I want to write about Zimbabwe. And yet I don't. I've posted a few times in the last month about the Zimbabwean refugees. I had some idea about what what going on in Zimbabwe but nothing prepared me for my visit to Victoria Falls. I actually wasn't all that keen to go to the 'Zim-side', I wanted to see the falls from Zambia. I didn't want to support Mugabe's government with my park entrance and visa fees. But our travel agent organised a tour to Zim, and it was too hard to change it once we got to Kanase. I'm not sure why I feel the need to point this out, because I still went, so clearly my political boycotting can be bought. Fairly cheaply too.

But I digress.

As soon as we reached Victoria Falls township it was clear that this was not the place it had once been. This is a town that once bustled. Victoria Falls Hotel was listed in the top 10 most luxurious hotels in the 1980s. There are still several five-star hotels located on the main street. They have guards outside, but no guests. The place is a ghost town. The streets were empty of cars, excluding the tourist safari vans, and locals walked around with bare feet, sitting under trees playing board games made from old cardboard and bottle tops.

First stop was a Baubab tree that is 1800 years old. David Livingstone, who is credited with "discovering" the falls, talks about this tree in his journal. It's pretty famous as trees go and everyone stops for the requisite picture (the tree is huge - approximately 10m wide). From out of the bush came these men.

It reminded me of Cambodia, only they were more desperate.

Many of them didn't want money. They wanted my socks. And my pen. And my t-shirt. Would I trade my socks for such-and-such. What about a pen for a sister who needs it for school?

These men were so desperate that even after we got back into the minivan they kept trying to make a sale. The door was closed on them by our tour guide, their hands still reaching inside in case we might suddenly change our minds.

It's hard not to be affected by such desperation.

But then the falls. Magnificent even at the end of the dry season. The surrounding area is a national park and there are no gaudy signs or tacky tourist stands to prevent you from fully enjoying the natural beauty of the place. There are well maintained paths stopping at various vantage points so you can meditate, take pictures and marvel. The falls provide an otherwise arid area with a humidity and mist that allows green (green!) plants to grow and the whole place is, well, a wonder of the world.

I know that I'm getting a bit prophetic but it is perhaps the contrast between the falls and the township that is so stark. We 'lunched' (sic) at Victoria Falls Hotel. This place is really the only place to eat in the town now, so most tour groups stop here. The once exclusive hotel has been reduced to serving lunch to backpackers.

There is still very much an old-world colonial charm to this place. The lunch terrace looks over manicured lawns, out to the gorge and the bridge separating Zambia and Zimbabwe. When the falls have more water, mist drifts up from the gorge in large billowing clouds obscuring the bridge. It is still a very special place to have lunch. And yet. There are locals outside asking for my socks and my pens for artwork that must have taken hours, if not day to finish. Most of the people eating lunch were white with a smattering of middle-class African tourists. I couldn't hep wondering if this is what Mugabe envisaged.


katie@weheartbooks.com said...

Great post Clare - sounds gut-wrenching. Your description makes me feel like I've experienced some of it.

Sue said...

This post makes me feel a degree of desperation and impotence.