Monthly Archives: August 2006

Zimbabwe’s people

I found Zimbabweans to be unfailingly kind and helpful. The country is rich in mineral wealth and has farmland which led to the calling of the country the “breadbasket of Africa”. Yet the reality for people trying to exist here is apalling. With inflation running in the region of 1200% life has become extraordinarily difficult for the people with price rises for basic commodities such as food increasing daily. A kilo of minced beef was put on offer at well over 1 million Zimbabwean dollars!
Someone is benefitting. Travelling down a road out of Bulawayo in my cousin’s MGB we gasped as we saw palatial mansions being built. Adrian knew the area well and hadn’t seen this development before. Evidently a government minister was residing in the area. A new elite exists in a climate where the masses are exeperiencing massive unemployment and widespread health problems. Aids is a major worry as it is elsewhere in the continent.
Those who can get away from Zimbabwe do. Many told me they would like to go to the U.K. The white population used to be 250,000 but has now fallen to 20,000. In spite of this yhose remaining employ black servants, still referred to as “houseboys” and maids. Time seems to be in suspension with attitudes still harbouring thoughts of Ian Smith, now spending his days in a home in South Africa. Houses have fixtures and fittings common in the UK decades ago. A library I visited had books that could be found in British libraries which had never been updated, quite inappropriate for a modern African country.
Views about Great Zimbabwe and other research which has found Africa’s past to be other than to be “one of darkness” as an eminent British historian once put it. Yet views are still held as if Cecil John Rhodes was still around when stories of King Solomon’s Mines were current, denying that black Africans had anything to do with such constructions. It still very hard to find a cohesive history of the Kingdom Of Monomatapa, which included both Great Zimbabwe and Khami. Even the Internet doesn’t help much.
Whilst racist attitudes and beliefs continue across the globe, at least scholarship in Europe and America has moved on. The debate about Black Athena and the riposte “Not Out of Africa” may still rage, but the work of many scholars both black and white is slowly leading to the realisation that the African past is as rich and varied as anywhere. No where is the denial of the African past more evident than in the story of Egypt. While it is taught about endlessly in schools, it is presented out of its context and without reference to Africa through its Nubian links. No one was more aware of this than the Greek writers and historians who understood that they themselves had inherited an African past in many aspects of their lives.
Such a brief visit as mine cannot take in the dimensions of space and time in which what I experienced exists. I have recorded the cave paintings of the Bush People who inhabited the region for many thousand years. I was able to see a partly reconstructed Khami which had trading links with the Portuguese. In the museum was evidence of the gold mining being carried out by local people 500 years back before the colonial incursion which robbed them of the land.

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Hwange and Victoria Falls

Visits to the Victoria Falls and the Hwange Game Park are obligatory for anyone visiting Zimbabwe, or Zambia for that matter. Two nights were spent in thatched cottages within Hwange. The night sky was amazingly clear as it was unfamiliar. A myriad of stars shone brightly and it took time to identify the Southern Cross. Animals came into the compound. We picked out a small group of impala, delicate, light brown in the car headlights. In the morning banded mongoose scurried over to clear up bacon rind after breakfast.
The big cats were elusive and we saw no lion or cheetah, although one morning we heard the lion roar close by. We were told they had been seen by the road near the camp, but they were nowhere to be seen when we went to see.
Down by the water holes there was more to see. Inactive crocodiles basked in the winter sun to build up their body heat. Humps protruding from the water were all that could be seen of the hippopotamus. On one occasion we were treated to some action as they yanked large tufts of grass from the bank. A bird on the back of one of them had to hop on and off as the gigantic hulk submerged.
One morning we came across ostrich with their young feeding. The miniature birds were like toy models of the adults, their bodies still the shape of an egg.
At another pan two haughty kudu, with their twisting horns were taking water. This was a most impressive sight.
Hwange has the largest number of elephants in Africa and we weren’t disappointed. The first we spotted were lone males, but later we stumbled across the herd with female elephants with their young. On another occasion a herd descended to the water hole spraying water everywhere.
Giraffe were in evidence and seeing them among the trees as well as on the plains gave us a great feeling that we were seeing their natural habitat. Zebra were less evident, but some appeared on cue. Troops of baboons and vervet monkeys would appear by the road side and at watering holes.
The rhinoceros, particularly the black rhino, is increasingly rare, and there is concern that poachers will kill those remaining. I just caught a television programme of someone who crashed their microlight aircraft while trying to track down a tagged animal. He was extremely lucky to survive in the remote area in which he was searching.

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Benjamin Zephaniah on his cousin, Mikey Powell

The failure to come up with any explanation of why Mikey Powell died in police custody and the subsequent failure to bring anyone to book has been commented on in a Guardian article by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah.
So another death has occurred with no accountability, no one takes responsibility. As with Charles de Menezes the police will be back at work as normal without key questions being answered. Thornhill Road Police Station in Handsworth was supposed to be at the forefront of community policing, yet over the years there have been chilling stories of deeply racist views and actions – such as pinning up jokey pictures and comments on members of the black and Asian community they are meant to serve. On the day the march in tribute to MIkey ended up at Thornhill Road the station resembled a fortress. Benjamin Zephaniah talks about the differnce between a police service and police force. On an earlier occasion when Mikey was ill the police calmed him down. This time they killed him. Quite a difference.

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Zimbabwe impressions

I am now left with memories of a two week stay in Bulawayo, second city in Zimbabwe. A young woman in the Museum wanted me to visit Harare and to teach me the Shona language, an offer I’d have loved to have accepted!
The National Natural History Museum is a good starting place. It’s exhibits, while not a substitute for Hwange or Mabuto Game Reserves, inform you of the wide range of species of mammals, reptiles, birds, insects, flora and fauna that exist in this attractive country. It still contains to the surprise of some an account of Cecil John Rhodes and his final laying to rest in the Matopos (or Matobos) Hills. Evidently the Shona-led government has been talking about the removal of his, Jameson and others graves from the spectacular site where it exists. The Ndebele are less keen to do this, and even now there is some muttering about their tribute to him at his funeral. Less clear are where the bodies of Mzilikazi and Lobengula, Ndebele Kings, are laid to rest in these spectacular hills with their incredible rock formations. Among them are caves exhibiting prehistoric paintings of animals along with figures of hunters showing what are said to be magical lines of force.
What interested me was the exhibit which showed three skeletons, one badly crushed, which were retrieved from a gold mine dating back 500 years. Evidently there had been an earth tremor which had led to the fragile roof collapsing on the two women and a man. One of the women had tried to escape t up the ventilation shaft, but had fallen back. To me this was evidence of African involvement in the trading invoving both Arabs and Portuguese from both East and West Coasts. While the country and adopted the name Zimbabwe after the ancient stone structures, the name Monomatapa had also been a contender after the black empire which had flourished in the region.
I was disappointed at not being able to get to Great Zimbabwe in the time available, but I did manage to visit the site of Khami, just to the west of Bulawayo. Through an international effort thsi is being reconstructed and exhibits the same wall patterns as found at Great Zimbabwe. The site is quite extensive and one wall being rebuilt is quite impressive. Right at the top a Portuguese Cross is found. Khami followed on after Great Zimbabwe’s decline.