Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cut off from the rest of the world...

Zim is isolated from the rest of the world. This can be a real pleasure if, for example, you would like to avoid the hordes of tourists when you go on safari, so that wildlife viewing is much more intimate – just you and the leopard, or lion, mongoose or whatever.

However, if you want to maintain links with the Outside, it can be a bit of an uphill struggle. There has been more than one occasion when I’ve woken up, drawn the curtains to welcome in the sunshine, and wondered why it is so eerily quiet – perhaps the world has ended but no one told Zimbabwe. The local broadcast stations are often silent, due to power outages, or perhaps someone has pulled the plug to censor sensitive topics.

No such as thing as freedom of speech here.

You are lucky to be able to talk to anyone at all.

A few weeks ago the only non-government cell phone provider, Econet, had to change all cell phone contracts into pay as you go system, in order to weather the economic meltdown in which the exchange rate goes from 1 million zim dollars to a single US dollar, to over 20 million ZWD to one USD in a few hours. Of course, the fact that top up vouchers cost more to print than they were worth meant that there were none to be found, with the result that no Econet subscriber could actually use their cell phones for outgoing texts or calls for the first few weeks. Now the vouchers are here, they are in the denomination of 2 and 5 million, with the result that one 2 million dollar voucher doesn’t even pay for a local text message. Oh, plus the fact that you need cash to buy them, and there isn’t any.

Our intermittent Zimbabwe Online broadband connection raised their fees to over US $600 per month, getting round the illegalities of demanding foreign currency by requesting shares in the Old Mutual (each one worth about 1 USD at the time) or fuel coupons (only purchasable in forex) as payment - since we were only managing to use the broadband occasionally due to failing telephone system, this monthly fee seemed a bit steep. That and the fact that a similar connection in the UK costs about US $30 per month and is faster and uncapped, ie you can send and receive as much data as you want.

Yesterday the entire Harare telephone network seemed to go on the blink, with the result that no one can phone anybody. Our phone rings from dawn to dusk with someone having dialled six entirely different digits to our telephone number. Often you answer it and there is a loud dial tone. Sometimes you can hear a plaintive voice asking for Mickey or Lovemore or whoever, but there is a still a loud dial tone. Sometimes you can hear a voice, a dial tone and an engaged tone (busy signal to you Americans!) all at the same time. Today I managed to get through to someone’s phone talking over both the engaged and the dial tone, but it would only stay connected for 20 seconds, and they couldn’t call me back. I hope they got the message in any case! I haven’t been able to get through to anyone else for a while, and I’ve been trying to send an international fax for a week now.

Might be quicker and easier to invest in some carrier pigeons. Even if half of them get shot down for food or confiscated by the government for being illegal, we’d still have a much higher chance of a message actually getting through. So any pigeon trainers among my wide and varied audience, please advise me on how to proceed.

Just don’t ask me to call you.

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