Inside Zimbabwe: Where Millionaires Go Hungry
'Due to the current stringent economic conditions, the light at the end of the tunnel has now officially been turned off!'
This is not an inaccurate summary of this countrys situation. Like so many things about Africa we can see them coming, but who will do anything meaningful to prevent them? How many others countries have a leader who starves his own people jsut to keep himself in power?
- No freedom of expression without being physically intimidated.
- Shortage of basic food
- Shortage of fuel to get around
- Nearly 3 out of 4 people have no jobs
- The value of your money keeps falling inflation is 1,700%
- No independent voices can be heard on newspapers or TV
I stood out like a sore thumb as the only white face in a sea of black ones purchasing a train ticket from Vic Falls to Bulawayo. The queue was so slow moving that in the end the train just impatiently hooted and the crowd turned and scrambled to clamber on before it pulled away.
I found myself a space in second class having a surprisingly frank and interesting conversation with two Zimbabwean guys. Looking in from the outside and commenting makes for solid background fillers, but sometimes actually being in a country talking to local people adds an excited edge of reality to what you know, or think you know. I regard it as one of the most important aspects of being in another country, which I feel privileged to undertake. Sometimes opportunities arise, sometimes they dont.
I ask why there are so many warning signs prohibiting people to carry petrol onto trains. In response I listen to a rather gruesome account of a train travelling on the same stretch of track we were on exploding and killing 45 people. So desperate had the economic situation become that people were attempting to smuggle petrol on trains. I always do my best to keep up to date with news stories, but had heard absolutely nothing about this. It had largely been covered up and played down.
The train slowly and noisily chugs on through the African countryside. After a few long inexplicable stops I finally pass out properly well into the early hours. Shortly after first light I come to life and stare weary eyed out the window at the suburbs of Bulawayo, Zimbabwes second city of around 2 million people.
So we proceeded through the wide, empty streets of Bulawayo, oddly reminiscent of a suburban Midwest American town. Passing a line of vehicles queuing for fuel, I discovered the price has recently gone up again. Our driver had spent four days in the queue, which is relatively good as some wait for up to a week!
It is midday on Sunday in central Bulawayo and many places are closed, yet considerable queues have already formed outside cash machines of banks. I watch people silently walk away with large handfuls of notes as an armed policeman also watches on uneasily nearby.
Shelves inside many shops are sparsely stocked. I consider the contrast with what I had recently read about the Zimbabwean first lady (40 years younger than her husband) undertaking an extravagant shopping spree in South Africa, residing in Johannesburgs finest luxurious five star hotel. All this while the country her husband runs economically implodes.
Some estimates put Mugabe among the worlds richest men, such is the degree to which he has plundered his country. Zimbabwe is currently one of the worlds fastest shrinking economies, predictably resulting in mounting poverty, massive unemployment (around 70%) and a lack of hard currency, basic foodstuffs, as well as fuel and electricity. The average life expectancy has nearly halved in the last 15 years from 61 to just 34 as AIDS ravages the country.
There is barely another tourist or even white person to be seen. In one shop I enter, the guy behind the till warns me that he has seen 3 men following me. I had not noticed and need to sharpen my guard. People are desperate here and crime has become an increasingly viable alternative to sustain a living.
Making my way back more watchfully I spot a line of cars parked at ridiculous angles fighting for territory of inches on the way to the fuel pump. The road was named Robert Mugabe Way. Last week, desperately attempting to keep up with soaring inflation, the government increased the price of fuel by 300%. This means that something like a piece of farming machinery can go up in value 100 times in the space of a year. The economy has shrank, yes shrank, by nearly half it value in the last 5 years.
It is also not difficult to imagine the implications when almost 80% of many peoples income is now spent on fuel. On the recent anniversary of the countrys independence the President said this: Zimbabwes future is bright.
More appropriate is the slogan commonly scrawled with defiance under bridges and on some derelict buildings:
'Mugabe Zvakana Chienda!'
'Mugabe, we have suffered enough. Go Now!'
The presidents of Nigeria and South Africa are dropping in for tea and a chat as if this will make all the problems go away overnight. Still everything can always be blamed on those wicked British colonisers. It seems the process of empowerment in Zimbabwe has been driven not by the best long term interests of the many less well off, but rather by the blind hatred of a small self-preserving minority.
I wake to the noise of early morning traffic outside indicating that some vehicles now have fuel to get around. For the first proper time in almost two weeks in central Bulawayo, most things appear to be open for business, giving everyone a welcome opportunity to stock up on supplies and take money out before everything shuts again tomorrow for 3 weeks in a MDC organised shutdown. Signs outside shops advertise the availability of butter and sugar. They are luxury items.
I notice the convergence of parked cars congesting petrol station forecourts is greater than yesterday. The lines of people patiently waiting outside banks are also longer. I seek to record some private photographic evidence of the peoples economic plight. I nervously glance around me before hurriedly snapping a quick photo of the cars before swiftly and casually hiding my camera away again as if nothing had happened. It was like being an amateur private investigator.
I was rather startled as behind me a guy suddenly got out of his car. He had seen what I had done, but encouragingly told me, Go ahead. Please just take it. I smiled back, not quite yet ready to demonstrate open defiance to any watching undercover police or army officials. No stick wielding men in uniform chased after me as I slipped away.
It can be a dangerous game taking holiday snaps, especially considering how British people or journalists are likely to be treated. Around a month after this I learnt that photoing a public building can carry a 2-year jail sentence and a Canadian guy was arrested and charged for this earlier in the year.
Then something very odd happened as I walked back. Three military helicopters swirl over and around the city centre with a huge Zimbabwean flag draped from them. Was this a defiant reminder of Zimbabwes well being targeted at me, I wondered?
In the evening I settle down to good old TV state propaganda which would probably not look out of place under Stalin in the USSR. An endless stream of anti-MDC (the main opposition group to Mugabes Zanu PF party) adverts and general diatribe. Much of it is laughably amateur and bad. One shows scenes of alleged opposition violence with people rioting and throwing stones. But look a little closer and you can see the letters DRC inscribed on a nearby building. These scenes of violence are not from Zimbabwe at all, but were filmed from the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo next door!
Another amusing gem is a newspaper advert showing police standing over a railway line looking bemused at concrete blocks on the line. The headline reads,
'Mass action hooligans callous attempts to derail a passenger train.'
In fact look a little closer again and you realise that the police are standing over a very normal looking railway line, with very normal concrete slabs on the centre and the sides of the rail track for cars to drive over. It is a level crossing!
There is a serious side to these attempts to brainwash though. The propaganda takes on a depressingly resolute familiarity. Being on the receiving end day after day of such diatribe is all that many people know they either believe it or feel utterly demoralised by it. Zanu PFs dominance is largely based on the ignorance of the masses in rural areas, who can easily be bought off and intimidated to support an illegitimate government. The election last year was rigged by only allowing many people in urban areas (where Mugabe lacks support) to register at certain limited polling stations. Intimidation was rife, while tribal chiefs in rural areas are simply bribed to deliver the support of a village. Democratically elected members of parliament are frequently arrested on concocted charges, denied basic human rights, tortured and imprisoned because they speak out against Mugabe.
It is disgraceful, but largely unreported internationally because it has become the norm.
A moderately adventurous days travel sees me join forces with my only other fellow resident where I am staying, an American called Henry who has lived in a South African township for 3 years. From Bulawayo it is a 4 hour bus journey east to Masvingo, Zimbabwes first white settlement and home to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins.
Firstly though we are deposited by the kind guy who runs the hostel at the gates of the Renkini bus station just on the outskirts of Bulawayos centre. On very few occasions before have I felt so aware of my skin colour and economic status. I haul my backpack on and bumble forward into the middle of it all. Everywhere around me I am encircled by a sea of black faces, raised voices, spluttering exhausts. Street vendors with flimsy cardboard trays displaying various wares from fake Rolex watches to plastic toy guns take turns to drift in and out of my side vision.
Fortunately, our travel demands are straightforward and easy to communicate 'Masvingo?, Masvingo?' we try out on a couple of people standing around. And before you can say Adult single please we find ourselves seated on the back seat of a combi (minibus), relieved of our luggage into the attached trailer behind. African pop music belts out deafeningly loudly from a vibrating speaker right behind me and amazingly we depart on time. The journey is congested, but comfortable enough there were only 3 or 4 occasions when I thought we had a decent chance of crashing. One advantage of being crammed in right at the back is not being able to properly see what is approaching. Another advantage was liberal use of the air conditioning i.e. keeping the window next to me open.
Anyway we rolled into Masvingo town centre and set off with luggage in search of somewhere suitable to reside for the evening. A few streets away we discovered somewhere, which shared the same name as the last place we stayed in Bulawayo. But thats where any similarities ended abruptly. This place was ridiculously cheap, but the major drawback was the fact it resembled a cross between a 1980s high rise tower block and Wormwood Scrubs D wing the stuff of nightmares after dark no doubt.
So we pressed on trying to reach a place named Sundowners located a few kms out of town, optimistically hoping to reach it before the sun actually went down on us. The viable alternatives were presenting themselves as somewhere between slim and none.
Back at another crowded bus depot we boarded another combi following a couple of unconvincing assurances that we were heading in the right direction. I made the schoolboy error of enthusiastically piling on to the vehicle first with my backpack and taking up the space right in the very back corner. Then I watched in sinking horror and resignation as what seemed like 50 locals piled in after me, seemingly depleting the entire bus interior of all daylight and oxygen.
Where were we heading? I did not have a clue, but fortunately my American friend had manoeuvred himself into prime position in the front seat. Hearing was one of my few remaining functioning senses and I could just about make out his voice repeatedly stating where we wanted to reach to the driver. And very shortly down the road we reached another larger bus centre called Muteke, which was a run down township. Here the vehicle emptied. I desperately dragged and hauled everything I belonged off the bus just mili-seconds before another surging crowd began their ambush to get on. For a moment it was like going to work on the tube on a Monday morning.
With time ticking we ended up bargaining (badly) for a taxi to cut out any further potential stress, delay and inconvenience.
Sundowners was as a farm located along a bumpy dirt track off the main road to the ruins. I silently prayed that it would be open. It was and the setting was peacefully serene. Quite a large complex clearly equipped to host at least 30 or 40 people with spacious gardens the place was eerily empty and devoid of life. Two other people were staying here tonight, but before that there had been no one for a whole year! And no overland trucks had parked here for 3 years now.
The building and its surroundings look strikingly similar to a number of abandoned farms I recall seeing on old TV news reports, which were reclaimed and over-run by war veterans. Part of me half expects a gang of machete wielding young hooligans to emerge menacingly from the long grass and ransack the entire building as I wake in the morning to chairs, tables and fridges randomly strewn across the well maintained lawn.
The Zimbabwean winter is beginning to close in now and once the sun goes down the temperature drops sharply. I watch as the farmer hands out measurements of maize to his workers men, women with children on their backs and bags on their heads patiently queuing as darkness falls. 40 or 50 people are employed here.
The farmer Mr. Miller is, surprisingly to me, fluent in the local African Shona language and has a good relationship with those he employs. Yet this is not even his farm that was taken off him. He is now only minding this farm for the previous owner, his friend, who, like so many others, has now moved to Australia for good.
The more I uncover and the more stories I hear about events inside this country it becomes increasingly difficult not to be pessimistic about its fate. Mugabe probably has no more than 25% of the countrys backing yet a disproportionately high share of tools of violence at his disposal. If he continues to display such stubborn tendencies in relinquishing power it is hard to envision a bloodbath being avoided. Violence at some point seems an inevitable necessity to resolve the situation convincingly one way or the other. Economically the country could conceivably continue its free fall to the level of Mozambique during its civil war, where transport completely collapses and it becomes common for buildings to have no windows.
I sense a growing air of frustration and helplessness. When it comes to freedom of expression fear prevails a meeting of more than 4 or 5 people is constituted as political and is likely to result in physical punishment and torture. They even beat up teachers. Uncertainty grips everything as people wonder,
Just how bad do things really have to become?
Maybe the sudden discovery of vast oil deposits, links with Al-Quaeida or WMD (Weapons of Mass Disappearance) could optimistically precipitate a US led liberating regime change. What are the differences between Mugabe and Saddam? Many Zimbabwean people hold out some hope for some sort of external rescue. They tell me they want to be rescued, but who will rescue them?
Their friendliness towards the rarely sighted, almost extinct, breed of tourist remains remarkable. The fire of optimism still burns determinedly for many. Maybe in a very small way the spirit of optimism derives from the fact that every morning the sun is virtually guaranteed to shine brightly.
Today we take a welcome distraction from the omnipresent depressing saga of Zimbabwes plight, which seems to stalk you everywhere. We hitch an early morning pick up truck ride, which is a little chilly, out to the Great Zimbabwe ruins. This site used to be the greatest and most significant city-state in sub-Saharan Africa before colonisation. The name Zimbabwe is derived from the Shona words dzimba dzambabwe or great stone houses to you and me. The country took the name following independence in 1980.
In many ways a large, impressive site of historical ruins is one of the last things you would expect to discover in the middle of an African country in this part of the continent. The setting and splendour of exploring such ruins proves to be surprising and captivating. A thriving city-state of some 20,000 people was centred here dominating a wide surrounding area like no other from the 10th to 15th centuries.
After passing through the smart, but seemingly empty hotel at the entrance we pick up a guide who rather unfortunately is named Mugabe! After cheerfully ensuring he has no family ties whatsoever with you know who, he enthusiastically pushes his alternative credentials as a direct descendant of incumbent royalty here.
First we climb up the Hill Complex (also known as the Acropolis), a series of royal enclosures from which the King could gaze down on his city and subjects below. The construction of the thick stone walls was an impressive feat. Bricks were chiselled from granite rock after fires were burnt over it and cooled with water to crack the rock. The view looking down the valley to the great enclosure is majestically regal. The sense of detachment is accentuated by having virtually the entire complex to ourselves there is no one else around.
Down below the Great Enclosure, where the walls are 11m high and up to 5m thick includes the impressive Conical Tower, a giant ceremonial structure or silo used purely to demonstrate wealth, which many an African dictator would no doubt admire. Then we move on to a traditional village of Dagga huts and witness some music and dancing put on especially for tourists. And we enter inside the hut of a sangoma or witchdoctor for a fortune telling session.
An extravagantly dressed woman with huge feather in her hair is kneeling over and appears to be going into a fit of convulsions loudly muttering and whining to herself. This is essential to get in touch with the spirits, I am reliably informed, so my fortune can be told while I sit expectantly crossed legged on the floor in front of her. I try earnestly to maintain a serious looking exterior and straight face. The prognosis is rather broken and drawn out, but seems to be rosy:
'You have a long, healthy life. You have freedom to travel safely anywhere you want.'
Could prove quite useful in the coming weeks with all the ground Ive still got to cover. He repeats to me the translation that I have a big heart and a big spirit with very strong healing powers (this could be referring to my recovery from malaria perhaps)
But, I sensed a negative coming at some point and prepared myself accordingly,
'You must not eat catfish!'
What! Did I hear that correctly? She re-emphasised the warning once more before finishing and I was absolutely none the wiser as to the perils of eating catfish. It left a slightly sour taste.
Still we had a laugh about it afterwards walking away. As we joked our guide Mugabe walking in the middle of both of us took hold of our hands as we walked. Men holding hands walking down the road is actually relatively normal in Africa, like a honeymooning couple in Paris. But when I realised this was something more than a routine handshake I felt uncomfortable and carefully managed to extract my hand from his grasp without causing offence, diplomatically pretending I had to tie my shoelace. My American friend was unable to perform the same escape route so smoothly, so their hands remained locked together for another minute or so as we strolled towards the exit. It was hard to believe that here in the middle of Zimbabwe I had just been holding hands with a man called Mugabe!
At the Great Zimbabwe ruins site supposedly one of the countrys premier tourist attractions no other tourists can be seen. Restaurants and shops remain open, but empty. No one is here to buy. Outside on the quiet main road numerous roadside stalls are crammed with tidily organised fields of stone sculptures for tourists to buy. The appearance at 4pm in the afternoon of two foreign tourists generates some desperate excitement as it is the only likely trade of the day.
After some more exploration we hitched a lift back to the farm before the sun goes down in a car with two students who look about 14 but are actually 19. They maintain our strong trend of encountering anti-Mugabe sentiment across the country. Later on Henry discovers the price of sending international post has risen almost 500% from $140 to $700. This is bad news as he sent a postcard off on Monday with only $140 worth of postage on. The chances of this postcard leaving Zimbabwe will, he admitted, also be severely reduced by unfavourably worded comments referring to the current state of the country scribed on the back.
When the early morning sun rises in Zimbabwe it brings with it a rise in the price of sugar, salt, vegetables, milk and maize meal. Naturally, the peoples anger also rises, but quickly dissipates due to another rise fear. Freedom of thought, expression and association is an indispensable ingredient of any normal democratic society. It is not here.
Today I originally planned to catch a chicken bus north to Zimbabwes capital, Harare, but fortunately and more conveniently we manage to obtain a lift from the farmer, Mr. Miller, who happens to heading up that way anyway. So around 4pm in the hot afternoon we throw our bags into his pickup truck and depart. On the way we have to drop off a Malawi woman who works for him and all her belongings (including a wardrobe and mattress) at a village well off the beaten track in a rural area.
The journey is fascinating and a little tense as we penetrate some beautiful countryside along dirt tracks. Out of my window are more visible signs of Zimbabwes decay. Maize struggles to properly grow on sandy land much more suited to grazing cattle, an example of how the farming productivity of this country has been destroyed overnight.
When a farmer is chucked off his land with him go all his workers and their jobs often this number of people is higher than the number of war veterans who gleefully move in. Incidentally the genuine number of proper war veterans is no more than around 1% of those who claim to be. Many are only 15 or 16 and absurdly claim to have fought in a war over 20 years ago. Their knowledge and understanding of farming techniques is too limited for anything other than subsistence agriculture.
The deeper into rural areas you go the more dangerous the situation. I became more and more aware of this. It is like participating in some third rate thriller: An English guy, an American and a white Zimbabwe farmer all travelling together would make prime juicy targets for Zanu PF thugs. People stand and stare open mouthed as we pass through. They are largely ignorant about the country's complexities.
When we finally reach the correct village after a few wrong turns we prove to be the celebrity centres of attention for a sizeable crowd of locals standing around, everyone of them young and male. Luckily they are friendly and do no more than point and laugh at us. On leaving the village I reflect we had done quite well to find the place at all relying exclusively on the African concept of distances stated by the Malawi woman, where 5km is no different to 50km.
So in the twilight of the disappearing sun we navigate our way back out to the main road. Driving at night is undoubtedly hazardous, but necessary. Many vehicles have no lights whatsoever, or even reflectors, although the road which is probably the main north-south highway in Southern Africa is in good condition.
Clearly Zimbabwe has some major problems at the moment, which are well documented. But it is also the smaller side problems, which breed from the larger ones, which are often ignored. For instance, a large amount of big game wildlife on overrun farms have been killed and wiped out for food by hungry locals. Similarly, the lack of grazing cattle has allowed the long grass to grow high and presents a dangerously dry tinderbox waiting to ignite in a bush fire. Brain drains of competent teachers and nurses hurt the public services. These are precisely the sort of problems and strains on resources the country could do without, but they accumulate. And everything ultimately comes back to the failures of an illegitimate government.
The skyline on the flat horizon has now become blood red in a brilliantly vivid way that only African skies can produce. I continue to learn more about the countrys plight. It seems the only viable option for most white people, especially younger ones with families, is to seek a new life abroad Australia, New Zealand, the UK, South Africa, even Mozambique where they can find jobs, however menial, and money to support families. I still find it hard to imagine being forced to abandon your own country, which is all you have known and cherished, out of pure necessity for a normal life because it has changed so much. We stop to pick up a beer in the small town of Chivu, which is my first in 10 days post-malaria. There is the now not uncommon sight of a log jam queue of cars waiting for fuel.
After 4 hours or so of travelling it is well after dark and the streetlights of Harare loom on the horizon. There appears to be a heavy smog and burning smell which is oddly ironic since many vehicles would have no fuel to burn off and pollute the atmosphere! We pass the longest petrol queue Ive seen to date, where even giant haulage trucks are cramming for prime position, a sure indication of the severity of the crisis.
We have a little trouble navigating suburban Harare by night and attempting to find somewhere to stay which has not shut down. In one area we pass through some embassies representing a whos who of benevolent regimes: Iran, Algeria, China all proudly displaying large signs.
And as discreet as those were indiscreetly promoted, behind several feet of barbed wire and thick concrete walls is the US embassy. Probably the only other place in Harare with such an extravagant display of security paraphernalia is the residency of His Excellency, the President himself, which we happen to drive by. Apparently the entire street is sealed off in a 6-6 night time curfew, although rather like Saddam, Mugabe never sleeps in the same place twice. His bodyguards are also rumoured to be Syrian, such must be the extent to which he trusts his own people.
I almost feel like ducking down completely concealing my face from the young machine gun wielding guards patrolling the entrance as our vehicle seems to take an age to slowly turn past them.
Later the next morning I learn of a rather gruesome story from the lady running the hostel about a British guys attempts to go and see the presidents house for himself on a bicycle. This was around 6 weeks ago and there was a strike on at the time. At the entrance he was pushed and kicked around by the young guards who kept calling him Tony Blairs spy. After a while they dragged him off towards the palace, menacingly offering him the opportunity for him to see it for himself close up. Luckily halfway through this uncontrolled beating a police car arrived to properly arrest him and take him away to a prison cell from where he was eventually released late in the evening. His fate could have been a lot worse.
I can to a limited extent understand, and even share, his motivation in attempting to see close up the workings of such a regime. However acting on such inclination is an altogether different matter of judgement and sanity.
Interestingly, on our unintended evening tour of Harares embassies twice we passed the rather appropriately titled Trauma Centre. We managed to avoid stopping, but I made a mental note of where it was located for future reference. And finally we reached the Hillside lodge, which was open for business, although like all similar establishments in Zimbabwe was rather devoid of paying customers.
It had the look of a place, which once thrived and bustled with international travellers exchanging stories and recommendations. Every wall inside appeared to be plastered with warnings of robbery, muggings and currency cons. Now a little run down, it had also suffered the recent misfortune of a lightning strike which had wrecked everything electrical (computers, tv, phone etc.) Sometimes, no matter how bad things seem to be, they can always become undeservedly worse.
By now the night was cold and I retired to my hut for some sleep. The bed was cosily comfortable, but shortly before shutting my eyes I adjusted my focus on to the wooden pillar next to my bed and noticed it was crawling with an army of ants streaming up and down. A rather large spider also hovered above higher up on the same wall. After all that I had seen and heard earlier, it seemed very trivial. I was past caring and passed out.
4:50am. It is cold and pitch black. There is a soft knock on the wooden door of my hut to wake me, but I am already awake in anticipation of a full days travelling ahead of me. Things do not get off to an auspicious start as my taxi to the bus terminal runs out fuel halfway there and silently whimpers to a halt. Even though it is just past 5:30am there are plenty of people up and about in the cool early morning darkness.
As I step outside of the vehicle I immediately get that familiar apprehensive feeling of being vulnerable prey just waiting for the predators to stir into action and move in. As we push the vehicle away from the middle of the road it draws considerable attention from local passers by. I am slap bang in the middle of the run down township area called Mbare. Being white and carrying plenty of luggage I stand out like a sore thumb and might as well have 'ROB ME' tattooed in big black letters on my forehead.
The taxi driver insists on accompanying me through the maze of township streets to locate my bus. The surroundings are drearily drab and run down, an absolute hole of a place, where 30 seconds would be too long to spend. I feel like I am in a zoo being stared at and am anxious to the point of paranoia about people following me.
Even at this hour of the morning there is a huge, queue the best part of a mile long of women (many with children on their backs) patiently waiting with large baskets for vegetables. I cannot recall seeing so many people yet so deathly quiet. However, the predicted frenetic confusion greets me inside the bus terminal itself. I find the correct bus with Blantyre (in Malawi) signposted on the front and, after carefully ensuring exactly where my backpack gets put, take a seat inside.
Learning from past mistakes I claim the front seat next to the aisle with the intended benefits of plentiful leg room and actually being able to properly see where the bus is heading. However, rather soon after comfortably settling down I watch helplessly as a towered fortress of luggage and boxes is constructed around me, like a child might be buried in a pit of sand on the beach. This is accompanied by a never ending stream of people clumsily barging past me towards the back of the bus, which by my reckoning at that stage, had seats for 20,000 passengers. From where I was at the front, the back looked like a black hole. Already I felt travel-jaded and the bus hadnt even gone anywhere yet.
So, one hour later than scheduled, the noise of the engine coming to life was sweet music to my ears. Shortly afterwards we chugged noisily out of Harares suburbs and on to open countryside roads. It was not too long before we got stopped at a couple of ominous looking police roadblocks, although we were not delayed for too long. So I settled back comfortably as I could, contented and rather relieved that progress was now being made towards the Mozambique border.
Then all of a sudden there was some loud shouts from several passengers behind telling the driver to stop. Things did not sound too healthy and, for the second time inside 4 hours I found myself sitting inside a stationary broken down vehicle unable to continue. Someone set off to contact the mechanic who was a good two hours away back in Harare. I immediately began to resign myself to the thought of not reaching my intended destination tonight and probably having to spend the night somewhere on the roadside. This was not terribly appealing as I listened to other passengers stories of being robbed by bandits from Mozambique brandishing AK 47s, but there was not much of an alternative.
Being the only white man and foreigner on the bus probably makes me more approachable to the other passengers. For a couple of hours I speak with a teacher who has lost his job and was beaten for supporting the MDC. He is desperate to leave Zimbabwe.
And so after 6 hours of the hottest part of the day spent by the roadside in the middle of nowhere a mechanic finally turns up to fix the problem. But when it is fixed the driver is nowhere to be found resulting in further frustrating delay. Always expect the worst in such situations, I remind myself. When he shows up we continue.
Twenty minutes down the road I notice some warm fumes drifting up from underneath the seats. My brain is slow to react until from behind me I hear shouts of 'INFERNO!'
My knowledge of the local Shona language is practically nil, but I could definitely detect the meaning of this word. Was the bus on fire? We stopped, a man got out with a stick and an empty bucket, poked around underneath a little but we just carried on again as normal as if nothing was wrong.
After some decorative rearrangement the mountain of luggage in front of me was now piled even higher. I now had a pile of egg boxes with eggs in wobbly balanced directly in front of me at head height. I ruefully contemplated the very real possibility of sudden breakage and quite literally ending up with egg on my face.
Still yet to reach the Mozambique border we were supposed to reach about 6 hours ago, we stopped yet again to pile on a load more people and belongings. There is no such thing as full in Africa. Apparently they were all from yesterdays bus which never made it beyond here after breaking down. Was someone playing a cruel practical joke on me, I wondered.
The company name was Munorarama, which I though should be retitled Norunanddrama. Across the back brazenly splashed was DEES Travel Travel in Style! We were certainly travelling in style. The other bus would not have looked out of place in World War One never mind World War Two. I speak to a fellow sufferer from Malawi who reliably informs me that he has done this journey numerous times before with no setbacks or delays until now. It must be my curse.
As I realise we are not even going to get out of Zimbabwe tonight, it dawns on me that the worst of it is that weve still got 2 borders and most of Mozambique and Malawi to get across. Getting out of this country is proving to be a challenging task of endurance. There are also plenty of other buses streaming past us on the same road which rubs salt into the days wounds. I thought to myself, Ive stumbled on a real winner this time!
There really is not a lot you can do so after a while you become more phlegmatic rather than frustrated. In the darkness we reach the Mozambique border, but it is closed and this is where we now have to spend the night. I grab a bite to eat, enjoy chatting with some of my fellow Zimbabwean travellers and find a bar to have a couple of beers in. A small tv behind thick bars is showing premiership football never before has Southampton versus Bolton provided such welcome entertainment and distracted relief. For a pleasant while it all takes my mind away from the grim prospect a having to sleep in a congested bus with 20,000 other people. A free nights accommodation would now be included in the ticket price what value for money!
In conversation I am reminded how well educated and intelligent many ordinary Zimbabweans are. They do like to read, think about and discuss things, which is healthy. At the same time I am constantly aware of how essential it is for me to be diplomatic and relatively non-committal with strangers who attempt to provoke partisan comments from me on the nature of the current regime. Rather like the ridiculous tv and newspaper propaganda advert it all seems a little too obvious and I think have seen them coming a mile off.
Under the illusion that a few beers would help me sleep soundly under testing conditions, I retired after midnight. Predictably, every comfortable seat inside the bus had been snapped up. But on walking out I spotted the drivers seat was free and this would be my bed for the night. Bodies were everywhere.
Sleep was virtually impossible due to people constantly clambering in and out of the bus and bodies being stepped upon along the way. Then one guy tried to squeeze in next to me where there was room for one and a half people rather than two so we were engaged in a tense ongoing territorial battle for most of the night. I think I won.
I hoped my last day had begun. No Sunday morning lie-ins here or indeed fried eggs for breakfast in spite of a plentiful supply yards away from me. Shortly after 5am people are moving around and making so much noise that there is no alternative to getting up, however comfortable my bed was. I do so with the optimism that the day ahead of me cannot possibly be as bad as the previous one and that I will make progress towards my destination. The optimism, as always, is probably misplaced.
It is proving a real effort just to get out of Zimbabwe. As well as becoming submerged under a ridiculously growing pile of luggage I am also slowly drowning mentally under the montage of queues, unexplained delays and intransigent bureaucrats, particularly at the border. Even my most pessimistic expectations for waiting around are proving wildly optimistic.
The guy on duty checking luggage on the Zimbabwean side comfortably fits the stereotype of an African soldier replete with big, dark sunglasses. The system is the usual time consuming inefficient chaos. The general sense of urgency was, for me, depressingly minimal as all the luggage is unloaded then reloaded onto the roof again.
The journey later passed into a dream phase only remembered through waves of tiredness and confusion. As I attempt to catch up on some sleep the two big fat women next to me (as always in developing countries skinniness is suggestive of poverty) are babbling and bickering over their precious boxes of eggs, which are sprawled all around me and seem to be being smashed by the hour.
Eventually we move on through the countryside of Mozambique. Shortly before we cross the might Zambezi River I feel my stomach drop and after an uncomfortable few minutes force the bus to stop to relieve the problem.
I was in breach of one of the essential rules of overland travel always have toilet paper readily available. The only alternative source was my Lonely Planet guidebook. After momentarily considering which pages would be most dispensable I frantically ripped out the pages at the front where the authors introduce themselves and have their photos proudly displayed. In such an emergency crisis I would like to assure them that it was nothing personal.
Through Mozambique the countryside becomes greener. The Malawi border is a very welcome sight, as we shouldnt get stranded again for another painful night spent on the roadside. I collect yet another passport stamp and on walking out of customs set my sights on reaching comfort and comparative luxury of Blantyre well before dark. Well that was the theory and I should have known better as even more time is spent waiting around doing nothing while the mountains of luggage are all checked. No doubt the over officious border police was counting every single egg and plastic orange tray. For me being allowed into the country by the Malawi authorities is no problem it is the waiting around for all the other passengers which consumes time. I have made it into Malawi but cant go anywhere!
A sense of urgency to escape yet more unnecessary hanging around doing nothing kicks in. I arrange to jump on the much sleeker and more comfortable looking Translux bus in front, which is almost ready to go. The major obstacle to doing this is that, typically, when I really need it my backpack happens to be buried under virtually every other single piece of luggage on the roof. So a testing game of patience ensues watching bag after box after bag lowered leisurely down from the top of the bus before I recognise my own.
Then its a quick dash to the luxurious looking other bus to save myself another 3 hours hanging around at the Malawi-Mozambique border, picturesque as it might be. I recline in air conditioned comfort as a wave of relief washes over me that I have finally made it into Malawi. I can stretch my legs out and even momentarily enjoy having a tv emitting African music, which I know I will get fed up with after an hour, but makes for a refreshing and distracting change of environment. As always theres plenty of argumentative raised voices behind, but it will not stop me reaching Blantyre now.
It is odd how, when I look back at my experiences in different countries I usually tend to selectively remember and implant in my mind all the fond memories and ignore the depressingly hellish moments. This time I resolved myself not to forget or obscure how bad this was. I wonder how I survived, but always try to tell myself that most things will pass and tomorrow will always be another day.
And so in the darkness the bus comes to a halt in Blantyre and everyone rushes to get off. Dismissing a barrage of requests from taxi drivers, I walk to my lodging for the night. There are no streetlights and the roads are a bit rough and dusty, but it is good to have made it.
Almost within seconds of walking through the security gates, I detect a well-spoken English voice from the bar area and spot football highlights on the tv. It is like waking from a bad dream and normal service is resumed. It is far too early to go to bed which is what I most feel like doing so have a couple of beers at the bar and chat to some locals. Maybe there was a God after all.