Tag Archives: Zimbabwe

The Damage That A Single Madman Can Wreak

In 1992  Zimbabwe was the success story of southern Africa. It was proof positive of the lies of apartheid and the bigotry of those whites who treated black Africans like children, unable to rule themselves.  It was also a wonderful counterexample to the belief of many Americans that Africa is nothing more than urban slums, children with distended bellies, and people dying of starvation. On the contrary, in 1992 Zimbabwe was a country that provided its inhabitants with economic stability, good schooling, basic health care, and access to such essentials as food, housing, roads, and sanitation.

According to the World Bank, from 1980, when the country first achieved independence, until the early 1990s infant mortality decreased from 86 to 49 per 1000 live births, child mortality was reduced from 128 to 58 per 1000 live births, the immunization rate increased from 25% to 85%, and life expectancy for its citizens increased to 64 years.  When we lived there Zimbabwe had a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrollment rate than almost any other developing nation in the world.  Simply put, the country was working, and working well.  When walking along the tree-lined avenues of downtown Harare, overflowing with shops and cafes, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a mid-sized American or European community rather than the heart of southern Africa.

Sadly, though, this social and economic success came to an abrupt end by the mid-1990s when Robert Mugabe, president of the country since 1987, began devolving from a benevolent leader into a brutal dictator with a death grip on power and an intolerance for public dissent.  Mugabe, who enjoyed the perks of power and had no desire to relinquish them, began a campaign of repression of anyone who opposed him politically or wanted to run for the highest office in the land.  He also imposed a series of draconian economic and social reforms that bankrupted the country.

He unilaterally imposed a poorly conceived land redistribution program, against the recommendations of the United Nations, that took farmland from whites and gave it to black political supporters even if they had no experience in managing an agricultural enterprise.  Soon after, the food surplus in Zimbabwe began to wither and disappear.  His hatred of the British led him to destroy the once impressive health care infrastructure established during colonial times.  In an article in the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote “If you want to see hell on Earth, go to Zimbabwe where the madman Robert Mugabe has brought the country to such a state of ruin that medical care for its inhabitants has all but ceased to exist.”  By the start of the 21st century he was running the country like a fiefdom whose sole purpose was to generate power and wealth for he and his family.


It's Easy to be a "Bazillionaire" in Today's Zimbabwe where the Currency Is Worthless


The end result of his ruinous policies was that by the year 2000 life expectancy at birth for Zimbabwean men, once 64 years, had dropped to 37 (34 for women)–the lowest such figure for any country on earth.   Economically, the nation did not fare any better.  It has one of the worst financial systems of any country in the world, with inflation running at tens of thousands of percent per year, making the currency essentially worthless.  The effect of this on citizens was tragic and led to poverty, starvation, disease, and a mass exodus of people fleeing the horrors of their once lovely country.

It is difficult for me to write this post because of my memories of a beautiful country whose citizens were able to care for their families and provide them with the essentials of life.  It does not always take an army to bring down a nation, and Zimbabwe is a tragic example of how a single misguided (or demented) individual can destroy the dreams and aspirations of millions. Please remember that when you go to the polls to vote for anational leader. Don’t take this  responsibility lightly or make your choice based on clever slogans, superficial promises, or a cute hairdo.  The stakes are far too high.

Harvesting The Fruit of Other’s Good Work

When we returned home from Zimbabwe after three glorious months, I shared stories of our adventures with Paul Tymann, a close friend and co-author with me of a computer science text entitled Modern Software Development Using Java. Paul is professor and computer science department chair at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York.  Like Ruthie and me, he had long dreamed of going on an African safari but believed it was a dream well beyond his reach.

Paul had never considered, in fact was not even aware of, the idea of a working vacation until I related our work experiences in Kenya and Zimbabwe and described how I was able to plan and finance these trips. After listening to my stories and determining that this was something he truly wanted to try for himself, he contacted Dr. Rob Borland at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) and carefully followed the steps I laid out for him during our talks. He was soon rewarded with a teaching invitation, and the following summer Paul was comfortably ensconced at the UZ Visitor’s Lodge reliving many of the same African adventures Ruth and I had experienced only twelve months earlier, including that amazing walking safari at Mana Pools described in my previous post.  This is yet additional proof that there is absolutely nothing unique about me or my background when it come to living and working overseas, and it clearly demonstrates that a working vacation to some exotic locale is a dream that can come true for virtually any professional with the drive and ambition to follow the recommendations contained in this blog.

This story also highlights an excellent way to locate your own working vacation and exemplifies a strategy that often works far better than random cold calls to unfamiliar places. If you know of a friend or colleague who has recently been on a working vacation talk with them about the living accommodations, workload, colleagues, and the school, agency, or institute where they were posted. If they speak glowingly about their experience then get the name and address of a contact person and send that individual e-mail asking about the possibility of working there in the near future, being sure to include your friend’s name.

It would also be a good idea for your colleague to send an enthusiastic letter of recommendation directly to the institution or give you a copy to attach to your e-mail. If the people at the host site were pleased with your friend’s work, they might also be amenable to a visit from someone recommended by that individual, just as I had personally recommended Paul. This approach does not qualify as a “blind cold call,” like those described in earlier chapters, since the institution has already demonstrated an interest in hosting overseas visitors, resulting in a greater likelihood of success. In essence you are no longer scattering your working vacation seeds randomly but planting them in ground already well watered and nurtured by the work of others.

Is That A Charging Elephant or Is He Paying Cash?

The highlight of our time in Zimbabwe was a trip to Mana Pools, about two hundred miles north of Harare. Totally unknown prior to our arrival, we heard numerous stories from guests at the UZ Visitor’s Lodge about a wildlife viewing experience thoroughly unlike that of more well-known destinations such as the Serengeti or Masai Mara.   Mana Pools is the only game park in Zimbabwe offering walking safaris that attempt to recreate the classic big-game hunts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—before the advent of satellite phones, Land Rovers, GPS location systems, and trucks laden with luxury provisions and all the comforts of home. Back then the only game you saw was what your guides could locate on foot, and the only provisions available to you were those carried on the backs of porters.  It sounded fascinating so Ruth and I purchased a four-day packaged tour to Mana Pools from a local travel agency.

We were met at the park’s front gate by our guide, Willie DeBeers, a grizzled sixty-something Afrikaner toting a massive elephant gun and missing two fingers on his right hand, courtesy of a close encounter with a spotted hyena. Each day our group of a dozen or so would walk for six to eight hours searching for game as Willie kept a watchful eye to the front for unfriendly beasts; the porters had our backs. Since we were on foot and without access to a locked vehicle for safety, we would stop when passing a tall stand of grass to let Willie make sure nothing unfriendly was lurking in the shadows. Our daily route was not preplanned but dictated by any signs of animal life spotted by the guide—footprints, spoor, recent kills—as well as the presence of irritable beasts that required a large cushion of space between themselves and human intruders.

Coming Across A Bull Elephant in the Wild. A Few Seconds After This Photo Was Snapped It Charged Directly At Us

One morning we happened across a massive bull elephant only a few hundred feet ahead, bellowing and scraping the ground with his right front leg. Willie informed us this behavior meant he was about to charge, and right on cue he did–all four tons of him, heading straight for the group at a full gallop. I froze in utter terror until he came to a dead stop not thirty feet away. Willie laughed and informed us he could tell from the animal’s demeanor this would be a “false charge,” and that the elephant would stop before reaching us. We were then told to move slowly backward from the angry beast—still standing in front of us—and everything would be just fine. He had let the elephant charge to give us some excitement and provide a great story for friends and family back home.

Three weeks later a story appeared on the front page of the Zimbabwe Herald about a University of Zimbabwe geography professor trampled to death by a rogue elephant at Mana Pools. I can only assume this animal was uninformed about Willie’s rule requiring all elephants to clearly indicate a false charge. This was a little too much for me in the way of recreating nineteenth-century realism, but Willie was right about one thing. I did end up telling this story to family and friends as soon as I got back home.

The Not-Again School of Travel, Revisited

This working vacation in Zimbabwe was the ideal “proof of correctness” for our commitment to the not again travel philosophy described in the post Two Schools of Traveling Thought. The country has superb game parks that provide close-up views of all the big mammals from the luxury and safety of a jeep, just like our safaris in Kenya seven years earlier. However, Zimbabwe also offers adventures totally distinct from those of Kenya and Tanzania only a few hundred miles to the north.

The Great Stone Structures at Great Zimbabwe National Monument.

For example, midway through our stay we drove to Great Zimbabwe National Monument, a two hundred-square-mile area of massive stone ruins constructed between the eleventh and fourteenth century, most likely as a royal city by members of the Shona tribe. During the rule of apartheid, Rhodesian schools were not allowed to teach that these magnificent buildings were designed and built by African tribesmen 500 years before the onset of European colonial domination. That knowledge would have contradicted their racist teachings about the cultural and intellectual inferiority of blacks. Paul Sinclair, a senior archeologist at Great Zimbabwe during the time of apartheid, stated:

Censorship of guidebooks, museum displays, school textbooks, radio programs, newspapers and films was a daily occurrence. Once a member of the Museum Board of Trustees threatened me with losing my job if I said publicly that blacks had built Great Zimbabwe. . . . It was the first time since Germany in the thirties that archaeology has been so directly censored.[1]

The Zimbabwe National Flag Containing Bird Head Image From Great Zimbabwe National Monument

Today, the park and its structures, the second largest stone buildings in Africa after the Great Pyramids of Giza, are a source of great pride to Zimbabweans and upon independence in 1980 the country, originally named after Cecil Rhodes, an English businessman, was renamed in honor of this historical site. The national flag (see photo) contains an image of the bird carvings found on the walls and towers of Great Zimbabwe. It is an archeological treasure and one of the few extant examples of ancient African tribal culture on the continent.

The Magnificent Victoria Falls on the Border Between Zimbabwe and Zambia

Ruth and I traveled to the Eastern Highlands on the border with Mozambique to hike in its high mountains and enjoy its copious displays of wildflowers and bird life. Of course we made it to the biggest and most famous tourist attraction in all of Zimbabwe and, indeed, in all of Africa—Victoria Falls. At 360 feet in height and more than a mile in width, it is one of the largest waterfalls on the planet and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. In addition to spectacular views from the unfenced rim of the chasm—feel free to sit and dangle your feet over the edge—there are also heart stopping, Class 5 (expert level, extremely dangerous) whitewater rapids on the Zambezi River to keep you fully entertained and sopping wet.

So even if you have been lucky enough to find that “one perfect Eden,” I invite you to cast your travel net even wider when planning the next working vacation–just as we chose to experience a new African country and culture rather than return to Kenya.  While it is certainly safe, comforting, and enjoyable going back to the same place year after year, witnessing new sights, experiencing new cultures, and meeting new people can be an even more invigorating and stimulating experience.  So, open up that atlas and start searching!

[1]. Julie Frederikse, “Before the war,” in None But Ourselves, Biddy Partridge, photographer (Harare: Oral Traditions Association of Zimbabwe with Anvil Press: 1990) [1982], 10–11.

Damn, These Kids Are Good!

One topic I have studiously avoided is my experience in overseas classrooms. This was a conscious decision as nothing could more quickly dampen enthusiasm for this blog than a few indecipherable pages of computer science minutia–even my wife starts to snooze when I begins waxing rhapsodic about a new assignment in my Data Structures course.   However, there is one misconception I need to raise and quickly put to rest—the quality of students you will encounter in a developing economy such as Zimbabwe (at least when we were there) or an even poorer third-world nation like Kenya.

One would naturally expect outstanding students at a top-tier university in countries like England, Australia, Israel, and Japan. Turkey, a NATO ally, could also rightfully be assumed to have high quality university programs filled with excellent students.   However, many North American and European faculty would shy away from working vacation opportunities in places like Kenya or Zimbabwe assuming, incorrectly, that students will be unprepared, facilities will be prehistoric, and the level of instruction will barely rise above that of grade school.  Let me assure you that this assumption is utterly wrong!

While some of the more costly resources—e.g., scientific equipment, journal collections—are often not at the level of a comparable facility in Europe or the United States, the students in both Kenya and Zimbabwe were uniformly excellent, not just smart but some of the most enthusiastic and hardest working I have had in three decades of teaching, and there is a simple explanation.

Kenya has a population of roughly forty million, with a larger percentage of its citizens of college age (18–25) than the United States. However, the country has only nineteen institutions of higher education, amounting to about one for every two million residents–the equivalent of my home state of Minnesota having only three colleges and universities.  In fact, it has 32!  This relative dearth of tertiary institutions makes admission extremely competitive, so top schools like the University of Nairobi attract the best and brightest students in the country, or at least the best and brightest who do not attend college overseas. The majority of students in my classes at the University of Nairobi and UZ would succeed and, in many cases, flourish, at a good U.S. school.

The Main Gate to the Campus of the University of Nairobi, One of the Finest Schools in East Africa

Furthermore, because they know they are among the lucky few to be granted admission, they are eager to make the most of their good fortune by “pumping” teachers for any and all knowledge they can. This was a pleasant change from jaded students back home who treat classes not as unique learning experiences but as hurdles to get over on their way to a high paying job on Wall Street or Silicon Valley. Some of my most enjoyable times were spent in the school cafeteria or neighborhood coffee house chatting with students who wanted to continue a discussion even though class had long since ended.

I can only assume this scenario would replicate itself in other disciplines as well.  For example, because of a lack of scientific research centers in most developing nations the research centers that do exist will probably employ the very best scientists the country has to offer;  similarly, with so few outlets available for displaying one’s artistic talent, the musicians, painters, and dancers you work with will likely be highly talented individuals.  And, not only will they be bright and talented, they will be eager to join you in the process of studying, learning, and growing.  I found these types of interactions to be professionally exhilarating and rewarding.

So if you are resisting applying for a working vacation in a lesser developed nation because of fears that you will end up in some primitive, backwater institution without qualified students, capable colleagues, or modern facilities, let me put your mind at ease.   While, in most cases, you will not mistake a school, research lab, or cultural center in a developing nation for Oxford, Los Alamos, or the Met, they should provide a reasonably good level of professional interaction, not to mention a unique and thoroughly enjoyable social and cultural experience.

A Witness To History

One of the joys of a working vacation, as described in Getting From Point A to Point B In Style, is the ability to add one or more interesting stops on the way to or from the host country.  After you have agreed to a contract simply ask your hosts for permission to purchase an air ticket that includes a layover in some interesting intermediate city.  Given the amount of money being committed to your visit–transportation, housing, salary–they will often be willing to absorb the insignificant $100 or so that this stop might add to their bottom line.  (This is exactly what happened on my upcoming trip to Kuala Lumpur.  My Malaysian hosts were generous enough to cover the $150 surcharge for adding a three-week stop in Japan on the return trip.)  Even if they do bill you for the layover, the cost will still be far less than purchasing an air ticket from your home to the same destination–just try flying from Minneapolis to Tokyo for $150!

After accepting a three-month teaching offer from the University of Zimbabwe and receiving authorization to purchase my ticket, I booked a flight on TAP, Air Portugal, because I could later rebook at no cost and convert our flight to Zimbabwe into not just a “two-fer,” as I had done on our earlier trip to Istanbul, but a “three-fer” with a three-day layover in Lisbon followed by a six-day stop in Cape Town, South Africa before continuing on to Harare.

We arrived in Cape Town in the late morning after an exhausting eleven-hour flight from Lisbon. Forcing ourselves to stay awake and adjust to local time, we took a leisurely walk around the city ending up at the classic Greek-columned South African Parliament building in Company’s Garden Park, totally unaware that we were about to witness a momentous historical event.

South African Parliament Building in Company's Garden Park, Cape Town

The information booth in the park informed us that the South African Parliament was being called into session in just a few minutes. Thinking this an interesting way to pass some time and stay awake we secured our entry passes and went upstairs to the visitor’s gallery unexpectedly packed with reporters, photographers, and observers. Every seat was taken and there were numerous standees, ourselves included. Was something special happening or do South Africans simply have a greater interest than Americans in the proceedings of their federal legislature? My wife and I once visited the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington DC when it was in session. There were maybe two dozen visitors in the gallery and even fewer legislators seated on the floor.

The audience hushed as President F. W. de Klerk entered the assembly, stepped to the lectern, and began addressing Members of Parliament (MPs) but, unfortunately, in Afrikaans. I thought to myself how sad I would not be able to understand a word he said, but after five minutes he smoothly, and without warning, switched to impeccable Oxfordian English. To our utter amazement, now that we could understand, he announced to everyone seated on the floor and in the visitor’s gallery that his government would, effective immediately, rescind every remaining racial segregation law still in force–he had eliminated some, but not all, apartheid statutes in a speech to the legislature two years earlier.  At that point, the conservative Afrikaner MPs stood up, turned their backs to him, and stormed from the hall as the gallery erupted in cheers and photographers sprang to their feet to snap photos.

Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk Receiving the Nobel Prize in Oslo in December, 1993

What had begun as simply an afternoon stroll to stay awake had ended with our witnessing one of the most significant moments in African history—the official end of apartheid in the Republic of South Africa. Eighteen months after listening to that speech, F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize at a formal ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

Back To Africa

Even though we loved our time in Kenya, since Ruth and I subscribe to the not again school of travel (see Two Schools of Traveling Thought) we really wanted to see another part of this vast continent.  One of the pleasures of a working vacation is being able to pull out the atlas and decide for yourself where to go rather than having that destination be selected for you by a company, funding agency, or professional society.

Our Kenyan friends and colleagues told us that if we enjoyed our three-month stay in East Africa we really should consider a trip to Zimbabwe, the country called Rhodesia until 1980 when it won its independence from Great Britain in a bloody civil war. After reading about its rich culture, natural beauty, and superb historical sites, Ruth and I decided that a working vacation in Zimbabwe would be an excellent way to relive the delights of our Kenyan safari, now many years distant, but with different places to explore and new people to meet.  Not long after sending email inquiring about summer teaching opportunities at the University of Zimbabwe, the best university in the country, I received a reply from Rob Borland, chair of the computer science department, inviting me to teach at UZ during the coming winter quarter–oops I forgot about that Southern Hemisphere thing yet again!

The New Mathematics and Information Technology Building at the University of Zimbabwe

At that time Zimbabwe was the success story of sub-Saharan Africa, and its capital, Harare, was one of the loveliest cities on the continent. This is hard to fathom given conditions there today—famine, cholera, hyperinflation, and civil unrest—all thanks to a once-benevolent president, Robert Mugabe, who devolved into a brutal dictator with a death grip on power and an intolerance of public dissent.  (Conditions are actually much worse. In a recent article in the New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote “If you want to see hell on Earth, go to Zimbabwe where the madman Robert Mugabe has brought the country to such a state of ruin that medical care for most of the inhabitants has ceased to exist.”)

However, in 1992 things were quite different and Harare was a charming city of pedestrian malls, upscale shopping, and outdoor cafes, all frequented by a large, thriving black middle class. With its broad downtown avenues shaded by Jacaranda trees and lined with busy stores, it would be hard for most Americans to believe they were in Africa.  Rather than the images of ramshackle housing and malnourished children that routinely fill our newspapers and airwaves, you would encounter Africans lunching in bistros and driving late-model American and European cars on modern, well paved city streets.  It was a city that, at least in 1992, would utterly shatter your stereotype that all of sub-Saharan Africa looks like a Sally Struthers public service announcement for “Save the Children.”

This shattering of stereotypes  is another important reason to travel, especially to unfamiliar regions and places where your imaginings are far removed from the reality.  For example, a  working vacation in a country like Turkey (or Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Malaysia) will end those misconceptions about Islam and day-to-day life in a modern Muslim society–exactly what happened to my Classics professor friend as described in Official Confirmation.  A long-term stay in a city like Mumbai, Delhi, or Bangalore will certainly change your perception that India has nothing to offer visitors but crowds, poverty, disease, and privation.  The friendliness and warmth of the residents of Nairobi (including those in the slums of Kibera) would go a long way toward ending the misguided view of Africa as nothing but tribal hatreds and violent crime.

So, on May 26th, 1992, Ruth and I set sail from the Minneapolis International Airport for a three-month teaching sojourn in the city of Harare, Zimbabwe but not before making a couple of fascinating stops along the way, in Lisbon, Portugal and Cape Town, South Africa–exactly as detailed in Getting From Point A to Point B in Style.