ZIMBABWE, how it was before: The smell of millet beer, the smoke from cooking fires, Oliver Mtukudzi singing at a club downtown, the grasses of the veld waving in the breeze.
Drone of ceiling fans. Sadza meal, rolled up in the palm to eat. Rain, driving down so hard it explodes in the dust, sending up tiny showers of droplet shrapnel.
Farms stretching for thousands of acres, people walking alongside the roads at first light, tourists drinking gin and tonics on safaris, elephants flapping their ears in the heat of Mana Pools. Termite hills as tall as your head. Notebooks of pulp paper. Women going across the border into South Africa and bringing back things to sell in street markets. Lots of children with no parents, and lots of 42-year-olds dying after a “short illness”, a “long illness”, a”sudden illness”. This was 1997.
Zimbabwe, how it is now: Life expectancy is 36, the lowest in the world. Annual inflation at an unofficial rate of 9 000 000%, which is, you might have guessed, the highest in the world. Grocery store shelves are empty. There are power failures every day and water shortages most days. There are roadblocks on most main roads, many of them run by armed thugs who will steal your food and remind you that the West is the enemy. There arenâ€™t any tourists to speak of.
There was a presidential election the other day that doesnâ€™t really mean anything because the opposition withdrew from the race citing violence. The nation is one of the worldâ€™s Aids epicentres, a crisis that doesnâ€™t even rate headlines anymore because so much more is so much worse.
I was one of the few Western reporters based there from 1997 to 2000, and then I had to get out before I was expelled. I talked to Morgan Tsvangirai, as well as Robert Mugabe.
The main thing I remember about Mugabe is that his hands shook, at a conference when he talked to reporters, and you could reach out and touch him. I donâ€™t think his hands shake anymore, and I know reporters are no longer able to get so close
I havenâ€™t been there in eight years and I miss it.
Mostly I miss the way it was then only because it looks good by comparison.
It was no paradise. It wasnâ€™t romantic. I didnâ€™t have soft-focus goggles on. White farmers owned way too much land and the government was corrupt and Aids was catastrophic and there was a sense things were going wrong, something vaguely ominous in the sunlight. But the nation could sleep and it could dream and there was room for some sort of hope.
By 1998, when the Zimbabwean dollar fell to 15-1 against the US dollar, things were thought to have sunk to a new low. People talked about the “malaise” in the country. People would talk about the way you couldnâ€™t get a mortgage without passing an Aids test. A friend staged a rally in a shopping centre to urge people to be optimistic. They released a lot of balloons.
Today, it takes more than one trillion Zim dollars to make US$100 and nobody bothers with words like “malaise” anymore.
“Every day is a real battle, just a grind of hunting and gathering, getting food, petrol, soap.”
This is Angus Shaw talking, the Zimbabwean reporter who heads the Associated Press operation there. I called him up the other day to see how he was doing. Angus is white, and though heâ€™s known the government leaders since the Independence war in the early 1970s, they turned on him years ago, accusing him of being a spy and worse.
Angus is not easily scared. He was orphaned at nine. He was standing a few feet away when a fellow reporter was beaten to death in Somalia. He covered the Rwandan genocide and remembers Idi Aminâ€™s death camps in Uganda, when “corpses had been bound with wire and pressed into grotesque bales forklifted onto trucks.”
When his home country slapped him in jail a few years ago, he wrote that the prison survival kit “should contain strong sleeping pills, lice and mosquito repellents, remedies for dysentery and money for bribes.”
He fled the country in 2005 to avoid another stay in prison, allegedly for practising journalism without a licence.
Angus came back home in 2007. I asked him if he could say what things were like now.
“The last six months itâ€™s been quite tense. Iâ€™ve had threatening phone calls, there are unmarked police cars parked outside my house, militia members in my car park. But I havenâ€™t been in jail for two years.”
When I moved there in 1997, my wife at the time, Vita, and I walked into an orphanage one day a few months after arriving and there, in the second crib on the right, was the most stunningly beautiful child I had ever seen. She was 11 weeks old and had been left to die beneath an acacia tree on the day she was born. Ants were eating her right ear. Someone found her and called rural police. At the orphanage, the matron named her Chipo, the Shona word for “gift”.
At three months, she weighed four pounds three ounces. Sheâ€™d been hospitalised for pneumonia twice, and would be one more time before we could take her home. Eighteen children died in her orphanage during the time she was there.
These days she loves to read and play basketball. She is still beautiful.
We came in the house from summer camp the other night, and there was Zimbabwe, the old country, right there on the television. Here were pictures of Mugabe, smiling, waving to supporters, then a shot of soldiers and clubs and people running and smoke in the distance.
“Is that the bad guy?” Chipo asked.
Yes, honey, heâ€™s the bad guy. He is why we left. He is why we donâ€™t live in Zimbabwe now.
Here were televised images of Tsvangirai emerging from a hospital, eyes puffy and swollen from being beaten.
“And thatâ€™s the good guy?”
Pretty much, yeah. Heâ€™s the good guy.
Pictures now of children, ill-dressed, rough-looking skin, swollen bellies, holding bowls for corn porridge.
“Is that the hospital Iâ€™m from?”
I donâ€™t think so, no. There were lots of sick children then, but it was not nearly so bad as now. I donâ€™t think they could have taken those sorts of pictures at the hospital where you were. The children were sick and many of them died. But they had clothes.
So now the election is done and things will go on like this until it all collapses.
By Neely Tucker a reporter for the Washington Post who was based in Zimbabwe from 1997 to 2000.