Sunday, April 20, 2008

Hello, hello!

Greetings are very important in Africa. Whenever you meet someone it's important to ask how they are, how their family is and how their day is going so far. And when it is your turn to say how things are with you, you have to conform to the polite ritualistic responses. ("I slept well and had a good night if you did" or "my day is going well if yours is.") It is very rude (or marks you out as a tourist) to skip or curtail the greetings process or to actually tell the truth, ie mention you had nightmares all night, are suffering from a trapped nerve or you've twisted your ankle. You can of course tell your good friends and family the truth, but only after you've reassured them several times before that all is well. Of course, this means the whole greetings ceremony has to be repeated three or four times over.

Greetings occur at the office, when you pass someone in the street, in the bank queue, at the supermarket and basically anywhere you come across anyone else. If you are going for a walk or a cycle ride, its polite to greet everyone as you pass - and you often hear children cheerily calling "How are you?" as you slog your way, panting, up a steep hill.

The greetings rituals have lost a little in translation to English. If you say "hi" to someone in Harare, they will immediately respond "fine, and you?" - which can come as a bit of a surprise. It works well if you say hello or good morning, but for some reason "hi" has become "hello, how are you and your family this merry morning/afternoon/evening?" to locals, while of course, it just means "hello" to you and I.

With the recent elections, the manner in which you wave hello or goodbye has become a political hot potato. The regular, open handed wave, is seen as a sign of the MDC party, the opposition party (who, by the way, clearly they won last month's election, hence the delay in announcing the results). The ruling party - ZANU PF- 's signature gesture is shaking your fist in threat, and the President is frequently photographed in this classic iron fisted pose.

This can create confusion and misunderstandings amongst expats. Picture myself and a heavily pregnant friend sitting in a car waiting for someone in downtown Harare in June 2000. Suddenly we see people running all around us and next thing we know an angry mob are rocking the car and shaking their fists at us. Scary. Or maybe just a rambunctious invitation to join the ZANU PF party.

A couple of weeks ago I went away for the weekend to stay with friends on a farm on the outskirts of Bindura, a small town north of Harare. As we drove past families walking along the road, we waved at them, and some shook their fists at us. Recalling that the area is a ZANU PF stronghold, we came up with a compromise gesture of hello and goodbye - the old fashioned thumbs up sign. We tried it on the next group of people we passed, and with wide smiles, they returned the thumbs up gesture. Political impasse solved.

If only we could sort out the elections that easily.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A super hotline

Like most of our major infrastructure, Zimbabwe's telephone system is -- well, there's no other way to say it -- miraculous.

Ha! I bet you weren't expecting that word, but it is true. The majority of phone lines are at least 30 years old, and given that the bills cost next to nothing in real terms, it defies belief that they work at all.

To be fair, they don't work for months on end (especially during the rainy season) in certain parts of town. Or your line can go dead for a few hours while the telephone company resets the local exchange. Or storm damage can result in fallen trees taking out your line which can take weeks or even months to fix.

But on the whole, where I live, you pick up the phone, and there's a dial tone.

Finding the number you want to call is a whole other story. Telephone directories are only periodically published and mine dates back to 1999, not all that useful. The telephone company has uploaded the directory on to their web site, which means you can find the number if you know the name of the company you are looking for - but you have to type it in as it was printed in the directory, typos and all.

This morning I dialled the number for an engineering company and the phone was answered by a cheery greeting. "Is this the number for XYZ engineering?" I asked. "No, you've reached the direct line of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission." (ZEC was appointed by the government to 'independently' count - and now, although the results have not yet been published - recount the votes for the parliamentary, senate and presidential elections that were held on 29 March. So far they've only announced the parliamentary results, which the opposition party, MDC, won. Since then the international media reported that seven ZEC employees were arrested for mis-reporting the parliamentary results, which the government is contesting. So far no senate or presidential election results have been announced, and the government media claims that these elections are still being counted, despite the fact that the results were published at each polling station on election day.)

"Oh, wait, you're at ZEC? The guys who are so busy at the moment?" "That's right," came the answer. "Well, keep counting," I quipped, "we're all waiting..."

I heard laughter as I hung up the phone. Poor guys. But now that I have their number, I might phone them from time to time to offer encouragement or advice. I'm sure they need all the support they can get.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

All the Presidents' Men

The first thing I heard was whistling and shouting. My friend Tony and I had gone for a Sunday cycle ride, enjoying the empty roads and beautiful weather. Now suddenly we were in trouble: all around there were dozens of disembodied voices calling and whistling at myself and Tony to stop. Tony was about 100 metres ahead, and being hard of hearing, he continued jauntily on his way. I paused, looking around me, but couldn't see anything beyond the school playing fields, and the empty road. Suddenly a yellow beret appeared out of the grass, and an AK machine gun was waved to signal me to cross the road and get closer. I couldn't actually see the face of the soldier, but the yellow beret denotes the Presidential Guard.

Uh oh. I hadn't heard the news and was wondering if something serious had happened, or, more likely, that they thought I was up to something serious. I shouted across the road "What's the matter?" But there was no response, just lots of rustling in the long grass, as I envisioned army snipers jostling each other to get the best fix on me.

Heart thudding, I considered the options. Tony was leading the way and I had no idea where our destination was. State House, the official presidential residence, was just around the corner, and there was no where to turn off. Obviously there was some security situation going on. But you can't stop. Stop your car, stop your bus, stop your bike, and you risk being arrested, threatened or even beaten. My friend's car had burst into flames near State House and she was ordered to push it out of the way, at gunpoint. This is not the place to be indecisive.

I continued on my way, cautiously. Around the corner another guard waved his AK to beckon me towards him. I paused, as a car was coming, and called out "What's wrong?" "This way, come over here - you must use the cycle path," he responded. I crossed the road and went down the cycle path, which, ironically, runs directly beneath the wall of State House. At the next set of traffic lights, the guards asked me to go across the lights and wait for Tony (who had been taken in for questioning - but that's another story) a few blocks away. The lights were red, and I was asked why I was stopping. I couldn't tell who was more nervous - the soldiers, or me. A nervous soldier is not someone you can take lightly.

Only a few months ago I had cycled this very route before and called out greetings to the guards, who had taken their hands off their semi-automatics to wave and wish me a good morning. Now if even a cricket started to sing, it would be instantly drowned out by the loud click of a dozen rifles being cocked.

As I paused for traffic at the median strip, a voice barked: "Go away! You can't wait here! The Old Man is coming." Ah, well, that explains everything.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Two weeks after the election and no results.. Here's why..

Zimbabwe Offline

Getting onto the internet in Zimbabwe can be a frustrating and expensive business. We have an archaic, un-maintained telephone system with corroded copper wires – no fibre optics. The government does not encourage email or internet access and charges a US $20,000 application fee to apply for a satellite link permit (and permits are rarely granted, so you could just be subsidizing the custom upgrades of the Minister’s Mercedes Benz – oops, I meant to say - contributing to an important government shopping trip initiative). Satellite access is illegal without this special permit. There are only a few internet service providers, and like the mobile phone network providers, these are all oversubscribed so that your connection speed/ability rarely matches what you pay for. Dial up is the more affordable option – it can take over an hour to download a single, text only email. If someone sends you picture or an attachment of 1 or 2 mb, it can take four hours or more to download it.

I am lucky enough to have (occasional) access to broadband – but it is very expensive at US $350 per month. So you can imagine my delight when my ADSL line went down on Monday. My internet provider, Zimbabwe Online, checked the link promptly and determined that the telephone line was the problem – and of course, that is serviced by the government telephone company.

I reported the problem to the telephone company on Monday, and spent a frustrating week at home, waiting for the engineer to come and fix the problem – you don’t want to miss your turn or you have to spend weeks pleading with them to return.

I cancelled business meetings, my daily trip to the bank (important as your daily withdrawal limit is worth less than ten US dollars and many shops and services insist on cash), exercise, food shopping - basically I put my life on hold. I can’t work without internet access, so no connection means no income, and potential loss of future income as I am virtually incommunicado. On top of that, each week spent staring hopelessly at your useless ADSL modem, hoping and praying for a miracle is compounded by the comforting knowledge that it has cost you another hundred dollars - money that could normally go a long way over here - in fruitless internet connection fees.

By Wednesday I was feeling extremely ill and really wanted to go to the doctor – but of course the telephone company said they were coming, so I didn’t dare miss my turn. On Thursday I finally caved in and went to the doc - turned out that I had tonsillitis! I rushed back home of course, in case the engineer pitched up.

On Friday, the engineer called me early morning, waking me up in my sickbed (sympathy please!). I skipped my morning shower, quickly threw on some clothes, and rushed to the gate to wait his imminent arrival. Guess what? He did actually pitch up.

Six hours later.

And he explained that none of the other engineers even go to work because their salaries don’t cover two loaves of bread, let alone the daily commute.

He didn’t have any equipment, asking to borrow a voltmeter and a spanner. He tore the cable off the wall and opened the switch box, and then said he had to go the telephone exchange for the next step, leaving all the wires exposed. I can’t tell you how reluctant I was to let him leave, but nothing ventured…

Anyway, (even) long(er) story short, I got back online Friday afternoon. An absolute miracle to get my line fixed before the weekend. Having dropped hints about his measly salary I gave the engineer all the cash I had – a hundred million zim dollars – worth about two US dollars. I took his mobile phone number, and he said he’d come quicker next time – if that actually is the case, it's a hundred million bucks well spent!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Trying to keep a lid on it..

Good things come to those that wait...

Remember when you were child, how your mother or father taught you the value of patience, saying "Good things come to those that wait"? Well my goodness, the whole of Zimbabwe is waiting with bated breath to see what the outcome of Saturday's election will be.

We go about our daily tasks in a state of suspended animation, queueing at the bank, going to the supermarket, working at the office - it all continues as if everything is normal. When we meet our friends we come back to life a bit - speculating on whether the "Old Man" (the president) will stay or go, whether there will be conflict or repression, whether we dare to hope that change is really on our doorstop. And then we get back in our cars, go to our next destination, or shut the door as our friends leave, perhaps rush to watch the international news, and go back to going through the motions of our daily lives, all emotions on hold - waiting, waiting, waiting for the outcome. What else can we do? We already have a stock of food in our cupboard in case there is no more to buy. We keep our fuel jerry cans topped up, our generators on standby, as we have anyway during the normal course of life here. We just continue with our routine drudgeries, waiting for Something to Happen.

Never has there been such an outbreak of procrastination, of repressed anxiety, of Zombiedom, like there is in Zimbabwe right now. Don't get me wrong, feelings are running high - and it may well be true that the country is on a knife edge, teetering between conflict, anarchy, and - ironically - resignation to the status quo.

Do good things really come to those that wait? We have all stood for hours in the bread queue at the local bakery or supermarket, to watch the person before us collect the last loaf, or in the bank queue before discovering there is no more cash. We so desperately want to believe that change is coming, but we hardly dare hope.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Rumour has it...

Thanks to the government's iron grip on Zimbabwe's media, local residents often find ourselves in the dark as to what's the real story. Rumours abound, are shared, leaked, exaggerated, and shared again. The city of Harare is basically one big Rumour Mill.

A few years ago, the Rumour de Jour was that the (largely unpopular) President -- Robert Mugabe -- had died, and that the government was hushing up this news. Weeks went past with no sightings of His Eminence, a noticeable absence of daily sirens heralding the presidential commute to State House, and an unusual reticence from the Minister of Information. The rumour reached giddy heights, with people actually daring to repeat it out loud. Champagne sales went through the roof. And then suddenly, it all came crashing down: there was the President himself splashed all over the local media, furiously denying the rumour. The angry headline of the national newspaper, The Herald, said it all: "I am ALIVE!", asserts the President."

With the recent election on 29th March, and the refusal of the government to promptly release the results, the Rumour Mill has rocketed into HyperDrive. The elections were held on Saturday. On Sunday, with mounting hope, people whispered that the opposition party (the MDC) had won, and that realising the game was up, "Bob has already skipped the country!" The story defied belief, but hope does spring eternal.

Yesterday the gossip was that the government had lost the election, and was delaying sharing the results until they could come up with a plausible Plan B.

Today the international media - Sky News and BBC World – reported rumours that the government was meeting with the opposition to negotiate a hand over of power. Of course, when you switch to ZBC (the only local broadcaster) there is no news, only a discussion on belly dancing and cultural practices among the Bedouin. Not even a denial! Maybe that means it's true.

Way hey! There will be one almighty Zimbabwean Celebration if this is the case. You’ll hear the partying, cheering and singing from here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Introducing your host..

Hello everyone,

My name is Fambai. No, it's not my real name, it's a pen name for the purposes of this column. I'm a young(ish) English woman living in Harare, Zimbabwe. I moved here ten years ago and would rather live here than anywhere else I've been to, and trust me that includes a lot of places!

Life in Zim is huge fun, if you can keep your sense of humour. Inflation runs at over 100,000 % - yes, that's a over hundred thousand! Writing a cheque is a constant challenge - if the bill comes to ZWD 51395731573.93, at first glance is that 513 million, or 51 billion, or what? It makes the brain spin.. And it doesn't stop there.. challenges abound. Why is it so difficult to get an ID? How can you be charged interest for an unpaid bill when the bill was never printed? Why bother printing an electricity rationing schedule when the national power company has no intention of sticking to it?

These are the daily challenges I face every day - OK, clearly I'm a little deranged to laugh at these little hassles - but if you can avoid sweating the small(ish) stuff, it's the best place on earth to live. Rhodesians used to call it "God's Own Country", and trouble in paradise notwithstanding, they could well be right!

Come with me to explore the mayhem, the madness and the warm hospitality of Zimbabwe.