While Zimbabwe Waits

Boys in Zimbabwe
Boys in Zimbabwe

The next time you see a movie in which someone makes a payoff of a million dollars in a briefcase filled with $20 bills, don’t believe it. It’s impossible. I know, because the other day I picked up a million in $100 bills, and I had to stuff mine into a sack. Incidentally, the warehouse where I got the million normally stores fish in these sacks, so that’s what the money smelled like for weeks.

No, I’m not a drug lord or a mobster. Far from being a payoff or laundered cash, the money I picked up was a million Zimbabwe dollars (ZWD), making the entire sack worth about US$1,250. I needed the cash for the day-to-day expenses of running Grassroot Soccer in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, with a population of about one million. This nongovernmental program works with local professional soccer players – who are often major role models – to teach AIDS prevention to youngsters.

According to UN officials, HIV-related diseases kill about 2,500 Zimbabweans every week in this country of 12 million people. About 25 percent of the adults in Zimbabwe have HIV or AIDS. And because most cannot afford or do not have access to necessary drugs, the life expectancy for someone with HIV is only two to three years.

National Soccer hero Methembe Ndlovu, American imports Kirk Friedrichs and Tony Clark, all who played for Bulawayos professional “Highlander” Team, kicked off the initiative, which officially began as an after school program in January 2003. The plan is to expand the project throughout sub-Saharan Africa in 2004 and 2005.

Teaching at-risk youths about the dangers of HIV infection and the most effective ways to protect themselves was easy. Doing business and sometimes just living in a country that is imploding from the failures of its government and its economy was the real challenge.

Inflation was at an annual rate of 599 percent in December 2003, the first decline in the country’s skyrocketing cost of living in 18 months. (This trend even surprised government officials who had forecasted inflation would rise to 700 percent in the first quarter of 2004. Some private analysts predicted it would break the 1000 percent barrier by the end of March.)

As an outsider, it takes time to acclimate to a place where survival simply is less assured than in North America or Western Europe, and where the rules that make the country work can be a challenge.

For instance, one of my co-workers, Jeff, was pulled over by police for turning on a red light. Apparently that is not allowed here, which is surprising because Zimbabwe seems like a place in which most things are permitted. Jeff was allowed to pay the policeman a bribe of ZWD$ 2,000 (about US$ 2.50) to make the “violation” disappear.

I cannot count the number of times someone told me that I should have been here a couple of years ago, that this country was thriving then. People are hungry now because farms have been taken over by lawless thugs who don’t know the first thing about commercial farming and are barely able to feed themselves, let alone the millions of dependent people living in cities.

When city dwellers try to do something about it, they are beaten or worse by the same government that encourages the land seizures. I have learned to take many things my U.S. government says with a grain of salt, but it was shocking to hear the Zimbabwe government lie so blatantly.

In 2002 the European Union imposed sanctions against the regime of President Robert Mugabe (recently named one of the 10 worst dictators in the world by Reader’s Digest) for human right abuses and ballot fraud after he reclaimed power in tainted presidential elections. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth last year after observers reported about violence, intimidation and electoral flaws during the polls. The EU imposed a visa ban on leaders of the ruling Zanu party. Assets of top government officials were frozen. The United States imposed similar restrictions.

People are dissatisfied, and they are scared, yet they didn’t seem to actively try to change the situation. Perhaps they are neither sufficiently dissatisfied nor scared enough to do something decisive about their situation. Instead, while I was there, people seemed more inclined to wait.

Waiting, it seems, can categorize broadly the plight of Zimbabwe. People here are waiting for their government to change, for food to reappear on store shelves, for gasoline to be readily available. In the meantime, there is simply more waiting.

Cars line up for miles if a station receives a shipment of gasoline. This is a common sight at every station, and Grassroot organizer Kirk once sat in a “petrol queue” for eight hours, only to watch the car in front of him suck the pump dry.

You can no longer tell a bank by its sign but rather by the hundreds of people who are obscuring the sign as they wait outside to make the maximum withdrawal of ZWD$ 5,000 (about US$ 6.25). There is such a severe shortage of cash that some desperate people will write someone willing to sell cash a check for 110 percent of the currency they are receiving. I’ve heard that people with too many small bills, such as 20’s and 50’s, are buying $500 notes for $700.

One time, Jeff and I decided to travel by train to Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the world, on the northwestern border to Zambia where the mighty Zambezi River thunders down a series of basalt gorges.

Victoria Falls was added to Unesco’s World Heritage List in 1989. The day before the trip, we swung by the train station to buy tickets. It took us three hours of waiting in line to reach the ticket clerk, who was using a new touch-screen computer. While it took all of 30 seconds to make our purchase, long lines have become the norm, even when they aren’t necessary.

Shopping the black market

The constant shortages force people here into a dependence on the black market for things such as Zimbabwean currency, which is how I found myself in the fishy warehouse with a million bucks. Another necessity is gasoline. In the house where I live, there is a 55-gallon (208 liters) drum of gas in the garage, bought from someone who has made a business, as many people have, of bringing gas back from neighboring Botswana, an hour away.

The advantage of black-market gas is that the seller brings it to your house, and it costs the same as the gas you can’t find at the stations. The downside is that there is only one way to get the gas from the drum into the truck: This involves me putting a tube in the big drum and sucking gas through the tube to start it to flow into the truck’s tank. More often than not, I swallow at least some gas before I can maneuver the tube into the tank.

The black market also has become invaluable to the smooth running of Grassroot Soccer, and nobody is more informal or invaluable than an entrepreneur named Shakey, who hangs out at a record store downtown. He organizes things such as arranging for the T-shirts and soft drinks we give out at the graduation ceremony for the kids who complete our two-week course. Shakey also arranged to have his girlfriend cook at graduations.

But Shakey rarely answers his cell phone. It can be frustrating to rely on a man named Shakey who spends his days in a record store at which he does not work and who carries a cell phone he never answers. Yet he manages constantly to surprise us with his ingenuity and ability to get things done. So far, the only problem we’ve had with his work was when he delivered to us all of the graduation T-shirts for our safe-sex classes; they were sizes that might fit a 4-year-old.

While Zimbabwe is suffering from various shortages, there is no lack of colorful names here. I’ve met a Pretty, a Lovemore and an Advance. Filling out the names on our diplomas, I have come across Obey, Online, Lookout and Brilliant. Gift and Trust are also common. The best name, and most fitting, that I have encountered is that of a lawyer with the political party opposing the government: His name is Innocent.

Patience amid desperation

As an American, coming from a place where they used to promise your pizza would be free if delivered in 31 minutes, not 30, I have expectations that much of the world would consider unreasonable. Although the infinite patience of people here often frustrates me, their willingness, or resignation, to stand in long lines is really a struggle for survival.

I will always remember Victoria Falls as one of nature’s most dramatic displays: incredible amounts of water rushing over a mile (1.6 kilometers) long precipice to drop more than 300 feet (100 meters). The impact below constantly shoots back up a cloud of spray visible for miles.

The deep green that swathes the pathways is in sharp contrast to the khaki grass and orange clay that characterize the surrounding country during the dry season.

But the unrelenting touts will also be an indelible memory of my visit to Victoria Falls. There are so many people selling little objects or working for tour operators, and so few visitors, that Jeff and I could not walk 10 feet (3 meters) without having to say, “No.”

We had to refuse to change money, to buy a tour, to buy a souvenir, to buy a bag of marijuana. It was as though these merchants were running a relay race, and we were the batons, passed from one to the next.

If we didn’t want to buy something, then didn’t we have anything we could trade? The most common opening line was, “I like your shoes.” This would be followed by an offer to trade a carved-wood hippopotamus, which we had already declined, for our shoes.

Although we consistently refused to buy or trade for these hippos, I admit they were quite impressively made. I was aware that I could never make anything like them myself. Unfortunately for the men with the carved beasts, I am just as bad at making shoes, so I kept my footwear.

The carvers’ talent, like Shakey’s business acumen, struck me as great resources that were going to waste, much like Zimbabwe’s greatest attraction, Victoria Falls.

I couldn’t help but feel bad for these guys: Victoria Falls used to be a bustling tourist town with plenty of gullible people who might even have had spare shoes to trade. But now it has few visitors. And these merchants were just trying to make a sale.

Sometimes desperation is more difficult to deny.

I coach a youth team in Bulawayo’s township of Njube. The players are 12 years old, except for the star, a player with excellent skill, named Welcome. He is 15 but has the body of a 12-year-old, so nobody asks questions.

I have taken Welcome to the hospital several times to visit his mother, who is deteriorating at a startling rate from AIDS. The boy stands by the bed, just tall enough to face his mother at eye level. She is too weak to do anything but stare back. Neither speaks, and I do not think that either notices the woman in the next bed, moaning.

To me, Welcome is like Zimbabwe itself: growth stunted, helplessly looking AIDS in the face, waiting for the death it brings. People like Welcome have taught me that patience can be a painfully necessary virtue. But in a country where a quarter of the adults are terminally ill, no one has time to wait around.


Grassroot Soccer


Victoria Falls: