The taxi driver huffs and puffs, saying: “CAFOD, you are the last one to come out of the airport!” We both laugh out loud and greet each other with a warm, friendly handshake.
As we drive out of the airport and head towards Harare city centre, we go under a ceremonial concrete arch that has “Zimbabwe 1980 Independence” etched into its stone work in black lettering. My driver turns to me and says: “We are still waiting for our new independence.” He doesn’t explain himself, just hopes that I get his meaning.
The country has just had a referendum that paves the way for general elections to be held later this year. I was last in Zimbabwe in 2008, when the country was coming to terms with the horrific violence that was unleashed ahead of the second-round vote in the presidential elections. The political impasse that ensued led to economic meltdown, creating a humanitarian crisis, which was compounded by an outbreak of cholera.
At the time, the shops were empty, selling only the most random of items. I remember visiting one shop that had bags of hard-boiled sweets on its shelves and little else. I remember people telling me that the only things they could find to buy were toilet roll and popcorn, no bread.
In rural areas, things were even bleaker. Rampant inflation saw the Zimbabwean dollar replaced by foreign currencies such as the South African Rand, Botswana Pula and US dollar. These currencies barely crossed people’s palms in rural areas – they were left with worthless Zimbabwean dollars as they struggled to feed their families.
Today, Harare is vibrant. There’s a buzz in the air, as the annual Harare International Festival of the Arts is about to kick off. The rhythmic sounds of pneumatic drills and hammering seem to drown out the traffic noise. The city is undergoing a makeover. As I look out of the car window, there is construction work going on everywhere. My taxi driver comments: “The Chinese – they have all the contracts.” Again, he doesn’t expand, expecting me to read between the lines.
Like taxi drivers the world over, my driver curses the traffic, as we swerve off the main road and take a detour to my destination. I don’t remember the roads being so congested. My driver tells me that Zimbabwe has become the dumping-ground for cheap Japanese used cars. Affordability has increased car usage, and this is the cause of his traffic woes. But he wisely adds: “This is going to cause us big environment problems in the future.”
We move along less congested roads, and I notice the familiar rickety wooden tables piled pyramid-high with gleaming red tomatoes, oranges and melons. “I remember when tomatoes were gold dust,” my driver says. “Things are fine here [in the city]. We have plenty. But if you really want to know how we are coping, you need to visit the rural areas.”
I’m heading for Masvingo to do exactly that.