“I used to be a guide. I showed them the rock where the cheetah sleeps” he said, his eyes pleading for something but I wasn’t quite sure what. “I was a guide for the animals, but not anymore, not since they stopped coming here”. Again his eyes widened as they desperately searched my face for something, perhaps just an acknowledgement that he was once useful.
We had stopped to pick up snacks and beer at a small town in the Zimbabwean Highlands on the way to Chimanimani national park. After finding the general store selling only sacks of maize, we were approached by the one-time guide who was enterprising enough to use his old trade in a modified capacity. “What d’you need? I can help you”. He took us out through the back door of another store, which though open had empty shelves, along a back lane and into a bar, which though closed was playing country and western music at an unbearably high volume. The barman was only too happy to sell us bottles of beer, presumably at a tourists’ premium which, given the dilapidated state of the town, I was happy to pay. This is where our guide made his confession.
Outside after we bought the beers he asked in a small hushed voice if I could buy him a bottle, his embarrassment obvious from shrugged apologetic shoulders and his wide eyes now fixed on the pavement. I gave him a couple of dollars and thanked him for his help for which I got a fist bump and a stuttered “Thank you, thank you my friend” in return.
I can’t claim to have an in-depth understanding of recent events in Zimbabwe. News images of white farmers being hounded off their properties, hyperinflation and the mere mention of Robert Mugabe have deterred thousands of tourists from visiting every year – tourist numbers fell by 75% in 2000 alone following the introduction of the Land Reform programme. Beyond the main attraction at Victoria Falls and the capital Harare, I found the friendly local people to be immensely grateful that we had chosen to visit them, and the places eerily quiet with tell-tale signs of a once thriving tourist trade. Many other travellers we met just visit the Falls and then travel north via Zambia, unwilling to take a risk on the remainder of the country, and they miss out by doing so. A recurring theme in what I have read about Africa is that a country’s leader, political ideology and borders are distinct from its people and their daily lives – this was certainly substantiated by my experience in Zimbabwe.