IF you think you’ve been to the world’s worst dinner event, then you haven’t a clue. Not unless you attended the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority Silver Jubilee Awards function in Harare on Friday, February 17.
It must be sa
id that the concept of the awards was first class — to recognise and reward with certificates those people and organisations contributing to the growth and well-being of tourism during the 25 years of Zimbabwe’s Independence. The event was supposed to have been held last year but was postponed a few times for unknown reasons, hence it being held so close to the country’s 26th anniversary.
The invitations (which most of us had to actually collect from the ZTA offices ourselves!) said 6:30pm for 7pm. Being used to these “official” functions we thought not to come at 6:30pm but rather just before 7pm … we thought this would ensure that we would not be sitting around like loose change for half an hour. How naive we were. Nothing started happening until 8:25pm, at which time we discovered that the food (which seemed to be ready and waiting on the buffet tables when we came in at about 6:50pm) would only be served after the presentation of awards and speeches. Still, we thought, surely that can only be half an hour to 45 minutes? How wrong can one be?
The speeches and awards finished well after 10pm, at which time a mad rush of people, many of them actual guests that night, made for the buffet service and heaped mountains of food onto plates — including not a few folk who decided jelly and mousse went well with chicken and the other hot dishes.
One of the reasons for the late start was the late arrival in the room of “the VIPs”. They arrived together in what seemed like a wedding procession, with VIPs escorted in by attractive young models … including, for some unknown reason, Kiki Divaris (I mean she was a VIP, not an attractive young model.) No-one at my table was sure just what she had done over 25 years to become a VIP at this event, but we supposed it was something to do with the presence of this new phenomenon, Miss Tourism Zimbabwe.
After the VIPs sat, someone did her best to assault the national anthem, which was a great pity as it is very melodious when played properly.
The venue for the shindig was Harare Sheraton’s Jacaranda Rooms (all three of them, so great was the throng) — literally just weeks before it is the Sheraton no more. The Jacaranda Rooms used to be very pleasant, but with no carpeting, crudely typed-out table signs and table-cloths and overlays looking like they preceded the past 25 years, it was all more than a little shabby. A band was playing for most of the time — even during the ceremony as snippets of entertainment — but they were so loud as to be unpleasant and making it impossible for holding conversations with even the closest of neighbours.
Cellphones were going the whole evening — no sense of respect for the occasion at all.
The folk on the lectern during the evening seemed not to know how to use a microphone — talking from time to time away from the mic and making us think we were going deaf (which we probably were after the loud music). Guests still arrived as late at 8:55pm … even given the late start, this was quite unacceptable and quite disruptive given that they were unwilling to slink in quietly and preferred ‘to be seen’ — loudly and visibly.
A printed programme given out turned out to be nothing like that which actually transpired, so perhaps there was no hand-to-eye co-ordination within ZTA on this point.
Surprising in this day and age the drinks were free, which was a little over–the-top … everyone would have been happy to fork out for beverages. I cannot begin to imagine what the actual bar bill must have been.
When the awards were presented we could see little of what was going on as there was a swarm of photographers and cameras blocking guests’ view, even those of us quite close to the stage. Why were they not made to stand back a little — they certainly do not need to be as close as they were. Guests felt like rent-a-crowd, not people invited to enjoy and see for themselves.
The master of ceremonies was poorly equipped to deal with the function — he did not know many of the people receiving awards and at one point even called for someone known by the industry to have been dead for nearly 16 years (Peter Dunjey, the superb former Bulawayo Publicity Association director) to come forward to collect an award. I heard someone shout out, when we were asked by the MC if he was here, that he was long gone from our midst. So much for being a well-briefed MC!
A number of musical songs were performed and I couldn’t help wondering what happened to the much-vaunted saviour of the tourism industry, Come to Victoria Falls, Down in Zimbabwe (sic) … but then I remembered that we don’t like the composer of that song any more, do we? All that money spent by Jonathan Moyo on sorting out tourism, with nothing now to show for it and not even a slight mention of him on awards night. How the mighty have fallen!
The MC kept saying that people receiving prizes had to “come through” — come through what we did not find out, except maybe referring to the rugby line-up of photographers barring easy entry to the awards table.
The speeches were interminable. One was from permanent secretary of Environment and Tourism Margaret Sangarwe, sounding very defensive and apologetic about tourism. She said tourism had grown from strength to strength since 1980 and the poor dear didn’t seem to know that tourism more or less collapsed in late 1999/early 2000 and has not gone much further towards revival since then. She thanked the whole population for contributing to this growth, once again quite forgetting that a good many of them are responsible for the very things that have brought about what is popularly known as “negative publicity”.
Zimbabwe Defence Forces chief Constantine Chiwenga was there with his wife, both announced as VIPs, and some of us wondered why this was so, unless there is a plan afoot, similar to that in agriculture, of using the forces to get tourism back in shape (perhaps not such a bad idea after all, starting with a little military-style efficiency at the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority!)
Environment and Tourism minister Francis Nhema spoke, and as he always does on cue, discarded his prepared speech for his own thoughts, which on this occasion were a little rambling and more than a little centred on his own history. As so often with his anecdotal speeches, one keeps thinking: “he’s going to get to a point just now” … only to find that he doesn’t. Like Sangarwe he said tourism was now at its height and I wondered if he really believed that or was simply trying to sound bullish at a tourism event.
Still, no-one actually came out and blamed George Bush and Tony Blair for tourism’s problems, but probably only because no-one really admitted there were any. What I did enjoy was his wry comment, when recalling his past experience in tourism promotion in London, that he wouldn’t “be going back there any time soon”.
The event was more or less hijacked by the chefs (not the folk who cooked the meal for us) … much of the attention focused on past ministers of tourism, who were made the key focus of the night. This was a little sad, as some of them have often been thought to have been responsible for doing more damage than actually helping out. Could they not simply have joined the others being honoured that night and shared the centre stage with them all? We kept hearing how wonderful they had been … and many of us kept wondering why we had missed all their action and achievements.
Also quite enjoyable were Nhema’s impersonations of former Minister Nathan Shamuyarira (who was present and seemed to enjoy them) — perhaps he should get into showbiz and leave the tourism thing to some one else? But perhaps even better than this was the impersonation done by the MC Emmanuel Manyika of a certain senior VIP (dare we say the name?) who has just recently celebrated a significant birthday.
I had been told that because of “certain matters” the ZTA chairman, Emmanuel Fundira, would not be present, but he most certainly was. The ZTA chief executive, Karikoga Kaseke was also very much visible despite recent newspaper speculation on his relationship with crocodiles on his farm. But, again, just why was Kiki Divaris sitting there all evening, looking every bit the cat who got the cheese? Nelson Samkange, now provincial governor of Mashonaland West and not exactly well known for contribution to a positive international reputation for the country, was also on the top table, presumably because of his past history with forerunners to the ZTA … but those were not exactly firebrand organisations either.
The MC knew little about the folk getting awards and he seemed equally ill-informed about some of the folk (presumably) paying his fee for the night: he referred to the very well-known and well-liked Givemore Chidzidzi as Godfrey Chidzidzi. But then he also said the awards were for “excellency” and not excellence …
The highlights of the evening for me, however, were two precious moments: the announcement of an award of merit for investment to the National Railways of Zimbabwe and the announcement of the aviation award to Air Zimbabwe. The former was greeted with disbelief, howls of derision and laughter, while the latter received heavy applause from the Air Zimbabwe table and shocked silence from just about everyone else.
Both responses angered CEO Karikoga Kaseke, who angrily defended each. He said NRZ had made many investments in hotels and cited The Victoria Falls Hotel (obviously no-one told him that this was built by the railways in 1904, well before the period for which the Silver Jubilee awards qualified entry into the awards competition).
And his justification for the Air Zim award? They have been a pile of whatever only for the past few years … before which they had been well-run and a good show altogether! Some of us were sure his memory for dates was in need of improvement … the first “need for re-structuring” and “need for better contribution” aimed at the airline started as long ago as the late 1980s!
Two very undeserving awards on a night when so many of the great and the good actually received recognition, including the much-lauded Paul Matamisa and Shingi Munyeza.
Our ratings of the night:
* Concept — 10 out of 10;
* Awards recipients — 9 out of 10 (10 out of 10 if NRZ and Air Zim had been left out of the equation);
* Venue and meal — 3 out of 10;
* Management and organisation of the event — 0 out of 10.
We did think at the end of it all that it had been something of an arduous task rather than a pleasure and that the VIPs were given a centre stage they did not really and truly deserve. Perhaps the 50-year awards event will be a little better …