Thursday, April 17, 2008

Emma McGuire reports on her project in Zimbabwe in 2007


How should I organise this report? Chronologically, or by theme? Is it a story, a list, a lesson, a philosophical treatise? If I can make it interesting, hopefully that will be enough. It shouldn’t be hard.

I arrived in Harare International Airport very early on the morning of Sunday 15 July, and almost the first thing I remember noticing was the gilt-framed portrait of Robert Mugabe over the door I was passing through. His was a face that proved difficult to get away from. There were no portraits in our camp by the Zambezi, but the face still made itself felt. If fireside discussion veered into the realm of politics, the camp leader shifted it away. Politics is not for the common man to discuss in Zimbabwe. They proclaim their lack of involvement, lack of knowledge, lack of responsibility: we leave that to the politicians, they say. That is what they are there for. And in a large group, there is always a danger in mentioning certain issues, certain names. Reference to ‘the Government’, a suitably broad and relatively safe terminology, effected a shadow of the feeling that ‘You-Know-Who’ creates in the fictional world. Even in Victoria Falls, far from the centre of politics, I was self-conscious in my photography and cautious in my diary. Emails were self-censored. There was no danger, once such basic steps of caution were taken. Tourists are welcome, sought-after. But I am not used to feeling a face peering over my shoulder.

I spent my first day in Zimbabwe resting – apart from a two hour trip to the internet and the local supermarket. The shelves were not looking healthy, and the queue lasted half an hour or so. I saw bread, but did not queue for it. I knew already of the food crisis. With somewhat na├»ve nobility, I did not want to take bread out of the mouths of the locals. This was a delicacy that I lost before the end of my three weeks.

I was to be collected at 8.30 am the following morning to join the others for the trip north and west to Victoria Falls. At shortly after 10, Innocent arrived for me. This, my first experience of Zimbabwean timekeeping, strained my nerves severely. At home, the only explanation for such a delay would have been miscommunication or accident. In Zim, it is of course perfectly normal.

The journey to Victoria Falls was without doubt the most uncomfortable day of my life.

Workcamp membership consisted of 14 Zimbabweans, including the camp ranger and driver, and 3 Europeans. We stayed in shared tents (old and draughty) in a basic campsite beside the river Zambezi. There was a store hut, a fireplace and stone table, and a non-functional toilet and shower. Washing took place with buckets; the toilet was dug new every few days, and that not so often as might have been ideal.

Our work technically took place between 8 and 12 in the morning, Monday to Friday. In practice the hours were often shorter than that, as we were so often late. We never worked beyond 12, although we were very frequently waiting for over an hour to be collected from our work.

The primary job was to cut back vegetation on a trail running alongside the Zambezi, so that it could be used by the National Parks Association for walking safaris for tourists. Victoria Falls National Park has been in danger, through neglect, of losing its World Heritage Site status, and work such as this went a little way to preserving that status. We also spent two mornings working in nutrition gardens in which fruit, vegetables and herbs were being grown for the benefit of Aids sufferers.

The work on the trail itself was very difficult, at least as far as I was concerned. We were using machetes, axes and mattocks. They were heavy and blunt. The only tool I could use was a machete, and of those there was only one with a grip narrow enough to be moderately comfortable for me to hold. My aim was poor, and my strength insufficient for the job. While both of these improved significantly even over the very short period of the workcamp, they still couldn’t be compared to the abilities of the locals. There was the added difficulty of the heat – although it was winter, we hit 30+ by 11 a.m. or so, and my strength (such as it was) simply drained away if I tried to work in direct sunlight. I carried water with me everywhere, for my own benefit and that of Marcel, a north German, and to the mildly scornful bemusement of my Zimbabwean friends. They did not understand why we needed to drink ‘so much’ water; in fact I am fairly sure they just thought we were wimps. But that couldn’t be helped.

Anyway, given all that, I can’t honestly feel that I was of any real assistance on the trail. They would have finished just as fast without me, even though I tried my best. In the gardens, working with tools I was used to on jobs that didn’t require so much strength, I made more of an impact. Financially, I know that my fee paid for the food of far more people than just myself, which is probably the biggest practical impact I made. And in terms of cultural exchange, the project was very definitely worthwhile, I think from both points of view.

There were so few ‘westerners’ on the project that the balance of cultural exchange was very intense. Much of the conversation was in Ndebele and Shona, despite a camp rule that all group conversation be in English, as the only language that all there had some grasp of. This felt at times quite isolating, and the presence of two languages made getting any handle on even basic phrases more confusing: no one could be persuaded to teach me just one phrase, or one language, at a time; with the result that I couldn’t keep anything much in my head following the intense and convoluted lessons. My only word in Ndebele is ‘Kiwa’ or ‘White’. Wherever we went in the township (suburb), and in the ranger village, the children shouted and followed us. Gertie, one of the girls in the camp, persisted in pointing me out and calling ‘Kiwa’ on these occasions, just in case any children had managed to miss me. I began to feel rather like a travelling elephant; a simile that was rather inappropriate in that location, where elephants did not occasion nearly so much comment.

The fact that my skin colour was so noticeable demonstrates clearly the segregation in Zimbabwean society. Those children all lived within 10 km of Victoria Falls. Despite the difficulties of recent years, this is still a constantly visited tourist attraction. On the main streets of Victoria Falls the town, I saw many foreign tourists, white, black and asian. Yet 2 km up the road in the township, the tourists almost never go. 6 km out of town in the ranger village, they are even rarer, although they pass close by on the safari trails. And white Zimbabweans are similarly not present in these areas. My being there, frequently garbed in the distinctive bright blue workcoat of the Zimbabwean manual labourer, was a very unusual thing. I was surprised by how intensely, instinctively uncomfortable I felt wearing that workcoat. It was a uniform, a symbol of an identity that I was borrowing, trying to learn about, but which was fundamentally strange to me. I didn’t like wearing it, even before I really knew why. As an experience, that made it all the more interesting.

In those preserves of the local Zimbabwean, I was greeted with great friendliness and warmth wherever we went. In the centre of town, I was greeted as a potential source of money, just like any other tourist. That is probably the biggest gift being on the workcamp gave me; the backstage pass. I missed it intensely when I went on safari for ten days following the workcamp, and was once again in a group of western tourists, being hustled on the street instead of greeted with instant affection.

Life in the camp itself was very structured. We were part of one ‘family’, and had to do things together or not at all. In practice it didn’t always work like that, but Mike, the camp leader, and Malven, a guy of somewhat preachy character, talked about it fairly constantly. Each night we had a meeting about how the day had gone, and everyone had to say what they thought. Some did, some didn’t. The standard statement of ‘For me the day was ok’ was an infectious one; quickly, I found myself adapting to the phrasing and language usages of those around me. There was a certain loss of individual identity, something which I resisted instinctively and intensely. Again, it surprised me how strongly I felt.

We spent our evenings around the campfire. I was on the entertainment committee, and we organised social debates and discussions, told stories, sang songs and played games. As a group we went on outings; to Victoria Falls, to a crocodile ranch, elephant riding and for football games. An extreme proportion of our time was spent sitting in or around the van waiting for Mike to finish business in the office or town centre. It was supposed to be a way of conserving the precious and expensive fuel that, absurdly, had to be fetched from Hwange, 100km away. But it wasn’t handled very efficiently, and often it seemed like efforts intended to save fuel were actually using more than would otherwise have been the case. Mike was a disorganised and defensive leader, who frequently lied rather than accept responsibility for something having gone wrong. He didn’t communicate well with his assistant leaders from Harare, nor they with him, with the result that we ran out of most food at the beginning of the third week, and subsisted on nothing but potatoes and rice for a couple of days.

Cooking took place on an ironwood fire in a stone cooking pit. We stirred sadza in a large cauldron with huge wooden beaters, to make enough for all of us. Sadza, or cornmeal porridge, may be the most filling food I have ever tasted. The portions were enormous and I could never finish what I was given, even after I started severely restricting what was put on my plate. The camp wasted quite a lot of food, just as petrol and time were so frequently wasted.

This may come across as rather a critical report. What I am trying to make sure it is is an honest one. There were many things that were uncomfortable either physically or socially, and some that upset me on a personal level. ‘Gender issues’ were a very current issue for most of the people on the camp, and were under constant discussion. The proportion of men to women was intimidating, and the other women were very unwilling to give their opinions in group debate or say what they really thought if they did speak. The men were equally unwilling to believe that there was a problem, and laughed at the women when they didn’t want to speak. I found it difficult to distinguish the line between culture and sexism, difficult to know which things it would be acceptable to take issue with and which I should just accept. That was probably the most difficult part of the workcamp, on a personal level.

Having said all that, it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. In some ways I felt freer than I ever have before: free to just let things happen. I learned so much about people on an individual level and within the wider social and cultural context. Three weeks is the tip of the iceberg, of course. It was exciting, and fun, and fascinating, and the exhaustion and confusion and discomfort only added to that. I wouldn’t change anything, except perhaps to have taken a pair of seceters with me and have left them as a gift to Environment Africa. Then I might have made more of an impact on the actual task at hand!

Emma McGuire 2007

Click here for pictures of projects in Zimbabwe

Click here for a country profile of Zimbabwe

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