Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo went on a 10-day media trip to Zimbabwe recently, and what surprises awaited her. Not wanting to keep all the good news to herself, she says: “It’s time to ignore ominous travel advice, your family fussing about safety, and storms stirred in teacups. Pack your bag and experience a world of wonders, in the land that was once part of the Munhumutapa Empire.”
10-DAY ROAD TRIP AROUND this small landlocked African state is all it takes, I can vouchsafe, to overthrow any long-established prejudices encouraged by the mainstream media in their portrayal of doom and gloom in Zimbabwe.
For, on the endless smooth highways linking the major cities to smaller townships and world-famous heritage sites, there is little sign of impoverished locals or rampant sperm-snatchers, but lines and lines of impeccably dressed school children on their way home from school, roadside vendors decorating the highway – like nowhere else in the world – with beautifully crafted statues and hand woven rugs, and the occasional vagrant animal which gives your vehicle a withering look before shuffling its behind off the road.
And let’s not forget the incredible wonders of nature you will come across en route from seeing the Big Five (that is, the lion, elephant, the buffalo, rhinoceros and leopard) in the seemingly endless African wilderness to the thunderous waters of Victoria Falls. No wonder then, the tag line used by the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority (ZTA) describes the country as “A World of Wonders”.
Wonders begin at the gateway into Zimbabwe – Harare International Airport – a pristine, light and spacious modern structure which apparently – according to our host Felicia Munjaidi from the ZTA London office – throws the intrepid explorer off the scent. “Are we connecting here for Harare?” many have been heard asking. Fortunately, I know better.
My copy of Skyhost, Air Zimbabwe’s in-flight magazine suggests, “Harare is not a city to rush in and out of”, but alas, I only have 48 hours to spend in Zimbabwe’s capital and Africa’s Sunshine City – not long enough for a nomad like me, but long enough to get in a little sightseeing from my residence for the next two days, the prestigious Rainbow Towers.
Formerly The Sheraton Harare, the 5-star hotel boasts 304 en-suite rooms, 67 Towers rooms, and the ultimate pièce de résistance that is the exhibition centre and the colossal 4,500-seat auditorium.
The rooms, offering all the luxuries you would expect from 5-star accommodation, are admittedly in need of some work, but with a comprehensive refurbishment underway, they should be resurrected to their former glory in no time.
The city’s name is supposed to have come from the Shona chieftain Neharawa. It is also said to have derived from the European corruption of “Haarari”, meaning “he does not sleep” – the epithet of the chief whose citadel was located in the city’s highest part, known today as the Kopje.
It was said that no enemy could ever launch a sneak attack on him. It is on the summit of Kopje, the city’s highest vantage point, that you discover how apt the name is as you are granted unrestricted vistas across the Harare skyline.
Harare is a truly beautiful capital and as far as capitals go, it seems safe. Even in the oldest township, Mbare, where we are told to mind our wallets and cameras, the worst of our worries is to haggle a good price for the wooden ornaments and marble sculptures we lay our eyes on.
There is no unruly thug ready to relieve us of our valuables or irate street vendor asking for a ridiculous sum of money for a quick photo. It’s smiles all around – and not just the fake, plastic kind one is so used to seeing day-to-day, but genuine, ear-to-ear grins that wrinkle the cheeks and reach the eyes. And soon, I discover, these smiles never fade as we travel the length and width of the country.
The first stop on our 10-day road trip is the small town of Rusape, en route to the lush green mountainous region of Eastern Highlands, comprising the Vumba, Chimanimani, and Nyanga.
While the region, often compared to the Scottish Highlands, is sparsely populated, with a population of around 30,000, Rusape is a buzzing commercial centre. On our whistlestop tour of the town, we get a chance to walk down the streets and converse with the friendly locals who can’t resist a photo opportunity with us.
It all starts with a young woman carrying her baby on her back asking for a picture, and suddenly, we are all hugs and smiles, posing for picture after picture.
What is surprising about this quaint little old town is that while it may take you a while to find a bank in Harare, here in Rusape you will find three opposite each other on the main junction, as well as numerous supermarkets, local shops and a vegetable market. With droves of people walking down the streets and strolling in and out (people do not “dash” in Zimbabwe – they stroll, swagger, saunter, but never dash!), Rusape looks a picture postcard commercial centre.
In search of Great Zimbabwe
We hit the Zimbabwe midlands by Day Three of our trip, which takes us over the Birchenough Bridge over River Save. Saturday is laundry day, we are told, so it is common to see the locals, as we do, washing their clothes or bathing by the riverbank.
It is a most joyful experience to see the kids running down the white sand riverbank just to wave at us and strike a pose for our cameras as we stand on the bridge, looking down, mesmerised by their pearly white teeth and the twinkle in their eyes.
The following day, at sunrise, it is our equally bright and shiny, and aptly named, guide Mangwanani (meaning “morning” in Shona) who welcomes us at the foot of the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe that was once the capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, which existed from 1100 to 1450 AD during the country’s Late Iron Age.
In the following hour, walking in the shadow of the ancient kings, Mangwanani talks us through the history of the once imperial kingdom of Zimbabwe and responds to our questions, with the patience and wisdom of a seasoned teacher.
Upon leaving this UNESCO World Heritage Site, we are once again moving west, and it is in the town of Masvingo – the gateway between South Africa, Harare and Bulawayo – where we stop for a short break and I am christened with a Shona name by a bunch of raucous young men hollering “Chipo, Chipo!” after me.
It is only when I am done with seething over what I can only think was a mild form of molestation, that I ask our host Felicia what Chipo means, and discover that it is a common Shona name meaning “gifted, talented”.
I smile and wave graciously at the men across the road, they wave back, smiling. After all, if the men of Masvingo consider me gifted, who am I to argue? The name is coming home with me.
Yet another site equally saturated in history and heritage has to be the Matobo Hills, an area of granite kopjes and wooded valleys, once home to the San (Bushmen), who left a rich heritage in hundreds of rock paintings, and the site of Cecil John Rhodes’s grave at the summit of the “Hill of Benevolent Spirits”, named “World’s View” by Rhodes for its breathtaking vistas of the Matopos.
It is yet another site where the country’s colonial past is juxtaposed with its African heritage as a short drive and a quick hike up the hills will take you to the Nswatugi cave, the site of the world’s oldest grafitti – Bushmen rock paintings. Dating back to tens of thousands of years ago and featuring some of the most accurate depictions of giraffes and other wildlife, these paintings are works of art.
The Smoke that Thunders
How can I write of the many wonders of Zimbabwe and not mention the most breathtaking wonder of all and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, Victoria Falls? (original name “Mosi-oa-Tunya”, meaning “the smoke that thunders”).
We see the smoke long before we reach the small town named after its world-famous wonder – not surprising, considering at over 1.7 kilometres wide and 355 feet high, with 500 million litres of water plummeting over the edge into the Zambezi River, Victoria Falls generates a huge amount of spray. Shooting 1,000 feet into the sky, it can be seen 30 miles away, hence the name Mosi-oa-Tunya.
Victoria Falls has the power and grandeur to make you believe in the creative force of a higher power. Walking down the meandering lanes of a lush rainforest, down the edge of the gorge, taking in the ferocity, the thunder, the beauty of the water falling at full steam ahead, the sunset in the background, your senses come alive with unprecedented zest for life.
With each breath, each water drop on your skin and each moment that takes your breath away and leaves you lost for words, you are left with just the one interjection, “Wow!”, that you can’t help but repeat over and over again.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the first letters of Zimbabwe Tourism’s promotional phrase “World of Wonders” also spell “Wow.”
If the future of a nation lies in the hands of her youth, have no fear; our visit to two rural schools confirm that Zimbabwe’s future is, indeed, very bright. At Hartzell School in the Eastern Highlands, we crash a fifth-grade Home Economics class with Mr G. T. Zvingowanisei and hang out with some smart young kids with big smiles, big personalities and even bigger dreams.
And guess what? There are quite a few poseurs amongst them, all ready to flash their pearly white teeth for our cameras.
What is fascinating is that their notebooks and classroom displays are impeccable, their uniforms neat, their attitude playful yet positive. They are worlds away from the often spoiled and discontented brats of the so-called “civilised” world. And it is all too clear they take pride in their education. This becomes even more evident when we are given an impromptu presentation by the proud and well-spoken members of the media club who produce the annual school magazine – a promising sign for the continuity of a free press in this nation.
At the smaller Nechilibi School in Hwange, western Zimbabwe, we are honorary press guests at an impromptu gift-giving ceremony and welcomed graciously by bright, young pupils, taking time out from their studies, who never fail to strike a smile when greeting us. And this is no second Gold Rush where they can’t wait to drop pen and paper to go outside, but an orderly queue of young adults who dutifully follow instructions.
From the luminous smiles of impeccably dressed children and young adults at school to the breathtaking creations of Mother Nature, from the enchanting wildlife in the African wilderness, to the beautiful belles of Bulawayo that never pass by without a smile for a nomadic white woman’s camera, this much overlooked and underrated gem of southern Africa is full of promise, potential and plenty of pleasurable moments and wonderful people.
It is time to ignore ominous travel advice, your family fussing over your safety and storms stirred in teacups, to pack your bag and experience a world of wonders.