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Essay

The Zimbabwe of Memory, Eroded by a Deluge of Troubles

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe is officially sworn in as president after a sharply criticized runoff vote that was boycotted by his only rival, Morgan Tsvangirai.

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By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Zimbabwe, how it was before:

The smell of millet beer, the smoke from cooking fires, Oliver Mtukudzi singing at a club downtown, the grasses of the veld waving in the breeze. Drone of ceiling fans. Sadza meal, rolled up in the palm to eat. Rain, driving down so hard it explodes in the dust, sending up tiny showers of droplet shrapnel. Farms stretching for thousands of acres, people walking alongside the roads at first light, tourists drinking gin and tonics on safaris, elephants flapping their ears in the heat of Mana Pools. Termite hills as tall as your head. Notebooks of pulp paper. Women going across the border into South Africa and bringing back things to sell in street markets. Lots of children with no parents, and lots of 42-year-olds dying after a "short illness," a "long illness," a "sudden illness."

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This was 1997.

Zimbabwe, how it is now:

Life expectancy is 36, the lowest in the world. Annual inflation at an unofficial rate of 4 million percent, which is, you might have guessed, the highest in the world. Grocery store shelves are empty. There are power failures every day and water shortages most days. There are roadblocks on most main roads, many of them run by armed thugs who will steal your food and remind you that the West is the enemy. There aren't any tourists to speak of. There was a presidential election the other day that doesn't really mean anything because the old man running the country has made it clear, in his megalomaniacal kind of way, that he will kill any number of black people so that he can spend the few years he has left in a deranged version of comfort. (There aren't enough white people left to make any difference.) The nation is one of the world's AIDS epicenters, a crisis that doesn't even rate headlines anymore because so much more is so much worse.

I was one of the few Western reporters based there from 1997 to 2000, and then I had to get out before I was expelled. I talked to Morgan Tsvangirai, the presidential contender who has taken shelter in the Dutch Embassy, as well as Robert Mugabe, the old man and president who has led the country over a cliff.

The main thing I remember about Mugabe is that his hands shook, at this conference when he talked to reporters, and you could reach out and touch him. I don't think his hands shake anymore, and I know reporters are no longer able to get so close.

I haven't been there in eight years and I miss it.

I miss the friends I used to know there. I miss the way the rains would come in a sudden monsoon, a deluge you just couldn't believe, and I miss the fires I had to light in the dry season because Harare is way above sea level and it would get colder than you could believe possible in Africa. I went with the writer Sekai Nzenza-Shand to her home village and we all cooked over a bonfire, and neighbors materialized out of the dark and drank all the beer we had in the ice chest and everyone was talking and laughing. I sat on a stump and looked up from the fire and there were so many stars that you could actually see the outline of hills in the distance. This fact isn't in the papers much anymore, but Zimbabwe is actually a beautiful place.

Mostly I miss the way it was then only because it looks good by comparison.

It was no paradise. It wasn't romantic. I didn't have soft-focus goggles on. White farmers owned way too much land and the government was corrupt and AIDS was catastrophic and there was a sense things were going wrong, something vaguely ominous in the sunlight. But the nation could sleep and it could dream and there was room for some sort of hope.

By 1998, when the Zimbabwean dollar fell to 15-1 against the U.S. dollar, things were thought to have sunk to a new low. People talked about the "malaise" in the country. People would talk about the way you couldn't get a mortgage without passing an AIDS test. A friend staged a rally in a shopping center to urge people to be optimistic. They released a lot of balloons.


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