Victoria Falls’ misery reflects Zimbabwe’s fall

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Tobias / MATT MEDVED

"Tobias" works as an elephant trainer in Victoria Falls and has to cross the border into Zambia regularly to purchase food for his family. / MATT MEDVED

Street traders battle for survival in the tourist town holidaymakers no longer visit, writes Matt Medved
August 31, 2007 Edition 1

For decades, Beit Bridge, over the Limpopo, was the gateway into Zimbabwe and Africa. Today, desperate Zimbabweans cross it, daily, heading south in search of food and work. A similar situation now exists at Zimbabwe’s border with Zambia.

“The next time I catch you taking pictures here …”

The Zimbabwean border guard did not need to finish his sentence; the glare he fixed on me as he fingered his AK-47 spoke volumes.

As he left the side of my bus, I scrolled past the pictures of my face that I had taken to reveal the border photographs I had hidden from the guard.

Anticipating that I would raise the ire of some authority while snapping shots of the Livingstone-Victoria Falls border, I had turned the lens on myself to create a buffer between the series of pictures.

As expected, the gruff guard halted my bus before the border station and approached me, shaking his head and pointing at my camera.

“You have to delete those photos,” he barked.

“All of them.”

I cheerfully complied and deleted the five pictures I had taken since my self-portraits.

When my smiling face graced the LCD camera screen, I grinned at the guard.

“The rest are just of me,” I said. “I’m a bit of a narcissist.”

With a humourless grunt, the guard delivered his warning and waved us through. My fellow passengers seemed to heave a collective sigh and I felt numerous stares and glares boring into my back. Troublemakers were not taken lightly here.

The border between Zambia and Zimbabwe was a vast outdoor waiting room in the sweltering heat. Bags of food were used as impromptu chairs by the sea of residents waiting to be processed.

Inside the border station, a framed portrait of President Robert Mugabe loomed over the long queues of people at the Immigration and Customs desks.

The last time I had crossed the border was on foot, in June, exposing me to the hustling of the street vendors who patrolled the road into Victoria Falls.

Although their dogged persistence was similar to their counterparts I had encountered in South Africa and Mozambique, their asking prices differed dramatically.

“I like your shoes man,” a trader in a ragged T-shirt told me, hoisting an ornate carving of a giraffe that would have fetched at least R300 in a gift shop.

“How about we trade? Sculpture for shoes?”

I laughed, but when I looked down at my filthy sneakers I saw that the trader was barefoot. It was no joke.

Another trader tried to convince me to give him the T-shirt off my back in exchange for a set of painted bowls. Their eyes harboured a desperate look I had only seen before on beggars’ faces.

The town of Victoria Falls was reminiscent of an amusement park in the winter. It contained all the trappings of tourism, despite being practically devoid of tourists.

The vast Kingdom Hotel sprawled by the town’s entrance, a garish facility complete with a casino, shopping centre and sculptures of Ndebele-Zulu warriors guarding the fountain in the front. A plaque outside read that The Kingdom was opened by “His Excellency the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe” on August 6, 1999.

Almost exactly eight years later, the grounds were completely deserted. The bright array of slot machines inside stood unoccupied below an electronic display screaming of a possible jackpot.

Despite being elegantly set, the tables at the hotel restaurant were empty.

The town streets were sandy and dotted with warthogs, beggars and children. In June, a tiny boy covered in dust followed one of my companions for no less than 10 minutes begging for a handout. By the end of the encounter, he was not even asking for change anymore.

“Some jacket,” he said, gesturing towards the windbreaker my companion was holding, as if it could be broken into pieces and distributed.

“Please, just some jacket.”

The bus chugged on, passing a supermarket I had entered in June. At that time, the supermarket was fairly empty and the customers were mainly white.

The prices were self-explanatory. A box of cornflakes was priced at Z$198 000, while a one-litre Coke bottle was marked at Z$55 000.

According to a Victoria Falls resident whom I will call “Tobias” for his protection, that supermarket is now practically barren.

He said many other stores have followed suit since Mugabe ordered the prices of all basic goods to be cut in half in late June to battle inflation. The price cuts have made it impossible for store owners to make a profit on affected goods, including bread, salt and milk so many have stopped stocking their shelves altogether.

Born in Harare, Tobias left for Victoria Falls three years ago to work as an elephant trainer, ferrying tourists on elephant through the depleted wildlife of Victoria Falls that has suffered rampant poaching.

Tobias works from 6.30am to 6pm before making a daily trek into Livingstone, Zambia to purchase food for himself and his family.

“The trip is very difficult because of the $20 US it costs to cross the border and the time,” said Tobias.

“But in the supermarkets in Zimbabwe there is nothing. There are just shelves.”

A passport is required in addition to the fee, and Tobias said it takes between six and eight months to be issued one, assuming the passport office is not closed due to a lack of funds.

Tobias shook his head grimly and said he was the only member of his family that owned a passport, which makes him the only one keeping them from going hungry.

“We are suffering here,” Tobias said.

“No one will take our currency in Zambia and it is so expensive. But how else can we eat?”

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~ by Matt Medved on August 31, 2007.

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