Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 2


The suburbs of Harare look like Surbiton after a disaster. Large bungalows left to rot, gardens overgrown, swimming pools drained, empty double garages with the doors swinging open. The bowling green, tennis club and golf course are much as you would find in the Daily Mail heartlands of Britain, except that the bunkers are filled with the parched red soil of Southern Africa.

The city centre is grubby; the pavements are crumbling and cratered. Vendors lay newspapers out on the ground and weight them down with old car valves. The architecture seems stuck in a timewarp around the early eighties. But there are still a few colonial buildings, unloved and uncared for yet clinging on: the Art Deco Old Shell Building, the splendidly Edwardian Fereday & Sons on Robert Mugabe Road. The government owns the best buildings, though, and you photograph them at your peril. The journalist, Peter Godwin, wrote of a motorist pulled over and threatened at gunpoint for laughing. “You don’t laugh near the president’s residence,” said the angry soldier. “It’s against the law”.


The ordinary people hurry past – without laughing – in tired pick-ups and tiny hatchbacks towing clouds of smoke, while S class Mercs stand in a line outside. There is wealth in Zimbabwe for a favoured few; and, if you look down Julius Nyerere Avenue, along the line of jacaranda trees, as the sun sets and reflects in the windows of corporate towers, and children saunter home in uniforms evoking an old English school, and a businesswoman strides in patent heels towards the Ernst & Young building, you will struggle to connect it with the ruined country you have seen so often on the news.

We snarled up in rush hour traffic as we headed south out of the city. If the traffic lights worked, no one took any notice, any more than they did of the bewildered policeman blowing his whistle until he was out of breath. The cars rushed to do battle at a crossroads, inching and honking to bully their way through. A pick-up bumped up onto the pavement, churned up gardens and squeezed down an alley and back onto the road further down. An ambulance, hopelessly boxed in, wailed in exasperation.

© Richard Senior 2015

Street scene: Photo by Tatenda Mapigoti on Unsplash

Journey through Zimbabwe, Part 1


The Zambezi sparkles in the sun as it drives a broad wedge between Zambia and Zimbabwe on its way from Angola, past Namibia, past Botswana, and on until it topples over Victoria Falls and continues through Mozambique and spills out into the Indian Ocean.

A troop of baboons was free-running the border post, vaulting up onto the back of a trailer and running along, dropping off, scooting across the yard, up the side of the building, grasping a window ledge, springing up, leaping and grabbing for the roof, sliding down the satellite dish, back into the car park, over the fence in a couple of bounds, then stopping to rest and eat a pilfered sandwich.

Passport control is well into Zimbabwe, but one desk is officially Zambia and I officially left at some notional point as I walked the few metres across the floor to buy a Zimbabwe visa. Much of the world pays US$30, but Brits pay 50 because of Cecil Rhodes, and Canadians 75 – I am told – because their PM was recently rude about Uncle Bob.

Unity, Freedom, Work is Zimbabwe’s motto, but the unity is fragile, there is little freedom and barely any work. Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF has reportedly murdered, tortured, beaten and flattened the villages of people it believed to support the opposition. The economy was once one of the strongest in the region: now it is one of the weakest in the world. Unemployment has hovered around 90% for years. The regime blames sanctions. Others blame the regime.


But Zimbabwe was – for different reasons – a pariah state before Mugabe and ZANU-PF, before it was Zimbabwe; and its unhappy modern history dates at least to the 1880’s, to the Scramble for Africa and Cecil Rhodes’ dream of the British Empire stretching from the Cape to Cairo.

For miles and miles after the border, there was nothing but waist-high yellow grass flecked with red, except for a few generations of car wreck: a Humber from the forties, a Chevrolet from the sixties and others too screwed up and stripped of parts to be recognised.

We stopped for diesel at a flyblown filling station with big chunks of the canopy missing. Ragged men sat listlessly on the grass around it. A Rottweiler stood up and glared from a crumpled pick-up truck. The Lion’s Den Butchery around the back had dust-encrusted grilles on the door and hardly looked inviting; but inside there was a chiller cabinet filled with biltong and more of it drying on racks on the walls and I bought a few dollars’ worth and pigged it all as we headed south to the capital.

© Richard Senior 2015

Countryside image: Shutterstock

Okavango Alarm Clock


It sounds as if a team of early workmen is taking hammer drills to solid stone when the hippos start to grunt their good mornings and hope you slept wells. The frogs burp and trill in overwhelming numbers; the cicadas chirrup a counterpoint.

An elephant grumbles somewhere beyond the trees. The red-eyed dove introduces itself, as it does every day. “I am…a red-eyed dove,” it sings in its Andean flute voice. “Go away! Go away!” shriek the grumpy grey louries, known to all as go-away birds. The emerald-spotted wood dove quietly sobs, “My mother dead! My father dead! Everybody dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!” “Go away!” snap the louries. “Drink lager! Drink lager! Drink lager!” chant the hard-partying Cape turtle doves, for whom it is always six o’ clock somewhere. “Good Lord deliver us,” mutters the disapproving fiery-necked nightjar.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

On the Shores of Lake Malawi


There was a truckload of sacks clumsily piled next to the passport control office. One had split open, exposing its contents: a silvery mass of fish. The whole border post, inside and out, reeked like prahok, the sewagey fermented fish paste they dare you to eat in Cambodia.

At the edge of the village just over the border was a sign which read, “Healthy People. Clean villages. Stop Open Defecation”. Just beyond that, a middle-aged man threw open the door of his hut and strolled down to the road, glancing at us without interest. He was completely naked.

Women worked in a network of paddy fields, bending to harvest the rice with babies strapped to their backs. They laid the rice at the side of the road to dry, and draped their washing over bushes or spread it out on the grass. A man wobbled along on a squeaky, creaky pushbike with a big sack sagging along the crossbar and over the seat so that he had to lean forward onto the handlebars.

They called the money-changer Harry Highpants. He struggled onto the bus, puffing and sweating. He was flashily dressed on the cheap with braces which looked as if they had been tightened with a winch. His suit pockets bulged with kwacha notes.

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We stopped for a night on the shore of the lake which dominates Malawi and I strolled along the narrow beach between banana palms and papaya trees, past dugout canoes made from fat logs hollowed out and shaped at each end. Villagers swarmed around me, wanting to know my name, where I was from, how long I was there, and where I had been before. One called himself Mr Sweet Talker, another said he was David Beckham. They all had something to sell.

I am Mr Cheap as Chips,” said the first of the vendors in the row of craft stalls which flanked the road to the campsite. A handwritten sign confirmed it.

Richard,” said the next vendor who overheard when I said my name to Mr Cheap as Chips. “Come look my stall”.

Richard!” the other vendors chorused, and advanced on me with bracelets and carvings. “Just two dollars, Richard”… “good quality”… “see, big five”…“how much you give me Richard?”

Err. Maybe I’ll come back later.


We worked our way down the shore of the Calendar Lake, 365 miles by 52, paralleling Tanzania way over, out of sight, on the opposite bank, until it faded into Mozambique, and stopped at a campsite around halfway down. There was a long, wide beach bookended with mountains and, behind it, an open-sided bar, some hammocks, a pool table and exuberant bougainvillea.

Village fishermen dragged dugout canoes up onto the beach and hung their nets to dry. As the sun dimmed, the lake turned electric blue, and pinks and purples bled into the sky, and the villagers lit fires along the beach and grilled the fish they had caught that day in their dugout canoes and the smell wafted up towards me. Chambo: a tilapia unique to Lake Malawi.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Etosha at Midnight


In the silence of the night, four giraffes shared the waterhole. They splayed their forelegs and lowered their necks and eased their heads to the oil-black water, where their reflections copied each move. An elephant lumbered into the scene, ears flapping, trunk swinging. It passed the giraffes, found a spot which it liked and paused for a moment like a chess player pondering a move.

The giraffes stole away and a black rhino took their place and the elephant started to drink. A lion roared in the near distance, filling the night with sound, and sending a panicky dik-dik scuttling. The elephant farted impressively to show how little it cared about lions and carried on taking two-gallon sips. Cicadas buzzed, a bird squawked. The last of the giraffes loped across the back of the set.

A second rhino arrived, then a third. They ignored the other rhino, which waited a minute and then left, as if it hated them too much to share the same waterhole but did not want them to think they had won. It met an elephant on the way out and there was a brief, unexpected stand off; but the rhino gave way and peeled off to the left, affording plenty of room to the elephant.

A jackal trotted to the water, gulped down a few mouthfuls and trotted away. A lone zebra slipped in between the elephants and tensed and listened when the lion roared again. The rhinos and elephants ignored it. Lions don’t worry them.

(c) Richard Senior 2014

Smoke That Thunders

Dr Livingstone thought that Victoria Falls sounded better than the local name Mosi–oa-Tunya which means “the smoke that thunders”. The government says that it is going to change the name back, which has got people worked up in support and against, but is hardly among the more urgent things which need to done in Zimbabwe. To outsiders, at least, it is what the falls are which matters most, not what they are officially called.

The word “awesome” has become as devalued now as the old Zimbabwe dollar but, when it pops into your head at Victoria Falls, it belongs there. A mile of water, hurtling out of control, tumbles over the edge and disintegrates into abstracts: thick gouache white swirling over slime green, tumbling, tumbling, tumbling a hundred metres into the gorge below, hissing and rumbling, roaring and thundering like some massive industrial process; the spray rebounds, a gathering storm, higher – way higher – than the top of the falls, until a perfect rainbow chops it in two and it comes down again as an unseasonal shower and soaks the path and the tourists who stand there and gawp.

Vic Falls ruin waterfalls for evermore as surely as the Grand Canyon ruins canyons.


(c) Richard Senior 2014