First & Lasting Impressions of Zimbabwe

First impressions are often never forgotten. They’re definitely softened over time, with pleasant experiences and new memories made, but first impressions are powerful.  This could pertain to a person, a place, a type of cuisine, or an experience.

This post will highlight some of my first impressions and some of the lasting impressions of Zimbabwe. (Please read through to the lasting impressions, as they’re far different from the first impressions!)

First Impressions of Zimbabwe…

After driving for hours, up through Botswana, we hit the Zimbabwe border.  The lack of organization was appalling, as we went from desk to desk, trying to figure out where to get our passports stamped, get and pay for our visas, and where to get a pass for the car.  They work in US dollars, so the visa was $75 USD for Canadians, $55 for British passport holders, and only $30 for Americans.  That was a blow to the account, right off the bat, as we were sure before arriving that it was only $50 for a single entry visa.  There was hardly any signage as to where we were supposed to go, and the staff at the counters didn’t look happy or impressed with anything going on in their place or work.  Between inside counters and outside vehicle checks, we were demanded and directed around with little idea as to where we were actually going.  After nine hours in the car already today, this was almost enough to put our tired souls over the top.

We finally got through.  We were too late for the mini bus taxi rural routes, so we dropped Abednigo (the gardener who got a ride home with us), somewhere safe for the night, and he would continue his journey in the morning.  Abednigo lives another 75km one way out into a very rural and often dangerous part of Zimbabwe, with terrible roads, and it was not a place for two women to be driving alone.  He was happy to spend the night elsewhere and continue when the sun rose.

We’d been warned about police checks on the road throughout Zimbabwe, and sure enough, within a few kilometres of the border, drove through one.  The police swear they’re keeping the roads safe, but based on the lack of proper employment and distribution of the nation’s wealth, running into a police check every five to ten kilometres raises a few flags.

The police officer asked to see our fire extinguisher… which of course isn’t present in most cars, and definitely not in South African cars, as it’s a hazard in a vehicle by law.  We ended up getting through this one without a fine, with smiles and some conversation, and continued on our way to Bulawayo.

Another two stops along the way, in less than 100kms, one of which we were waved through, and the other one looking for front and rear reflectors on the bumpers, which again, are only mandatory for Zimbabwe registered vehicles.  They tried to demand cash fines of $10 on the spot, which we luckily talked our way out of.  Gill and I were starting to wonder how many more of these we were going to encounter on our 425km drive to Victoria Falls on Tuesday!

On Tuesday, the rate for the South African Rand was R15,95 to $1 US.  ZAR is still accepted in Zimbabwe, and we only had so many dollars with us, trying to spend some rand and hold onto the dollars for the rest of our stay in Zimbabwe.  Filling up the car in Bulawayo, we asked the total in dollars, then the total in rand, knowing full well what the exchange rate was.  The man pulled out a calculator and did the multiplication by 20, not 15.95! We jumped on that immediately, and told him it was incorrect.  The pump attendant wasn’t budging, so we just paid in USD… It was certain that he was going to pocket the 4.05 difference, which is theft, and occurs far too often. Interestingly, the officials at Customs or manning Toll roads, National Parks etc, were scrupulously honest regarding the exchange rate and we were pleasantly surprised on a few occasions!

Tuesday morning, we went to Victoria Falls, leaving mid morning.  In 425km, there were nine police checks.  There’s a warning sign 50m or so from the stop that says “POLICE AHEAD,” and then they’re standing in the middle of the road amongst pylons. There was most often between four and seven officers scattered between the middle of the road and the shoulders of the road, sometimes sitting in the shade under the trees.  A hand goes up and pauses, before dropping again, then back up, then drops again, signalling you to slow down.  The hand eventually stops in front of the car, and they make their way to the window.  Very rarely do they just let you keep driving.  Instead, they ask for our TIP, Temporary Immigration Premit, and driver’s license.  This was my first glimpse at the corruption in Zimbabwe.  The officers were demanding cash for fines, and were writing up fines on notebooks that looked like they were falling apart. There was often a well dressed man standing with the officers, in a checkered shirt wearing nice shoes.  These groups seemed to try and work off of intimidation, and we learned that the more we talked about what they were trying to fine us for, the more agitated they got.

At one stage, neither of us knew what the proper course of action was, and the sun was HOT.  The one officer demanding the $10 USD had Gilli’s license in his hands, and was twirling it around and around.  At any stage, he could have taken it away or arrested us for not complying.  This was real, and for two ladies traveling alone, this wasn’t an issue we wanted to deal with.  He told us that he was happy to take ZAR if we had any rand with us. After nearly 10 minutes of sun pouring in the window burning us, and frustration moving through our veins, I handed Gill R300 and said to just give it to him.  She was on the exact same wave length, annoyed and upset.  Of course they wouldn’t take change, so we had to break another R100 note, and got US dollars back… We drove away seething, and sat in silence for the next hour, alone in our own thoughts.  When we’d eventually calmed down, we discussed how awful their actions and behaviour was, and how there was no way we were going to pay another fine.

Over the course of our time in Zimbabwe, we asked some locals about the laws on reflectors, and even asked a senior officer about our course of action when we were stopped.  She confirmed that we in fact did not need to pay this fine, and that it didn’t seem right that they were demanding on the spot fines.

From then on, every stop, we told them we didn’t have any cash, and if they’d accept a card, we’d be happy to pay at the next police station.  Of course, they’d remind us that they don’t take card, only cash, any currency.  They’d ask us how much we had, but we stuck to having nothing on us.  This fortunately got us through most other stops without much hassle, but what an ordeal to go through, every single stop! We heard from a friend in Bulawayo that the police often go “unpaid” by the terrible government, which may explain but not condone their behaviour.

Booking a sunset cruise on the Might Zambezi River, we got to know the owner of the company.  We spoke about employment and the hardships he’s been experiencing with money coming in and the lack of bookings based on the rising prices.  The pricing for most things in Zimbabwe has priced most South Africans out of the market, which has been a huge percentage of visitors in the past. He said that over the 2015 Christmas period they lost approximately 1 million South African visitors over the 6 – 8 weeks.  He told us about how he’s had to let some of his staff go because he cannot afford to pay them, and how awful that feels for him to see his friends suffer.

Only 10% of Zimbabwe is employed, and by employed, I mean working for a salary, paying tax, and earning a steady income.  The 90% of unemployed citizens is working so hard for the basic essentials they need to survive.  (This isn’t only in Zimbabwe, I understand this, but this is what I’ve personally experienced). They make things, create the most beautiful art pieces and jewelry, grow food to sell, grow flowers to sell, carve wood and stone to sell.  Anything they make this way, they keep, but because that’s what everyone else is doing, they’re relying on the wealthy portion of the population and tourists for their income.  They trade and barter within their communities to support themselves.  One provides another with food, and is given clothing or shoes in return… and this is how they live.  They will tell you that they’re suffering, and that the government is hard on them.  There are no jobs for them, and the people making the money keep it amongst themselves.

Walking back to the lodge from Vic Falls, we were chased down and followed for a kilometre by five men trying desperately to sell us things they’d made.  Whether they saw white skin and assumed money, or heard our accents, they wouldn’t let us go.  At this point, we actually didn’t have a cent on us, and told them so.  They told us about how they couldn’t afford food, they had babies at home that were hungry, and how they would give us these things they’d made in exchange for our clothes or shoes.  This happens all day, every day.

Lasting Impressions of Zimbabwe…

The people.  Aside from the police, the people of Zimbabwe are kind.  They’re happy.  They want to talk to you, they want to share with you, and they love the little things in life.  Driving down the long roads through rural areas, trees lining both sides of the road, you’ll come across people walking, running, riding bikes, or herding livestock.  You wave, and they wave back so excitedly with huge smiles on their faces.

The entire time I was in Zimbabwe, the people we visited and Dave, the friend of Gilli’s we stayed with in Bulawayo, were so accommodating and kind.  Everyone is so hard working, caring, and welcoming, and were so lovely to get to know.  I’ll never forget Dave’s kindness and how happily he opened his house up to us to stay.  He introduced us to his friends, and organized multiple things for us to do during our time in Bulawayo.

Resilience.  The majority of people in Zimbabwe are suffering.  But when you take the time to speak to them and ask them questions, you can’t help but see the resilience and strength that they exude.  Speaking with one man in Bulawayo, he told me that if he gives up, not only does he suffer more than he is already, but then his family does too.  This is why he works all day every day to make beautiful things that he hopes people will buy.  I spent more than twenty minutes talking to Kuda, (short for Kudakwashe, God’s will, he told me). I bought a bowl from him to bring home for a friend who is getting married, and was thrilled to know that it was helping him. Several people spoke very openly and told Gilli that they are desperate for white people to return to Zimbabwe and help them gain employment and good lives again – quite contrary to the “reported”propaganda.

Gill used to live in Bulawayo, and her family used to have farms and big properties in the area.  She knew many of the local farmers, so on our return trip from Victoria Falls, we drove down some little back roads so I could see some of the little villages.  We passed many people carrying heavy bags and boxes on their heads, walking down the road.  Waiting near the highway, there were two ladies in particular, that waved and smiled at us.  We stopped and offered them a ride into the city, and they were beyond grateful.  Their names were Anita and Senzani, daughter and Mom. Every day, they wait hours on the side of the road for a ride into town to sell food. Then they have to find a safe ride back, which isn’t guaranteed. They carry heavy bags of fruit/veg on their heads for miles. They don’t make money in the end… They barter for everything they eat and wear. They’re part of the 90% of unemployed people that work their butts off for no money… Just what’s need to survive.

Positivity and happiness. During our time in Vic Falls, we couldn’t help but notice how happy and positive the gate staff were.  Each vehicle that entered a gate was greeted with a smile and a wave, and often a quick little dance to make you laugh.  Even during rough times, the people of Zimbabwe have the ability to smile and laugh.

Beautiful scenic landscapes everywhere.  We visited Matopos, which was stunning, and our drive to Vic Falls was 425 kilometres of gorgeous different trees, and my new favourite, baobab trees!  Baboons and vervet monkeys in the trees and running around on the roads.  Donkeys and cows and goats wandering around at their leisure, standing in the middle of the road, forcing us to go around far too often!  Little shack villages, or thatch roofed huts just off the road.  Ladies walking with children strapped to their backs, with buckets of water or food on their heads, dressed in colourful dresses.  I’ll never forget these little moments.

A xo

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1 thought on “First & Lasting Impressions of Zimbabwe

  1. Wow, you have had quite the experience and as always you see the better side of things. Can’t wait to hear all your adventures that you didn’t write about. See you soon😘😘😘

    Liked by 1 person

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