Ba-by, a very special… err, great Zimbabwe!

I leave Harare after having given blood at the hospital, my first time. After topping up my fuel tank and filling my case with incredible food (thanks to Elvira and Klaas Osinga of the dutch embassey!!). After having said goodbye to Goof de Jong of ?Nyati Travel?, who caused me to stick around a bit longer to experience the queen’s day celebrations and the HIFA festival. Which was a pretty good thing!!!

My first night outside Harare I’m camping out in the wild again, but not on my own! I’m visited by Anna and Marijke (Anna works for the dutch embassey, Marijke travels the world for KLM).
They build a fire and throw a BBQ party, and we talk until deep in the night. I sleep in my tractor tent with Biba, they spend the night in their rooftop tent on their 4 by 4.

It’s the onset of winter here (as opposed to the onset of summer in Europe), and it’s hard to ignore. I’m getting colder every night. My sleeping bag no longer keeps me warm, my feet are freezing. I wake up rigid with cold, dog in my arms. The tent is frozen stiff, but not so for my bright courage!
Sun comes out after coffee, and, by god, Zimbabwe is beautiful!

I’m leaving the trodden paths again, the way I like to travel most.
In between all the (very) nice people I meet, I encounter a slightly scary old veteran who tells me it’s safer to stick to the main roads. That kinda gives me the heebie-jeebies.

I wake up ‘in the wild’ close to a turbulent little river, on huge rocks. While packing the tent a man tells me that I frightened everyone last night (huh. didn’t even notice there were people around!). He laughs out loud when he sees me from up close: it’s a girlie!
At first, they had me pegged as a magical appearance, he says.
After that they thought I must be army, out for revenge. There’s a lot of revenge violence about recently, and it scares everyone.
Army, arriving to start a new war.
Then, they feared I was a white farmer out to steal their land. So twenty of them started out to go and talk to me (Yes, okay, I noticed them allright). But they backed down. I left it there since it was six in the morning, not quite the most diplomatic moment of the day.
So now I’m traveling the back roads, carrying the guy on my mudguard. Shaking hands, laughing, apologizing and lots of thank yous!

The mudguard man proposes marriage and says goodbye with red cheeks. Further along the road I pick up two men, who are gesturing in a commanding fashion, something I usually slightly detest. One of them says: ‘Busses have been out of commission for ages now and I would like to have one day of not having to walk’. Well I think that’s perfectly understandable, though it doesn’t mean you can boss me around. I keep my mouth shut. I’ve been giving lots of lifts ever since I’ve arrived in Zimbabwe.
There’s hardly any public transport (or other traffic of sorts!), and if there is, most people can’t afford it.
They get off after a few kilometres and something about their behaviour points me to two women standing by the side of the road. ‘would you like a ride?’
They get on.
When I take off, I look at the woman next to me. A big belly.
‘How long?’ I ask.
‘Nine months’ she says.
Her face twists with cramp.
‘So where will you give birth?’ I ask.
‘I just visited the nursing post but they couldn’t help out. They said I’ll have to go all the way to Masvingo, to the hospital.’ she points at her belly and gestures something about the position of the baby. ‘But there aren’t any busses. And I have to go through the neighbourhood to collect money…’.
Obviously, this isn’t quite the right moment for such actions.
I ask the woman what she wants. She remains quiet.
I offer to take her to the hospital. Tell her it will probably be an uncomfortable, bumpy ride (as she must have noticed by now).
She says she’d like to go to the hospital.
I see she’s worried.
She’s off to get her suitcase.

For about 90 minutes, I sit and wait for the pregnant woman at a shop verandah. In typical African tradition, the woman and our agreement seem to have vanished off the face of this earth.
I’m surrounded by teenagers who are braiding each other’s hair.
They have just started doing my hair. When I look up, a sweating woman lowers herself on the ledge, carrying a suitcase, her mother beside her. ‘Let’s go’ she says.
So that’s why I’m driving 50 clicks of bumpy road on a tractor, accompanied by a woman in labour and her mother, on the way to the hospital.

We’re way to slow. The old mother is sitting on the back rest of my seat, her legs around my neck. I’m uncomfortably hunched forward over the wheel, three braids dangling in front of my face. It’s practically impossible to move my legs in order to use the transmission, the brake or the gas pedal (pretty much an important thing on this kind of road). To my left we’ve got the dog, wedged into her basket by a giant bag. To my right, on the mudguard, on top of an awkwardly positioned suitcase, a woman who could give birth any minute. Her legs dangling, swinging numbly. A focused look on her face. Every time I look around or apologize for a particularly nasty bump, she softly, apparently cheerily but in effect rather urgently says: ‘Let’s go’.
I’m attempting to keep the spirit as light as possible, but mentally I’m gearing up for a roadside birth.
Lets not think about that, we’ll make it, just keep going, all will be well. Despite everything, I have to smile, sweat on my back or not. It helps a lot to know that Jerina already birthed two infants. Her mother, sitting on my neck, at least ten. Doing ten clicks an hour now. That’s about as fast as this road allows me to go. No traffic. ‘Let’s go’.
Just outside Masvingo, in the blazing sun, tarmac finally, I nod off. ‘well how did I manage that?’ I mumble to myself. We keep going.

Our arrival at the hospital isn’t quite the end of it. The hospital is totally out of supplies, no medication, nothing.
I’m being provided with a grocery list and speed my way to a chemist in town. The price of the items make me cry.
About 40 U.S. dollars for wads of cotton, rubber gloves, disinfectant, a razor and two clamps. Local anaesthetics haven’t been available for months, so the assistant tells me. Right. let’s skip the caesarean I guess.

Jerina asks me to come back tomorrow.
I tell her I’ll come round to see how she’s doing, and to see if it’s a girl or a boy.

It’s a girl!

The nurses, the mother and the grandmother ask me what my name is. They’d like to name the baby after me. I try my best and say: ‘Just tell your daughter that you were on a tractor the day she was born!’ Nonetheless, there’s this little girl in Africa called Manon Nyika. And so I left her a handwritten card explaining the meaning of the name.

I ask Jerina what she’d like to do next. We’re standing next to the tractor. What I meant was go home by tractor today or by bus tomorrow.
‘detergent’, she says
It is said in such a heartfelt manner that it makes me laugh. Detergent is pretty much impossible to get hold of at the moment. I pop the lid of my tractor case, grope around for a bit, find the soap I have with me. I also give them the packets of porridge that Elvira gave me in Harare, part of the wool for the snowman’s scarf and money for their return fare.
They won’t be going by tractor today.
A tractor is just a bit too crude for such a young baby.

Great Zimbabwe?
The oldest ruins south of the piramids. Remnants of an ancient kingdom.

I arrive after dark. Put up my tent, on a beautiful but abandoned camp site. The guard tells me that tomorrow is a special day: ‘International Museum day’. Distraction rates pretty high in a troubled country…
An important minister will be attending. The final of the national school competittion will be held here. ‘Who is the best, the most intelligent?’

The kids try their best, but the questions are hard. In between rounds the army band performs, slow and off-key.
I’m the only white person there, the only stranger. An army person eyes my camera suspiciously. ‘You’re a tourist?’
‘Yes, just a tourist’.
‘Oh that’s allright then’.
He looks relieved. Probably not half as much as me.

Before leaving for Bulawayo, another maternity visit. Somehow I haven’t been able to sleep for two nights, probably caused by the pheromonal spree that the baby managed to let loose. I have to go back there! I’d like to give the mother and family something because I’ll never forget this. I feel in love with the world. Restless. I’m thinking it over. I’m in this troubled country, with its failed crops and its shortages of … well, basically anything one could possibly imagine. And there I go on a tractor stuffed with healthy, tasty goodies (though I myself had actually mostly just packed beans and cornflower, I got loads of ‘stuff’ from Elvira and Klaas). After Zimbabwe there’s Botswana, Namibia, South Africa. Relatively, luxury countries. A bit of sobriety won’t hurt me. It’s no use holding onto this stuff all the way to the finish.
I’ll always be thinking of this woman. What if I’m pregnant and have to give birth… boy, will I be thinking of her. Something tells me I have to do this, hard to explain.
I return to the village.

Even without the presence of your custom generic pregnant woman, it’s a much bigger distance than I expected. People from the village tell me where to find her. The girl from the shop with the verandah and a neighbour boy join me and navigate, ask around, it seems pretty impossible.
‘Yes, the woman with the white tee-shirt’.
‘Seen a woman who has just given birth? Her name is Jerina’.
‘Yeah, I’ve seen a woman carrying diapers toward the river yesterday. She walked as if she had just given birth.’
She lives far from the continuing sand track.
Three circular huts and a rectangular little house on her plot.
Chickens, a dog wandering through the surrounding dried out corn field.
In one of the circular shacks are the mother, the baby and kids, grandmother, sister with husband and neighbour, sitting around a fire, pealing peanuts.
A traditional interior, sobre and nice. The floor is bright, cementlike clay. In the dark curved wall, an organically shaped clay closet. Very nice. It contains only a few items: some pots, an almost drained bottle of cooking oil, the porridge.
‘Have you come to see your baby?’ Jerina asks with a smile.
‘No, I’ve come to see YOUR baby’, I say. “I wanted to see you one last time, then I’m off…’
I’ll never forget you.

I spend the night with the girl from the village shop, the one with the verandah and the hair braiding. Paméla (17) and her brother Mark (20) have been orphans for a few years now, running the shop and themselves… In their own adolescent manner, but it’s a hard country.
That night we get plastered on the locally brewed ale (better known as Skud or Chibuku), and it tastes well… YUCK!

In the morning I help out Paméla, cleaning the house and the shop. I’m sweeping the floor and the whole neighbourhood looks on as I’m brushing and brooming myself onto the verandah. It’s a rare sight in Africa. White women are supposed to have a maid. To not have one is awfully antisocial behaviour. You’re supposed to provide people with work. But it has created a distorted image of white women. So I chat about my cleaning jobs back home, and how it’s pretty normal for dutch women.
It’s a very cosy morning, it’s like when I was younger, work, help out. fun.

So I’m back on the road again, for a long time.
I’ve reached Bulawayo, and tomorrow I’m off to the Victoria Falls!!!!!!! At my pace, It’ll take me a couple of days. Let us pray the situation here remains peaceful…

Zimbabwe, continued…

Whereas my first night in Harare is spent between homeless white men in an abandoned city park, the HIFA festival shows an entirily different face of Harare. Biba, Tractor and me are guests at the Danish Kirk family farm outside town. They own about twenty tractors that are virtually identical to the one I have. The family is very nice and hospitable, and since they also own this little appartment in town, they let me stay there all week so I can attend the festival.
Culture shock kicks in at the moment I’m enjoying a cappucino on a terrace in the centre of town. Where once this was an ordinary thing to do, now it appears to be decadent luxury. Lisbeth Kirk is sitting opposed to me, smiling. I’m enjoying myself, counting my rapidly devaluating wads of millionaire cash.

HIFA festival leaves a deep impression. The atmosphere, the people, the message that reverberates in everyone, demanding attention. Change, what we want/need is change. I’m attending a show called ?I have a dream? created by the neighbourhood kids of ?YoungAfrica?. They too, are convincing: ‘Bring us change, bring us opportunity, I have a dream!’
I’ve heard good things about ‘Young Africa’ (a Dutch foundation with Zimbabwian roots). They help young people to create their own opportunities. They organize workshops for the young, educating them in practical skills (tailoring, carpentry, car mechanics, secretary…). And they teach them how to start and manage their private businesses. Furthermore, they tutor the youths that are still at school.
Since school education is important but increasingly difficult to maintain (coming and going of teachers, wages are too small to keep up: transport costs from and to work are higher than the salaries paid, ponder on that for bit!). Also, ‘Younger Africa’ owns a hostel for homeless or orphan girls that follow courses there. check it out: !

Smack in the centre of the festival terrain is a tree. With the passing of the day, more and more of people’s wishes hang down from it. It’s a wishing-tree. As you might have figured out, it’s my dream to take these wishes with me to the south pole, so they won’t be forgotten or lost…

After opening night of the festival I try to speak to the media on a daily basis. I want to tell my stories!

Corn is being harvested at the farm.
This year’s harvest wasn’t much, in Zimbabwe. Too much rain. Normally, supposedly a good thing: lots of water. But growth was held back because the corn was continually rooted in water, the cobs are tiny. Even so, Mass Kirk has had good business. He planted his crop on sandy soil, the kind that lets water sink through. Because of that, he has a bumper harvest. The Kirk family pay their personel partially in corn flower and other foodstuffs, an evolved custom in Zimbabwe (even at the Dutch Embassey). This way the employer ensures that his personel has enough food to go round, what with all the shortages that threaten the country.

At night, the farm fields are being guarded continuously. Crops are being raided by hungry people, and/or by slightly less unfortunate people looking for ‘a nice bit of cash on the side’.

The Kirk family looks after its people. My stay at the farm is heart-warming (there’s definitely some farmer’s blood stirring in me here).
Lisbeth and Mass, their two sons. We’re having a picknic in the middle of nature on a sunday. I’m learning how to ride a motorbike.

It seems rather miraculous that this family has managed to hold on to their farm. In fact, it is.
But attitude is a big part of it. Mass speaks the language of ‘his’ people, literally. Maybe more more important, figuratively too.
When hearing about the raids on their farm (which are hardly mentioned) I’m impressed by the apparent value of being able to level with people, see eye to eye, speak one and another’s language!

This is a reoccuring theme on my journey of course, making sure to level with people so I can explain what it is that I’m doing and why I’m doing it, in ‘their language’. For instance: accidentally camping on someone’s private property, being able to say ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I didn’t see a fence, or a house… I’m not quite familiar with these surroundings…’ Mostly, a phrase like ‘I’m sorry, my tractor is quite slow, I just didn’t make it to the next town’ does the trick. People laugh, you make contact, they want to understand you. I never figured that this would apply equally to somewhat more turbulent events like farm-raids! Genuine contact! Honesty, humour, solidarity, persistence, humour. Faith.

And remaining clear-headed. Stories about fake ‘notices of impoundment’, sent by different people on different dates, but all headed by an identical reference code. Provided by a bribe-taking agent, selling and reselling the same form to people who ‘kinda feel like owning a farm’. Hence the fact that the man, who optimistically brought his spouse to take measures for the curtains on the windows of ‘their’ new farm, is still a city dweller.
Let’s pray for the Kirk family, and all their employers that it ‘ll stay that way.

The reality of most impounded farms is that there’s a whole lot of no agriculture going on, despite of promises made. The farmlands look deserted, neglected. Locals are alotted a small plot of land, some politician gets to inhabit the house. But there hasn’t been any transition management, which is why this country has its serious problems, why so many farmers are angry, heartbroken. If only the disowned farmlands were put to good use! And that’s why people here want to go back to the old system, which provided labour, food, wealth. Right now, it’s like the other countries I passed through: people work their tiny plots and try to make an extra buck by selling the produce left over after feeding their families.
How I wish that this ‘land reassignment’ had been managed in a proper way!

Again, the same reoccuring enigma, popping up whereever I go: Why is there no practical education, giving people the skills to create their own opportunities?
In Kenia and Uganda, everyone wanted to attend university, neglecting practical education enabling people to earn their own money on this great (mostly agrarian) continent. Enabling people to create their own business, instead of leaving it to western businesspeople making cash off their Africa!

From a distance I admired Zimbabwe. Taking their country, their opportunities in their own hands. I was angered by ‘the west’, why boycot initiative like this? Because of some subconscious colonial urge to keep posession? Because of our own petty economic interests? The only thing I could come up with was: totally. What other reason is there to boycot a nation that wants to be independent?

But things look rather different when viewed from right here. And especially different from what the president wants his people to believe. He claims he still holds on to his old ideal of total independancy for Zimbabwe, but how does that square with the fact that he’s selling off the rights to his land to china?
It’s not just white farmers who get kicked off their land, out of their houses, thousands of indiginous people share the same fate. (so here I go again, slowly: 1+1=2, 1+1=2, en 2+2=4? but let’s just save that for the next book…)

It’s such a pity that the wish for independance, for freedom, for self-management is being rushed through at this pace. Apparently without forethought or planning and so bound to be doomed. And I can understand how this has happened, but isn’t it a missed opportunity nonetheless?

And why yet another bunch of corrupt politicians looking for easy money? Many people are saying: ‘How come they are so short-sighted that they can’t even see that well-run, efficient farms make everyone a lot more money in the end?
What I’m thinking is: just like in Holland, everybody is pushing his own agenda and wallet through individually, preferably as fast as possible (whatever the rason may be… money, respect, power… respect, power, cash).

Right. Let’s return to the farm that IS working, shall we.
The one with the happy people.

For months, I’ve been noticing these tobacco plants in the fields.
Thinking ‘aha, so that’s what they look like before being turned into tobacco!’ But here at the farm, I get to experience what happens to leaves after harvest!
First the leaf has to ‘ripen’ (like tomatoes: wait till they turn red), then it has to be dried (preserving its quality), re-moisturized, sorted, packaged and auctioned off.

But the Zimbabwe auction is closed at the moment. Prices per kilo still haven’t been announced. So the tobacco just sits there, waiting. A bit like most of the country, it seems…

Meanwhile, a visit to a dentist. First check-up in three years, so slightly frightening. But then there’s the sweetest, funniest dentist in the whole of the country! I clap my hands and say: “Maitabassa!’ (Shona for ‘thank you’)

Harare International festival of the Arts…!

The opening festivities of the HIFA festival is blood-curdling, emotional, extremely funny and to the point. Art like art is supposed to be!
I quite feared for the artists’ lives, bearing in mind the soldiers outside the gates. People were holding their breath. Children were singing ‘Over the rainbow’ and ‘Why can’t I’. On stage a charicature president performed ‘I never can say goodbye’ and an extremely off-key ‘What a wonderful world’.
News of disowned farmers, tortured people on a screen.
Fireworks over the city like a loud cry for freedom!