By Ken Amaeshi
As BA6262 was nearing Harare, I saw some excavations, dryness, and red earth. “It is truly an African soil,” I muttered to myself. It was my first time in Zimbabwe.
Going through immigration was easy and fast. I got visa on arrival. No one asked for a tip or gave a look that would suggest a subtle request. Very unusual, I thought, based on my experience travelling in Africa. I picked my bag, and as soon as I came out of the airport, I found a taxi and the sojourn in Zimbabwe started.
Very much unlike Lagos or Nairobi, the ride from Robert Gabriel Mugabe Airport was smooth. The traffic was light, very light. The first impression I got was that of a lovely and quiet city. It was nothing extraordinary, but within the African context, it seemed so.
Everyone was warm and took pride in their local language, as if their identity was inextricably tied to it. Perhaps, and in hindsight, that could be a quick way of profiling outsiders. In a country where the State presence is pervasive, it makes sense for citizens to develop appropriate adaptation strategies.
From the look of things, the State appears to be in everything and everything seems to revolve around the government. I got the impression of a paternalistic society, where many people looked up to the government for solutions to everyday challenges.
As we were approaching the city centre, the taxi driver who had been talking half the time – I guess to engage and entertain me as a customer – jolted me out of my accidental reverie with a seeming burst of sarcasm: “There is no bread in Harare; how will you cope?” My answer was rather quick and sarcastic too: “Man must not live by bread alone”. He got the message. Zimbabweans are predominantly Christians.
I wondered why the lack of bread was an issue. He pointed me to some failed government attempts to solve socio-economic problems. A few of them are not far from the Headquarters of the ruling party, ZANU PF. One was a failed bakery to create jobs for the unemployed. He pointed to them in a wry glee. His pains were not lost on me. He had to cut short his education at O’ Level. I asked him if he had any plans of furthering his education. He came back straightforwardly and with a blunt honesty uncharacteristic of talking with a complete stranger: “No; I will leave that for my children. There are three of them. I fell in love too early”.
Unemployment in Zimbabwe is still high. Another driver told me he liked Mugabe because he encouraged citizens to be self-reliant. He even had the picture of Mugabe on his dashboard, as if he drew inspiration from it and poured libation to it every morning. “He is a hero,” he said. “He had our interest at heart, and we believed him”.
No wonder Mugabe, despite his fall from power, is still respected and regarded in the country – especially for the investments he made in education. The fruits of those investments are also visible. The level of literacy is high in the country. That is why Zimbabwe has continued to produce quality labour for neighbouring countries and those farther afield.
Unfortunately, this type of education or human capital development has not translated to significant entrepreneurship. A country once reputed as the food basket of Africa, now appears to have run out of ideas. The farms are no longer as productive as they used to. Those who took hold of the farms forcefully taken away from the White farmer either mismanaged them or used them to swindle the government. As one business leader aptly described the situation, the economy is literally on its knees! She was not alone.
Some people spoke about corruption, as if it was the order of the day; but I consoled them that they would never overtake some countries in this infamous act. All this affect the quality and type of entrepreneurship, as well as the opportunities in the system. Although the private sector is still very small and inconsequential, big dreams are still rive amongst those left in the country.
A significant number of Zimbabweans are in diaspora. They also contribute significantly to the economy through remittances. One thing I found rather surprising is that average Zimbabweans easily talk about relocation, as if every embassy and high commission is waiting to receive and approve their visa applications. They must know something those who risk their lives to cross the desert and the ferocious Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe do not know. Their source of conviction is obviously worth exploring, as much as it comes across as deft entrepreneurship.
Still on their entrepreneurial spirit and propensity to dream big, I had a chance to give a talk to some micro entrepreneurs on the role of entrepreneurship in society. I was very sceptical at first, because I thought it would be inconsequential to their everyday issues. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised, again.
Although these micro entrepreneurs acknowledged that they were mostly survivalist entrepreneurs, one of them impressively said he was in business to save Africa; and he meant it. You could not ask for a bigger dream from someone literally encumbered by significant structural and institutional constraints. Nonetheless, one finds an explanation in the fact that hope is the elixir of life.
However, there is another form of entrepreneurship, which could be easily missed. Given the challenges in the country, some people now prey on visitors. They are as friendly as ever. They love the US dollars and use the fuel scarcity in town as a credible bargaining chip. They make some self-demeaning demands, and you cannot but appreciate their effort to survive. Some go about it with such ferocity and belligerence that you wonder if they think you are the cause of their situations. Many are more subtle and understanding.
Nonetheless, despite their obvious suspicion of Nigerians (either as stereotypes or through what Nollywood has presented to them), I found most Zimbabweans I interacted with interesting. In the midst of all this, I kept wondering why Zimbabwe is not a great country, as it has all the necessary ingredients to be one – manageable population, less complex diversity, and abundance of natural and human resources. To be honest, it was mostly a painful thought, as I saw poverty in richness.
Obviously, a short stay of six days is not enough to assess a country as big as Zimbabwe. Unlike some European and American tourists with similar length of stay, I will resist every temptation to be called an expert on Zimbabwe by any media house. Notwithstanding, I will remember my short trip to Mutare with fun.
Mutare is a border town. The topography looks very much like Scotland. No wonder Cecile Rhodes wanted, literally, to die there. On top of the mountains around it, you can easily see Mozambique. I love border towns in Africa. They embody the fluidity of human co-existence. I love to see them defile colonialism. Those living in the Mutare and Nyamapanda freely cross over to the shame of the colonialists and their artificial borders and boundaries. Although the arrangement of Mutare looks very much like any European city, the infrastructure and industries are sadly tilted towards decay. Very sad indeed! I did not spend as much time as I wanted there before returning to Harare – a 3-hour road journey through beautiful sceneries.
As BA6262 prepares to depart Harare for Johannesburg, a sudden whirlwind circles with some dust and haze, spiralling up into the high heavens, as a smoke from a sacrifice offered to the gods. In the true African cosmology, I thought the land must have been asking the gods with every sense of humility, trepidation, and sincerity: “what’s exactly wrong with Zimbabwe?”
Professor of business and sustainable development, University of Edinburgh
Business School, UK