In March of 2017, I took a very spontaneous trip to the city of Harare, in Zimbabwe.

My friend from Dubai, who’s actually Zimbabwean, was going home to visit and she knows how the A.K. loves spontaneity.  She promised me a full tour of the city – local style – if I could find a way to get there.  So as you can guess… I found a way… but in all honesty, I had no idea what to expect.

Here’s what I found when I got there… and why it surprised me.

 

 

1. ZIMBABWE IS FRIENDLY AND SAFE.

Just the term “third world country” alone is enough to scare some people, and deter others – but not A.K.  Despite this label, and various statistics about poverty that you may read on the Internet, Zimbabwe was actually very warm and welcoming.  Yes, it is true that you will encounter some people who are poor and some living conditions which are sub-par; but the general vibe of the place is friendly and safe.

I suppose, in my mind, I had come prepared to hit roadblocks where corrupt cops extort bribes and expected beggars to harass me everywhere we went.  None of that happened.  Not saying it doesn’t exist at all, but I didn’t experience any of that – and I was pleasantly surprised by how relaxed and cool everybody is.

Politically, Zimbabwe might sound bad.  Economically, Zimbabwe might sound bad.  But in reality, Zimbabwe is good!  The people are awesome and aside from certain elements of disrepair, the city is awesome too.  The occasional beggar or panhandler may approach you, depending where you are – but simply give them some change, or don’t, and keep it moving.  Of course, certain hardships are to be expected in certain places.  Being unaware of your surroundings can lead you to becoming victimized, but all of these common sense rules apply everywhere – not just Zimbabwe. 

You’ll probably encounter way more aggression, unorganized crime, and unfriendly people in Philadelphia than you will in Zimbabwe (and don’t get me wrong, I love Philly!  It made me who I am today! But I would still rank it as more aggressive).

 

 

2.  HARARE’S ROADS ARE IN BAD SHAPE.

For being as developed as it is, I was a bit shocked at how horrendous the roads are.  I might have expected the roads to be undeveloped if the city itself was undeveloped, but Harare is a major urban center! There are big buildings downtown, strip malls and plazas with modern supermarkets and restaurants everywhere, and residential areas with suburban homes in organized neighborhoods.

Considering how well-populated and seemingly well-planned the city is, it was shocking to see such major roads and streets completely torn up with potholes the size of craters and raggedy gravel everywhere.  The condition of the roads is no secret either – everybody knows it, and shakes their head in disbelief at it.  Driving in Harare requires a sixth sense for avoiding all of this stuff, because hitting one of those potholes could easily take out a tire or destroy the underbelly of a car.  Yet, traffic moves and flows around it.

Compared to some other roads… THESE potholes are not even a big deal.

Seeing how dilapidated the roads are adds some depth to my understanding of what “third world” might actually mean.  The definition is up for interpretation, but I spent time with people who have nice homes, good jobs, new cars and money to spend.  We ate at nice restaurants and partied at upscale bars and lounges… on par with what you would expect in any American or European city.  But, at the same time, whoever is in charge of maintaining the roads (maybe… just maybe… the government?) is failing the citizens horribly.  The condition of the roads is due to either a lack of ability to fix, or a lack of interest… or both.

 

3.  THERE ARE A SUBSTANTIAL AMOUNT OF WHITE PEOPLE IN HARARE.

On the flight from South Africa to Zimbabwe, at least half of the people on the plane were white.  I assumed, out of innocent ignorance, that they must be foreigners also going to visit, or some type of humanitarian / government workers who were stationed there.  How wrong I was!

Allow me to provide some context:  during my trip to Ghana, I crossed paths with only one other white guy the entire time I was there… purely by chance, at a pharmacy in Accra Mall (and that dude knew how to speak Twi, so you know his ass been hangin’ out with Ghanaians for decades… because that’s not a language you can learn overnight).  The same is true of my trip to Senegal… and Ethiopia… and Zanzibar… and so on.  Generally speaking, with the exception of South Africa, I’m accustomed to being the only white dude for miles around when traveling this part of the world.  And I love it!

Our very first night out in Harare, one of the places we stopped at was called the Tin Roof.  I was utterly floored to walk into a packed bar reminiscent of a white frat party – but in the heart of Zimbabwe.  As we grabbed a round of beers from the bartender and scores of drunk white dudes roamed casually around this local watering hole, I had to pinch myself and ask, “am I really still deep in Africa right now, or am I hallucinating?”

I didn’t take this photo – I found it on Google Images. But yeah. You get the idea.

I’m not saying that other white people being plentiful is a good or a bad thing… it was just surprising.  I knew nothing of Zimbabwe’s history prior to arriving there, but I expected to see and experience purely African {and specifically, Shona} culture… so I was caught off-guard.  Feeling like you’ve teleported back to a Penn State University house party, while standing on Zimbabwean soil, is no small feat.

What I speak of was not just a few random people… I’m talking about an entire bar, jumpin’ with music and people and drinks, 90% white.  Just like a college frat party, complete with token black girl across the room (who I spotted immediately)… and a few mixed groups at tables.  But in general, it was a mob of wasted white dudes raging to house music on the dance floor in what was essentially a dive bar.  Nonetheless, I would still recommend the place if and when you visit Harare – even though that was not what I flew halfway across the world to see or experience, the food was good and the beers were cold!

Other clubs we visited, such as Pablo’s and News Cafe, were more diverse than the Tin Roof was — but such is still proof that a sizable white community exists in Harare.  Even if this “white crowd” I speak of chooses to hang out at certain bars and not other ones… they’re there.  Equally as interesting to me: nobody else seemed surprised.  All the white patrons were completely comfortable in their element, and the few black patrons there were completely comfortable being surrounded by white people.

I won’t go into a history lesson on this blog, but I learned that pre-1980 Zimbabwe (aka “Rhodesia”) was a white-ruled state and the history of this land even before that is complicated.   Translation:  to this day, there are plenty of white locals who are just as much “Zimbabwean” (in terms of nationality, anyway, even if not ethnically) as their fellow countrymen of mixed or darker complexions. 

Apparently, I was the only one who didn’t know this.  You learn something new every day.

4. PRICE CAN DEPEND ON COMPLEXION.

We all know that tourists are given different prices than locals – that’s true for everything, virtually everywhere on earth.  But one anomaly I came to understand is that, for better or for worse, even locals are tried on for size based on their skin tone.

We drove past a street vendor on the road, and my friend Nicolle jokingly commented to me: “If you were to go up to her, she would tell you $20.  If I came up to her, she’d probably say $15.  But if somebody with very dark skin approached her for the same exact item, she might start at $5 or $10.  It’s just an assumption that people have been trained to make.  Sad but true.”

Obviously, I’m not referring to the price of drinks at the bar or the price of groceries at the supermarket.  Those things have set prices no matter who you are – dark-skinned, light-skinned, local or foreign.  But anything that’s being sold person to person might be up for debate.

Buyin’ some thangz from her… after finally agreeing on a price!

For example, I saw some items I liked at one of the vendor markets in town.  The woman was throwing prices out there to me, but I kept telling her, “Nicci is the boss.  She makes the decisions, talk to her.”  After Nicolle spoke to the woman in the Shona language, a totally different price range started to emerge.

This is not unique to Zimbabwe, by any means.  Trying tourists on for size, in any and all countries, is just business as usual.  IN FACT, I once got grossly overcharged by a taxi driver in Budapest that same way – ripped off by a Hungarian guy who looked just as white as I do, but took advantage of the fact that I didn’t know what things were supposed to cost in their local currency – so, the hustle is not always based on skin tone.  Getting hustled by locals in ANY country is something we expect and do our best to avoid. 

I just found it surprising that even a true born-and-raised Zimbabwean might be given a different price by their fellow Zimbabwean, simply due to appearing dark-skinned or light-skinned.

5.  ZIMBABWE’S OXTAIL IS BETTER THAN JAMAICA’S.

I am a die-hard fanatic for Jamaican food – everybody who knows me personally can testify under oath to that.  I love Jamaican food, including oxtail, and tend to believe that it’s always best in Jamaica.

Well, my friends, I must admit – the local preparation of oxtail that I ate in Harare blew Jamaica’s out of the water.  I’m not sure whether it was the spices and flavors, or the actual preparation of the dish, or both – but Lord have mercy, I devoured that meal like it was the last meal I’d ever eat.

No blog post can do it justice.  You’ll need to fly to Harare yourself… and when you land, get a ride over to Gava’s Restaurant… and order the sadza platter with oxtail.

This oxtail will change your life.

Thank me later.