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Out and About in Zimbabwe's Capital

Harare: Is It Really the Worst City on Earth?

by ANDRE VLTCHEK

For a change, I don’t want to discuss politics. I don’t want to debate whether big bad Mugabe is actually an African national hero, as many on this continent believe, or some brutal dictator, as we are told relentlessly by the BBC, The Economist and virtually the entire Western establishment media.

‘Data’ about Zimbabwe is developed somewhere, to serve Western political interests, and then it is recycled, repeated by hundreds of websites all over the Internet. Old reports are not updated when the situation improves. Incorrect statistics are hardly challenged.

I don’t want to discuss all this now. One day I will, I promise, and in detail.

*  * *

Now the world is in turmoil: President Hugo Chavez is dead; he passed away or, as some believe, he was assassinated. And this poor and ravished continent – Africa – is experiencing the latest wave of carnage sponsored and organized by several Western nations. From West Africa to Somalia, from Mali to DR Congo, flames, tanks, aircraft, drones, and also misery and hopelessness are once again killing millions.

As Chavez, proud leader of the global opposition and a favorite punching bag of Western propaganda, was put to rest, I took off from Nairobi. Three hours later I found myself approaching Harare International Airport, endless plains and fantastic rock formations under the wing of the Brazilian-made Embraer of Kenyan Airways.

I had to do it; I had to come, as a gesture, as my tribute to the Latin American revolution, as my internationalist duty towards Africa. Instead of mourning Chavez, I decided to continue working for the revolution that he triggered and which I always tried to be part of.

The world’s least livable city on earth’, I read before coming here, ‘The worst city on earth’. There were expat surveys, surveys by The Economist, and at some point surveys that ‘leniently’ depicted Harare as the 4th worst city on earth, not the worst, in 2012.

I am used to working in war zones and in the most hopeless and dangerous slums. I am used to the cities of the sub-Continent, of DR Congo, of Haiti. I survived many Western outposts all over the world, officially glorified but collapsed urban centers like Jakarta, Nairobi, Kampala, Djibouti, Phnom Penh, and Cairo.

I was not afraid of ‘horrible’ Harare. But I was not convinced by reports coming from the West. That’s why I decided to return to Zimbabwe. Once again, I would use my own eyes and ears and my own brain, challenging the official propaganda coming from London and Washington.

Downtown Harare, worst city on earth?

Downtown Harare, worst city on earth?

* * *

Harare International Airport is simple but modern. The staff appears to be unmotivated and slow, but they are friendly and in possession of great sense of humor. There is no tension and there are no insults, no power games, as at Nairobi airport, or in Phnom Penh. No throwing passport to your face and no finger printing and photographing, as is done at all third world airports that are known for sending intelligence to the West; from Bangkok to Nairobi.

After I purchase my visa on arrival, immigration officers can’t find change. I have to wait for five minutes. While I am waiting, we chat about the Kenyan elections.

Soon after, I am driven through green and quiet streets, some carrying fairly interesting names like Benghazi and Julius Nyerere, towards Harare’s modern and elegant city center.

Right from the beginning, something just does not feel right. The worst city on earth: I search for sandbags and gunners like in New Delhi or Mumbai, for gangs roaming the streets like in Colon in Panama, for the garbage-clogged rivers and horrid pollution of Jakarta or Alexandria. I see nothing like that here; no appalling slums and no burning fires, real or metaphoric.

There are a few beggars on the sidewalks, but fewer than there are in New York or Paris. The pavement is often broken, uneven, even potholed, but it is nothing compared to Kampala.

And then, as I am slowly approaching my hotel in the center of the city, it strikes me that, at least through the window of a car, Harare could be described as a beautiful city! Of course, it is not as stunning as Cape Town, it is on a much smaller scale, but in a very modest way it is very attractive.

I pinch myself. I blink few times, quickly. I ask my driver to slap my face, but he refuses.

“Why, sir?” he appears bewildered.

“But…” I mumble. “Harare appears to be a very nice place.”

“It is”, replies driver.

“But…” I continue to wonder, “It is supposed to be the most terrible town on earth.”

“Who says?”

“The newspapers in the West… The reports, surveys…”

“Oh”, the driver smiled. “Then we should slap their faces, not yours. For lying, you know…”

Harare from the mountains.

Harare from the mountains.

* * *

I suggest this: let’s not talk about the President and about the past and political present of the country. Let me just take you for a long walk through Harare, so you can get to know the city described by our propagandists as the worst, absolutely the worst, in the world. And let me throw a few images into the bargain.

Just stay by my side and let’s walk, for several days, searching for the truth.

But before we stroll, let’s listen to some voices from the UK and the US – those that are manufacturing public opinion all over the world.

On September 7, 2011, iAfrica reported:

A top research group on Thursday rated Zimbabwe’s capital as the worst of 140 world cities in which to live. The British-based Economist Intelligence Unit said its researchers excluded cities in Libya, Iraq and other war zones. Harare, where power and water outages occur daily, scored a 38 percent “livability rating,” the group said.

The group said the threat of civil unrest and the availability of public health care and public transport in Harare were intolerable. Energy and water supplies were undesirable, it said, calling phones and Internet services uncomfortable…

In 2009 the BBC claimed that Zimbabwe’s women had an average life expectancy of 34 years and that men on average did not live past 37. That information was duplicated by countless websites.

Other BBC reports were republished word by word by thousands of news and reference outlets, including Wikipedia:

The health system has more or less collapsed. By the end of November 2008, three of Zimbabwe’s four major hospitals had shut down, along with the Zimbabwe Medical School, and the fourth major hospital had two wards and no operating theatres working. Due to hyperinflation, those hospitals still open are not able to obtain basic drugs and medicines.

Predictably, the official propaganda news agency of the UK threw in colorful words like ‘genocide’ and ‘tragedy’, and selected quotes from several medics who blamed the situation on the Zimbabwean government.

Not one glimpse of diversity, no arguments from ‘the other side’.

Not even a word about what the majority of those in the Southern part of Africa believe, or even what some members of the Western establishment have recently confirmed.

According to African Globe [November 17, 2012]:

The United States government has, for the first time, admitted that the illegal sanctions it imposed destroyed Zimbabwe’s economy and were hurting ordinary people.

Incoming US Ambassador to Zimbabwe David Bruce Wharton made the admission yesterday at a media roundtable discussion in Harare and pledged to work with authorities in Zimbabwe and the US to normalize relations.

The admission comes after the World Diamond Council said it was also engaging the US government and the European Union to lift sanctions they imposed on Marange diamonds, despite Zimbabwe having received the Kimberly Process Certification Scheme nod to export the gems.

But I promised: no politics… Let’s just walk and see. 

 * * *

The ‘Trauma Centre & Hospital Harare’ is in a quiet part of the city and it could easily qualify as one of the most elegant medical facilities I have seen elsewhere in the world. It is stylish, full of artwork, and at the same time high-tech and immaculately clean.

I greet two representatives working at the reception area. One of them is Ana – a young, sophisticated lady who came to Zimbabwe from Serbia.

“I came here to see whether Harare has any operation theatres”, I mumble, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “You see, there are some reports that say that the capital shut down all of its hospitals, or at least all its operation theatres.”

‘Now it’s out’, I thought, expecting blows. Instead I receive big and welcoming smile.

“Would you like some water, of coffee? We can show you around. Before you came, there was already one film crew that was investigating the same issue.”

I am taken to a high-tech emergency room, equipped with the latest technology. Then I am asked to take off my shoes, and to change my clothes. Next thing I realize, I am wearing a white coat and being taken through a sterilization room to two operation theatres that look more like the interior of a space ship. Surgery rooms are not the places where I would normally choose to spend my evenings, but these are damn beautiful surgery rooms! And, above all, despite what they say in London, they actually do exist!

“Let me take one photo of you, standing next to the operation theatre, so they don’t say in England or the US that the images are pirated from some medical journal”, Ana says laughing.

“We have specialized Laminar flow theatres used for Key Hole surgery, and Orthopedics…” I keep taking notes. I have no clue what is she talking about, but what I see looks definitely impressive. Ana continues: “Thoracic and Vascular Surgeons are available at the Hospital. We have neurosurgeons on call…”

After the tour I am invited to drink coffee with Dr Vivek Solanki, owner of the hospital.

“I should not be speaking about the competition”, he smiles, “but in Harare we have plenty of operational hospitals, with decent to excellent operation theatres. It is all propaganda, about the medical care in this country. Of course, there was a very short and tough period around 2008, but it did not last long.”

I ask doctor Solanki whether this super modern and efficient hospital is only for the richest of the rich.

“I have introduced a new concept here”, he explains, passionately. “Of course this is a private hospital, but we are determined to serve the Zimbabwean people.  So, in contrast to what happens in the US, here, when the ambulance, taxi or the relatives bring a patient to us, a patient who needs emergency treatment… no matter how complicated the case is, we treat the patient, regardless whether he or she has money or insurance. We never ask, and never check whether he or she can pay. We stabilize the patient first, and only after he or she is out of danger, the choice is given: if he or she chooses to pay, we keep the patient. If not, we transfer him or her to a state hospital, and charge nothing for saving their life. We also treat babies under 6 months, as well as elderly over 70, for free.”

“We lose money”, whispers Ana, expressing outrage, half-jokingly. “But he owns the place, and there is nothing we can do about it.”

“I became a doctor thanks to the President”, volunteers Doctor Solanki. “The education in this country is free. I am Zimbabwean, a third generation Indian. I received help when I needed it. Now I have to give back to my country. I build hospitals. I am a doctor. I know how to cure people, save lives. That’s what I have to do.”

In the car, as I am driving towards the city center, I receive a text message from Nairobi: “Life expectancy in Zimbabwe for women is 34 and for men it is 37 – incorrect. Even according to the CIA Factbook 2012, the life expectancy at birth in Zimbabwe was 51.82 est., higher than South Africa, where it stands at 49.41 est.”.

“It is all because of AIDS”, sights my driver. “That nosedived our life expectancy. But you know, things are getting much better here, lately, and everyone who is honest would tell you that, no matter what they think about the President. For instance, we get all that anti-retroviral treatment for free here. We also get free condoms, as well as plenty of information from the government.”

“They also get help from China”, I am told later, by one of the UN staffers working in Harare. “China provides doctors and free medicine. It helped this country a lot.”

Your correspondent in the 'big operation theatre' at Harare Trauma Centre.

Your correspondent in the ‘big operation theatre’ at Harare Trauma Centre.

Suffering from Western sanctions, the Zimbabwean economy collapsed. Since then it has been undergoing slow but steady recovery.

I am sorry, again; we said ‘no politics’. We said ‘let’s just go for a walk’. So here is my arm. Let’s resume our slowly stroll through the city.

Right next to my hotel is the entrance to a magnificent swimming complex, Les Brown Municipal Pool. I don’t know whether it is public or not, and I forgot to ask, but it appears to be. Right next to it are Harare Gardens, a beautiful English-style park with people resting on the grass, enjoying picnics, reading.

To have such public and ‘open’ areas like parks is unthinkable in Jakarta, where there is only one public green area of substantial size, MONAS. And Jakarta is a monster with 12 million inhabitants, while Harare has a population of only two million. Two million that are enjoying several magnificent parks and gardens, wide sidewalks and art exhibited in public areas, all over the city.

But let’s not forget – Harare is a ‘defiant’ nation, a country that refuses to fall on its knees and to salute its tormentors. While Jakarta and Phnom Penh are the capitals of two market fundamentalist countries. They are choking on their own fumes, they have almost nothing that could be defined as public left, but in the eyes of Western regime, they can’t be as bad as Harare, Caracas, Havana or Beijing! They are enjoying great immunity from uncomfortable questions; as well as full, hearty support from business-religion publications like The Economist.

There are also almost no public spaces in other African capitals that have been serving as Western client states for year and decades, like Kampala, Kigali, Addis Ababa and Cairo, although, in the latter, at least, people are able to gather on the city’s bridges.

But Harare, we are told, is the worst city on earth!

There seems to be no crime in the city, and there are no disagreements about this. Black Zimbabweans and White Zimbabweans, foreign experts, cops and doctors – I spoke to all those groups – they all say that Harare is one of the safest cities on African continent. In Nairobi or Tegucigalpa, in Port-au-Prince, you cannot walk down the street because of fear of violent crime. The level of danger for Indian women in New Delhi and other cities of the Sub-Continent is almost as high as it is in war zones.

But it is Harare – one of the safest cities in sub-Saharan Africa – that is depicted as the ‘least livable’ city on earth.

I look around and I notice that the people lying on the grass, or, at least, many of them, are reading newspapers and magazines. Why do they do it? First of all, because they are literate; because this is the most literate nation on the entire continent, from Suez to the Cape of Good Hope. According to All Africa from 14 July 2010:

Zimbabwe has been ranked as the country with the highest literacy rate in Africa taking over from Tunisia, the latest UNDP Statistical Digest shows. Tunisia has held pole position for years with Zimbabwe second best and number one in Sub-Saharan Africa. Zimbabwe’s literacy level currently stands at 92 percent, up from 85 percent while Tunisia remains on 87 percent.

“It shows how literate, how educated is Zimbabwe”, I am told by a senior UN official working for the UNEP in Nairobi, who for obvious reasons does not want to be identified. “When you work with Zimbabweans, things get done. Things are working there. It is real tragedy that so many top professionals had to leave for South Africa during the crises. Zimbabwe is a victim of defamation campaign conducted by Western media outlets. The same could be said about President Jacob Zuma of South Africa.”

Harare National Library at sunset.

Harare National Library at sunset.

*  * *

Could it be that things are not so bad in Harare? There are several decent hospitals, preventive medical care, the highest literacy rate, some of the lowest crime rates on the continent, and public spaces all around.

Of course there are recurring electric blackouts in Harare, but not more frequent than in Nairobi, Kampala, Kigali, Lagos, Addis Ababa, Jakarta, Dhaka, Colombo, to mention just a few places. Water supply desires to be better, but it could be hardly defined as a tragedy as it definitely is in Indonesia, Sub-Continent and most of Africa. Government is short of cash, and it has serious problems with garbage collection and recycling. But despite that, Harare still looks very clean by Africa standards and more at par with much wealthier Kuala Lumpur than with the cities like Manila or Surabaya.

Not influenced by horrible reports coming from the UK and the US, left to my own impartial judgment, I could easily believe that this is one of the most livable towns in the Southern Hemisphere.

But that’s exactly the point: I am not supposed to be left to my own judgment. I am not supposed to evaluate, objectively, what my eyes are seeing and what my ears are hearing. I am supposed to be pre-conditioned, told how to see things and even how to analyze what I see.

 

Mbare Township - as bad as it gets in Harare.

Mbare Township – as bad as it gets in Harare.

Mr. Hezekiel Dlamini, Advisor for Communication and Information at UNESCO Office in Harare, is originally from Swaziland, but he was based for many years in Ghana, France and Kenya, before accepting post in Zimbabwe. He blends in well with this country, which he finds ‘beautiful’ and ‘comfortable’:

“It is much quieter here than in Nairobi,” he explains. “In Harare, culture is very important and very diverse and interesting. You can get true, vibrant and traditional local culture in the center and in other parts of the city, or you can drive to Borrowdale just a few miles away, as well as to other suburbs, and there you get what is common in the South African white suburbs or in Cape Town – all those luxury malls, movie theatres showing latest releases, posh cafes.”

We are sitting in a simple but comfortable café, near the glass wall of the National Art Gallery. It is quiet, almost serene here. Several impressive art exhibitions are taking place inside the institution, while vast sculpture park is dotted with dating couples dressed in their best attire, sitting on the grass. Like in Nicaraguan parks, young people come here to hold hands and whisper intimate confessions in the shade of impressive artwork, instead of sitting in some stereotypical chain cafe in the middle of depressing and dull shopping malls, listening to banal music or loud announcements.

“You can eat local food, you can eat in several Chinese places, and there are Indian restaurants, Portuguese restaurants, even few sushi places.”

“Are whites really suffering here, as we are told by Western media?” I ask.

“Of course not!” Hezekiel is laughing. “Just drive to any of their suburbs. Go to Sam Levy’s Village or to any other big mall. You will see – things are still segregated, not because of the government, but because of the white minority. They have all they want in their suburbs; their managed to create their own universe. If I bring my daughters to a white school, they will say ‘no’. They will not tell me that it is because I am black African; they will argue that the school is full. And the government can do nothing about the situation.”

I drive to posh suburbs equipped with golf courses, sports clubs, beautiful pedestrian malls, supermarkets stuffed with the most exquisite food products imported from South Africa and Europe, with elegant cafes and designer stores selling Hermes and LV garments.

It is all here. By then, I understand nothing.

Harare has everything! How could anyone think for one second that this is a hell on earth?

I said ‘no politics’; not this time… But let me at least ask couple of rhetoric questions:  is there any reason why this country is suffering from sanctions and humiliation, from vicious propaganda and demonization, other than because it has decided to re-distribute its land; or, because it made an attempt to stop Rwanda from performing yet another coup in DR Congo on behalf of Western companies and governments; or because it co-operates with China in the mining of diamonds; or because it is firmly rejecting Western imperialism?

What about misery, what about slums?” I ask my friend Hezekiel, few hours later.

“There is Mbare slum”, he explains. “But it is not as terrible as Kibera or Matare in Nairobi.”

I drive there. Mbare is not a friendly suburb, but it is small, at most one-kilometer square but probably much smaller. It looks more like South Bronx than Cité Soleil in Port-au-Prince. It has basic infrastructure, including sport facilities. While places like Kibera slum in Nairobi are housing hundreds of thousands, some say one million people, crammed in inhuman conditions; the population of Mbare must be at most ten or twenty thousand.

Historic Harare Mountain and Fort Salisbury are just five minutes drive from Mbare. There is yet another public park there and a commanding view of the historic city center and the impressive city skyline.

There is an old, British commemorative sign, which refers to settlers as ‘pioneers’.

“Pioneers!” laughs my driver, sarcastically. “Some pioneers!”

Few young men are busy doing push-ups. It is all very tranquil, and somehow comforting. I have no idea why, but it feels like being back in South America, in some part of it.

“No security issues?” I smile.

“Look”, my driver gets started. He has critical mind and wonderful sensed of humor. “In South Africa, if you pull out a 100 Rand banknote in some public place, you could get killed. There, that amount of money can fill a few shopping bags, easily. In Zimbabwe, you pull out 100 Rand note, people would laugh at you, because it is worth nothing. Things are so expensive.” Group of athletes stops their push-ups and begins to laugh.

“You are right”, one of them says. “You are so right.”

Soon, a small circle is formed and people plunge passionately into discussion about the food prices, security and upcoming elections. There is no fear like in Rwanda or Uganda, no tension like in Djibouti, Kenya or Ethiopia; all those Western client states.

Nobody calls me names, nobody points fingers at me; I am included in their conversation.

They love their country. Dollarization made prizes high, and Western embargos crippled the economy. But people are resilient and tough, and very kind at the same time.

“Why have you come?” Asks one of the athletes.

“Because they keep writing, in the West, that Harare is the worst city on earth”, I reply. “And I know it is a lie. So I came to write about it – to say that it is a lie.”

“Why? What do you care? We all know it is a lie. This is a very nice city, isn’t it? But we feel powerless. They write those slanderous things about us, and as a result, nobody comes… Tourism collapsed. Our great ancient cities, our national parks – all are empty now. Who wants to come to the country with such a horrible reputation?”

“Why did you come to dispute those lies?” Asks the second athlete.

I think for a while, I am silent. Then I tell them: “In Venezuela, far away from here, President Hugo Chavez died… Or he was murdered. We still don’t know. When it happened, I was in Nairobi, but Nairobi is the Western outpost and to be there did not feel right. I needed to fight – to fight against so many things, especially against the propaganda that comes from the West. South America is very far, and I decided to come to Zimbabwe. At least for a few days.”

There was a silence, long and deep. And then one of the athletes comes close to me, hugs me and says: “Good you are here. I understand. Thank you for coming.”

Book Cafe night club with traditional Zimbabwen dances.

Book Cafe night club with traditional Zimbabwen dances.

At night I go to ‘Book Café’ to hear traditional Zimbabwean music. And close to Midnight I manage to get into the immense Harare International Convention Center (HICC), where more than 6.000 people are awaiting appearance of one of the greatest South African artists – Zahara – a musician, songwriter and a poet.

In this ‘most terrible city on earth’, those thousands of people are roaring and dancing to Zahara’s rhythms, whispering her lyrics; while there are no fights, no skirmishes, no littering, no rapes, no violence.

I walk back to my hotel, in the middle of the night, alone, safe, endlessly impressed, suddenly in-love with the city that has been standing tall despite embargos, intrigues, and slander coming from the old and new colonial masters of the world.

As I am strolling, briskly, through the wide and well-lit sidewalks of Zimbabwean capital city, I am thinking about the Cuban medical brigades. These people – brilliant and selfless doctors and medics – have been deployed wherever the need for internationalist help arises, be it due to a conflict or a natural disaster.

This is exactly what we – writers, filmmakers, and journalists – need to create, to encourage, to staff: International Investigative Brigades, units that could uncover the outrageous lies and propaganda and nihilism, those appalling byproducts of the regime and the Empire.

We needed to form them very soon, before it gets too late.

Meanwhile, although I was walking alone, I did not feel lonely.

In my mind, I kept repeating to some abstract reader of mine: “Thank you for joining me; for taking this long and wonderful walk. Not everything is lost, yet. Not everyone is sold. There are millions of people, many countries that are still resisting, upright, not on their knees.”

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.