Tuesday 4 August 2009

Travel to Zimbabwe used to be so much easier: a single ten-hour flight from London Heathrow direct to Harare. Unless you want to risk flying with Zimbabwean Airlines, you now have to fly to Johannesburg, hang around waiting for the Transit Desk to get its act together (it doesn’t…) and then fly back to Harare with South African Airways. Perhaps the (forced) softening of Mugabe’s stance towards Britain and the West – seen most recently in the re-admission of the BBC and other media agencies into Zimbabwe – might eventually restore confidence in direct travel from the UK to Harare.

It is the first time I have flown with Virgin and I am hooked. Every aspect of the journey was superb; I was very impressed.

Having not slept overnight for more than 30 minutes, I was pretty tired and travel-weary by the time I got out of the airport in Harare. Bishop Ishmael (with whom I am staying – Bishop of the Diocese of Central Zimbabwe) took me for lunch in the centre of the city where we were joined by the recently-consecrated Bishop of Harare, Chad Gandiya. Chad is an old friend from London and it was great to see him in his new role and with the vision and energy to set about the hard work ahead of him.

For those new to ‘Zimbabwe’, the Diocese of Harare was taken apart by Bishop Nolbert Kunonga who was displaced two years ago and is no longer recognised as an Anglican bishop anywhere in the Anglican Communion. Bishop Sebastian Bakare (the retired Bishop of Manicaland) was brought in for a couple of years as caretaker bishop while the process began to identify the next permanent bishop. Sebastian is a brave man who challenged the Mugabe-backed Kunonga and has seen the diocese through its own internal struggles as well as the nadir in the economic and political conditions of this once-thriving country. The future now looks relatively reasonably hopeful – for the first time in many years.

We spent a long time discussing various matters to do with Zimbabwe and the Church here before we were joined by a British diplomat with whom I have communicated by phone and email since before he came out here a year ago. Again, his insights were astute and stimulatingly helpful. He observed that the country now bears no resemblance to how it was when he arrived exactly one year ago.

When I was last here in April 2007 there were constant electricity cuts, the water kept going off (sometimes for days on end), the shops were emptying and the inflation rate was an absurd 10,000%. By the time the diplomat arrived here inflation was heading towards 230,000,000% (whatever that means), the currency had become worthless, nearly 90% of the population was unable to work and the situation was appalling. Cholera was kicking in at the end of 2008 and the future looked grim – possibly violent. The stitched up re-election of Robert Mugabe as President – a shameful and scandalous travesty of justice – saw violence and intimidation on a huge scale.

Zimbabwe 1 009Zimbabwe 1 010The contrast now is remarkable. There are cars on the roads, the streets are full of people looking more optimistic and purposeful than they did in the past and the supermarkets are full of food and all the other goods you’d expect to find in them. Since Morgan Tsvangirai joined Mugabe in the Unity Government – a high-risk decision for lots of reasons – things have begun to change for the better in Zimbabwe. Despite losing his wife and grandson in two separate accidents since his appointment as Prime Minister, he has stayed on track, changing the landscape of Zimbabwean possibilities.

Zimbabwe 1 011The Zimbabwean Dollar is now dead. The national currency is de facto the US Dollar, but trading is also done in South African Rand, Sterling and the Euro. Confidence in the future can be measured by the willingness of businesses to use credit and re-boot the economy. Optimism about the future might be hedged in with cautious caveats born from past experience, but people are walking taller and there is a sense of purposefulness about the place again. It simply feels different. One professional person put it to me like this: ‘Nobody wants us to go back to where we were last year; it simply cannot happen.

These are early days in the rebuilding of the country and many struggles lie ahead. But there are signs of hope now that were not here two years ago.