Buying Your Money – My Experience of Zimbabwe

PART 1: Two years ago I found myself on a plane to a country I had not, until then, given much though to. What I knew about Zimbabwe was that it is somewhere in Southern Africa and it used to be quite prosperous, but then something went wrong.

What I also knew, after some minor research on the Internet, was that white people there were more often than not nice bait for the guerilla war veterans (“Chimurenga,”, the war against White colonialism) (1) in search of justice. For the first time in my life I was less happy to go on holiday than I was supposed to be.

During our month-long stay, there was one day I remember particularly well: the day of our visit to Harare, the country’s capital. Leaving us in front of the National gallery, our friends said “It’s really easy to get there,” pointing in the direction where we should go to meet them a couple of hours later. After visiting the gallery we would find our way through the central jungle to the best hotel in the city. Easy to say, but when you have no idea of the city’s dimensions and when you are nervous about walking around with a map in your hands, making it clear to everyone you are a tourist, you do feel a bit ill-at-ease when you consider this little adventure awaiting you.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind getting lost a little in practically any other city in the world. But as one of the four Europeans in a country where white people are being chased off their land and even killed, I believe I was very entitled to feel slightly uncomfortable.

After we left the safe environment of people-free gallery, our journey begun. First we went through the park where a book fair was taking place. The flower bushes and fountains, both water-deprived, were somehow sadly left behind. No wonder, for the eyes of the park’s visitors found a new point of interest: the previously mentioned four confused Europeans (an enigma that for me, remains unsolved–what is it that always makes other people know you’re a tourist?). Still looking lost and receiving much more than just occasional glances, we finally crossed the black sea of people at the commercial center and, overwhelmed by the power of crowd and by the rhythm of a capital, we sought refugee in the closest garden of what turned out to be an Anglican church.

When the silence of the patio became too loud, we decided on a final cruise through another park, the only obstacle on our way to the hotel. What we didn’t know was that there was a trap waiting for us just at then end–a crafts market. That was where we voluntarily slowed our pace, just to make ourselves more obvious on top of being white, speaking a weird language and asking for prices of small statues and souvenirs.

The most intriguing offer, however, was that of money. Zimbabwean dollars were at the time a luxury as they were impossible to obtain due to the economic (and every other possible) crisis the country was facing. But–miracle!–a hustler proposed we could change some of our American dollars for Zimbabwean currency at a surprisingly good rate. Three of us didn’t even give him a look as we had been strongly advised not to, unless we wanted to live the ultimate experience of being ripped off. The fourth member, though, fell for it. The image of him, waving in the middle of the street, feeling both furious and insecure because of our moneyless state, and screaming after us “But we need the money!” will never really disappear from my mind. Luckily, he didn’t carry any money so he couldn’t make a deal without our consent. As we did not want to be robbed, raped or killed, we were just happy to leave him behind and hide in the hotel where hustlers couldn’t get us as they were not allowed to even approach the building.

It is true–everybody needs money. But then again, at what price?

PART 2: The first thing that surprised me when the enormous electric front door opened upon a view of the garden of our friend’s mini-villa, were two more than enormous dogs. The second thing was the servants. The friend we stayed with had his own cook and two gardeners, which is common in Zimbabwe, but very unusual for Slovenians. In our country only the richest people could afford to have home staff, and even though, they may not, so for me it was something out of movies and Hollywood. But, sitting later in the day at a long wooden table in the dinning room, I could easily imagine getting accustomed to having my very own cook.

After some time we noticed that some of our things had disappeared, namely some of our clothes, and the toothpaste tubes were also strangely slimmer than before we left them carelessly in the bathrooms. Of course we complained to our friend, but his reaction was quite surprising to us. It was obvious that the cook, who was also a maid and, in cases of emergency, a babysitter, took our things, but our friend was neither upset nor angry about this. He said that all the things are probably somewhere in the cook’s house in the backyard and that they will eventually come back, if only we asked the cook about them often enough. Beside that he asked us not to be too upset about the cook stealing some of our toothpaste. Noticing our surprise, he explained that after living in Zimbabwe for 23 years he became used to having natives for servants, a custom of the usually better-off white people in Zimbabwe. When the natives came to live in his house, they brought their habits with them. Unfortunately, these habits included such petty crimes such as stealing dough from the kitchen. Therefore, hiring another servant because the recent one is stealing (which was our first solution to the “problem”) would not really change much, besides maybe our diet. Another option would be to go to the police, but our friend was strictly against that, saying that in Zimbabwe, turning in a black person in means he or she would go to prison without any questioning, and being in a Zimbabwean prison basically equals death (prisoners often get beaten up or even raped, which also contributes to the fast spread of AIDS).

After hearing all this we, of course, decided to wait for our things to mysteriously come back by themselves, and we were not complaining if that did not happen; after all, it was much easier for us than a Zimbabwean servant to buy a pair of socks and a chocolate bar.

PART 3: In July 2003 I read in a local newspaper in Harare that about 100,000 people were expected to begin to starve in Zimbabwe. In December I saw in the national Slovenian newspaper a picture of the Zimbabwean financial minister with a medium sized suitcase, the content of the which was the Zimbabwean national budget for 2004. Two months later I saw a picture in the same newspaper. This one showed the Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, preparing a birthday party for his wife. The caption said several hundred people were invited to the party. I imagine they were not the same people as in the first article I mention.

Zimbabwe is a country where not only fuel, but food, too, is a luxury.

(1) Read more about Zimbabwean Liberation War:

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