Before I continue with my trip details I wanted to offer a little background on Zimbabwe's current situation as it is an example of how one deranged ruler can screw up a perfectly good country in a very short amount of time. It will also help you better understand how things currently are over there and prevent me from having to pause and explain things later on. If you are easily bored by historic detail and political issues, feel free to skip to my next post for more on-the-edge-of-you-seat narrative, but I promise it'll be worth the five minutes it takes you to read this.
Since obtaining independence in 1980 the president of Zimbabwe has been Robert Mugabe (moo-gah-bee). For the first 15 years or so of his presidency he was seen as a strong, progressive president in a part of the world that has traditionally lacked good leadership. However, in 1999 an opposition movement called the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) began gaining influence and Mugabe made a rash move. He decided that in order to gain favor with the voters he would announce a land reform program that would confiscate most of the vast lands owned by the white farmers and allow them to be taken over by veterans of the war of independence. Now don't get me wrong, such a program could have had some merit if it involved more people in the economy and helped to spread the wealth around. Unfortunately, it did neither. Even though the amendment was voted on and widely rejected by the mere 20% of the people who showed up to vote, the leadership of the War Veterans Association ignored the results and began organizing invasions of white farms. In the chaos the congress pushed through an amendment that allowed the seizure of white-owned farmland. What resulted was some of the best farmers in the world being driven off their land (some even killed) to allow peasants to squat and let the land go to waste as they plant only subsistence plants to feed their families and contribute little else to society.
In the wake of this, Zimbabwe has gone from being the largest exporter of wheat in all of Africa to facing dangerous food shortages in only 5 years. Many of the farmers forced off their land were asked by other African governments to come to their country and help get their farming industries in order. Last year neighboring Zambia exported wheat for the first time in its independent history...to Zimbabwe! Other success stories can be found in Nigeria and Malawi. It's as if George Steinbrenner lost his mind one day and released A-Rod, Derek Jeter and Randy Johnson. As usual, the real losers in this are the average peasants. The farms once employed and supported over 600,000 (mostly black) workers and their families. Now these people have lost their livlihoods and no one is growing much of anything. Of the approxiamtely 4,500 white farmers in Zimbabwe in 2000 only about 300 remain.
Somewhat ironically, the hasty land reform movement did not end up helping too much. In the parliamentary elections in April 2000, the MDC won 57 out of 120 seats. During the presidential election in March 2002 Mugabe took his gloves off, unleashing a wave of intimidation and fraud that bought him an election he otherwise would have lost. Polling stations in anti-Mugabe areas were frequented by thugs who used physical threats and violence to keep the turnout low. In the pro-Mugabe rural areas the government took a page out of old Chicago asking its constituents to vote early and often. Districts that had been accustomed to turnouts in the 10-15% range were now reporting an astounding 90% turnout. The fix was in and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it. Why am I telling you this? Because what followed was international criticism and, eventually, sanctions. The value of the Zim dollar has plummeted. At independence, one Zim dollar was worth as much as one British pound. Today? The Zim dollar is toilet paper. If someone would be willing to accept them, it would take nearly 30,000 Zim dollars to buy that same British pound! Even the Zim government won't accept their own currency. All of our visa fees had to be paid in either US dollars, British pounds, South African rand or Euros.
And, to top it off, Mugabe recently (only days before I got there, actually) announced Operation Murambatsvina (literally "Drive out the Trash"). Officially, this was a crackdown against illegal trading and illegal housing. Unofficially, this was an attack on the urban areas that once again voted predominantly against Mugabe's party in parliamentary elections held in March of this year. The Operation consisted of unofficial curio (souvenir) stands being burned and unofficial shanty towns being razed to the ground by bulldozers. Whatever the reality, estimates show that an additional 700,000 people have lost their livlihoods while an additional 2.4 million have been affected (mostly because the shack they used to live in has been flattened). Without boring you any further with more details, it goes without saying that things are tough in Zimbabwe right now.