Forget what you heard about Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe has a reputation that precedes it. Tell someone you're going to Malawi or Zambia and more times than not they'll just stare blankly with an obligatory "Is that in Africa?" Zimbabwe however, people know. Zimbabwe carries a specific set of images to most Westerners with a solid grasp of current events (I think). Think about the word Zimbabwe, what comes to mind? For me it was three things. Robert Mugabe: governmental mismanagement at the most unimaginable scale. Trillion dollar bills: The utter failure of an economy and the highest inflation rate in the world outside of a war zone. White farmers getting their land stolen: official government policy placed any land owned by whites up for grabs to any squatter with a gun and started a land rush to the bottom. Zimbabwe in the Western media is a Bad Place whose president is leading them to their own destruction as fast as his old legs can carry them. I was under the impression that white people should not visit Zimbabwe, that my kind is not welcome there. Having been around the block in Africa a little bit, I knew better than to take all this at face value; however I had no idea just how off it was. Zimbabwe is not the country it was a few years ago.
Zimbabwe was, in a word, spectacular. I felt like I could really live there, which I haven't said about many places. Not just spend a few months working but actually start a life there, make a home there. As someone who spends a lot of my life on the move these days, of course the first thing I noticed was the roads. The infrastructure in Zimbabwe is unbelievable (for Africa). The roads were great, though in need of some touch up after a few years of neglect. Even way outside of cities, the main roads were fully paved, lined and signposted. "Speed limit 80 km," "sharp curve ahead," "No parking." Even before I got to the city, I had the impression of a place where order had edged out chaos. I was pleasantly impressed and excited for the capital Harare, which I had heard described as "the nicest city north of South Africa." I arrived in Harare not really knowing what to expect. I was blown away.
Harare was a real city. Not a beautiful, but suspicious facsimile of a city like Kigali, where you spend your whole time looking for the catch. It was also not like Dar es Salaam, really nice if you look past all the things that are awful (unspeakably terrible traffic, absolutely zero nightlife because it's a Muslim city, oppressive heat and humidity). Harare was a big, modern, functioning city. Skyscrapers, tree-lined streets, well maintained parks, walk signs, malls and cafes. I'm sure it's the biggest cliché in Southern Africa, but Harare felt like I was back in the Western world. If Uganda is the Pearl of Africa, Zimbabwe is the Diamond.
This is not to say the stories you hear about Zimbabwe aren't true. Zimbabwe is without question a case study in failure. The economy was so mismanaged that the official currency in Zimbabwe is now the US dollar. I heard a story from a guy who said inflation was so bad that he'd get paid his salary, and by the time he could get to the bank the currency had been devalued so many times that his pay check wouldn't even cover the gas to get from the office to the bank. People say you can't buy anything for a dollar anymore. I can say for a fact that's not really true. At least In Zimbabwe, 1 USD gets you a nice big plate of sadza and meat. As nice as the USD is, Zimbabwe doesn't have any US coins. A soda everywhere else in Africa generally costs between 25 and 50 cents, in Zimbabwe there's no real choice but to charge a dollar.
The best thing about Zimbabwe, like everywhere else, was the people. I found Zimbabweans to be friendly on a level I haven't experienced anywhere else in Africa. Even in the big city, people were incredibly helpful and nice. Everyone I met went out of their way to make sure that if they were the only person I talked to, I would have the right impression of their country. I got the distinct feeling that Zimbabweans were proud to be Zimbabwean, and deeply hurt and offended by all the negative press surrounding their country. Several times I had strangers stop me in the street just to make sure I was ok. At almost every interaction from taxi drivers to police to total randoms in the street, people thanked me for visiting their country and were adamant that I spread the word that Zimbabwe isn't a bad place anymore. This is me doing my piece.
We planned on spending just a day in Harare, but ended up staying an extra night. I would have preferred to spend a lot longer, but the guys I'm hitching a ride with were in a hurry to get to the beach. We were taking a walk around town and a random guy sidled up next to us to talk, just like always. We assumed eventually he would ask for something or try to sell us something, but he never did. He asked if we were tourists and what we had seen and where we were going and all that. When he heard we hadn't seen much and planned to leave soon, he was appalled. He insisted that we let him guide us around the city a bit. He was on his way to his office for a meeting, but said it was more important to him that he make sure we get "the right impression" of Zimbabwe. That, my friends, is the definition of African time. Josh showed us around the city, focusing on the mall and nice cars. At every turn it was "See, Zimbabwe is a nice place. We have the newest cars, we aren't eating each other." When he finally showed his cards, it was only to tell us that he works with foreign investors and needed us to spread the word that Zimbabwe was safe again.
Or there was the desk clerk of the hotel that was clearly out of our price range. He saw our hesitation so he butted in with "but you're locals right? I can give you the local rate of half price." I had to write what city I lived in on the form, but for the life of me I couldn't think of any other places in Zimbabwe. Again he saw my hesitation, "Maybe you live in Mutare or Chinohyi..."
(I have turned into a stereotypical Japanese tourist; look someone crossing the street!)
Or Madeline, the owner of the tiny local restaurant in a nowhere town on the highway. She was delighted when we came in for her freshly prepared sadza (shima, ugali, posho, whatever you want to call it) and beef. She brought our food then sat down with us to chat while we ate. Again, just trying to make sure we got the right impression.
Or the taxi driver, Ivan. The original plan was for a quick ride to Indian food, but we found the restaurant to be closed. So he asked around and found us a different restaurant in our price range. Then he came in and had a beer with us while we ate. Then he took us to a bar, and came in to watch the music with us. We ended up spending the whole night hanging out with him seeing the sights of the night. At the end of the evening we asked him how much we owed him and he responded with "how much do you want to pay?" No bargaining, no haggling, nothing. As we were on our way back to the hotel he asked if we wanted to go on a "night safari." Of course we said yes, expecting who knows what. He proceeded to take us to the prostitute district and amuse himself by shining his lights on hookers and watching them scatter.
Oh and did I mention live music? We went to a bar with GOOD live jazz from a local band, full of local people enjoying themselves. Electric guitars, drum kit, a proper band. After that ended we went to a different bar with a local mbira band straight from the village. It had been so long since I'd seen real live music, I forgot how great a mellow night out can be.
Zimbabwe is not without it's problems. All I know is I had a great time there and can't wait to go back. Zimbabwe is an example of a trend in Africa: The places you hear the worst things about are the nicest. I guess it's about having a place worth fighting for.