Show Me the Real-Deal Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Our arrival to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe was smooth, but the close connection in Johannesburg was a bit overwhelming. My bags were not checked all the way through from Cape Town and I had to claim and recheck my bags before boarding for Bulawayo. It was interesting to know that British Airways did not have the proper agreements with South African Airways. Luckily, there was a woman who helped expedite my check-in process. This woman worked for the airport helping customers in need of help, she asked her friend, an off duty-ticketing agent to jump on a computer to get my boarding pass printed quickly. With a smile, she says, “I’ve looked out for you and you must look out for me.” Understanding her rationale, I tipped her for getting me through a long line of waiting passengers. While shunned at in the western world, being “demanded” a tip is a common thing in many other places. Moreover, if it had not been for this lady I would have missed my flight to Bulawayo for sure.

Photo Credit: Jérémie Gabourg @jegabs on instagram. This man and his son asked to take a photo with me and I was honored to not only take the photo, but share his request. He asked that I share it with the world. This photo was taken at the Killarney settlement on Christmas Eve.

Remember this, while traveling to a developing country your first world and western sensibilities can’t be used in every aspect or interaction.

That woman, like so many others had to find ways to make money and earn enough to take care of herself and family without resorting to petty crime and she offered a service that I definitely needed at the time. When Jérémie and I arrived in Bulawayo we went through a very stern immigration process in which you pay for your visa upon arrival. The prices listed differed based on which country you were from. Jérémie, who recently naturalized as a Canadian citizen paid 75.00 USD for his visa. I, as an American paid 30.00 USD for my visa. There is no clear explanation that I know of as to why the differences in visa fees exist.

Photo Credit: Jérémie Gabourg @jegabs on instagram. Air link is the smaller carrier for South African Airways.

As we exited immigration and customs, my friend Brian, whom I last saw in Johannesburg a few weeks back while staying at his sister’s Yolanda, greeted us. Brian’s sister Vicki and his nephew Brandon were leaving Bulawayo to head back to Johannesburg and then London. So the airport was in a flux of folks coming and going and the whole scene turned into a celebration. Brian’s mother Mildred greeted us with a warm hello and a hug. I instantly fell in love with her face, her laugh, and her joy. She truly reminded me of my mother.

The ride from the airport is scenic, but it’s not like the ride from the airport in Johannesburg and Cape Town. You take in the outdoors or “the bush” as the locals call it. There aren’t any big housing developments along the roadside like I’d seen in Johannesburg and Cape Town. You catch glimpses of people walking for what seems to be miles and without any clear sense of where they could possibly be going because you can’t visibly see homes or shops; all you see is bush. As you reach into Bulawayo proper, you are greeted by the homes that used to be owned by the whites. These homes were built in a time of segregation and racial divide. The British mostly colonized Rhodesia now called Zimbabwe, unlike South Africa, which was colonized by the Dutch. The fight for decolonization and nationalism ensued and eventually was won. The forced removal of whites from homes and lands taken from blacks during colonization was instituted under the leadership of President Robert Mugabe. Nationalists like Brian’s mother worked to correct what they saw as injustice during colonial rule. After her studies in Britain, Mildred set up her own NGO called the D.P. Foundation honoring her mother, Dinah Falala and her mother-in-law, Phoebe Sandi.

Photo Credit: Jérémie Gabourg @jegabs on instagram. On the left is Brian’s aunty Nongqabutho Falala Khanye and on the right is his Mother Mildred Sandi. This was taken on Christmas Day.

There are still whites living in Zimbabwe. The relationship is strained, somewhat, as I rarely saw any mixing of black and white people. What I could put together through various conversations and observations is that for a white Zimbabwean, this was their country too. Probably in many respects, it is a similar feeling for blacks from the Diaspora who choose to go to the country that colonized them. These places become home, which is technically true as many were born and raised in either the colonizer’s land or the colonized land. Moreover, and quite frankly, it’s much cheaper to live comfortably in Zimbabwe than in England if you already have a good bit of money. The cost of living is much cheaper, even in the midst of a rough economy with a cash flow crisis. At the end of the day, if you have enough money to live comfortably in a gated property with all the comforts of a first world life, within the economy of a developing country, then your pretty much set.

Our first afternoon in Bulawayo started with a good meal at a restaurant and lounge called “The Place” owned by Brian’s friend named Kate. She moved back to Zimbabwe from England two years ago. There are many who have made the trip back from England and America to return home to Zimbabwe. Kate’s little hide out is like an oasis. This spot is in a gated hide out that turns into a lively hip spot where locals visiting from abroad and visitors on vacation meet to eat and drink and dance into the early hours of the morning. It was at Kate’s that we first saw how the country was using the American dollar to stabilize its economy after the Zimbabwean dollar had dropped to nothing. Overnight, millions of people lost savings, pensions and much more as a result. This was hard for me to process. If such a thing had happened in America, what would we have done, I wondered. But Zimbabweans were making the best of it, using the old bills that should have been incinerated decades ago without complaint. The money was noticeably old and tattered. Despite these facts, Zimbabweans, both white and black just kept making the best of the situation. Brian introduced me to his friend David who joined us for lunch and also had his own NGO called David provides mobile health screenings, immunizations and treatment in rural areas and villages. I asked him to take Jérémie and I to one of the villages he did outreach at, and he agreed we’d go  visit the Killarney settlement in the morning. The poverty in Killarney, in David’s opinion was the worst of all the communities he visited and that we would see first hand tomorrow. It hadn’t even dawned on me that the next day was Christmas Eve.

Photo Credit: Jérémie Gabourg @jegabs on instagram. David greeting a member of the Killarney settlement.

After lunch, we went to check-in at the Ludomo Guest Lodge located in the sprawling suburb of Hillside. It was not what you would call five star luxury, but it was very clean and well laid out. The hostess and housekeeper who lived on the property were very helpful. Like so many homes in the suburbs of Bulawayo there was a beautiful garden. The best part: we only paid 35.00 USD a night. We each checked into our rooms and spent the rest of the day relaxing. The need to go sight seeing dwindled in Bulawayo because there is no hop-on-hop-off bus there. Brian and his brother Allen were our rides to everywhere, and the most popular attraction, Victoria Falls was a 5-hour drive away. With Christmas approaching, we just couldn’t see ourselves being on the roads at a time when many businesses and shops were closing and there was the cash flow crisis. This forced a daily withdrawal amount limit of only 50.00 USD and people waited in long lines to get money during the holidays.

Brian and I went out that night and painted the town noir. The clubs in Bulawayo were packed, and every one was out celebrating the holidays. We choose to go to the clubs frequented by locals and this one spot  called Lagondola was popping. We were in the midst of everyday people and it felt good to see so many people brining in Christmas Eve despite a cash flow problem. There were no pretentious people; everyone was just hell bent on drinking and dancing. That night reminded me of my nights in London on the South African club scene. I had not seen Brian in over a decade, but we danced our hearts out that night and the sweat pouring from Brian’s head showed just how much he needed to be amongst his people.

The next morning David arrived and we got ready to go to Killarney. The drive to that posh part of town is misleading because you never for once think you could be going to see a poor community. The homes in Killarney are huge and beautiful. The fact that there is a community of people living in abject poverty is pretty much something you’d only know if you went beyond the big homes and into the bush. David drove onto a dirt road that took us to a community of mud huts with tarp roofs. There, we met the people who choose to live in the bushes in Killarney. These people were squatting as close as possible to those big homes because it was close enough to running water. This was not like my Cape Town township tour; this was a volunteer mission, where I was helping give clothes and gifts to the people of Killarney on Christmas Eve.

Photo Credit: Jérémie Gabourg @jegabs on instagram. Thanks to David, Jérémie and I had the opportunity to spend Christmas Eve at the Killarney settlement and give out gifts.

After passing out the gifts, David introduced Jérémie and I to his mentee, Otilia. She is the only person in her community pursuing a Bachelor’s and walks three hours to and from campus. David has been sponsoring Otilia’s education for the past two years and broke it to Otilia and her mother that he could not do as much in the coming school year. Otilia didn’t look deterred, she smiled, and said thank you to David. Since learning of Otilia’s story I have created a Go Fund Me to help raise money for Otilia’s last two years. I left Killarney more aware of my privilege and with a sense of duty to do more where I could to help those less fortunate. In the case of Otilia it was simple, this young woman never asked for my help. In fact, for everything that was going on in Zimbabwe, I didn’t see any panhandling unlike in Johannesburg and Cape Town. I saw people trying to sell goods, and wares, and food as much as possible. There was very little complaining by the locals…it was us who were visiting who were upset by our inability to get cash when we wanted.

Photo Credit: Jérémie Gabourg @jegabs on instagram. The Sandi and Falala family take a stroll on the farm on Christmas Day after the family meal.

Zimbabwe was teaching me a few things and I was slowly taking them in. By the time Christmas came, I had a full picture of what many take for granted. Brian and his family spend Christmas on their farm. Its large acreages have livestock, fish, and a few crops and this is Brian’s fathers’ pride and joy…his land. The workers had already rounded up the goat to be slaughtered by the time we arrived. When the goat ran off, it was the biggest joke that we wouldn’t have a proper meal, but we did eat roast goat, and pap, and rice, and beans, and salad, and sausages, and we drank punch, and whine, and sodas. We ate and drank to our hearts content and everyone in Brian’s family had a sense of home in their spirit. A sense of where they could always go to feel they belonged and I, in all my travels, recognized the feeling all to well.

Jérémie and Brian taking a stroll through one of Bulawayo’s lush parks.

The next day, Jérémie left for his trip back to Montréal and there were more guests at the lodge with us, but we didn’t get to hang out much with them because there was a death in the family. My friend Donata whom I met in London years ago had come home to see her father and he passed away the morning after she arrived. I had breakfast with Donata and her sister in law Maureen at the lodge and caught up with them on the funeral preparations and how the wake nights were going. Donata’s father, Lot Senda, played an integral part in the fight for nationalism. As a lawyer, he played a critical role in the case for liberation against the Rhodesian government.

The rest of my time in Bulawayo was split between Brian and I taking on the city and finding time to spend with old friends from London. He showed me a neighborhood called Nkulumane, named after the heir to the Ndebele throne and son of King Mzilikazi. In just getting to this neighborhood I got a hair cut, but more importantly I was given a historical lesson on how Bulawayo was formed and the lineage of the Zulu and Ndebele kings of the Sothern Africa. Tribalism is still strong amongst certain groups. The capital of Zimbabwe is Harare and is ran by a government heavily influenced by Shona people. Bulawayo is filled with people of the Ndebele ethnic group and was founded by King Mzilikazi. It fascinated me to have conversations with people describing how they viewed the other ethnic group. It also bothered me to know that aside from speaking different languages they could look at one another and instinctively tell who was Shona and or Ndebele. Some spoke both languages, but many people I spoke to say they refused to learn the other. The reason stems from a historical and ongoing feud as to which group has done more injustices to the other.

Photo Credit: Jérémie Gabourg @jegabs on instagram. Brian and I posing on Christmas Day for our pic on home soil in Bulawayo Zimbabwe. The acreages of Brian’s family farm make for a beautiful photo shoot and we all had a great time discovering the grounds despite my fear of snakes. lol

For my last night in Bulawayo, I had a chance to go to an annual celebration called Kalawa (homecoming celebration). This dusk till dawn event is the highlight of the Christmas festival in Bulawayo. At this event, artists and DJs from South Africa and Zimbabwe perform for a stadium of people. South African music has always been a favorite of mine and seeing so many artists perform live was a joy. The event was the highlight of my entire trip to Southern Africa.  Next to Christmas Day at the farm, followed by my adventures in Soweto and hiking up Table Mountain. Brian and I partied for almost 12 hours and couldn’t stop laughing about the experience of the music and people. The event though packed was very safe and reminded me of concert events in America. With only a few more hours in Bulawayo, I returned to the lodge and packed and checked out. I spent the remainder of my time in Bulawayo with Brian’s mother Mildred and his sister Nomakhosi.

Photo Credit: Jérémie Gabourg @jegabs on instagram. Joseph and Prince, a foreman on Brian’s father’s farm became a serious poser.

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe had given me a reality check. It was the most impoverished of the three places I had visited this past Christmas. Interestingly, Zimbabwe had the most natural resources of the three as well. The roads and infrastructure are in need of serious repair. The fact that the cash flow crisis would not be easily resolved anytime soon bugged me slightly. But, the amount of joy and determination I saw in people’s faces made me say to myself: it’s really not your circumstance that defines you here, clearly, it’s your outlook on your circumstance.

What the immigration officer had said to me in South Africa stayed true to her words when she said, “Welcome home my brother.”