Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Fambai, PI: Finding John X

It’s been a 4 day weekend in Zimbabwe, due to two consecutive holidays falling on Monday and Tuesday - Heroes Day and Defence Forces Day. Due to a last minute work trip cancellation, my hubby and I are some of the few remaining in town during this break – nearly all of our friends went away for excursions to the mountains, game parks or further afield.

A phone call on Monday morning left us a little perplexed. A manager of one of the lodges by lake Kariba called to say that a guest had just checked out the day before with his family, leaving a bag in his room containing a laptop computer, a notebook and some other bits and pieces. The manager had looked through the notebook and found my name, number and email address, and was calling me to find if I knew a – well for the sake of his anonymity, let’s call him - John, and could I kindly call him to let him know that he’d left his laptop behind. The manager did not know John’s surname or contact details and assumed that John was a friend of mine and I would be able to contact him quickly and send him back to collect his bag.

I couldn’t imagine who would leave their laptop in a hotel, but just in case, I called all the Johns I know. None of them had been to Kariba over the holiday. I then called a few other friends to see if they knew other Johns or had any suggestions on ways to track him down.


So I called the manager of the lodge and got him to look at the notebook for other clues as to John’s surname or profession. We found his surname, which still didn’t ring a bell, so I looked him up on the web, and found a link to an organisation he’s worked with in the US. I emailed them, plus a few others in his field, and made a few international calls.

I finally got his number this evening and called him, to find that he was in front of his laptop, marvelling at the barrage of international emails he’d received asking if he’d been reunited with his computer. He confessed that he’d been a bit of an idiot to leave his laptop behind in his room in the first place, remarked on my efforts to leave no stone unturned, and said that he now had a good story to tell people over a beer. He didn’t offer me one, though, which would have been polite, nor did he say thank you, but I think he was still a bit surprised that he had been able to recover all his lost goods.

Fair enough really, how many countries can you think of that would have the manager of a lodge calling people to track you down and return a lost notebook and pen and a laptop computer? Well, apart from in Switzerland I don’t think it would be that common. On a trip to the USA recently I had my credit card imprinted and the night desk manager used it to buy fuel, hamburgers, and a few other items, before I managed to cancel the card. Imagine what would have happened if I’d left my laptop behind in the room - the possibilities of identity theft would have loomed very large indeed.

And yet, in Zimbabwe, a country that has been through the mill economically and politically, in a lodge where without doubt the manager is underpaid and overworked, he still cares enough to invest his own money and time to help a guest who had already checked out without bothering to leave his name or contact details.

And in the capital city a complete stranger spends a day and half emailing people across the planet in an effort to track down the elusive John X.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

One reason why I love Zim...

Yesterday started out as one of those days. You know exactly what I mean. I’d had no sleep, felt sick, was late to my first meeting of the day, and broke my favourite coffee mug in the morning (pouring coffee over my carefully chosen outfit). The internet didn’t work so I had to drive to a friend’s house to get my email to meet my deadline, then rushed out to find my car had a flat tyre, thanks to me rushing to get there and falling unceremoniously into a deep new pothole.

Some other friends were also having a challenging day: their internet was also down, they couldn’t do any business and were frustrated by the high internet fees and the fact that we never get the bandwidth and reliability that we are promised. So they dropped by for a visit.

And that’s one reason I love Zim. It doesn’t matter that is a Tuesday, that its 10am, and that my day is already unravelling. You can always make time to spend with your friends.

We made a pot of tea and sat under a tree in the garden, chatting. Within five minutes we’d told everyone about our days, within 6 we’d discussed politics and what our predictions are for Zim (no change for now), and within 10 we were all feeling much better. My hubby was having a meeting with a client (we both work from home), but when that was over, he joined us, and since it was 11.30 we felt justified in opening a bottle of white wine.

Well then it was lunch time so we rustled up some scrambled eggs on toast, and had some more wine, and made weekend plans for a mini bush adventure, and then chatted some more, and then it was 3pm, and our friends had to leave to pick up their kids from school, and we had to get back to work.

The rest of my day went so much better. I felt so refreshed, so lucky to have good friends who also work from home and can be flexible in their working hours. So happy that they thought of coming over for a chat, even if we ended up persuading them to stay much longer than they’d planned.

My husband and I are not the sort of expats who have come with a company or aid agency, and can access company resources/help on occasion. We came here to set up our own small business, and therefore our friends fill this void: they are our equivalent of an extended family: our support network. We can call on them night or day to help with anything. Even without asking, offers of support come flooding in, our friends wouldn’t think twice about driving us to the airport (a 40km round trip) or lending us food, fuel, money, their car, or help fix the boiler. Likewise, they can call on us to help move house, or look after the kids, or help fix the roof.

People are generous with their time, and that to me is worth so much more than earning a fortune, climbing the career ladder, owning a fancy car or accumulating goods and chattels. Of course it means that we also have to be prepared to drive across the country to rescue someone with a broken car, or share water supply with our neighbours. We provide professional services and advice to our friends and family for free. But it is not an inconvenience at all, merely part of life, and it’s a joy to be able to help!

Of course I’m not comfortable realizing that people in Zim are suffering and dying, while I drink wine under a shady tree and chat with my friends. I do my bit to help, both in a personal capacity and professionally – I work for aid agencies and NGOs. But sometimes I need to relax, and to let go of my deeply-held concerns for Zim. Otherwise I will explode. We are all under huge pressure here, and we need coping mechanisms to deal with the challenging environment that is Zim these days. My favourite coping mechanism is spending time with friends or family. It epitomizes true quality of life for me – and it’s one of the reasons I love living in Zim.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Holding our breath...

Today could be a momentous day for Zimbabweans. A mere 11 months after the election, which was resoundingly won by the opposition party to the current (self-declared) Zimbabwean President, a new government is being formed. Not only that, but the opposition party leader, Morgan Tsvangirai has been sworn in the newly created post of Prime Minister.

What a turn up for the books.

It was less than a year ago that Tsvangirai was photographed with a broken skull, beaten and bloody in the violent run up to last year’s election. And in 2005, Tsvangirai was locked up on treason charges – which, if proven in the (likely to be rigged) court case, could have resulted in the death penality. And yet today our TVs show pictures of him being sworn in as Prime Minister, by – who better – than his former nemesis, the Old Man, Uncle Bob himself.

What a week it’s been. Last Tuesday , we woke up to the news that 12 zeros had been removed from our currency, rendering our newly minted 100 trillion dollar notes (only released at the end of January) worth a mere 100 zim dollars – still barely enough for a loaf of bread. All of which was a waste of time by the way – since we’d been told a few days before by the (Mugabe-imposed) minister of Finance, that Zimbabwe was abandoning its currency and businesses are free to trade in foreign currency – which is pretty much what we’ve all been using solidly for the last six months in any case.

Then on Friday the deputy leader of the opposition party, Tendai Biti, was released from prison where he’d been held pending a trial for – you’ve guessed it – a charge of treason.

Yesterday we were told that Mr Biti was appointed by Tsvangirai as the new Minister of Finance – a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. Officially Zimbabwe has an inflation rate of 231 million per cent. But in reality it must be in the sextillions – and no, I can’t tell you how many zeros that is. Think of the longest number and double it. At least 5 times.

But what was the big story in The Herald, our very own version of Pravda, the old communist propaganda paper? Yesterday The Herald published and emphatic denial that Zimbabwe has abandoned its currency (as previously reported by The Herald in an interview with the Min of Finance), and deploring the greed of companies that refuse to accept Zimbabwe dollars in payment for goods and services. In my experience, no one has accepted a Zim dollar cheque (including the government utility companies) since November last year, and since then it has proved impossible to get the cash to pay for the smallest, most menial debt.

And yet today, we held our breath and the world watched as Tsvangirai was sworn into his new role as Prime Minister. He promised to tackle the economy , the failed health system, and to ensure that food aid is distributed regardless of political affiliation or ethnic origin. With inflation at incalculable rates, over 90% of the population unemployed, a massive cholera epidemic and over half the population in need of food aid, the Prime Minister has his work cut out for him.

As for us – yup, we’re on tenterhooks. Emotionally drained. Dare we hope that things will actually start to change? We’ve had our hopes dashed so many times before. Cynicism reigns supreme.

And yet, and yet… we can’t help ourselves; we secretly, quietly and desperately hope for a new dawn in Zimbabwe.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The greenest state in Africa

Zimbabwe must surely be one of the greenest states in the world. With the collapse of the economy, industry at a standstill, and the death of the agricultural sector, no doubt Zimbabwe has a carbon footprint proportional to that of a pygmy shrew.

There is a large power station on the outskirts of the industrial area of Harare - the main gate is locked with a single chain and a rusty padlock, and it’s quite likely that the key was lost some time ago. The last time we saw smoke coming out of the cooling towers was more than 8 years ago.

Our national electricity supply relies almost entirely on one poorly maintained hydro-electric dam and rumour has it that only one of the turbines works. We’ve had regular power cuts for years – with 8 hours of power cuts per day as the norm – although the situation has improved recently with the closure of the last factories on the outskirts of town.

We also have fuel shortages – paraffin, cooking gas, petrol and diesel have been intermittently available since 2000, and sometimes there is none available for months on end, as the government requisitions all fuel for the military or use on Ministerial farms. There is a story doing the rounds about how Air Zimbabwe ran out of fuel entirely, and on one plane the captain was forced to pass his hat around the passengers to plead for contributions so that the airline could afford to buy enough aviation fuel to get the plane back home to Harare.

When I first visited Zimbabwe, in 1992, there were dozens of airlines who provided long haul flights to Harare, from Germany, Switzerland, the UK, etc. Now there are only regional flights and a handful of airlines. The gleaming new airport, unveiled late in 2002 -- after a delay due to problems with the computerised air traffic control programme -- is now only used a few times a day, by small, short haul aircraft from Kenya, South Africa, and Ethiopia.

We probably recycle more than any other nation in Africa. Used yoghurt pots, holey plastic bags, rubber bands, glass bottles are all worth far more than money. Nothing gets thrown out – we have collections of bits of wire, screws, bolts, bicycle tires in the garden shed, and used envelopes in our desk drawers. Old clothes get passed on to people who need it, machines are endlessly repaired and ancient cars chug along the road, held together by bits of string and superglue. If expat friends leave the country, people hover round to gather up discarded items – broken lawnmowers, dog-eared novels, kitchen gadgets and half-used cosmetics are particularly sought after.

Apart from the super-rich elite, we are becoming a nation of lean, green recyclers. Or, as we say in the UK, first class scroungers. Al Gore should be proud.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Zim personality of the year 2008

Yes, its that time of year again, the time when blog writers gather round their laptops to debate and deliberate as to who should be awarded the prestigious, utterly bogus Zim Personality of the Year 2008.

Let’s review this year’s contenders:

First off, there is Robert Mugabe, the (self-declared) Prez, also known as “Uncle Bob”, “the Old Man”, and referred to by numerous expletives. He is a wily old character, although the consensus is becoming that he has slightly lost the plot in his dotage. His last big speech at the funeral of a colleague was the usual communist style rant, but the fire in his belly died down to barely a smoulder as he seemed to drift into a gentle slumber, and then wake up to rant against the colonial oppressors, those Nasty British, whose Prime Minister needs to undergo a sanity check (the only bits of his speech conducted in English by the way, for the benefit of the international media) and to call the Zimbabwean President Elect, and leader of the opposition party, a “political prostitute”.

Then there is the Department for Information. Or rather Misinformation as it’s called, shortened to the “Min of Mizz”. There are several colourful characters working there, ranging from the self-declared (Mis)Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu. Mr Ndlovu told a media briefing that the cholera outbreak that has been declared a national emergency was “a calculated racist terrorist attack on Zimbabwe by the unrepentant former Colonial power which has enlisted support from its American and Western allies.” Like many African countries, Zim has a cholera season every year – the difference this time is that the medical system has collapsed completely, so it can’t be contained, and due to the collapsing infrastructure, sewage pipes leak on the streets and the municipal drinking water - when rarely available - remains untreated.

The self-declared Deputy Minister of Mizz is one Bright Matonga. He has various nick-names including “Dim”, “5 Watt” and a few others that I won’t repeat here. He was rolled out to face the international media shortly after the first round of elections, to explain why no results were forthcoming. On the first day, he seemed rather astonished that anyone outside of Zimbabwe was even interested. On day 2, he rather fancied himself as a SpinDoctor of Note and started dressing snazzily in loud shirts that strobed and played havoc with the white balance of the TV cameras, the performance of which was far more interesting than any of the nonsense that came out of his mouth.

But the winner is the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, Mr Gideon Gono, known colloquially as “Gono-rhea”. Gono-rhea has presided over some classic media gaffes this year. First up there was the exciting news that Zimbabwe was home to one of only a handful of Mercedes Benz Brabus v12 bi-turbo supercars. This car was allegedly delivered to the Reserve Bank by DHL and left in the company car park, during a pay dispute with local bank workers, while its new owner, Gono, was on holiday in the Far East. In his defence, he said it was a company car, paid for cash-strapped tax payers, and that it was in fact another type of Mercedes Benz that he got for a bargain price of less than two hundred thousand US dollars (unlike a Brabus which costs US $365,000).

Then there have some spectacular economic decisions that have been made this year, designed to frustrate the business sector, confuse the elderly, and incite mayhem. In fact, we even had a mini riot, when the soldiers were unable to draw their pay (there being no bank notes at all) in the run up to Christmas. During the course of the year, we’ve had 10 zeros deleted from the currency with the introduction of new bank notes, some worthless coins re-instated, and the continued practice of expiry dates on notes (that we were told to disregard), and of course, the famous 100 billion dollar note (now discontinued).

During 2008, writing cheques, paying for items in cash, withdrawing cash from the bank without a salary statement and making bank transfers have been declared illegal. The daily, weekly and monthly cash withdrawal limits from your own bank account usually start at out at the equivalent of a dollar or two but by the end of the month its not worth enough to buy a pencil. Paying for items in foreign currency is still technically illegal but the only way to actually pay for anything these days as there are not enough bank notes available to withdraw the equivalent of one US dollar (nobody even knows what the rate should be – it was several quadrillion Zimbabwean dollars to one US dollar back in October – by now it must be several hexillion (ZWD 5,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 or thereabouts – and the biggest note is 500 billion).

Still with me? Ok, well now for the icing on the cake. A recent story in the Herald, the only government-accredited national newspaper, reported about that Gono has published his memoirs, detailing how current US Prez George W Bush head-hunted Gono to become Vice President of the World Bank. Gono says that at the time he was on a targeted sanctions list, and that the World Bank offered to remove him from the list and “see what it could do with his friends already on the sanctions list.” With such ludicrous fabrications, Gono-rhea’s book is bound to be a best seller.

God knows we could all do with a laugh.