It was laughter, actually. Tired and terribly fed up laughter, pupping away inside me like lazy glue on a stove. It wasn't, honestly, the reaction I had meant to bring to famine. But last week, in a fairly filthy bar in Bulawayo, it finally got to me. Bulawayo is the second city of Zimbabwe, where the ridiculously wide avenues lie in cloying darkness all night, holding their breath, because there's no money for light bulbs. They're running out of blood in Bulawayo, and with HIV running through 25 percent of the nation's veins, new supplies are hard to come by. They've run out of petrol. They've run out of doctors: There are three surgeons left for a population of just over 800,000. They're running out of food. Ten starved to death in the city suburbs last month, seven of them children under 5. And now the rains have stopped, and the harvest has failed, and it's going to get one whole medieval lot nastier very soon.
They're not, yet, out of Castle beer, which is why I have some in front of me as I wait. It has taken a little while to persuade Bulawayans to talk. Two weeks before Zimbabwe's national elections, friends are wary of talking to friends, so mouths snap shut before strangers. It is an offense to hold a meeting without police permission, an offense to criticize the government, a jailable offense to criticize Robert Mugabe: Effectively, talk of politics is outlawed.
Even the regime's sternest critics, in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), are trying to distance themselves from anyone white, as Mugabe loses no opportunity to taunt them about links to Tony Blair and accuse them of being puppets of white neocolonialism. So I'm not sure if young Jimmy and Joy, whom I'd met earlier in a more public (thus less safe) bar, are going to turn up, but they do, and without thinking I wave. Mistake. They're not really worried, it's fine here, but they advise me to keep the waving to a minimum elsewhere. An open hand is the symbol of the MDC. Flaunting it can get you noticed.
Finally, it all gets to me, and the laughter spills out. It's taken a few days to reach this stage. Growing, along the way, tired of the roadblocks, shocked by the state of the land, stupefied by the flagrant propaganda of the state-run press, resentful of the constant eye flicking and back watching, staggered by the tales, wearied by the hate and even a little fed up, frankly, at being apparently the only white man in Africa. And I learn that in the wrong parts of the wrong towns a simple wave, symbol of open friendship, can now get you locked up, and laughter seems a good answer: sour laughter, to greet the rancid curdling of a dream.
Four, five weeks ago, the skies darkened but it did not rain. Showers, splatters only, but the greedy clouds kept themselves full and moved on, and the sun came out again and started burning things.
"It wasn't as if we knew quickly or anything," says Joy, "but at that time you expect rain, lots of rain, all the time. Then another day passed, the same. And another. And that was weeks ago, and now it's too late." The rainy season should be ending now, ready for an April harvest. The past month should have seen heavy daily falls. They've seen relentless sunshine. Not even Mugabe's angriest opponents can blame him for that.
But they can, and do, blame him for the vaulting inflation. Last year, for the fifth successive year since his notorious land grab, the economy declined once again, to take the cumulative loss in GDP to 40 percent. Outside agencies have estimated inflation at between 300 and 400 percent. Even the government press accepts that something is wrong, try heroically though it does to sell it as a success: "Inflation falls to 127.7 percent!' shouted the irony-free front page of the March 12 Herald.
Enough figures: What it means is that no one has any money. No money to pay people to work on the land. No money to irrigate. No aid agencies to bring in food from outside. Last year Mugabe ordered the U.N. to stop distributing supplies. Zimbabwe had so much food, he said, it was "choking" on it.
What they are choking on down in the Gwayi Valley is, of course, dust. This river in Matabeleland, between Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, once fat enough to have a station and junction named after it, should have been swollen to safety by the last month of the rainy season. It is instead a shambles of stagnant pools. For 50 miles east and west, the smaller rivers consist of caked red mud and stone. The only movement, apart from the flies, comes from the occasional group of villagers trying to dig boreholes near the center, where once the rivers were deepest.
Drive along the empty main road, west to what the country knows as Vic Falls and the Hwange National Park, and at first sight the coming devastation is hard to imagine. Baboons scamper. Baobab trees, inside whose giant-trunked grayness the guerrillas cut hideaways from government soldiers during the war of independence, loom every half-mile, and the roadsides are fringed richly with other woods, the silver mohonono and the dark-barked motsouri. But stop the car, far from the roadblocks, curse the flies and force your way through the undergrowth for 100 yards and the vision is grim.
Mile after sulking brown mile of failed maize. The staple crop for all Zimbabwe, it should by now be two meters high, fat with corn, ready next month to be harvested and milled for villagers to make their mealy meal, the rice or potatoes of this part of the world, the main meal of the day, perhaps with a little meat or fish if it can be afforded. (With inflation a triumphant 127 percent, it can't.)
But the crop stands perhaps a meter high, the cobs tiny, ill-formed and tasting of doom. The top third has sprouted, dry brown grass rustling closer to death with every hour of sun. Fields of tobacco plants, once a good earner, are mournful parchment windmills.
Every time I stopped in Matabeleland I saw the same, and the same again on the six-hour drive back from Bulawayo to Harare, to within 80 miles of the capital. The fields are a mess. The drought has something to do with it, in that there's been no water. National inflation and poverty have something to do with it, in that the minimal wages for farmworkers are worth less and less each month, and unemployment in some rural areas has hit 80 percent. Mugabe's land grab has something to do with it, in that there are no farmers to underpay the nonexistent farmworkers. The last tiny handful of the 10.4 million productive acres on 4,500 white-run farms, which created jobs and grew food and exported in 2000, are in the process of being repossessed, and now even Mugabe admits it's not going swimmingly well. According to state television, he has "expressed disappointment with the land use, saying only 44 percent of the land distributed is being fully utilized."
Tobacco production is down 70 percent from 2000. Government figures estimate there are 5.8 million acres of maize farmland lying fallow, even if there had been rain. When Tendai Biti, economic affairs spokesman for the MDC, said that the land grab "has been a phenomenal and absolute failure on every level," he was pulling his punches. The latest report from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network placed Zimbabwe's looming food crisis second in the world to Ethiopia's, judging that 5.8 million were at risk. This report was completed in January, before the rains failed.
The kindly Shoko, who drove me for a day, is happy to speak inside his car, if reticent to the point of autism in any public place. "You won't get people to talk unless you're alone in a room or in a car. But it's completely obvious. We all knew white farmers, and not one of them deserved what happened. Not one. Say what you will. They knew the land; they had money and were pretty fair. They paid us, and we grew food. Now ... well, I don't need to explain. Look out of the window. What a simple mess it is."
Patience, whom I meet one morning near Bulawayo, has already walked four round miles, from hut to nearest trickle of river, for water. She will make the journey twice more, maybe three times, that day, with the jug on her head, depending on how much her youngest, Lindiwe, cries. She doesn't know what is wrong with her; she can't afford a doctor, and there aren't any. What's wrong with her, surely, is that some parts of the world tend to get more than their share of the very worst bits of the biblical ills. Matabeleland, southern Zimbabwe, is a grand spot to pick up malaria, cholera and leprosy -- if you've been spared AIDS -- so what would really excite them now would be a spot of drought and famine, garnished with locusts and tyranny.
"We are not starving. Not yet. But if you've come this far you have seen the fields. The rain is over. The food will not come." She is not, palpably, sad, or dramatic, or even very friendly. If I was to sum up her attitude as honestly as I could, it would be in a far less than poetic phrase, and that would be "fucked." Or resigned, but actually the swear word, in its sense of "having once hoped," is truer to the mark. It was the attitude, in Victoria Falls, of all the staff who have watched their tourist-funded livelihoods evaporate as fast as the gossamer spray: of Samuel, who made me an inedible pizza for which he had to charge me his weekly wage (the equivalent of 12 pounds), and doesn't get to eat the leftovers, and didn't know what he was going to eat that night. I leave what I hope is a fabulous tip, then spend three minutes struggling to stuff the remaining change of tens of thousands of joke inflationary Zim dollars into the front pocket of my jeans. It comes, I later realize, to about 10 pence.
There were, that lunchtime, eight tourists walking the Falls: eight. Everyone, especially whites, comes from Zambia. The Zambian side has seen tourist numbers rise from 160,000 in 2001 to 610,000 last year. The best view of the largest single curtain of water on Earth lies on the Zimbabwean side, but there were eight trippers. This weekend there will be more visitors to Cromer. In Victoria Falls, as the sun set, staff were going through the trash bins.
There is an answer, of course. On March 31, Zimbabwe goes to the polls. There is, in many places, a palpable sense that the MDC could this time triumph. They have fought a brave campaign: Simply standing, in some areas, is evidence enough of courage. And there is, in every place where people are willing to speak, a clear message: The West, and its tourist dollars and its trade, are needed again.
"I was too young to remember much before independence," says Jimmy, in the dark bar in Bulawayo. "I don't think I would have had much time for the white farmers, then. Older men I know hated it, I think. It was right to change. It was our country. But nobody can still believe this is the answer, when we have no money, no light and soon no food. You don't need a degree in politics to make the arguments, you just need to look around. Can you buy me a beer?"
It's the same with drivers, hamburger sellers, the boys on the roadside with a cup of peanuts to sell, the girls in Harare's poshest hotel with sex to sell, the policeman who admits he helped beat up MDC supporters last time but will vote for them this month because he doesn't want to go hungry and wants to marry again.
And sometimes you can begin to hope: Enthusiasm infects, as does simple logic. A regime change would win instant backing from outside, would reopen trade and aid -- and, of course, all the self-serving posturing that comes with each -- but mostly it would keep people alive. Sometimes, away from the small cars and dark rooms where people can speak freely, you can begin to dare to think that this might, after all, approach a democratic election.
The state-run press and its trumpeting of democratic freedoms are ludicrous. "Peace, calm reign: Police" reads one headline in the Herald. Some of its choicer headlines during my week in the country -- slipped in along such joys as "Gold panner crushed to death" and "Binga man dies after hippo attack" -- included "MDC hasn't learned anything," "Things fall apart for MDC," "MDC desperate, in permanent panic" and the splendidly impartial "Why we should vote Zanu-PF." But I'm trying to be desperately fair here, with my white liberal guilt, and I have to say that when the papers say there has been a marked diminution of violence since the last election, I am inclined to believe them.
Government and opposition parties have both called repeatedly for a poll free of intimidation. In my six days in Zimbabwe intimidation may have been happening, but I didn't see it, so I can't report on it. People around Bulawayo spoke of MDC meetings being broken up and those wearing the party's T-shirts being beaten. As I walked through Kwekwe, every MDC election poster was smothered in angry black paint. But of the youth squads who last time broke pregnant women with sticks and beheaded men with machetes, there was no sign. The MDC alleges the government is supplying (late) grain to favored areas to secure votes. As I saw no aid at all, I can't bear witness.
This is a different election. Mugabe is, apparently, trying to play fair in the eyes of the world. Sadly, this is only a different election because he is being bad more subtly. Gone are the machetes. But gone too is the hope.
The vote counting will be administered by the army. The ballot boxes are made of transparent plastic. Counting will be done after nightfall. Rural voters make up 65 percent of the population. Counting after nightfall in most places means counting in huts by candle or torchlight, by hungry soldiers whose guns and food are paid for by the government, counting out votes from transparent ballot boxes. No fewer than 800,000 dead people are on the electoral register. Exiles cannot vote. Opposition candidates cannot get hold of the register.
Most remote villagers, according to Shoko, who was once one himself, have been told that a "central computer" can work out, between one and two weeks after the poll, which way each village voted. The threat, with famine looming, does not have to be further stated.
The Southern Africa Development Community, to which Mugabe signed up in a flurry of apparent accountability, has just been refused access to observe, after a bout of legalistic semantics that would win applause from Jesuits.
I saw tanks moving from Kwekwe to Harare, which last week had to shut down half its dwindling water supply for three days because of leaks it can't afford to mend. Meanwhile, Mugabe gave interviews to the Herald about his favorite music (Mozart, Beethoven, the choral singer Olivia Charamba) and revealed that he once wrote a poem about the plight of orphans.
It's a more subtle game this time, and of course he'll win again. Last time around there was simply fear. Now there is a more insidious threat: economic death. It works effectively enough if you're a poor, empty-bellied bastard in the dark, four miles away from brackish water gulped beneath dead maize. The threat of a sore belly; of continued poverty; of recriminations; of angry sponsored boys, fit, armed, in berets. The threat that other African leaders will fall for corrupt statistics from Zimbabwe and do nothing.
And still, I am dissuaded that language and statistics have no part to play. People are bone-weary of the capricious, mendacious, pocket-stuffing old lunatic. And the figures do, indeed, tell their story. Robert Mugabe is 81. Life expectancy in Zimbabwe is 33.