Jacarandas blooming in Harare, Zimbabwe

Dance in the sun, but turn your back to the clouds.

Zimbabwean Proverb

The truth is really stranger than fiction. A few days ago, I observed the birthday party of a 93-year-old “President for Life” (on television in the country, unfortunately, I did not rate an invite), hosted by his wife who is 40 years his junior, and held in a location where his army massacred up to 30,000 members of a rival tribe back in the 1980’s. The unemployment rate in his country stands at 95% yet the members of his inner circle are plundering the country’s impressive resources and live incredibly lavish lives. Oh, and he plans on running for re-election in 2018.

Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace, at his 93rd Birthday Bash.

Now as I wait to depart Harare, Zimbabwe sitting in one of the most efficient and impressive airports I’ve been to anywhere, I find myself reflecting on the many contradictions that I’ve seen and experienced. This series of blogs will be a series of insights that I hope capture the essence of the fascinating political and economic environment of Zimbabwe.

Harare International Airport.

First, it’s extremely important to understand the history of Zimbabwe to even begin to understand the current situation. It’s a bit confusing, but a fascinating story and I’ll attempt to summarize it in a few paragraphs.

White settlers known as the Pioneer Column from the British Cape Colony, (now part of South Africa) led by Cecil Rhodes (of the scholarship fame; a whole other amazing story) from the British South Africa Company, migrated north in 1890 to secure the mineral-rich areas of Matabeleland and Mashonaland (now in Zimbabwe) in a race with colonizers from Germany, Portugal, and the Boers from the Orange Free State.

Current Provinces of Zimbabwe. Map: Mail & Guardian, Africa.

Previously, Rhodes was able to persuade the Matabele King to sign a treaty giving him rights to mining and administration (but not settlement) in the area of Mashonaland. Once they arrived and were settled, they established a new British colony that eventually came to be called Southern Rhodesia (The current country of Zambia was the colony of Northern Rhodesia.). The Pioneer Corps was officially disbanded and each member was granted land on which to farm. These pioneers generally established large commercial farms that were so fruitful that Rhodesia became known as the “breadbasket of Africa.”

Tobacco Farming in Zimbabwe.

While other colonies across Africa were declaring independence, and moving forward under the black majority rule, Southern Rhodesia’s white-minority population declared independence from Great Britain in 1965 and established a government that shared many of the characteristics of South Africa’s apartheid regime becoming an international pariah.

A civil war broke out in the early 1970’s with several Marxist-influenced movements establishing safe-havens in nearby Mozambique and, by then, Zambia-the former Northern Rhodesia. A piece treaty was agreed upon in 1980 and by 1987, the leader of the winning faction, Robert Mugabe, had successfully maneuvered himself into the position of “President for Life,” changed the name of the country to Zimbabwe, and had established, essentially, a one-party state led by his political party the Zimbabwean African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

Selous Scouts during the Rhodesian Bush War.

Mugabe’s rule has been marked by the looting of the country’s resources by his cronies, an amazing amount of palace intrigue, stolen elections, and the ruin of a once vibrant economy, national infrastructure, and education system. Most infamously, Zimbabwe suffered through the most extreme example of hyperinflation ever recorded as the Central Bank continued to print money eventually printing 100 Trillion Dollar bills in 2007.

So, now that I’ve laid out the background, the next few blogs will introduce the incredible contradictions that I’ve witnessed over my few days in country.

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