The garden of Africa

Translation courtesy of María Urruti

After spending weeks in the bush, arriving in Zimbabwe brings a great welcoming break to the monotony. However, I didn’t really know what to expect of this country, so famous for the immortal Robert Mugabe, it’s omnipotent president that, from time to time, makes it to the news after carrying out a new whim of his to be able to stay stuck in power, even with his lucid 94 years old and after 35 of controlling the country as he pleases. Normally, I don’t arrive to a country with so little references but, in this particular case that I couldn’t get my head around to investigate, I decided to surprise myself; and sometimes it's good to do this.

Everything for a dollar

I spent my first day in the country on my way to Bulawayo with a new entertainment to keep my head distracted, practice ndebele while pedaling. This language that it is spoken in the east side of the country, is one of the so called click-languages of Africa, it consist of alternating “clicks”, the same of those we make when we mimic a galloping horse or when we call a dog, with the syllables of words. It's not simple at all because there are, at least, 4 different types of “clicks” that define the hierarchy of what it’s spoken and the “click” shouldn’t interfere with the flow of the pronunciation. The sound of the language is beautiful, a genuine symphony of click-clacks/click-clacks, something that I haven’t heard before, but to pronounce the words is, literally, a tongue-twister. Father “Nu’click’be” at the church next to the border, taught me a few words to keep my self entertained all day, and that’s what I did. By the time I arrived in Bulawayo, 110 km later, I could make the clicks of some of the words, but for a continuos sentence I think I will still be needing another 1000 km more.

Bulawayo, is the perfect example of the consequences of Mugabe’s whims. A city that once used to be a great industrial hub, now with all of its factories closed, abandoned, without any more production for the country. In one of his outbreaks of populism, Mugabe confiscated everything from the white people, land, factories; sometimes with such violence that caused the killing of thousands of people and the exile of the rest. Maneuvers like these ones, that gained him back the popularity he wanted, eventually, sank the country into poverty and economic chaos, forcing the majority of poor Zimbabweans to flee because of lack of work and hunger, in a country that is considered the basket of Africa. Zimbabwe is the pampas of Africa and you only have to leave the city to clearly see it.

However, leaving this fertile land arbitrarily in the hands of people without any knowledge, in very little time, caused the country to lose all its production power. Having grown up in a country with a schizophrenic economy, is it very rare that any other country could manage to surprise me in this regard. That’s what I thought until I came to Zimbabwe, whose

hyper exorbitant inflation took them to have notes of up to 100 trillion dollars, which today only serve as the country's funniest souvenir. Their official currency is the American dollar, however, this has nothing to do with the US treasure, who doesn't recognize it. Basically, the dollars that come into the country through its exports, are directly injected into the economy. But the problem is that it comes in big notes and never in coins; for the small change, the country uses the South African Rand. That is to say that, if one goes to the ATM machine you get notes of 20, 50 and 100 dollars, but when paying at the supermarket, the change under 1 dollar (even, some times 10 dollar bills) is given back in coins of rands that, of course, it has an exchange value different than the US dollar. Precisely for this reason, is that nearly everything costs 1 dollar in Zimbabwe and, lots of times, the relevance between costs doesn’t make any sense. A can of coke: 1 dollar. A plate of sadza with meat: 1 dollar. A kilo of apples: 1 dollar. A packet of pasta (noodles): 1 dollar. At the end of the day, everything evens out and ends up to be quite cheap but, I think, nobody in this country, not even its politicians, understands how its economy works.

Dreamy camping

The route that I have chosen to cut across Zimbabwe is rural, very quiet (relaxing) and with little traffic. I’ve gone into an introspective state phase in my life, in which one I choose to mainly be alone. In this aspect, this country has given me back the sublime campings in the wild, where to be able to find peace in the softness of the forms and in the skies that squander vibrant colors at the beginning and at the end of each day.

Zimbabwe’s geography can’t be compare with all its surrounding countries. While those ones are defined by mainly infinite and monotonous patched of bush, here the mountains are covered by a thick tapestry of trees and rocks, that contribute to the richness of unique forms, softly rising until disappearing amidst the fog in the horizon.

At an average altitude of 1400 m, not only the soil is fertile in the basket of Africa, but the weather is a perfect spring almost all year around. I’m in the middle of summer, but still, I feel neither hot nor cold at any time, neither during the day nor during the night, neither under the sun nor in the shade. The dry climate helps me forget about the unbearable sweat that follows me wherever I go. Each day ends with a beautiful, spectacular scene; right when I start looking for a place where I can camp.

If I’m close to some village, the locals always come up and offer me to stay the night in their houses, but I politely decline the invitation in search of my own space. Everyone assuraes me that I shouldn’t worry about my safety and I don’t doubt about it at any time. Even though in Zambia and Botswana (as it happens anywhere else in the world, the bad is always perpetrated by the one from the other side) everyone attributes robbery to the Zimbabweans, at no point I have felt threatened in any way, but rather protected by the people that surrounds me each night, whose kindness has always given me the necessary tranquility peace to leave all my stuff outside my tent as I normally do.

Everything is exquisitely pretty while I’m camping in this land of pleasant weather; I make myself a cup of tea to drink while I contemplate the colors of the sunset, cook my dinner before it gets dark and I’m getting ready to lay down on my back to watch my favorite TV show at night: billions of stars are played on Zimbabwe’s TV during the night; so many that I can get to sleep while I analyze minutely the galaxies that here are clearly visible along side the milky way.

The road to Masvingo via Zvishavane is simple and pleasant. It’s full of traditional villages whose huts perfectly merge with their surroundings. The Zimbabweans, on the other hand, are calm, very respectful; never hear them shout or exacerbate when they see me go by. I don’t have to spend too long in the country before I realize that they probably have the highest education in all of Africa, apart from white South Africans; here, the level of the conversations that I have with people is clearly more elevated, even in rural villages. Thus, it isn’t casual that kids from all the neighboring countries come for education to the boarding schools of Zimbabwe, neither that the country exports teachers and professors of very high standard to the rest ofsouthern Africa where they get paid better. Maybe, one of the few positive legacies of Mugabe, that it doesn't even benefit Zimbabwe.

Cycling in rural Zimbabwe is like living permanently on a Sunday, rural

tranquility every day. A country of simple people that don’t live in a hurry and being with them brings me peace. I see fathers passing by after their working day with their children sitting on the handlebar of their old, rusty bicycles; women seating around by the fire preparing sadza; children playing football with an improvised ball. Simple scenes of everyday life under a sun that paints with golden light the plantations, making everything look like in perfect order in these villages where time seems to have stopped.

A garden of baobabs

Already in the 90 degree turn that I make towards the north to Mutare, the road suddenly becomes an extensive garden of baobabs, that at this time of the year are full of flowers. I’ve rarely seen a tree so beautiful. It’s as pretty as caricaturesque, a tall and robust trunk with small-short branches in its canopy, it seems as though the tree came out of a fairy tale for kids.

In the villages they seem to match perfectly with their huts. For a moment, looking at the forms of the traditional zimbabweans huts among the enormous huge baobabs, I can even think I’m in The Smurf’s village, if only the people were light blue... Their canopies bring the relaxing shadow for the villagers, who sit around their base to spend the afternoon chatting in these weeks of Zimbabwe where every day is like Sunday.

Some times their trunks are so big that my architect’s eye makes me imagine that if I were to carve it from the inside, I think I could perfectly make a very comfortable house of a few stories high inside it. And the best of all is that it would be an incredible house, an organic house built by nature in order to live in harmony with it.

A lesson of shona

When I’m asked why do I speak so many languages and why I like to learn them, I always say that to learn a language, even if it's only its basics, is the first step to be able to understand the worldview of a culture, which is first and foremost reflected in its language. In one of my last days in Zimbabwe, while I’m sitting in a canteen along side the road eating sadza with fish, a man asks me politely if he could sit down to engage in a conversation with me. "Of course" - I happily answered - and after an interesting conversation of politics, I asked Robert to teach me a bit of shona ( the language of the center and west of the country). We started with the essential, something that I think it should be learned, almost as an obligation, by every traveler that enters a country as guest: “Hello!” “Good morning!” “How are you?” “Very well” “Please” and “Thank you”. When Robert teaches me how to say “How are you?”, he stops and tells me that in shona, it is said “how are you?” in plural, even if we refer only to one individual person, because, when someone is asked this, it is asked not only including the person in question but, also, all his family members, his extended family and his ancestors. In the same way, to respond, it is answered: “we are fine”, and the person responds for him, his family, his extended family and ancestors.

This speaks for itself of its culture, of its people, of its universe, of its way of understanding life and its relation with the world and between one another. The shona language reflects all that I have seen in these days in the simple way of life of the Zimbabweans, always calm, respectful, treating each other well; and despite of having a president that very intelligently has managed to make poor such an exceptionally rich country (a story that sounds familiar to me), they have enormous power to keep smiling. Zimbabwe, knowing little or nothing in beforehand, it has surprised me. It’s not the country of visual bedazzlement that leaves you amazed, but that of an harmony of shapes, of colors, of mild climate, together with its polite and educated people that is found regularly throughout the territory, something that doesn’t always happen frequently inside the same country. Zimbabwe has been the country of equilibrium for me, the one that gave me the auspicious space needed to be able to go into introspection and find a bit of peace of mind and serenity in the internal storm of the emotions I'm going through. Zimbabwe and the Zimbabweans made me well and I would return any day I could to this country that clearly is the garden of Africa.