Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

January 24, 2004 Liberty

Liberty met me at the airport in Harare. Not freedom or the Liberty Bell – Liberty is an ecologist at the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. Zimbabweans have wonderful names – Liberty, Mercy, Edson, Ebbias, Isaac, Lovemore, Emmanuel, Beauty, Purity, Enock. It’s a jumble of Victorian England’s religion and pious values, retained to name Zimbabwean children one hundred and fifty years later.

Liberty was stuck playing chauffeur to me. I asked in jest if that was because he was the youngest of the lot. His colleagues – indeed, his boss – said no, it was because he had the most energy. I can believe it. I can’t say as I blame the Parks staff for their lack of energy – they are an unimportant agency in a non-functional government with little money and too small a team to do what needs to be done. The plantations have been given to Mugabe’s supporters, ruining the country’s agriculture. Why should they not expect the same to happen to the national parks – even though the land wouldn’t show a profit on anything more than the wildlife who were born there and didn’t have to be bought and paid for? Rumor has it, after all, that all the wildlife has been shot by poachers so the land is already cleared. Rumor even whispers that the government is supplying the black market with ivory, that the parks are no longer burdened with an overpopulation of elephants. The whispers could be false, of course, but who wouldn’t be discouraged? The Parks staff certainly couldn’t stop it if it were happening. They are underpaid, with inflation above 500% a year. The Zimbabwe dollar is grossly overvalued, they can’t even get foreign exchange to meet with their counterparts from Mozambique and South Africa. Why should they be motivated to make anything happen?

Liberty is a thin wiry fellow, articulate and thoughtful. We talked a lot, as he drove me from place to place around Harare. When he’s not at Parks, he’s a radio announcer, hosting a show on Zimbabwe’s environment and wildlife, trying to help people see this as part of their heritage, not something to eat up, clear out, and replace. His wife is a teacher, they have a four-year-old daughter. They are just the kind of people Zimbabwe needs – educated, committed, eager to create and build. But Liberty is too young for Zimbabwe, where the only option is to give up in cynicism and bide one’s time until the old man goes – to death, or to a golden retirement with the rest of them, Mobuto Sese Seko, and Charles Taylor, and Papa Doc Duvalier, and Idi Amin. Liberty envies South Africa the wisdom of Mandela, stepping down before anyone was ready for him to go. Everyone in Zimbabwe shares that envy, maybe everyone in Africa. Politicians in Zimbabwe aren’t serious about the country. They want power and don’t care what they destroy to get it.

Liberty has applied for the new post of marketing director in the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. Maybe he’ll get it. But if he doesn’t, he wants a job in South Africa. South Africa is the promised land to Zimbabweans, a land where people are paid ten times as much and business works and everything doesn’t depend on money from foreign donors who aren’t willing to share a penny with the old man. Who would have guessed, fifteen years ago when apartheid was still in full swing, that so soon the black South Africans would be envied by their neighbors for having opportunity, in a country with enough money that it might be able to actually get out of its past?

For Liberty’s sake, I hope he finds a job in South Africa and eventually can build the ecotourism consulting business he dreams of. For Zimbabwe’s sake, though, I hope he becomes marketing director and can stand to stick it out until the old man is gone. Maybe then, if everyone is very lucky, the country will have an effective transition to a better government, maybe the tourists will return, maybe the donors will bring back their funds, the currency will regain its value, the inflation will drop, the salaries will rise, even the foreign journalists will be allowed back and the country will once again be the breadbasket of southern Africa. It’s an awful lot of maybes. I don’t blame Liberty and his wife for preferring to raise their daughter in South Africa.

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