A couple of weeks in Harare, Zimbabwe

My travel plans and no-fly rule took an unexpected turn this month when I decided to visit Elizabeth in Zimbabwe. Having spent the last two years begging friends and family to take advantage of my various temporary residences in Europe, I was sympathetic to her plight of struggling to persuade people to visit in Southern Africa. I try to put into the world the energy I'd like out, so I tracked down return flights from Vienna for less than $500 with Ethiopian Airlines. I also really wanted to hug Elizabeth.

A white plane with Ethiopian written on the side in red letters on airport tarmac in front of a blue sky A seatback tray with plastic cups and foil covered boxes, fruit cups and a loaf of bread Two blondish ladies in black and white tshirts smiling at a table with a background of trees

Life

In Zimbabwe, it is sunny every day. I was there at the start of winter. The sky was consistently brilliant blue, and the temperature was mostly in the late 20s Celsius. The climate is basically vacation-perfect. Never raining does not bode well for the crops though, and even though the temperature was good on paper the sun felt hotter and closer and more vicious than I've ever felt it anywhere before.

Colourful awnings at a market full of people, with a bright blue sky and palm trees Scrubby green and yellow fields, a tree on the left, blue sky with some fluffy white clouds and a glaring sun blaze in the upper left

Harare is a super green city, with lots of trees, bushes and maize or millet fields filling the wide open spaces between roads and blocks of buildings. Often the maize was looking dead and dried up, while decorative plants in public spaces or peoples' gardens are alive and well. Roads are concrete or dirt, scattered with enormous potholes in both cases. I was frequently a passenger in cars that needed to steer all the way around a hole rather than dipping into it or going over. The CBD is fairly built up, with some tall office buildings and malls, although I only passed through in the car a couple of times. Most of my time was spent taxiing between little pockets of reasonably well maintained commercial areas in the various suburbs. The self-enclosed bubbles of shops and cafes, supermarkets and cinemas, which depend on cars to travel between reminded me a lot of the US.

Bright blue skies over tiled walk ways with palm trees and shops A tiled path down the center of some buildings, lined with buses and ending with a palm tree, blue skies and a lady walking A round water fountain in front of a shopping mall type building Perspective from inside the front seat of a car, with the wing mirror on the left and blue skies and trees A wide road with trees at the edge and mottled branch shadows across the ground

It seemed like the other form restaurants and bars took were as stand alone properties in what felt like residential buildings in the more upscale residential areas. Many have lots of outside seating, surrounded by trees and statues and generally pleasant environs. In the northern half of the city houses are pretty big, with gardens, balconies, sometimes pools; massive driveways and huge security gates, often with guardhouses. I dropped by the homes of a few of Elizabeth's friends while I was there, and whether local or expat they were all preeeetty fancy.

A thatched cottage surrounded by green plants under a blue sky A white painted two storey building at the end of a driveway with some trees A dimly lit seating area with tables and green and wooden decor

On the other hand, there's an ongoing energy crisis which affects all areas of the city. Whole neighbourhoods have scheduled power outages for load-shedding, which is documented on a website but not always reliably. While I was there, Elizabeth's power went out for three days straight, unscheduled. When visiting a friend's to charge my laptop, their power went out too one day. Fortunately they had a generator. The lack of electricity is, I believe, due to a combination of fuel imports being from Mozambique (recently hit by a devastating cyclone), lack of money and corruption and inefficiencies in the government.

Everyone is similarly affected by the fuel crisis. Fuel queues were pointed out to me often; people line up in their cars for hours at a petrol station when they hear it has fuel. One friend queued for 3 hours only to find they'd ran out by the time she got to the front of the line. There are some stations which only accept payment in USD (not Ecocash) so if you have enough of that you have a better chance of filling up, with less of a wait. Obviously this benefits foreigners, people who work for embassies, and those recently arrived with a fresh batch of cash. One day on the radio I heard that the country had petrol for a month and diesel for 23 days.

Groceries and household goods are not cheap. Things like cosmetics and furnishings are particularly expensive.

There's relatively little light pollution at night - especially if you're in a neighbourhood with a power outage. So there were plenty of stars and an often brilliant moon to gaze at.

On both Sundays I joined Elizabeth, Sarah and Andrew at church. It was a totally different church experience to the cold, formal, boring CofE affairs that had been imposed upon me by my schools as a child. There was lots of singing and dancing, but also a slightly unnerving occasion of laying of hands, and the messages conveyed by the sermons were definitely at odds with things that make sense to me from Buddhist philosophy. The theme of the month had been fathers, and some members of the congregation across a range of ages gave very moving, funny, and heartfelt stories of the ups and downs of their paternal relationships.

A wide open light space with a crowd of people in seats and some on a balcony A wide open light space with a crowd of people in seats and some on balconies

Food

Zimbabwean food mostly consists of sadza, an enormously filling cereal (maize) mush that definitely expands in your stomach after you've already eaten too much, with greens (rape/canola) and beans, usually accompanied with a meat stew, chicken or fish.

A white plate with a close up of greens and beans with a round ball of peanut rice in the background a white plate on a wooden table with a round ball of greyish sorghum sadza

You can read about all the vegan food I found here.

Transit

Harare is not particularly solo-non-driving-traveler friendly. For the first few days I felt pretty trapped by my inability to move around independently. The city is very spread out in itself, and natural sights and hiking trails are really far away. Places are linked by wide, poorly maintained dusty roads that mostly don't seem very pedestrian friendly even if it was safe to walk around alone. I was told repeatedly that public transport is not safe for different reasons (dangerous drivers, dangerous passengers, ..) and even if it wasn't I don't know how I'd have figured out how to navigate the fustercluck of marshrutka-style packed private minibuses with no signs or numbers. Fortunately E already had some trusted taxi drivers on hand, plus a few very hospitable friends with cars. Still, not even feeling comfortable to walk to a shop or a cafe by myself from the house is not my favourite. Advice I got about which neighbourhoods and distances were safe to walk varied drastically between people I talked to.

From behind the front seat, a woman takes a photo out of a car window View from the back seat of a car to the front window and driver

Money

Another thing I don't love a ton is dependence on a mobile phone. Fortunately I have a moderately functional HTC One to use while my Fairphone is still out of action, otherwise I'd be pretty helpless. ATMs and credit cards basically don't work here, and it's illegal to change money. The official currency was changed to USD a few years ago, but also in circulation are Bond notes, aka RTGs, at a variable rate from 3.5 to 4.7. Most places accept USD, but with poor conversion so the price is higher than paying with Bond. The best option, used universally, is to set up an EcoCash account and find someone who will send you EcoCash in exchange for a fistful of USD (also illegal). Setting up EcoCash required purchasing a SIM (2 bond) and filling in a form with a local address (I used E's) and providing ID. They photocopied my passport, didn't need most of my info in the form, and misspelled my name when setting up the account (henceforth, Amy Huy). I topped up 100 USD, and bought some mobile data too (350mb for 1 week for 10 bond).

After that I could pay anywhere, from streetside fruit vendors to the farmers market to chain supermarkets and restaurants with EcoCash using USSD codes. Market stalls have their numbers scrawled on pieces of paper on their tables. That is, typing *151*1*1*{mobile number or merchant code}*{amount}#, followed by a prompt for a confirmation PIN which I set when I made the account (in plaintext). It displays the name of the recipient so you can increase your chance of not sending it to the wrong number before you commit. The recipient's phone goes bloop, and I immediately receive an SMS confirmation of the transaction, plus my new balance. This is horrifyingly insecure, but also a bit cool. There are small fees for each transaction depending on the amount you send. It's not a percentage, there are brackets of fees.

Another thing that was kind of cool while I was there was that Ecocash were running a promotion; for every 20 bond I spent I earned a point, and every 5 points gets me entered into a monthly prizedraw. The top prizes were a house and a river cruise in South Africa; but the better ones were goats, cows, generators, and school fees. I was checking the t&c to find out when the prize draws happened, but made the even better discovery that goats and cows may be requested live or dead; if dead, you have to pick them up from an abattoir of your choosing. If alive, you must pay the necessary transport fees. I'll find out if I was a lucky winner in the first week of June and I'm psyched to make Elizabeth take care of a goat in her yard for me.

If you're gonna be here a while, you can also hook your mobile EcoCash up to a bank account, and get a swipe card to pay with too. At one point, the network glitched out and Elizabeth was a victim; her EcoCash stopped working for sending money, claiming she had reached her daily or monthly limit when she clearly had not. This was a mahoosive inconvenience; we went to the Econet store to try to troubleshoot, and they did not solve the problem at all and there were a ton of other people in line experiencing similar issues. Centralisation at at its finest.

By the end of my visit, the exchange rate had fluctuated so much that it was now cheaper to pay for things in USD. I naturally had just topped up my Ecocash right before the surge; the digital currency I held lost significant value overnight in terms of what I could trade it for. What a nightmare to live like this every day. Many (most?) local people are paid in bond, hold their savings in bond, and as the exchange rate changes their salaries do not.

Coders in the suburbs

I was fortunate to meet Peter and Alana from the Sprout Coding project at a party one night. Their organisation, based in 'high density suburbs' of Harare, teaches locals to code and to teach, and then the locals go into schools to teach kids to code in turn. They invited me to visit and talk with their tutors. I spent one morning at their premises in Dzivarasekwa, sitting in on an informal meeting where the tutors had some forms to sign and got their final pep talk before classes with kids began the following week. I heard amazing stories of how each of them had got into code, including from some who learned with paper and solar panels, without access to electricity or internet for the most part. I spent some time with one of their earliest recruits, de-mystifying git. I asked as many as I could whether they were in it for the teaching or the coding, and everyone I asked said they just loved teaching.

A big blue shipping container on scrubby ground with pink blossom tree in the background Some signs outside a low-roofed building surrounded by trees and grass

The next day I joined them in Kuwadzana for a braai. This was super fun, and I spent time with the group talking about privacy, surveillance, encryption, and hacking, while we ate sadza and greens.

Under an orange-tinged awning that casts shadow on the sandy ground Several people are moving a bench under an orange awning A metal tray with a pile of green veggies on the left and white mush on the right

Dzivarasekwa and Kuwadzana are a far cry from the residential parts of Harare in the north. The roads are still wide and dusty, but there are no more security fences, gardens or driveways. The houses are single storey unpainted brick and breezeblock, often with small vegetable patches in whatever area around them is available. There are many makeshift food stalls, 'tuck shops' and the like, with hand painted signs, or just a table at the side of the road staffed by an entire family. The braai in Kuwadzana was under a tattered awning beside what appeared to be a large shed or market-type building that contained a bar (and pool tables). Besides the bar, the building also hosted meat and vegetable stalls, as well as the people who would prepare the produce you just bought for immediate consumption, and a sink with soap that we could all use to wash our hands before we ate.

Sandy road with scrubby gras and small house in the distance Sandy road with people crowded under tree shade beside Scrubby grass and trees around small houses at the roadside

Adventures

My first grand adventure was with E's Finnish friend and his Russian guests. We drove to Lake Chivero nature reserve, less than an hour west of the city. In a totally inappropriate small car, we crawled through the trails spotting zebra, impala, wildebeest and even a giraffe. Periodically we had to get out of the car so it was light enough to take a particularly jagged bump or canyon in the road. We took one trail that dwindled into nothing, and got out and walked to the lake where we saw lots of monkeys and interesting birds.

Green hills back a sparkling blue lake, with green marsh and trees in the foreground A giraffe eats from a tree in the distance Tall grass and a blue sky with a camoflaged zebra Scrubby grass with trees and a rhino in the shadows A black woman with dreads and a green hat walking along a dirt road surrounded by trees, from behind

Later we found our way to the park headquarters and talked with the rangers. They offered to take us on a little walk to see some more animals. The ranger Gladys guided us, and after five minutes we practically tripped over a rhino. He stayed snoozing in the undergrowth, and we moved on. A few minutes later he changed his mind, and charged us. I fell over, thought I was going to die, and Gladys rescued me. I posted more detail about the rhino story closer to the time. Later we saw more chill rhinos, and ostriches by the lake.

One evening I joined the Fin and the Russians in climbing a small hill in the south of the city. I'm not sure what it was called. It was a reasonably well maintained public space, with trees and walls and a small sculpture like thing at the peak. From there we watched the sun set. In the distance, Harare looks like any other city, with high rises in the center flattening out to residential suburbs around the edges.

Three women pose on a wall with a dusk cityscape in the background while a man in the foreground takes a photo Tree silhouettes frame a deep orange and blue sunset Tree silhouettes frame a post-sunset blue and orange sky with a few lights on in the dark landscape A 4-way sign post silhouetted against a post-sunset sky with the moon beside it A tree in the foreground of a city scape with a gentle pink and blue dusk sky

The Harare Botanical Gardens are somewhat in a state of disrepair, but they contain many interesting trees and not much signage about them. Still, nice to wander through for a couple of hours for the low entry fee of 3 bond. We considered taking a nap, but the ground-level insect life deterred us.

A twisty tree with green leaves against a blue sky Tall narrow cactii and trees against a blue sky A cluster of spiky trees on a blue sky An orange and red leafy bush Close up of a cactus with small yellow flowers Yellow scrub ground with tall flat-canopeyed trees against blue sky Tree branches supporting large green hanging pods

Just outside the city are balancing rocks. We got there and they wouldn't accept our ecocash, and we didn't have enough USD between us. Not to mention the USD price was more than 10x that day's bond price, according to that day's exchange rate. Harumph. So we took some pictures of the ones we could see from the carpark and the road, and left.

Blue sky, brown and green scrub, with some large sandy rocks Blue sky, brown and green scrub, with a tower of rocks

I spent an absolutely beautiful evening with Elizabeth and Andrew at Domboshava, a granite hill formation about a 45 minute drive north of Harare. The perfect time to go is in the hour or so before sunset. There are incredible views in every direction of the surrounding countryside, as well as balancing rocks and other geographical phenomena, and cave paintings. It is an incredibly peaceful place, even despite all the other tourists who were around.

A woman and a man stand on a granite hill with blue sky and fluffy clouds Two women wave their arms on a granite hill wiht blue sky and fluffy clouds Epic landscape view of rolling granite hills and a blue sky A child sits by a sign on top of a granite hill A granite valley in shade with rolling granite hills in the distance A blazing orange sun is about to dip below the horizon as a group of people sitting on a giant rock look at the view The edge of a large rock with a dusky sky and more rocks in the distance The silhouette of a woman balancing on a large rock with an epic view The silhouette of a woman doing yoga tree pose on a large rock with an epic view The silhouette of a woman jumping with her arms above her head and legs behind her from a large rock with an epic view A large rock lit by the sun with a view across granite hills The sun has just set an dthe sky is blue and orange and the foreground dark

Longer trips I considered but failed to arrange were Great Zimbabwe, Paradise Pools, and Victoria Falls. Great Zim is an ancient abandoned city that looks way cool. I was pretty disappointed not to be able to make it happen, but the fuel crisis meant none of E's friends were up for driving that distance (about 4 hours) and I couldn't put together enough people at the last minute to make a guided tour good value. Paradise Pools was also a victim of the fuel crisis, after a friend sat in line for hours and wasn't even able to refill. Vic Falls would have been great but required some planning ahead on my part. It's at least a four day trip - one full day on trains and buses to get there, two days to appreciate the city, and a full day back. I could have done it when E was at work (might have been a good use of those days without power at home) but visiting Elizabeth was really the point of the trip and our time hanging out in the evenings was way more important.

Photos

Photos and more notes are as follows:

🏷 life vegan zimbabwe africa travel harare