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Musings on Zim

Posted by on November 3, 2011

Today was Halloween although I didn’t see anyone dressed up and no children came trick or treating. It would be very hard to trick or treat in most neighborhoods due all of the gates and walls with electrified fences or shards of broken glass glued to the top of the wall. I don’t think it’s a big holiday here.

Since not much of note happened today, I thought I would describe a bit more about the culture and people here.

First, I like the women’s dress code here much better than in Zanzibar! In Zanzibar, all women wear headscarves (it’s a Muslim nation) and a lot wear the burrqua in public. Although no one expects a white woman to do that, wearing a tank top or shorts was frowned upon. However, in Zimbabwe women dress very similarly to women in the US: dresses, tank tops, shorts, skirts, pants, etc. This was not always the case though. Salome tells me that in the early 1980s the only women to wear trousers (pants) were prostitutes and a few college women. When the country became independent that changed and now women wear whatever they want, although in general I would say the ones with jobs dress nicer than women in the US; jeans are not very common here. Men typically wear dress pants and shirt and sometimes a jacket and tie. The ties are pretty funny looking because they are *much* shorter than the ones in the US. They are almost ridiculously short.

The people here also have the best names ever! Some of my favorites so far:
Lovemore (male name)
Tsitsi (female name)

There are very few white people here. On a typical day I might see 3 others so I stand out like a sore thumb. People tell me they exist but I think they just stay in their own areas and that’s not where I am.

Oh, and I saw an albino today! She had the facial features of an African, but had whiter skin than me and had blond hair (under a hat).

There is crazy class hierarchy here as well. Somehow people know their social status and do not go beyond that circle. For instance, last week when John was here and we went for free lunch, John and I thought to sit next to the professors whom we had been working with and later on Salome (who has a Master’s degree and 10 years of experience) told us she would never think to sit at that table because the professors were much above her. Since hearing that I’ve noticed similar situations quite often. And sadly (or fortunately) for me, I am accorded a higher place in the social standing because of my skin. Salome says that people on the street treat her differently when I am walking with her. That dates back to colonial times for sure, but it is certainly not right.

On a different note, Zimbabwe adopted the US dollar as its currency a few years ago. However, when they did that, they only adopted the paper money and not the coins. This is quite often frustrating because it makes it extremely difficult to get changed when you purchase anything that is not a flat dollar value. For instance, at the grocery store you bill will often end with some change. Instead of giving you that change, the cashier asks you to buy something else that will bring the value of your purchase up to the next dollar or they will give you the change in candy or pens. If you are lucky, you might get South African Rand back (at a bad exchange rate) or might get phone airtime but neither of those is guaranteed. Also, you need a lot of small bills because God help you if you try to use a twenty to pay for something that’s $3! Oh, and the bills are crumpled and disgusting, having passed through too many hands while still being in circulation. And don’t even think about using a credit card here unless you are in a major hotel (so much for the cashless society, Jacob!)

I think there are more cell phones here than in America. Everyone has a cell phone and most people have two: one for each of the major networks so you can always be “in network” which makes calls cheaper. Everyone uses the prepaid vouchers that you can buy anywhere on the street and since the plans charge by the second, there’s a crazy system of dialing and hanging up before someone answers that I don’t quite understand yet. People also hang up on someone who’s calling only to return their call immediately to save the other person airtime. It’s quite complicated.

There’s no McDonald’s here, although there is Coca-Cola (that’s ubiquitous). But don’t worry: there are plenty of other fast food restaurants here to clog your arteries! I’ve already mentioned the lack of good produce so I won’t go into that again.

And good luck when you’re sick. Drugs to treat TB and HIV are free to everyone, but cause they are donated by the US and European countries but if you get sick in any other way, it can be quite disastrous. Some companies offer insurance which covers 50-100% of your doctor bill, but 90% of people are unemployed here so they have no insurance. If you fall into that 90% and you get sick, the doctors/nurses will often ask for the money for a procedure *before* they begin it (like an X-ray or EKG). I’m pretty sure they would treat you before paying if you were dying but I’m not totally convinced of it yet.

That’s all I can think of for now, but I’m sure I’ll have more things in the future. Oh, one last thing is that in the ladies bathroom in my office there are 3 sinks and whenever you turn one of them on, they all turn on! How’s that for saving water.

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