In a week of surreptitious reporting here (committing journalism can be a criminal offense in Zimbabwe), ordinary people said time and again that life had been better under the old, racist, white regime of what was then called Rhodesia.
“When the country changed from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, we were very excited,” one man, Kizita, told me in a village of mud-walled huts near this town in western Zimbabwe. “But we didn’t realize the ones we chased away were better and the ones we put in power would oppress us.”
“It would have been better if whites had continued to rule because the money would have continued to come,” added a neighbor, a 58-year-old farmer named Isaac. “It was better under Rhodesia. Then we could get jobs. Things were cheaper in stores. Now we have no money, no food.”
Over and over, I cringed as I heard Africans wax nostalgic about a nasty, oppressive regime run by a tiny white elite. Black Zimbabweans responded that at least that regime was more competent than today’s nasty, oppressive regime run by the tiny black elite that surrounds Mr. Mugabe.
A Times colleague, Barry Bearak, was jailed here in 2008 for reporting, so I used a fresh passport to enter the country as a tourist. Partly for my own safety, I avoided interviewing people with ties to the government, so I can’t be sure that my glimpse of the public mood was representative.
People I talked to were terrified for their personal safety if quoted — much more scared than in the past. That’s why I’m being vague about locations and agreed to omit full names.
But what is clear is that Zimbabwe has come very far downhill over the last few decades (although it has risen a bit since its trough two years ago). An impressive health and education system is in tatters, and life expectancy has tumbled from about 60 years in 1990 to somewhere between 36 and 44, depending on which statistics you believe.
Western countries have made the mistake of focusing their denunciations on the seizures of white farms by Mr. Mugabe’s cronies. That’s tribalism by whites; by far the greatest suffering has been endured by Zimbabwe’s blacks.
In Kizita’s village, for example, I met a 29-year-old woman, seven months pregnant, who had malaria. She and her husband had walked more than four miles to the nearest clinic, where she tested positive for malaria. But the clinic refused to give her some life-saving antimalaria medicine unless she paid $2 — and she had no money at all in her house. So, dizzy and feverish, she stumbled home for another four miles, empty-handed.
As it happened, the clinic that turned her down was one that I had already visited. Nurses there had complained that they were desperately short of bandages, antibiotics and beds. They said that to survive, they impose fees for seeing patients, for family planning, for safe childbirth — and the upshot is that impoverished villagers die because they can’t pay.
I also spent time at an elementary school where the number of students had dropped sharply because so few parents today can afford $36 in annual school fees.
“We don’t have desks. We don’t have chairs. We don’t have books,” explained the principal, who was terrified of being named. The school also lacks electricity and water, and the first grade doesn’t have a classroom and meets under a tree.
This particular school had been founded by Rhodesians more than 70 years ago, and the principal mused that it must have served black pupils far better in Rhodesian days than today.
At another school 100 miles away, the deputy headmaster lamented that students can’t even afford pens. “One child has to finish his work, and then he lends his pen to another child,” he explained.
Zimbabwe is one of my favorite countries, blessed with friendly people, extraordinary wildlife and little crime. I took my family along with me on this trip (my kids accuse me of using them as camouflage), and they found the scenery, people and wild animals quite magical.
At a couple of villages we visited, farmers were driving away elephants that were trampling their crops — and they were blaming Mr. Mugabe for the elephants. That struck even me as unfair.
The tragedy that has unfolded here can be reversed if Mr. Mugabe is obliged by international pressure, particularly from South Africa, to hold free elections. Worldwide pressure forced the oppressive Rhodesian regime to give up power three decades ago. Now we need similar pressure, from African countries as well as Western powers, to pry Mr. Mugabe’s fingers from his chokehold on a lovely country.