempered my outlook, prompting me to set them lower than necessary.  My brief journey through Zimbabwe depicted a country with many challenges but on the whole in better condition than its reputation belied.

After several days of traveling in the African countryside, I stayed in Harare overnight at a very nice 4-star hotel downtown.  The high-rise hotel overlooked a city park that coincidentally hosted the final concert of the weeklong Harare International Music Festival, Zimbabwe’s premier music event.  While concertgoers paid unknown sums to spend a few hours listening to jazz, fusion, reggae — you name it – at ground level, I sat perched 15 stories above looking down on the festival and taking in the musical finale.  It was a rare treat and a melodious ending to a long, eventful trip through southern Africa.  I rested very well that night

I spent the next morning walking around downtown Harare surveying the terrain.  The architecture was eclectic; it was both modern and dated with subtle strongman embellishments.  The cityscape did not feature any quasi-public monoliths, although I sensed broad brush strokes by the hand of public design.  The locals milling about were relatively well dress and moved with purpose on their way to complete all-important tasks.  While not as cosmopolitan as other mid-sized cities, Harare held its own in the annals of urban metropolises.  Even after years of hardship and neglect, it still remains one of the nicest I’ve seen in southern Africa.  Having lived for the past year up the road in Lusaka, Zambia, my view may be a bit colored by urban life in rural Africa.  Harare struck me as more amenable than its northern twin, despite the economic challenges it has experienced during the past three decades.

After a brief tour of Harare’s city center, I departed for Lusaka.  My stay there was short but sweet.  I was impressed enough that I plan to return to Harare in the near future over a long weekend with my family.  I want to show them a place that far exceeds the low expectations set by years of negative public perceptions.


Journey from Malawi to Zimbabwe via Mozambique (Part V)

I entered Zimbabwe in early afternoon.  Malawi, where I had been early in the morning, seemed so far away now.  I drove on through unremarkable countryside until Eastern Mashonaland, an area dotted with weathered mountainscapes rising curiously up over the dry flat land.  More people lived here than in Mozambique.  They lived in what appeared to be slightly better conditions than in Mozambique, although many were quite poor.  Unlike Malawi, I saw few bicycles in Zimbabwe, a sign that most locals had little discretionary income to buy such expensive items.  The Zimbabweans, however, had a better transit system than Mozambicans.  Far more trucks operated in this area transporting locals who hailed them using arm flourishes akin to hitchhiking.

I drove on until I reached Mutoko, a large town an hour inside the border.  I stopped at a filling station with my tank nearly empty.  No diesel.  My heart sank.  What would I do if I ran out of fuel?  This was Zimbabwe after all, a place that faced chronic shortages in virtually all commodities, including fuel, until it replaced the hyperinflationary Zimbabwean dollar with the U.S. dollar as is legal currency a few years ago.  I went to another station across the street and fueled up.  Saved, I thought.  God is my buddy.  Although it was a risk driving alone through this part of the world running on faith that I would pass without incident, it isn’t a cliché to say that God was my co-pilot on this trip.  He assured me in so many ways that I had nothing to fear and that He would keep me safe, including the moment when I was driving on the highway and suddenly confronted a semi-truck hurtling headlong towards me in my own lane.  The driver was trying to pass another truck and ran me off the road.  If not for God’s urging me to pull over and my quick response, I might have died, as so many people have on Africa’s highways.  I recalled an incident just a month before in which a missionary serving in Zambia died in Zimbabwe when his bus was hit head on by a truck.  Can I say I’m lucky to be alive?  No, not really.  I know God willed it.  If He had wanted to call me home at that instance, He would have.

I checked my tire pressure in Mutoko.  Very low.  All the tires had lost one quarter pressure, an unsurprising fact given that I had run my tires over 1,500 kilometers of broken, pothole-marked roads and harsh terrain.  While the man at the tyre (tire) shop filled them with air I surveyed the town.  Across the street was a market and bus station filled with loitering people.  On either side of the tyre shop were other auto repair shops with car parts, burned-out chasses, and tires strewn in front.  I saw the remains of an overturned car beside the road.  Mutoko was not a pretty town but definitely a fascinating glimpse into Zimbabwean culture.  I stopped by a small market to buy a cold drink and chose a non-carbonated faux orange drink from the nearly empty refrigerator.  The store owner said it cost 50 cents and asked if I would like to buy some chips to round the purchase up to one dollar.  I agreed even though I was not hungry for a salty snack.  Business was apparently slow, and she needed the money more than I needed food.

I drove on from Mutoko to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, content that I had enough fuel and tire pressure to return to civilization.  The journey ended quietly, and I pulled into town at dusk.  I was concerned about arriving after dark in Harare, a large city I did not know with its fair share of crime.  I also vaguely knew the general direction to my hotel but not the exact location.  Once again, God delivered me right to my destination, and I pulled in at nightfall.  I am thankful my buddy kept me safe.

Journey from Malawi to Zimbabwe via Mozambique (Part IV)

Tete, Central Mozambique’s largest city with about 150,000 inhabitants, was far different from the neighboring countryside.  A surprisingly modern city in the heart of an underdeveloped region, its architecture had a Portuguese flavor dulled by the years that followed independence.  Situated on the banks of the Tete River, its eastern and western banks were linked by a suspension bridge that had seen better days but was currently undergoing renovation.  The city center reminded me of others I had seen during my travels to Maputo, Mozambique’s capital, and Brazil, another former Portuguese colony.   An outpost of centralized-style governance, all roads in the area quite literally led to Tete, and virtually all services, from government administration to filling stations, were located within a short drive of the city center.  There were no other way stations for hundreds of kilometers.  I passed up the opportunity to fuel my car because I had three-quarters of a tank of diesel and did not want to buy the metacais necessary to purchase fuel in Mozambique.  I had less than a quarter of a tank left from a fill-up in southwestern Malawi when I finally passed another service station over 250 kilometers down the road in Mutoko, Zimbabwe.

One highlight of a visit to central Mozambique is geography.  The landscape changes from stunning to tired and worn and back and gain, growing progressively drier as you drive west.  The foliage turns from leafy green to sagebrush and thorny scrub.  Most of the rivers in this area had already dried up despite the fact that the rainy season just ended, leaving the land and its people increasingly thirsty and dependent on stagnant borehole wells.  The mountains near the Malawian border are wild and forbidding.  I reckoned that very few tourists had ever visited this area, most notably due to the lack of tourist infrastructure – roads and hotels – and the fact that the land is still riddled with hidden land mines left over from the civil war that affected Mozambique for several decades before it ended in 1993.  While I am an adventurous sort who would gladly lose myself in a place such as this, the presence of land mines made me hesitant to make this wish a reality.

Not far from the Zimbabwe border I saw three small, colonial style buildings at intervals along the road that looked conspicuously out of place amidst the cinder block rondavels and block houses.  Featuring stucco walls with tiled roofs, they looked as if they had been transplanted in southern Africa from rural Portugal.  I realized that this must have been the ruins of a former estate owned by a colonial Portuguese family that probably grew tobacco, a major crop in the area.  The terrain looked as if it had once been cultivated and shaped in a manner more fit for Europe than rural Africa.  The estate had most likely been abandoned by its owner either after Mozambican independence in 1975 or during the subsequent civil war.  It was now overgrown with wild brush and small, unkempt fields.  Locals had moved into the remaining structures and had lost the battle to keep the estate intact; they now spent their time growing maize in small plots and cutting trees to make charcoal.  The story of this estate and the underlying tragedy of its demise would make for an interesting read.

Journey from Malawi to Zimbabwe via Mozambique (Part III)

I crossed into Mozambique and was confronted by a gaggle of men hanging out near my vehicle.  I was a bit apprehensive entering Mozambique for several reasons.  My Portuguese consists of “Nao fallo Portugues” (I don’t speak Portuguese), and English and Spanish language skills are of limited use in an area dominated by Portuguese and indigenous languages.  The Mozambican side of the border was far busier than either Malawi’s or Zimbabwe’s and primarily consisted of bus passengers stuck at terribly slow border crossings waiting to transit to or from Malawi or Zimbabwe.  Central Mozambique is a transit destination for most people, not a destination.  A helpful Mozambican gentleman helped me navigate the immigration and customs bureaucracy amidst a throng of people.  I made sure he knew I did not have any money to pay him, and he nodded in understanding.  I appreciated his assistance and would have been glad to repay the favor if we ever crossed paths again.

Crossing land borders in southern Africa is a “fairly” standardized process – just fill out small entry/exit immigration forms, hand over your passport and immigration form to be processed and stamped, proceed to customs, sign a big “guest book,” and then haggle with customs over getting your vehicle in and out of whatever country you’re in.  Pay whatever processing fees and taxes are required and then obtain a form that allows you to drive through the entry/exit gate.  It’s not always quick and painless.  In my own experience, Zimbabwean customs has been more of a hassle than other countries’ customs regimes.  At the Zimbabwean-Mozambican border a plainclothes Zimbabwean manning the gate tried to coerce me into visiting Zimbabwean police camped out next to the gate to “make sure my vehicle isn’t stolen.”  This was obviously an attempt to extract a bribe.  I politely but firmly told him that customs had already registered my vehicle in Zim and that my vehicle was legally registered in Zambia.  I told him that he could not legally hold me at the border, smiled an “OK, you got me” smile and lifted the gate for me.  I drove on without further incident.  It reminded me that at times at border crossings you need to be assertive and not let pseudo-officials con you into an awkward situation that leaves you cornered and/or forced to pay a bribe.

Central Mozambique was fascinating.  Save the bustling regional capital city of Tete, the region felt isolated and disconnected from the outside world.  I saw nary a single tourist or muzungu except for a local in Tete who was of mixed Portuguese descent.  The local culture is similar to what you find in neighboring areas inside Zambia.  The towns are small with clusters of circular rondavels and block houses interspersed with small fields, paths and trees.  As I headed west, I saw more and more baobab trees, which, along with the acacia tree, is one of the staples of the African landscape.  The distinctive baobab trees accentuated the quaintness of the villages.  I enjoyed watching the locals as a drive-by tourist, snapping a few photos now and then to capture the trip for my memory banks.  I am one of the lucky few to have had my own vehicle.  Most vehicles I saw on the road in central Mozambique were transporting products such as fuel to market.  A few others were private vehicles or motorcycles owned by the lucky ones with wealthy.  Some were trucks that served as makeshift mass transit transporting villagers to nearby towns.  Undoubtedly these drivers were making a killing selling rides for a few metacais (the Mozambican currency).

From my experience in neighboring Zambia, I drew a mental picture of what life must be like in rural Mozambique.  Work all day in the fields, children spending most of their time doing supplemental work like carrying water.  No electricity means that entertainment consists of playing with whatever makeshift toys can be fashioned, and cooking is done using wood-cured charcoal.  In the center of it all stands the church (or mosque) beckoning worshippers to take breaks from life and give time to God.  As the dry season drags on, the locals undoubtedly pray more frequently for rain to ensure they have enough drinking water and abundant crops, mostly maize (corn).

Journey from Malawi to Zimbabwe via Mozambique (Part II)

After I dropped my Malawian passenger off at the highway junction near Monkey Bay, I drove south away from Lake Malawi.  I stopped at a service station to fill up my rig with diesel, but they told me that it was “finished.”  Monkey Bay did not have any diesel either, the station attendant told me.  He said that the nearest station was in Mangochi, which was a bit out of my way but a necessary stop if I wanted to avoid running out of fuel.  I felt a twinge of anxiety driving in the heart of Africa low on fuel and chastised myself for not bringing the fuel can I had bought months for times such as these.  Anticipating a fuel shortage in Malawi did not cross my mind days before when I was in Lusaka preparing for this trip!  I made it to Mangochi in short order and spent the remainder of my Malawian kwacha buying half a tank of diesel.  That’s not enough fuel, I thought, and asked the attendant whether I could pay for a full tank of diesel in U.S. dollars.  He agreed.  Paying for half a tank set me back over $60.00.  The attendant examined the $100 bill to make sure it wasn’t fake and paid me change in kwacha, which I used to refuel at the Malawian-Mozambican border.  Crisis averted.  For now.

I made my way back to the route I had planned to take to Mozambique.  Local highways are not clearly marked, and I happenchance found the right route courtesy of a local advert that pointed me in the right direction.  I headed in a general southerly direction, hurtling to the border.  The area of Malawi bordering Mozambique is stunningly beautiful, with weathered mountains rising high enough to inspire breathtaking views but with signs of age that reminded me of just how ancient this continent is.  The large boulders and smooth jagged peaks poked up from the greenish hills covered with swaths of African trees, the kind depicted in safari caricatures.

I exhausted my Malawian currency buying a bag of Lays potato chips and a can of Pepsi.  I tried to trade for a few Malawian kwacha bills and coins, but the cashier at a Metro Cash and Carry market in the border Mwansa looked at me as if I were speaking a language other than English.  Obviously she was not accustomed to an American accent, I observed.  I tried using simple phrases such as “here is 100 kwacha; I want to trade for coins” to no avail.  She took my 100 kwacha and gave me back a handful of oversized 10 kwacha coins.  Mission accomplished, sort of.

The border crossing was fascinating.  As the only muzungu (foreigner) in sight, I was particularly attractive to the local vendors, money changers, and those who came begging for money and food.  I made sure my vehicle was thoroughly secure, valuables safely hidden away, and my official documents close to my chest.  Sellers greeted me as I exited my vehicle.  “Boss, you want metacais (Mozambican currency)?  Rand (South African currency)?”  No, I firmly replied.  One man tried to help me “find” the immigration office even though I was parked in front of it.  No thanks, I told him.  While I know these vendors were merely trying to make a living, I also know that in a way most earn a decent income waiting to ambush naïve motorists who must stop to do their official duty of checking in and out of immigration.

Journey from Malawi to Zimbabwe via Mozambique (Part I)

My journey from Malawi to Harare, Zimbabwe on May 2 was nothing short of amazing.  I started off early from Cape Maclear on the shores of Lake Malawi.  I got lost in the small town and asked for directions.  A young, half drunk man I discerned was named “Philemon” pointed me in the right direction but then asked for a ride to a hospital in Monkey Bay, a town about 25 kilometers from Cape Maclear.  I normally am not so brash as to let a stranger in my car but had had a good experience with the locals, who were quite friendly and generally of the honest sort.  Philemon showed me the way out of town – but not before he tried to pursuade me to help a couple friends carry their buckets of water to some unknown destination elsewhere in town.  I declined because I needed to hit the road.  We left town and drove the rough road from Cape Maclear to the main highway.  I drove a bit fast and caught air a couple of times with my SUV, especially when I misjudged the dip of a culvert and went over it too fast.  Philemon’s personal story changed several times during the trip.  First he was sick and needed to go to the hospital, then the mother of his child in Mangochi, another town an hour from Cape Maclear, was disgruntled because Philemon never visited his son.  I ultimately convinced him to disembark when we reached the highway junction a few miles south of Monkey Bay.  Philemon was a tragic figure.  Young, unemployed and apparently penniless, it was obvious that he had a good heart but was emboldened to frivolity.  He seemed to prefer the bottle to facing responsibility and making a better life for himself.  As is so often the case, he seemed the type who blamed his circumstance on his surroundings, rarely owning up to the fact that he had a brain, two hands, and the physical wherewithal to change his life.

Juxtapose Philemon with a kindly youth named “Absent” I met in Cape Maclear who was anything but.  I befriended Absent, a worker at the lodge where I stayed.  He told me that he earns a pittance, $50 per month, and yet supports his parents and six siblings.  He lives with his parents, who grow corn and set aside some for the family to turn into corn (mealie) meal and nshima (corn porridge).  Absent gave me a tour of Cape Maclear and bought me a carton of Chibuku, an African corn-based home brew alcohol that most foreigners shun and locals drink because it’s the cheapest indulgence available.  Absent took me to his home and offered me a beverage.  Declining to drink anything made from local water so as not to fall ill from whatever might have infested the water, I asked for a Coca-Cola guessing that his family might have some.  A bottle of Coke is four times more expensive than Chibuku, but for about 75 cents you can buy a 500ml glass bottle and then return the bottle to the store or kiosk.  Absent’s family did not have any, so he sent his half sister to buy some.  I was shocked.  I was trying to avoid inconveniencing him, and he went out of his way to make me happy.  After we returned to the lodge, I gave Absent ten dollars to cover the cost of the Coke, Chibuku, and supplement his family’s income.  He initially declined my money and said that it was his pleasure, convincing me that he was sincere and was not simply spending time with me to make a quick buck.