I’ve just got back from a trip to Victoria Falls — my first visit to Zimbabwe. And although it’s very much sheltered from the rest of the country’s meltdown, the signs are still there — each day we saw weary locals bringing back bread loaves and sacks of maize over the bridge from Zambia. It was also heartrending to witness the desperation of the curio-sellers who plead with you to buy their exquisitely carved stone and wooden animals and masks or at the very least barter them in exchange for clothes and shoes.
The village, which once was abuzz with throngs of adrenalin-seeking tourists, is a ghost town now, forlorn and empty. The occasional air-conditioned bus brings groups of Spanish, Italians, Russians to the surreal, sublime Victoria Falls Hotel which is an oasis of opulence and constancy. Despite the low visitor numbers, it has a regular flow of guests coming in and out. The hotel next to it, a Sun City-esque monstrosity which seems to cater more for the South African middleclass, seemed largely deserted.
Although I saw very little of Zimbabwe (I hope to explore much more of it in years to come), the little that I did see explained to me why so many Zimbabweans love it so much, and why so many (the ones left that is) can’t bear to leave. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful place and so many of the people we met are incredibly friendly, charming, and hardworking. Their dogged perseverance is an inspiration.
When the curio-sellers asked where I was from, most replied with “so, you’re a neighbour!” I felt ashamed that as a neighbour, South Africa has just let Zimbabwe suffer under the hands of a megalomaniac dictator who has brought it steadily to ruin and scared off all the tourists with his land grabs and economic insanity and anti-Western rhetoric. As a neighbour, we have done so little to help our Zimbabwean brothers and sisters in their time of need: we have simply watched (and essentially condoned) the brutal suppression of democracy and the country’s subsequent economic implosion.
Who knows what 2009 will bring to Zimbabwe. I sincerely hope that this will be the year when the political situation finally turns a corner in that special, wonderful country. Frustratingly, there’s very little one can do about the situation. One thing people can do, however, is to pay a visit. Although it is hauntingly quiet, Victoria Falls, with its neat little airport, is accessible and still perfectly safe for tourists. And the falls, a 1.7 km stretch of gushing, thundering water, is one of the natural wonders of the world, a spectacular sight that can only be truly appreciated when you’re standing right in front of them.
The people there — the ordinary, wonderful people — are dying for you to come and visit. Your US dollars and rands (as a foreigner, everything you pay for in Zimbabwe is in hard currency) will help them to survive — whether it’s spent on curios at the roadside or in the accommodation at hotels and lodges that provide vital employment for local communities.
Of course your visit isn’t going to solve Zimbabwe’s problems. But it will certainly help those you meet endure them. And with no end to the political deadlock in sight, they’ll need all the help they can get in the long, difficult months ahead.