Zimbabwe continues to dip in and out of international headlines, often creating an unclear but daunting vibe for prospective visitors. Tourists have never been the targets of internal politics and violence, but always check with your embassy or consulate for the latest travel advice.
Despite approaching 93 years of age and plagued by incessant rumours of ongoing health issues, Robert Mugabe shows no intention of relinquishing his grip on the power he's held since 1980. However, in 2016 some cracks were beginning to show as a groundswell of protests spread across the nation in what were the largest antigovernment gatherings in almost a decade. Orchestrated largely through social media, at the forefront was the #ThisFlag movement. Led by activist Pastor Evan Mawarire (who's since fled the country for fear of his safety), Zimbabweans were encouraged to wear the nation's flag as a symbol of peaceful protest, calling for reform and for the return of pride back to the nation. Combined with several 'stay away day' protests by government workers and the war veterans (staunch pro-Mugabe supporters from Zimbabwe's war of independence) denouncing and breaking ties with the government, momentum suggested change was at hand. Predictably, though, Mugable used heavy-handed tactics to shut down the protests. Things remain tense, with none of the demands for change met and cash shortages, rampant corruption, incessant police roadblocks and border trade restrictions remaining in place. Along with the likelihood of the introduction of the bond money, all these factors that will continue to cripple the economy.
With Mugabe's advanced age and heath concerns, talk continues about who his successor will be. If he were to resign due to ill health, current vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa would be the most likely replacement. However, with elections in 2018, there are a few other suitors. Former Zanu PF vice president, Joyce Mujuru (Mugabe's number two for a decade) was stood down in 2014 on grounds of allegedly plotting against him. She has since founded the Zimbabwe People First Party and announced she will run for the presidency in 2018. Ironically, the one key to her removal was Mugabe's wife, Grace – a highly controversial figure in her own right – who was appointed to head of the ZANU-PF Women's League in 2014. Grace Mugabe, married to Robert since 1996, has been the subject of rumours of being groomed to replace her husband. While it's unlikely, the fact she has her foot in the door and apparent influence on decisions has some people concerned. For the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai remains the other main candidate; however, his diagnosis with bowel cancer in June 2016 has cast doubt upon his future in politics.
The People of Zimbabwe
Most Zimbabweans are of Bantu origin; 9.8 million belong to various Shona groups and about 2.3 million are Ndebele. The remainder are divided between the Tonga (or Batonga) people of the upper Kariba area, the Shangaan (or Hlengwe) of the lowveld, and the Venda of the far south. Europeans (18,000), Asians (10,000) and mixed Europeans and Africans (25,000) are scattered around the country.
About 65% of the population lives in rural areas, while around 40% of the population is under 18 years old. The average life expectancy is about 40 years.
The official language of Zimbabwe is English. It’s used in government, legal and business proceedings, but is the first language for only about 2% of the population. Most Zimbabweans speak Shona (mainly in the north and east) or Ndebele (in the centre and west). Another dialect, Chilapalapa, is a pidgin version of Ndebele, English, Shona and Afrikaans and isn’t overly laden with niceties, so most people prefer you sticking to English.
Way of Life
No matter what their background, Zimbabweans have a stoicism reminiscent of bygone eras. In Zimbabwe, the Southern African expression to ‘make a plan’ can be defined as ‘If it’s broke, fix it. If you can’t fix it, live with it or change your life’ (overnight if need be). This kind of mental strength and generosity, combined with a deep love of Zimbabwe, is the key to their survival.
Unfortunately, many of Zimbabwe’s great gains made since independence – life expectancy, education, health – have been threatened since 1998 (due to gross mismanagement, corruption, and HIV/AIDS).
Certainly, many Zimbabweans experience major difficulties in their day-to-day lives, because basics such as water and electricity are hardly available.
Dollarisation, at the beginning of 2009, temporarily solved many problems for those with access to cash – though, unfortunately, this has dried up as the country again finds itself at a crossroads. Diaspora funding has always buoyed the economy, which avoided collapse for years longer than it should have. It is estimated that 60% of Zimbabweans have someone from the diaspora sending them money. Those who do not – and are in rural areas – remain dangerously below the poverty line.
Somehow, despite the immense hardship for everyday Zimbabweans, crime remains relatively low.
For a long time Zimbabwe punched well above its weight in football (soccer), constantly upset heavyweights in cricket, produced some cracking tennis and golf players and won Olympic gold. Unfortunately, however, Zimbabwe’s sporting teams have followed the same trajectory as the country’s economy.
Good news for cricket fans is that Zimbabwe was rehanded test status in 2012, but it has a long way to go before it's competitive.
The majority of Zimbabweans are Christian, although traditional spiritual beliefs and customs are still practised, especially in rural areas where merciless economic times have led to an increase in faith.
Zimbabwe’s festivals, fairs and street-side stalls, live music and poetry, dance, art and sculpture are great expressions of its people and a wonderful way for visitors to meet the locals and learn about their lives. Most Zimbabweans are creative in some way: whether they bead, embroider, weave, sculpt or carve.
The word ‘Zimbabwe’ means ‘great stone house’, so it is fitting that stone sculpture – also referred to as Shona sculpture – is the art form that most represents the people of Zimbabwe. The exuberance of the work, the vast varieties of stone and the great skill and imagination of the sculptors has led to many major, critically acclaimed exhibitions worldwide over the years.
Zimbabwe has produced some of the finest African writers. The most contemporary books, Mukiwa (A White Boy in Africa) and its sequel, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, by Peter Godwin, are engrossing memoirs. Likewise, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight – An African Childhood, by Alexandra Fuller, is about nature and loss and the unbreakable bond some people have with Africa.
Since independence, Zimbabwean literature has focused on the struggle to build a new society. Harvest of Thorns, by Shimmer Chinodya, on the Second War for Independence, won the 1992 Commonwealth Prize for Literature. Another internationally renowned writer, Chenjerai Hove, wrote the war-inspired Bones, the tragic Shadows and the humorous Shebeen Tales.
The country's most famous female writer is the late Yvonne Vera, known for her courageous writing on challenging issues: rape, incest and gender inequality. She won the Commonwealth Prize in 1997 for Under the Tongue and the Macmillan book prize for her acclaimed 2002 novel, The Stone Virgins.
Books about Zimbabwe
For those keen to learn about the country, its people, arts and landscape, there are some great reads available. Journey from the Depths of Zimbabwe: The Stone Sculptures, by Vivienne Prince, is a stunning book that captures the ever-important sculpture work of Zimbabwean artists. Peter Garlake's Great Zimbabwe Described & Explained attempts to sort out the history, purpose and architecture of the ancient ruins, while his book The Painted Caves – An Introduction to the Prehistoric Art of Zimbabwe is a detailed guide uncovering major prehistoric rock-art sites in Zimbabwe. Still in the art vein, The Painted Hills – Rock Art of the Matopos, by Nick Walker, explores the revealing and interesting rock art of the Matopos and A Resource Guide to Zimbabwe Craft, by Jane Lee and Jane Stillwell, is a must for anyone keen on Shona art, as it offers tips on the best places to buy.
To brush up on Zimbabwean history and politics, check out Where We Have Hope, by Andrew Meldrum, which gives a good overview of post-independence Zimbabwe up to 2003. Mugabe, by Colin Simpson and David Smith, is a biography of the Zimbabwean president tracing his controversial rise to power, while Ian Smith has penned The Great Betrayal, an autobiography by colonial Rhodesia’s most controversial leader. David Martin and Phyllis Johnson's The Struggle for Zimbabwe is a popular history of the Second Chimurenga.
Landlocked Zimbabwe is roughly three times the size of England. It lies within both tropics and consists of middle-veld and highveld plateaus, 900m to 1700m above sea level. A low ridge, running northeast to southwest across the country, marks the divide between the Zambezi and Limpopo–Save River systems.
The northwest is characterised by bush-veld dotted with rocky hills. The hot, dry lowveld of southern Zimbabwe slopes gradually towards the Limpopo River.
The mountainous region is in the east, straddling the border with Mozambique. Zimbabwe’s highest peak, Nyangani, rises to 2592m.
The Big Five (lions, leopards, buffaloes, elephants and rhinos) are all found in Zimbabwe. There are also cheetahs, hippos, hyenas, wild dogs, giraffes, zebras and a wide range of antelope species such as impala, waterbuck, eland, sable and roan etc. Smaller species include porcupines, jackals, honey badgers, civet cats and the very rarely spotted pangolin and aardvark.
Sadly, poaching – like in most of Southern Africa – remains a major issue. Rhino populations have been decimated, while lions are also heavily targeted. Elephant numbers, however, have been hit the hardest, with some estimating their decline by as much as 40% in the past decade. With that said, elephants are one animal you'll continue to see in great abundance in Zimbabwe, particularly Hwange and Gonarezhou, where elephants appear to be almost at plague proportions.
There are hundreds of bird species found all over the country, including vultures, storks and herons, and Matobo National Park is home to one-third of the world’s eagle species.
The ubiquitous msasa tree is the mascot for Zimbabwe, but in the town centres a multitude of jacarandas and fire trees bloom between September and November. Thanks to the English and their love of gardens, ubiquitous roses and stunning gardens remain one of the happiest colonial legacies.
The Zimbabwean highveld is dominated by miombo woodland and is particularly beautiful in the spring (August to October). Perhaps the most charismatic lowveld species is the baobab, instantly recognisable by its enormous bulbous trunk and frequently leafless branches.
Most of Zimbabwe’s national parks are – or contain – Unesco World Heritage sites. Close to 20% of Zimbabwe’s surface area is protected, or semiprotected, in national parks, privately protected game parks, nature conservancies and recreational parks.
Park entry fees range from US$5 to US$30 per day. Never enter without paying the fee (which constitutes a permit), as national parks are zealously guarded against poaching.
There are different rates for vehicles – none are free – and an average entry fee for a four-seater vehicle is US$5 to US$10, but exact rates should be confirmed when booking. Go to www.zimparks.org for the latest figures.
Zimbabwe is dry for at least nine months of the year and many areas suffer from long-term drought. Poaching, hunting and the destruction of the land has caused serious stress on flora, fauna and the land. Lakes and rivers have also been overfished. These factors then have an impact on those whose lives depend on a properly functioning environment.
To learn more about Zimbabwe’s ecological situation, contact Wildlife & Environment Zimbabwe (www.zimwild.org.zw).