Five ways to work well in Zimbabwe

January 23rd, 2014
As a Brit in Zimbabwe, what headline would you least like to see during your visit?

As a Brit in Zimbabwe, what headline would you least like to see during your visit?

In December last year I spent nearly two weeks in Zimbabwe accompanying a journalist who was covering some Practical Action projects for the Guardian’s Christmas appeal. It was my first time in a country which could be considered, if not hostile to British journalists, then not entirely welcoming.

As it happened, despite a few niggles (see below), I found the whole trip awe-inspiring and hugely enjoyable and so have come up with five tips to stay happy in Zimbabwe (as a media officer!).

1) Don’t allow the breathtaking scenery to let you forget where you are.

Zimbabwe is a stunningly beautiful country, with a climate to match. Consequently, much of my time travelling between projects was spent ‘ooing and aaring’ at stunning African vistas, which occasionally combined with a beautiful sunset or sunrise which would fill the sky with red and pink light.

Yet another breathtaking Zimbabwean sunset

Yet another breathtaking Zimbabwean sunset

Unfortunately taking photos in public places is not encouraged. And that lack of encouragement turns into downright hostility if you are (a) British and (b) anywhere near a police officer.  So when the vehicle you are in slows down enough for you to take a snap of the stunning landscape, don’t reach for your camera without checking the coast is clear first – the chances are that you are coming to a toll or a police check point and neither are ideal locations for a pretty picture.

2) Know about the latest Premiership stories and fixtures

For reasons well-documented elsewhere, most Zimbabweans make a habit of not talking about politics, their day-to-day hardships or the latest power cuts in public. Instead, they are desperate to escape their day-to-day troubles and talk about different things when they go for a pint with their mates.

And because every bar is adorned with at least one TV screen connected to a South African sports channel pumping out an endless stream of English and Spanish football, thousands of Zimbabweans every week can be found cheering, booing and even bellowing at their favourite (or least favourite) football stars. Unnervingly, it turns out that even a football anorak like myself was lacking when it came to the in depth knowledge possessed by the majority, so brush up before you go for a pint.

3) Prepare to be surprised by how nice the cities are.

Zimbabwe in the minds of most people conjures up images of an impoverished repressive police state, a pervading sense of fear amongst the population and poverty-fuelled crime. But there can be no doubt that the capital city, and the other main settlements in Zim, are very different place to what you might expect from one of the poorest countries in the world. They have wide boulevards, well-kept shopping centres, old colonial-style hotels, cafes and vibrant bars and feel very safe, in direct contrast to a number of other African cities I could name.

Bulawayo: really quite pleasant

Bulawayo: really quite pleasant

Admittedly, much of this can be attributed to the controversial slum clearances that saw the Government knock down thousands of homes built around cities and life in the rural areas, where families are visibly struggling to feed their children, is vastly different. But if you only spent time in Harare 0r Bulawayo, you could easily convince yourself Zimbabwe’s social, political and economic problems had been misreported.

4) Make sure your vehicle is in impeccable condition (and expect a police officer round every corner)

I never ceased to be amazed at the number of police-manned road blocks I encountered in Zimbabwe. The most prolific stretch of road was the 100kms between Bulawayo and the Botswana border, along which we were stopped a staggering eight times and fined once (for not having a wrap-around reflective strip on the back of the truck). It meant a journey  which should have taken just over an hour took us nearly two and left all four of us in the truck quietly seething.

And the very next day I was left cursing my stupidity when I was caught overtaking a truck on a stretch where such a manoeuvre wasn’t allowed. When I was told I was ‘under arrest for failing to obey the laws of the highway’, I won’t lie – my stomach lurched. Fortunately, it turned out that was code for ‘pay a fine of $20 & get on your way’, which I did. After pulling away very slowly.

5) Realise that people might have good reasons for not wanting to talk too openly

While I was in Zimbabwe I met a range of people and spoke to them about how our projects were improving their lives and the lives of the communities in them. Out of work time, I managed to get chatting to lots of people in bars and restaurants.  However, rarely did I feel that I got to know what their lives were really like.

At the time it was a source of frustration, but the reasons for their reticence are numerous and understandable.

Firstly, whenever I visited a project I was accompanied by a Government minder who, although would always be polite, clearly impacted on what people would say about the conditions they were facing every day.

Government official (rear left) listens to agricultural extension worker in Zimbabwe.

Government official (rear left) listens to agricultural extension worker in Zimbabwe.

Secondly, I was British and was gathering stories for a British national newspaper. Every day, newspapers in Zimbabwe carry anti-British stories and rhetoric, and while many Zimbabweans may not believe everything they read in their press, there can be no doubt about the overall message they convey; Britain is bad. It was therefore understandable that many Zimbabweans didn’t want to appear as though they were complaining about their lot to a man who was about to send it to a British newspaper. I heard plenty of stories which suggested this wouldn’t be a good strategy for the average Zimbabwean.

And finally, if a man from a richer country than mine (lets say, Luxembourg, Monaco or Norway) came and asked me if I could describe what life was like before they had started helping my community and what life is like now, I might be a little standoffish Certainly, I wouldn’t start spouting off about everything in my life.

So there it is, Zimbabwe is fascinating. Frustrating sometimes, but always interesting. The people I was lucky enough to spend substantial time with there were inspiring – showing me that despite the hardship the country faces, the opportunities there are endless, especially if you own the TV rights to the Premiership.

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