We were last in Rwanda in November 2013. I am back for a few days to support a project which the family has sponsored through an NGO, SURF (the Survivors Fund): the Young Entrepreneurs Training Program (YETP).
It is the “short rains” season. Soft, low clouds sit atop the hills of Kigali. Standing on the balcony of my room at the Mille Collines hotel, on one of the city’s highest hills, feels like standing in a sea of clouds.
The weather is cool in the early morning when I go for a run. I am reminded of how eerily quiet Rwanda can be when I run past hundreds of pupils walking to school in almost complete silence. The blanket of silence which covers Kigali is only broken when a car drives past, reminding me that I can still hear.
I am struck again by the almost supernatural cleanliness of the place. Not even a cigarette butt on the streets. Rwandans are by nature disciplined and respectful of authority. When they were instructed by the government to stop discarding their garbage on the streets (as is the custom in the rest of Africa), they quickly complied, making Kigali one of the cleanest cities in the world.
It is possibly that same unquestioning sense of obedience to authority which explains how the gentle Rwandans were engulfed in the Genocide. Maybe people just picked up their pangas and slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors when ordered to do so by the Hutu extremist government in 1994.
Rwanda’s recovery in the last 20 years, the dignity with which it has worked to overcome the sequels of the Genocide make it a particularly haunting and attractive place.
In the last days of our African odyssey, traveling through the pretty countryside of the Free State, getting lost in a hostile downtown Johannesburg , visiting the capital Pretoria and finally a large diamond mine, I am struck by how South Africa encapsulates all that is working – and all that is wrong in Africa. And how it (and the continent) is at a crossroads in its economic and social development.
South Africa’s modern infrastructure is a great enabler to the smooth functioning of its economy. Chinese investment throughout the rest of the continent is in the process of turning potholed gravel roads into a similar network of good roads. But in South Africa, it has also crystalized the segregation between the wealthy (mostly white) who commute to and from leafy suburbs and the poor (mostly black) who live in the run-down city centers where crime is rife.
Pretoria is an attractive city, full of parks, grand old colonial buildings and statues of Boer heroes – all of which create a sense of shared history and pride for the white and especially Afrikaner (descendants of Dutch and Huguenot settlers) population of the country. The black majority (90% of the country) cannot identify with these symbols. And apart from the giant statue of Mandela at the Union Buildings, there is little to create that sense of shared history and pride for the majority of the population.
In other African countries too, the government (often heir to the anti-colonial liberation movement) sits in beautiful ex-colonial government buildings designed in imperial neoclassical style. But the national museums which could do much to convey a sense of national pride are crumbling old buildings with infantile exhibits.
The Cullinan mine, outside of Pretoria, produces a quarter of all the exceptional diamonds (400ct and above) in the world. It is a model of social responsibility, investing in safety, in its employees and in the communities around it. Yet, a few years before, it operated (and indirectly supported) the apartheid regime. In neighboring Zimbabwe, like in many African countries, mineral wealth has allowed the kleptocratic dictatorship of president Mugabe to remain in power well beyond its due date.
With Africa’s natural resources now generating more wealth than ever and infrastructure (roads, mobile networks, banking) rapidly expanding this is a unique moment in time for the continent to break out of its poverty trap and create a large, affluent middle class.
This will not happen if African countries can’t create a sense of shared history, values and national pride to overcome tribal politics and rivalries. It will not happen if the majority of the population does not have a stake in that wealth – which requires better education systems and less corrupt governments.
South Africa, 20 years after the end of apartheid, despite all its wealth, is still at the crossroads. Inequality is high (with 42% unemployment), crime continues to rise and the government, now without the moral stewardship of Mandela, is increasingly corrupt. There is a lot the rest of Africa could learn from the SA case study to help it, hopefully, take the right turns on the road to development and prosperity.
We return to South Africa, our decompression chamber before heading back to Asia. And what better place to clear our system of the excess hydrogen accumulated during our deep dive in the Dark Continent than the small town of Clarens, in the Eastern Free State.
Clarens seems to live in an enchanted bubble, far from the crime-ridden cities of South Africa, hidden in a small valley surrounded by the strange rock formations of the Maluti mountains. It has an old fashioned town square and small streets full of quaint cafes and art galleries. The smell of freshly baked pastries hangs over the village in the mornings and people greet each other courteously in the shops and streets.
In the evenings, we sit around the fireplace in cosy inns to keep the winter chill at bay. The AK 47 toting tribes of South Omo, the voodoo rituals in the middle of the night, the otherworldly landscapes of the Namib – all seem so far away, as if we’d woken up from a long dream.
After a week here, we don’t want to leave. Prisoners of our own making in that almost too perfect village. All that is missing is “No.2″ ambling down the street, swinging his umbrella and saying “be seeing you..”
On a farm in the outskirts of Harare, Roxy has opened an animal sanctuary where she offers a home to orphaned animals. Wild is Life is a magical place where animals (well, most of them…) roam freely and have created a real bond with their keepers.
Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare (Salisbury before independence) used to be known as the garden city of Africa. With its broad jacaranda-lined avenues, many parks and temperate weather, it was (and might just still be) one of the most pleasant cities in world.
It is possible today if one looks beyond the broken roads, garbage accumulating on the streets and constant power outages to guess the faint outline of the Harare of old. Charming bungalows in leafy suburbs manage to maintain their well tended gardens, patinated colonial buildings hold their own amidst the post-independence “socialist-realist” horrors built by Soviet and North Korean friends and the tree-lined streets remain safe for strollers – provided they are able to dodge their deadly potholes. In some ways, Harare is in the image of Zimbabwe as a whole. A charming city of dolce vita living whose resourceful and resilient people have managed to stay positive and welcoming. Thanks to those plucky Zimbabweans, it is not hard to look beyond the run-down, decrepit country of today to see the Zimbabwe that was – and the Zimbabwe that could be.
Our last stop in the Eastern Highlands is Nyanga. With its craggy mountains and green meadows full of wildflowers, trout filled streams and pine forests, more than anywhere else in Africa Nyanga feels like Scotland. And like Scotland, Nyanga distinguishes itself by its bone chillingly cold and damp evenings. A thick mist rests lazily in the valleys and now and again rises to twirl itself around mountain tops, before sinking back to the nether regions. Perhaps that is why Cecil Rhodes, of all places in Rhodesia, picked Nyanga as his residence.
In a hidden valley just near the Mozambique border, lies the Bvumba, a region of hills and valleys so pretty that the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret spent a night here in 1953. Nothing much has changed since…
Driving through the winding mountain roads of Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands, one could be forgiven for thinking that one has been magically transported from Africa to Scotland, or to Vermont. With their cool climate, lush vegetation, pretty inns and gardens and trout-filled streams, the highlands are a haven for the soul.
But it is the Eastern Highlands’ bigger than life characters who are its real attraction – and testament to Zimbabweans’ resourcefulness.
Jane and Dee, own the Frog and Fern Cottages in Chimanimani, where we spend a couple of days. They have been in business for 21 years and only shut down for a few years after receiving death threats during Zimbabwe’s political crisis in early 2000s. They’re back in action and persevering despite the dearth of tourism in the highlands.
Tony, who has been selling fastidiously made (and preternaturally delicious cakes) from his quaint coffee shop in the Bvumba for 23 years and whose fame precedes him (we had heard about Tony all over Africa, months before arriving in Zimbabwe). Despite the country’s import restrictions, he manages to stock 123 types of tea.
Barry Graham, who runs the White Horse Inn in the Bvumba, makes his own home-made pate, serves the best Wiener Schnitzel in the country and…speaks French! The White Horse Inn’s dining room was empty when we dropped in for lunch and none of their ten rooms was occupied. But Barry made sure that every item on the menu was available.
Chilo Gorge Lodge, in the lowveld area of Zimbabwe do things differently. It is a place which tries to put the concept of social enterprise in practice. Chilo was founded when conservationist Clive Stockil was brought in to mediate a dispute in the 1970s between the then Rhodesian government and the Shangaan tribe who had just been evicted from their ancestral lands to make way for the newly created Gonarezhou National Park. The Shangaan retaliated by trying to exterminate every animal from the park. Clive, who grew up among the Shangaan and is one of the only white men in the country to speak their language resolved the dispute by setting up a trust which would jointly administer the land with the Shangaan and provide them with a share of the tourism and hunting revenues. In return, the Shangaan agreed to stop poaching in the national park.
Today, Chilo continues to work closely with the Shangaan, helping them develop more revenue-generating projects and improve their standards of living. Conservation outcomes have also improved, though some poaching continues, as we noted during an anti-poaching patrol we joined.
But Mahenye, the Shangaan village, is also a microcosm for the country as a whole. In spite its long collaboration with Chilo, it is still afflicted by many issues which plague the country as a whole. The village has six times more women than men (the menfolk go to South Africa to find work). 40% of the population is estimated to carry the HIV virus. Malaria cases average 130 per month (out of a population of 4500) and the village dispensary had run out of anti-malarial medicine when we visited. The isolated village (90mn drive on a bumpy track to the main road) cannot retain teachers, who all leave after a few months. And few parents send their children to secondary school, preferring to use them to help them at home or in the fields.
300km south of Harare, lie the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a great African city which for 400 years, between the 12th and 16th centuries CE ruled an empire which included most of present day Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa and Mozambique. Great Zimbabwe traded with the Arabs, the Chinese and the Indians, its great wealth based on the alluvial gold found all around it. By the 1500’s, the city had exhausted its agricultural resources and had to move, starting a slow decline of the kingdom.
The design and architectural features of Great Zimbabwe are so sophisticated that the early European explorers who discovered it were convinced it could not have been built by “primitive” Africans. In the early 20th century, exotic theories to explain its origins abounded. Perhaps it was the Phoenicians ? Or Egyptians ? Or even the Queen of Sheba, fabulously wealthy thanks to Great Zimbabwe’s gold ?
It has now been proven that Great Zimbabwe was indeed built by native Africans, Bantus from the Niger Delta region, and the forebears of today’s Shona. But the myths did not go away so easily, and under Ian Smith’s white minority government, before independence, it was a punishable offense to claim that Great Zimbabwe was designed and built by Africans. Perhaps that helps to explain why Southern Rhodesia’s name was quickly changed to Zimbabwe after independence.
Great Zimbabwe is an impressive site, covering over 700ha, surrounded by empty countryside. Intricate brick constructions blend in seamlessly with the surrounding boulders. Massive buildings are built using bricks stacked up without making use of mortar. A narrow corridor leading to the Royal Enclosure, framed between 11m walls whose function remains a mystery continues to puzzle scholars.