“I have very narrow feet, so I can only wear Ferragamo.”
During the protracted teetering that preceded the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, I came back from Belgrade with this sad souvenir, a five hundred billion Dinar note:
Whoever is driving the train in a state like that is due for a bloody wreck, and Milosevic eventually derailed. But the most catastrophic conductor’s train was just leaving the station.
A few years after Milosevic’s 500,000,000,000 Dinar debacle, Robert Mugabe presided over inflation that, according to a clinical, academic analysis, caused prices to double every 24.7 hours. But there was nothing clinical about actually living in the land of Mugabe. There was chaos.
Robert Mugabe was there when I first turned up in Zimbabwe in 1995. When I think of the considerable chunk of my life gone by since then, I can only mourn for Zimbabweans forced to live all those days under Mugabe, his wife Gucci Grace and their cadre of kleptocrats.
Let us hope that from here all the players, the army, politicians in Zimbabwe and in surrounding countries with interests real or perceived (looking at you, South Africa) can restrain themselves. Let’s all hope ordinary Zimbabweans become the stars of this new show, and get a too-long awaited chance to live and prosper again.
Zimbabwe is gorgeous. In the post-Mugabe future, let’s all visit, congratulate its people and leave behind a wad of foreign currency. Just leave your hunting rifle at home.
We're not in Africa. We're actually en route to Panama City, Pamana today. We'll talk with you from there shortly. Meantime, here's part five of a series of short vignettes from some of our past trips to Africa.
The Zambesi is the fourth largest African river after the Nile, Niger and Congo, at 2700 kilometers. It's the longest to empty into the Indian Ocean. It's mouth in Mozambique comprises a 120 kilometer wide delta.
Its source is in northwest Zambia. Above the falls it’s navigable by bigger boats to only ten kilometers upstream, at Kandahar island. It's a calm river with sandbars and islands. 84 species of fish, 415 of birds, Ebony, Fig, Mahogany, Waterberry and what they call the "Raintree" and the "Sausage Tree" as well as Ilala and Wild Date Palms.
A woman named Precious arranged us a Zambesi cruise. We climbed aboard a two-deck blue and white cruiser and found a seat with some agreeable gin-swilling Germans.
Upstream, hippos yawned, a croc lurked here or there, boats like ours chugged by. The sun ground us into the sundeck.
ZNBC, Zambian TV was just a scream. At sign on at 6:00 p.m., Chinyama Mukuma, in a brown plaid jacket, and Bridget Nkhoma, brown blazer and a necklace with a cross, read us the news. It ran until they’d told it all, I guess. It started at 6:00 and ended at 6:18. Then some happy people down by a pool smiled and sang about how much they enjoyed "Saladi De-odorized Vegetable Oil." The next commercial was for the Gorilla, the Zambian equivalent of The Club anti-theft device.
The TV played videos on channel 4. They even played the warning against showing them in places like hotels.
We gambled. Three games available down at the casino, roulette, blackjack and Zambesi Poker – five card draw with no drawing. You just bet your hand. Mirja and I bought 100 Z$2 chips each and pulled up at the roulette table. Every single croupier was a trainee, and the trainer glared at all of them, all the time. I lost all my money straightaway but Mirja won about all of it back, and still we were in bed by 11:00.
While the sun rose over Zambia, white people disdained me over their cereals and fruit as I stuffed down sausages, bacon and cheese rolls. We changed hotels. Graceful, gracious, the Victoria Falls Hotel has a fine view over the fine back lawn, up the chasm of the Zambesi to the Zambia bridge and the falls' spray. Water costs more than beer.
The air parched, still, searing, we set out to walk to Zambia.
There's a band of five boys under a tree, all five playing xylophone-marimba-type things, their hands full of musical hammers, and a lot of smiling going on. Now there's more cumulus than blue and maybe, just maybe, rain will come. They need it keenly.
I asked a young boy, "How are you doing?"
"I am just waiting for rain, sir."
If there were no Victoria Falls here there sure wouldn't be any tourists. Flat, scrubby, hot-as-absolute-hell. Air completely still.
The instant we got to town Mirja and I did the walk down to the falls, in heavy travel mode, long sleeves and pants and all. What the hell?
We walked probably eight or nine minutes past salesmen (carved rhinos, hippos) and across the rail line that continues into Zambia. U.S. $2.50 admission was good for the day. Signs admonished you to keep strictly to the paths. In just a couple minutes, you were there.
It's hard to choose the right superlatives.
Some figures: It's seasonal, but at its peak, 12,000,000 gallons take the plunge every minute. 1,600 meters is a mile. Victoria Falls is 1691 meters wide.
It's carved from a shelf of volcanic basalt, chiseling zig zag down a fault line. It's been only 140 years – 1855 – since the first white man, David Livingstone, arrived. Grass-clad tribesmen told him of Mosi-oa-Tunya, but he named it for his queen back home. In 1905, exactly 50 years later, a rail line arrived from Cape Town on its way to Cairo. The bridge to Zambia began. By this time Cecil Rhodes was in charge, and Zambia was North Rhodesia.
We didn't care about any of that. We just lurched straight down to stand in the spray. Someone outside warned, "Oh, definitely rent a rain coat – you'll get drenched," and we did get drenched, without raincoats, and it was fabulous.
Victoria Falls has no parking lots, no dancing waters, no wax museums. Just stone pathways. We wandered the paths around the falls, through the fig and rhododendron trees. Two does teased us for awhile, and on the path back we squatted down to visit with a pack of about 20 curious suricates, sitting up on their hind legs, watching for danger, or maybe a dinner tidbit from the tourists.
At the end of the day the spray tossed far up over the trees and the bridge to Zambia. The sky deepened pink into blue and black, and the southern cross pierced the black high and to the south. On the menu at the rooftop restaurant, crocodile thermidor for Z$45: "Enjoy a crock-tail with us."
Next: Day trip to Zambia
Six-Thirty a.m., Kenyatta Avenue and Kimathi Street, Nairobi. Standing on the corner, waiting for a ride. The clouds were underlit by the rising sun, peach and blue. We were headed for Harare.
This was way back, 1995, before the world decided Robert Mugabe was a monster, and we though “Ahh, Zimbabwe…the land of Bobby Mugabe…. Officially, His Excellency the Honorable President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, CDE Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
The "Sunshine City" lived up to its name…brilliant sun, no humidity – clear, crisp light. Harare perched atop the highveld, twelve or 1500 meters above sea level. We were speaking Shona now – thank you was datenda, beer was wa wa.
As we flew in, cumulus puffs played shadows across agricultural heartland. Occasional hillocks. The main crops were tobacco and maize, but there was also wheat, cotton, citrus, diary and what they call "commercial wildlife production."
The altitudes moderated the tropical temperatures. A perfect climate, and at only 650,000 people, a manageable size, with gracious wide boulevards, a compact center and prim, polite suburbs where properties were trimmed with hedges. It looked like Schaumberg, Illinois, or maybe a suburb of St. Louis.
We had business. We needed airline tickets to Victoria Falls. We needed a hotel there, to find the American Express office to buy money, and film. We took a room at the venerable Miekles (say nickels with an m) Hotel.
How else to start such a busy business day? We sampled the local beer at the Miekles bar. Listening to the Out of Africa soundtrack CD at the wood and wicker bar with Zambesi beers might sound hackneyed if you're used to it, but we weren't.
By three we had cash, film, air tickets and a room in Victoria Falls for tomorrow.
Department stores – Barbour's and Truworth's and Greaterman's. Between two extended stays in the bush, we went wild. The personal care section – Shield Zimbabwe deodorant. Some hair care product licensed by Clairol out of Johannesburg. Glent Lotion ("An American formula"). Preen soap.
Brentoni Italy expensive boutique. "American Express Cards Welcome" all over town. No begging except a few kids along the First Avenue pedestrian mall – and a policeman shooed them away. Some of these people did the shorts and high socks, Bermuda-style routine. It looked no less silly here. Trash cans to keep the streets clean. Smiling people. Good climate. Livable.
A (metered) taxi driver asked if it was our first time in Zimbabwe. I said yeah but don't drive us around aimlessly to run up the meter on account of that. He turned. "No, I would not. That would be stealing."
Kenya had had independence since 1962, Zimbabwe since 1980. Depending on how you looked at it, Kenya had more time to build infrastructure – or Zimbabwe had less time to let it fall in. The land of Cecil Rhodes was well built by the Brits and turned over in good shape when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe.
Dinner wasn't very good. "Roots of Africa" boasted authentic local food. It couldn't've been served by a nicer, more smiling group of people. The setting was thatch and bamboo and traditional African print patterned tablecloths, open air with the grill visible through glass, out on the edge of downtown (Seventh Avenue). Chaka Khan on the juke.
But the food just didn't cut it. On the menu: matumbu (intestine), green grams (green bananas), sadza (thick porridge), rape and dovi (peanut butter). We both tried mokimo, a mash of potato, maize and beans, pry-your-lips-apart dry. Chicken stew, third world all the way, dark meat with a bone in every bite!
The most remarkable thing about Roots of Africa restaurant was their one, single, By God Urinal – a chest-high double-wide metal monolith.
Okay – maybe not a lot was happening in Harare back then. But Africa Unity Square was a sweet little green space between the parliament and the Anglican cathedral where they took Polaroids of rural folks who didn’t have cameras, standing and grinning by the fountain. It might not have been hip but it was gracious and it was sweet and I'd rather have been there than in Moi's Kenya.
Next: Up to Victoria Falls
This story quotes Transport Minister Nicholas Goche. The passengers were reported safe. “Goche did not say what became of the pigs.”