A shadow of its former self
Anthony DeCeglie finds Zimbabweans striving to make the best of a bad situation.
THE local beer in Zimbabwe is called Zambezi. It comes in recycled bottles. So every fourth or fifth beer you open is flat.
Most times you would pour it out and grab another – but not tonight.
Tonight, as we fly down a dirt road into the night life area surrounding the once proud Victoria Falls tourist hub we need all the alcohol we can get.
You don’t want to get malaria. Alcohol keeps the mossies away,’’ Richard yells to me from the front seat of a beaten-up Toyota LandCruiser.
Richard, a local game reserve trekker, has spent all of his 40 years in Zimbabwe. He grew up in the Binga region, a remote district in northern Zimbabwe that is now almost inaccessible to tourists. The Binga people, mostly from the Tonga Tribe, are known as a feisty people who have a tense relationship with the government. As a result, it is one of the most poverty-stricken areas of Zimbabwe with very little food or medical supplies.
When I asked Richard to take me out for a night in Zimbabwe I made him promise to show me what it was really like.
I sat in the back tray of his LandCruiser passing a king-sized Zambezi beer with two of Richard’s friends unsure of what the result what be. Charlie and Bennet were already drunk and howling at the moon.
What do you know about Zimbabwe?’’ Charlie asks me.
Only what I’ve seen in the newspapers.’’
Charlie laughs. I bet that isn’t very good,’’ he says. It’s mostly killings and people being set on fire.’’ Bennet opens another beer.
What do you think of Mugabe?’’ I ask them.
We don’t know any better.’’ I take a deep swig of the beer. It’s a lager and tastes like Victoria Bitter.
‘‘ The biggest problem in this area isn’t the violence,’’ Bennet says. ‘‘ It’s the food. Sometimes there isn’t any food around at all. You walk into the supermarket and every shelf is bare. The only thing in the store is condoms because the government has to provide them because of AIDS. Smuggling food into the country is an art form. People know just how many cans of food they can hide in their car doors without getting caught.’’
Before things get too serious we stop for a toilet break. Jimmy, our driver, pulls the car to the side of the road.
Jimmy is another youngster who works with Richard. He was given the task of driving tonight because he doesn’t like to drink alcohol.
‘‘ The next part of the road is pretty rocky,’’ Richard laughs. It’s best to go here.’’
Up ahead a speed sign reads Dead Slow. On either side of the road is dense, thick bush.
As we make our way into town we drive past various hotels. Most of them
are empty and struggling to survive.
Victoria Falls used to be a popular tourist hub on both sides of the Zambia and Zimbabwe border.
Tourists poured into the town to look at one of the seven natural wonders of the word. Extreme sportsmen travelled to bungy jump or white water raft.
But, tourism has dropped off drastically under Mugabe’s reign.
The first nightspot we hit is a backpacker’s haunt called Club Shoestring. It’s a typical hostel environment complete with Bob Marley sound track.
It’s a Friday night and still quite early so the place is quiet.
But, the man at the door charging $ US10 for entry says it will be packed by the end of the night.
Inflation in Zimbabwe recently got so bad that the country abandoned its local dollar.
Everyone now trades in US dollars or the euro.
After Club Shoestring, the gang takes me to another tourist haunt – the local casino.
It’s a tacky soulless place with giant-sized animal statues everywhere.
It’s about 10.30pm and the casino is empty. There is a bar there that Richard likes because it plays English Premier League football.
The bar, called Action Bar, has a few lonely customers.
We stay for a quick beer and then travel to a place called the Kudu Club. It’s the sort of venue that is home to locals and tourists and is pitched halfway between the richer part of town and the slums.
Its walls vibrate to the dance music and there is a massive dance floor surrounded by smaller bars.
Patrons walk about in tight tops and short skirts with fluorescent tubes around their necks and wrists.
As we head back into the car I tell Richard I want to see where the locals drink. After about five minutes of driving we arrive at a venue called Sean’s Place. It’s packed with about 100 locals. Sean’s Place is what is referred to as a drinking shed’’ by the locals.
Drinking sheds are empty shops that have been gutted.
Sean’s Place was a butcher shop. The walls and floor are bare concrete. There is hardly any light and just one dingy toilet out the back. The beer is kept in a large cooler behind an iron-gated counter.
There is a small television in one corner of the room playing English football. In another corner, a group of five men in the early 20s sit around a CDplayer acting as DJs.
Along the sides of the shed men and women sit slumped against the wall.
Some are passed out, while others are in a daze after combining too much alcohol with solvent abuse.
I’m only white person in sight and I’m met with a mixture of contempt and curiosity.
Some of the locals come over to me and shake hands or high five. Others pull at my shirt or push me in the chest until Richard steps in to stop it.
Whatever you do don’t talk politics,’’ he tells me.
Just pretend like you don’t understand what they’re saying.’’
Most of the girls are drunk and barely standing up.
Those who are standing are dancing wildly and trying to push men away.
The Zimbabwean men in this drinking shed don’t ask – they simply grab.
All the men drink Zambezi beer while most of the girls down cheap bourbon mixed with cola out of a tall red can. It costs about $ US1 for a beer.
This is where the young people come,’’ Richard says.
Or men who are trying to get away from their wives.’’
Most of the Zimbabwean men have mistresses. Their wives and children stay at home while they go out drinking.
In some cases, their families live far away from where they work.
The men send money home and visit every few months.
One of the reasons Jimmy doesn’t drink is because he is married and wants to stay faithful.
When I drink I can’t trust myself around women,’’ he said.
So I don’t drink.’’ On our way home we stop at another drinking shed. It is a two-storey venue and the crowd is tougher.
Inside it’s darker and the ground floor is dirt.
Richard goes to the bar and fetches some king-sized bottles of Zambezi beer for the ride home.
It’s 2am and the drinking shed is starting to close.
Outside, people are urinating against the walls of the shed and waving goodbye to one another.
We take a shortcut on the route home through the slums.
The streets are lined with rubbish and stray dogs roam in packs.
Richard is sitting in the trailer next to me sharing a beer.
Every now and then he taps on the roof of the car signalling to Jimmy to slow down. Sure enough, as the car slows down a giraffe or a zebra from one of the local game reserves will run in front of the car.
During the drive home Richard begins to talk openly about his country. His greatest sadness comes from the fact that his children will never see Zimbabwe the way it once was.
He says the bureaucracy is strangling the people.
The process of getting a visa to travel in Zimbabwe is a mockery.
The immigration officers constantly try to rip tourists off and if you want change they often have to begrudgingly dig it out of their pockets.
I ask Richard if his country can ever be great again while Mugabe is alive.
No. And, we’ll never get rid of him – not until he dies.’’