Letters From Zimbabwe by Kara Benson by Kara Benson - Read Online

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Letters From Zimbabwe - Kara Benson

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Today political power no longer rests with political reason.

An input of intelligence and intuition from unofficial sectors of society is needed if disasters are to be prevented or lessened.

Hermann Hesse


This collection of my letters from Zimbabwe was written from 2003 to 2006, while I lived with my husband in Zimbabwe where he worked for a NGO. During this time, I kept in regular contact with my friend Hannah. Writing to her about the events in the country, my encounters, my feelings and thoughts, these letters became a kind of diary.

My experiences have been exceptional and breathtakingly beautiful, but also frightening and confusing. With this book, I wish to share these encounters with a greater number of readers.

The letters paint a very specific and personal picture. Some people living in Zimbabwe would give different accounts of the events unfolding at that time. But, however varied the reports might be, the frustration and anger of seeing the demise of such a beautiful country are common experiences for almost all Zimbabweans. Yet it never ceased to amaze me how, time and again, the people take the political repression with composure; their joyful spirit and great sense of humour cannot be crushed.

Under the huge flamboyant

Harare, October 8, 2003

Dear Hannah,

‘I am curious to hear how life will be for you in Africa’ were your last words as we said good-bye. My reply has long been overdue.

Well, how do I get along? Actually, I can’t really say. Stefan and myself, we are both fine, but every morning when I get up I ask myself: ‘What am I doing here? Why all this aid and why do we come here to work in a country where a small minority can live in clover? How can one even try to understand the greed of these vultures who drive their own people into poverty?’

Abhorrent poverty and extreme richness lie almost next to each other here in Harare, where we are stationed. Before you enter the big supermarkets filled with goods from all over the world, you will have to pass the beggars; and coming past a huge town mansion you can see an elderly frail man mowing the lawn whose shoes are almost falling off his feet; or you find a flashy new Mercedes parked on a kerb where children who should be in school are selling tomatoes for a living.

The list could go on and on. The deep rift between rich and poor is quite irritating. I will need time to understand all this, but it will also be a stimulating challenge to deal with all these new experiences. I will have a year if Stefan’s project will not be prolonged. Will that time be enough?

Now at last, under the huge flamboyant tree in the garden, I find the serenity to write to you. To me the flamboyant is one of Africa’s most beautiful trees. Its wide spreading branches provide a natural umbrella sheltering you from the sun while the scarlet red blossoms are a marvel to look at.

The journey to Zimbabwe itself had been unspectacular, except for a slight hiccup at the start where a food container became stuck in the loading chute of the plane. This hiccup lasted two hours, and then we were on our way to Africa.

Flying over the Antarctic shelf was an eerie experience. The sheer vastness of the ice below made you realise just how vulnerable we were. As there was nothing for the eye to relate size or distance to, one had the impression of flying very low.

As it is a 14.5 hour non-stop flight, and Qantas is somewhat short of food, when it comes to dinner time (at least the biological clocks of 386 passengers are still set to it), they switch off the lights and you go on a diet! They claim there’s not enough room to carry more food.

On Austrian or South African Airways the same size planes carry about thirty to forty passengers less, and I’m sure they carry more food. Therefore, should you ever fly Qantas from Sydney to Johannesburg, bring some extra food as you will have to get by with one light and one full meal in 14.5 hours, excluding delays.

The reason for this deplorable state of affairs? Well, there is no competition on this route! It’s as simple as that!

Johannesburg looks a lot like Australian cities. All the same type of shops etc., so moving from there to Australia is the obvious choice for people who do not wish to be surprised by too many new and strange things in the world around them.

From Sydney to Johannesburg a lady was sitting next to me who was on a trip back home to visit her mother. She had left South Africa together with her husband and three children in search of a more peaceful place to raise her children. They have joined her sister’s family in Brisbane. She said she will never go back as she has had enough of all the violence in her country of birth. Her parents had come from Cyprus to South Africa; now the migration continues.

On the short flight from Johannesburg to Harare I came to sit next to a lady who was going to visit her country of birth and her remaining family in Zimbabwe. She had opted to live in Cape Town after they had been forced to abandon their farm in Zimbabwe. Her brother and sister-in-law were on the brink of leaving Zimbabwe for Australia. They are planning to start a huge chicken farm or citrus production on the coast of New South Wales or Queensland. Apparently they are not short of a bob or two, even when losing their property in Zimbabwe.

The first days in Harare we mostly came across white Zimbabweans who were preparing to leave. The main reason being that I had been trying to find a house for us to live in, and naturally those on offer where from people who where about to leave.

It supported my first impression of emptiness when driving from the airport to the guesthouse where we were to stay. It was a Saturday afternoon; we were driving down wide avenues with very few cars. This was not only caused by the artificial fuel shortage. Harare ticks by British weekend standards – nearly everything shuts down after lunch on Saturdays and on Sundays it is totally quiet.

When I saw all the flashy Mercedes limousines and other expensive cars dashing up and down Enterprise Road in Harare on Monday I had my first doubts: ‘What on earth are we doing here? Why do they need NGOs to look after starving people here?’

Several mornings and afternoons Stefan and I spent looking at houses for rent. We found people packing their suitcases. All of them were singles or in the process of being divorced.

The political turmoil had not only sent the economy on a steep slope of decline, but had also brought severe stress and strain to these families. For some relationships, it had obviously been too much.

We met an engineer, who, within minutes, told us that his wife was leaving him and was going back to Hungary. To me, he seemed like a wounded animal. He looked hurt and extremely tired. If left alone, he’d probably sleep for days. His teenage son put on a brave show, pretending life was normal. He planned on going to the cinema that evening. His older sister was quiet, subdued. She tried to back up her father; tried to fill the gap the mother left.

Another woman we met was planning to divide her life between living in the UK and Zimbabwe, making an income in both, and moving back and forth. A brave lady. Another black woman was also getting divorced, but planned to stay in Africa. Her family had been moving around: from Somalia to Zambia, where her aunt lived, and then from South Africa to Zimbabwe. They are obviously modern day nomads, just moving on when one paddock is spent to where the grass is still green.

Most houses for rent are huge mansions with endless numbers of bedrooms, bathrooms, lounges and other types of living rooms we never knew we really needed. Pools grow in every garden, some also have tennis courts.Too big and too expensive for us, so we are still in our little cottage in the NGO’s guesthouse. There is also a pool and tennis court, so we miss nothing.

The first field trip to the north and south of Mutare, near the border to Mozambique, revealed where the needs are. The arid and semi-arid areas no white farmer was interested in, are supposed to keep the majority of the black population alive. A few years of drought, no money, and no seeds have quickly created severe food shortages. Reaching the project sites took many hours of car travel on very good roads.

I wished the officials in a certain council in New South Wales, Australia, could see how excellent the roads are here. It would surely make them feel ashamed.

The projects aim at creating food security through the construction of weirs in permanent rivers and the digging of irrigation canal systems. It is a food for work project. The time the farmers spend working for the community is compensated with goods. They will receive beans and cooking oil, fertiliser, and also seeds of open-pollinated varieties. These so-called OPV seeds are important because the farmers can harvest their own seeds for the next season from them.

Some organisations distribute hybrid varieties, which hardly ever produce seeds for planting. These hybrids are also highly dependent on artificial fertilisers and more suitable for large-scale commercial farming.

We observed that the farmers are totally brainwashed by the agro-chemical industry. The least we can do, is to get these people more independent by encouraging them to apply organic farming methods.

We had been booked into the Rhodes Hotel in Nyanga. The Rhodes is a relic from colonial times, beautifully situated at the edge of the forest bordering the national park and overlooking the hills. On the deep veranda and equally deep chairs, you can enjoy the crisp, clean air and drown out the day’s strain with one of Zimbabwe’s excellent beers. Fishponds produce the trout for the dinner.

However, one should not look for a shower in the bathroom, the British preferred to bathe instead of having a quick and hygienic rinse.

The old photos in the Angler’s Bar are worth seeing. My favourite is the one where a team of