A shadow of its for­mer self

An­thony De­Ceglie finds Zim­bab­weans striv­ing to make the best of a bad sit­u­a­tion.

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - DESTINATION -

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.’’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.