Africa diary 2 - Harare

 Fr Dave Stewart SJ, director of the Young British Jesuit Alumni is in Africa visiting Jesuit projects in several countries. He is sending us diary pieces from his trip - as and when he can get an internet connection! Driving in central Harare, you don't exactly feel you're in a powder-keg city that will blow any minute. Friends had dished out doleful warnings but this most elegant of city centres feels, well, normal. Of course, today we didn't run into the police nor get on their wrong side. This traveller felt that Johannesburg's old CBD (central business district) was a good deal scarier. All the same, our car windows are up and our doors locked; at junctions it's automatic to feel discreetly for the door lock to make sure it's down. Two of our Jesuits had been robbed from their cars only last week. There is much that has gone wrong in this country and the Government's propaganda is impossible to take seriously; it doesn't look like many actually do, judged anecdotally. It will be partly a question of perception and partly of what information one can get hold of. Our papers at home in Britain do report a repressive dictatorship; but with most of our journalists expelled or reporting from south of the Limpopo River, the chances of balanced reporting are not good. But is there a balanced reality to report? One story in the government-controlled Herald the other day spoke of the 'joy' of failed asylum-seekers who had been removed from Britain and who had come home to a warm welcome from the Zimbabwe they'd fled, and how they all realised how wrong they were to have been tempted to Britain in the first place. The British had fed them lies about how badly they would be treated when they returned but instead they were welcomed home and forgiven, according to this front-page story. Every last returnee was grateful to the President for his merciful and prodigal welcome, we were told. There's an election coming up too, for the Zimbabwe parliament, so political violence might return at any time. Coming back down from Musami Mission, we saw several truckloads of excited Zanu-PF supporters at a roadside row of shops, but they didn't seem too bothered by three white guys in a car. I'd been told before coming here, variously, that all my luggage would be gone through at the airport because of my British passport, that I might not get in, that I risked being beaten up. None of this has happened. But of course Zimbabwe is struggling. There is massive unemployment, around 70%, and real shortages of many commodities. It doesn't yet look like a failed state, not quite; this isn't yet Somalia where there is no apparatus of government at all. But there's a lot of Zimbabwe that doesn't work and there is a repressive and strong police force. Currently, the banking system is losing credibility after a series of fraud-induced failures. People pay even big bills by cash if they can because you can't trust cheques; crazy inflation means that the payment will be made with a house brick-sized bundle of Zim dollars. You notice city traffic lights that don't work. That is true of Jo'burg also but here it's because the wiring and even the lightbulbs have been stolen, to be sold on to feed a family. Yesterday, driving with Fr Gerry McCabe SJ, we came to a junction where the complete set of lights ('robot' in Southern Africa) had been removed, poles and all. Maize in the fields should be much higher than it is by this time of year, and everyone knows that you can't put all the blame on poor rains. There are quietly-voiced worries about real food shortages later in the year; contrary to the propaganda, there is little in reserve. Official statistics and propaganda tell an entirely different story.

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