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Page last updated at 05:56 GMT, Tuesday, 9 June 2009 06:56 UK
Under Zimbabwe's skin

By Mike Thomson
Today programme, Zimbabwe

A queue of people line up to leave Zimbabwe at the border with South Africa
Arrest and jail awaited me should they discover that I was a BBC reporter

I've travelled to numerous countries throughout Africa and have a good idea of what to expect when I arrive. Zimbabwe was different.

The BBC has been banned (the official line is "not welcome") from reporting in the country for a number of years - so getting a clear idea of day-to-day life in the country isn't easy. This was going to be a journey of discovery.

Leaving the town of Messina in South Africa, we made the 15km drive towards the Zimbabwean border. Signs of Zimbabwe's economic collapse were evident before we even entered the country.

Lines of four wheel drives packed to the hilt with food and household provisions were streaming north towards Zimbabwe. Going the other way, carrying all their worldly possessions, streams of weary people headed on foot into South Africa.

As I stopped for a toilet break on the South African side, signs placed above each lavatory summed up just how far Zimbabwe's economy had fallen.

Sign above the lavatory on the South African side of the Zimbabwe border
At least the Zimbabwe Dollar is still valuable for one thing

"Toilet paper only", they read. "No newspaper, no cloth, no Zimbabwe dollars."

Border dispute

I arrived at Beitbridge border station and nervously made my way to the immigration desk, fully expecting a prolonged grilling.

After all, arrest and jail awaited me should they discover that I was a BBC reporter.

The border guard inspected my British passport, carefully checking my name and photograph. Then he looked up and his eyes narrowed as he muttered: "Mr Thomson, British citizen…"

He paused, as if about to announce that he knew what I was up to. Then came the killer question.

"Do you know the score from the Champions League match last night?"

My fearsome inquisitor was a fellow Manchester United fan. We spoke for five minutes about the form of the team, whether Ryan Giggs was past his best and when Ronaldo might leave for Real Madrid.

Before I knew it, my visa cheerfully stamped, I was strolling into Zimbabwe.

During the seven hour drive to Harare we were frequently stopped at police checkpoints, but arrived unmolested just as night was falling.

One of the first things you notice about the city is how dark much of it is. Few street lamps or traffic lights work and vast areas are swathed in darkness.

Street scene in Harare
To a newcomer, Zimbabwe's capital could be confused for a wealthy city

The following day we headed out into the city to take a look at the Zimbabwean capital in the daylight. There are lots of shiny buildings, clean(ish) and good roads. Many of the food shops that I was told had bare shelves now seem stocked to the rafters.

It could be any European city. We were even caught up in a rush hour of sorts on the first morning. Lots of nice newish looking 4x4s stuck in jams - strangely reminiscent of Hampstead in London.

All of which is odd when I'm told unemployment levels fall somewhere between 80% and 94%.

Below the surface

Yet while things look polished enough on the surface, scratch a little and the shine quickly disappears.

Harare's water and electricity supply comes and goes. My hotel was without either commodity for nearly two days.

Teacher in derelict buildings of a school in Zimbabwe
The nation's education system - once the pride of Zimbabwe - is literally falling apart.

Many public sector workers - once the biggest employer - are either not getting paid or are on strike. And the shops are full, but many people - particularly from the slum areas I visited - can't buy a thing.

A few months ago there was little to buy. Even if you did find a loaf of bread, with inflation running at more than 200,000,000%, it would take wheelbarrow load of Zimbabwean dollars to purchase it.

The introduction of foreign currencies like the US dollar and South African Rand has conquered inflation and empty shelves. But given that few people here have access to foreign currency, most can now only window shop.

As we travel out of Harare the true state of the nation becomes clearer than ever.

Petrol is expensive and hard to come by, so there are few cars on the roads. Those who can afford wheels are in for a bumpy ride. Many roads are so heavily potholed that even the biggest of trucks have to take care.

The number of police road blocks increases as we leave the capital. While we are lucky and usually waved straight through, locals tell me that police often ask drivers for "presents" before letting them pass.

Victoria Falls
Prostitution is now a bigger business than tourism around the Victoria Falls

The nation's education system - once the pride of Zimbabwe - is literally falling apart.

One school I went to in the impoverished north had to cram 700 pupils into just five classrooms because the roofs of the others had collapsed. I was told that they had been eaten by termites.

A teacher at the school admitted to me that the classrooms they were using probably were not safe either and staff simply crossed their fingers on a daily basis.

Hospitals are not much better. I was left speechless after visiting one. Everything in it, and I mean everything, was in some way broken, missing or collapsed.

At Victoria Falls - one of the seven natural wonders of the world - you can still spot the odd tourist, but they are few and far between.

On driving to a school in a town east of the falls I discovered that tourism is being overtaken by prostitution, which is fast becoming the biggest business around.

The school's head told me that something like a third to a half of all girls there, some as young as 13, were so desperate for money that they were selling themselves for as little as a packet of biscuits.

But while the country is falling apart around them, most Zimbabweans I met have kept both their pride and their sense of humour.

At a small health clinic, I had just finished asking a nurse a string of questions about what provisions they had for patients. Did they, I asked, have bandages, food, drugs, ambulances, phones and sheets?

All these questions were answered with a resounding "no". I then enquired whether there was anything the clinic did have. The two sisters looked at each other, then fell about the room laughing before the answer finally came - "No!"


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