The day I cheered Robert Mugabe

It was around January 1982. I had gone to Zimbabwe in 1981 to help the company I was working for, Memory Ireland, to establish a branch there. Memory was a fast growing Irish computer company. I was a software developer. They had a director who had been raised in Rhodesia. When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in 1980, Memory thought it would be a good base from which to expand sales into developing African economies. Their intentions were not philanthropic. Memory was an entrepreneurial company in the worst sense of the word.

So I put my hand up for a four-month stint in the recently independent Zimbabwe. In my early days in Zimbabwe, I stayed in various house-shares and house-sits. I recall this particular time doing a house-sit for a bloke called Derek Bardot. I remember the name, of course, because of the beautiful actor of the same surname. I also recall that the house came with a cook and a gardener, whose names, I think, were Stephen and Crispin. Stephen and Crispin lived in breeze-block structures at the bottom of the garden, the other side of the swimming pool. I was curious about everything in this exotic country. I was in my late twenties. I was idealistic. I was socialist. I was vehemently anti-apartheid. I was unsure about having a cook and a gardener dedicated to looking after me. I fraternised with them, which was frowned on by the white “Rhodies”, as the remaining whites in Zimbabwe were called.

One Sunday morning, Stephen and Crispin were dressed in street clothes, as opposed to their uniforms (Stephen usually wore a white cook’s outfit, Crispin a green gardener’s outfit). I asked them what was happening and they informed me they were going to a ZANU-PF rally at nearby Borrowdale, where Mugabe would be speaking. I asked them if I could come and they were unsure, but when I said I’d drive them there, they agreed. First we drove to Borrowdale shopping centre to a cafe and drank Cokes from the old-fashioned curly glass bottles. I remember I played them at table football, which I used to be pretty good at. I won, several times, to the great amusement of the assembled African onlookers. This was a cafe not frequented by Rhodies.

Then we went to Borrowdale, to a “vlei”, an open, grass area  that can turn marshy in the wet, but was dry and flat at this time. A large crowd had already assembled. There might have been a few other whites there but I don’t recall seeing any. The ZANU  Youth arrived, running from one side in a phalanx, with flags flying (picture below). A ZANU  official was rousing the crowd with some oratory in Shona, of which I only understood the odd word, such as “victory”, “people” and “ZANU”.

I don’t remember how Mugabe arrived, but in those days he always travelled in a large black limousine, preceded and followed by armed soldiers and police outriders, sirens blaring. You got off the road in a hurry if you saw one of these motorcades coming. He must have been delivered to the back of the stage directly from his limo.

In the picture above, which I took from within the crowd, Mugabe is seated on the wooden stage. I’ve put an arrow over his head. I’m not sure who the crowd warmer-upper is, but it would have been a senior ZANU official. I recall Mugabe speaking. He was, is an orator. He is a highly educated, intelligent man, an ex-teacher. Like Nelson Mandela, he languished in prison for years as punishment for resisting white oppression. Like Mandela he spent that time furthering his education, burnishing his political ideas, gaining several university degrees by correspondence.

Mugabe knew how to get a crowd going. He spoke only in Shona, so I’ve no idea what he said, but he soon had the crowd shouting “Pamberi, Pamberi” (forward, forward) in unison, fists pumping the air. It was an impressive performance, and I have to admit, that with Crispin and Stephen’s encouragement, I joined in with the fist pumping and slogan-shouting.

This was early in Mugabe’s reign. He was Prime-Minister in those days. Canaan Banana was President (yes, really, it was President Banana). Mugabe had some similarities to Mandela. He said that he wanted to retain white expertise to keep the economy strong. He said he wanted to improve the lot of the masses of poor Zimbabweans. He was strongly committed to improving the education system. Even now, Zimbabwe has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa.

In those days, the Zimbabwe dollar was worth about one U.S. dollar or about 75 pence. Now it is a joke currency, which you can’t exchange for anything.  Theoretically you need 363 Zimbabwe dollars to buy US$1, but I’d be surprised if you found any takers.

Mugabe still had a war mindset in those days, was obsessed with the threats from his perceived enemies, especially Joshua Nkomo and the murky, capitalist foreign governments that he was convinced were trying to undermine Zimbabwe. There were signs then of his ruthlessness. I recall nurses going on strike for better wages and conditions. He sent his ZANU  Youth (think Hitler Youth), to round them up on the backs of trucks, take them to remote camps and ‘re-educate’ them.

I don’t think Mugabe ever got out of this liberation war mindset. I doubt if his successor, Mnangagwa, has got out of it either. If you weren’t involved in the great struggle against the whites in the war, if you are not a veteran, then you have not earned a stake in the new Zimbabwe. If you are not for us, you are against us. This constant battle against perceived enemies, internal and external, is prioritised over any concern for developing the economy or providing decent housing and infrastructure for the people. It also comes with a sense of entitlement, which is used to justify diverting millions and millions of dollars into their off-shore bank accounts (allegedly).

My four-month stint eventually turned into four years in Zimbabwe and Malawi. I ended up as General Manager of the Zimbabwe company, but work permits were becoming harder and harder to renew and foreign currency had all but dried up. Memory’s few business ethics were being further eroded. Mugabe was showing his true colours. I got out in 1985 and returned to Ireland, where the economy had nose-dived and Memory was rapidly going bust.

A few years ago, when he was apparently on his death-bed, I wrote a poem about him, “Robert Mugabe’s Last Words“. No doubt he’ll die in some luxurious foreign hospital in one of those countries where deposed dictators go to die. I’m still waiting to hear his last words, but don’t expect them to include “sorry” or “I fucked up didn’t I?”

 

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017
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In Vietnam : The Market Divided

 

It took me a few weeks of living in this area of Đà Nẵng to discover the Bắc Mỹ An Market. Previously I’d bought fruit and vegetables at the supermarket, where an assistant weighs your produce on a digital scale, presses a button on a computer to calculate the cost, puts it into the inevitable plastic bag and slaps the computer generated sticky price label on it. No doubt about the price, it’s whatever appears on the label.

The Bắc Mỹ An is mostly a tourist and expat free zone. The stall holders speak little or no English. There are no computers or even cash tills. They keep their cash in a bag or purse. They have old-fashioned mechanical scales. Prices per kilogram or per piece are sometimes shown on pieces of cardboard, sometimes not. It’s very useful to know the basic Vietnamese numbers so that you can understand what they’re asking you to pay, decide if it’s reasonable or not, and hand over the correct amount of dong.

I was, and still am, a bit trepidatious about the market. It’s common knowledge that tourists and expats will usually be charged more than locals in markets. I don’t mind that as long as it’s not outrageously more than the local price. But the interesting thing I’ve noticed in Bac My An is that the stall holders at one end of the market, the eastern end, are almost uniformly pleasant, smiling and charge me pretty close to what they probably charge the locals (ok, call me naive). I can’t prove that, without recruiting a local to go around and buy the same as me, and compare prices, but I always feel that the price is very reasonable. However, at the western end of the market the stall holders seem intent on trying to gouge a lot more out of me for the same produce. I stress that this is just my impression, based on a small number of visits and interactions.

Today, at the east end of the market, I bought a hand of bananas (15,000 dong, about A$1), two dragon fruit (25,000 dong, about A$1.50), two mangoes (20,000 dong, about A$1.25), four potatoes and 5 tomatoes (25,000 dong, about A$1.50). All with very pleasant interactions and a few giggles as I tried to slowly translate “hai mươi lăm” and “mười lăm” (25 and 15 respectively, which means the price is 25,000 and 15,000 dong). I’m sure a longer term, more street savvy resident could have got the prices down, and a Vietnamese person would pay less again. I don’t bother to haggle, though I have given the bag back and walked away when I thought the price was outrageous.  To me, the prices I paid today are still bloody cheap, and I’m more than happy to keep buying from those stalls.

A number of times I’ve mistakenly given the stall holder way too much – for instance a 100,000 note thinking it was a 10,000 note – and they’ve given it straight back, pointing out my mistake. Mind you, there could have been times when they kept it and I was none-the-wiser, but I don’t think so.

At the other end of the market, I’ve been charged more than twice as much for dragon fruit, and three times as much for mangoes. I sense, perhaps incorrectly, that there is a more predatory attitude – a sort of “here’s a mark, here’s my chance to make a bit of easy money out of him”. In the overall scheme of things, it’s still petty cash to me, but significant to them, so I can’t blame them for trying. But the end result is that I don’t go back to the west-enders, and I continue to patronise the east-enders. It’s just a more relaxed, pleasant experience.

If my observations are accurate, I wonder how the different cultures developed in this one, smallish market. Do “honest” stall holders tend to hang out together, set up stall next to like-minded people? Do they berate “mean” vendors and banish them to the other end of the market?

On a macro-level, Đà Nẵng people seem to generally be pleasant, friendly and welcoming to foreigners. Friends who have lived in another Vietnamese city, which I won’t name, tell me that people there seem to be mean-spirited, hostile to foreigners and to resent their presence. How does this happen? I have sensed this in other countries too. You can arrive in a town and get a feeling about it – comfortable, uncomfortable, mean, friendly, hospitable, cold, safe, unsafe. This might be down to your first few interactions with people, and, no-doubt, two people can react in completely opposite ways to the same place. I know lots of people who like Melbourne for instance, but whenever I go there I have a sense of dislocation; there’s something about the place, the people, the culture of the city that just always makes me feel out-of-place. I have cycled a fairly short distance between towns in Cuba and sensed entirely different atmospheres. There are towns in Ireland that feel mean and cold, and others that feel warm and friendly, to me at least.

I’m very happy to have discovered the lovely people at the east-end of Bắc Mỹ An, and to be in a city where the atmosphere is one of openness and welcome, rather than suspicion and hostility.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017

Book Review: Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Nora WebsterNora Webster by Colm Tóibín
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Colm Tóibín writes mesmerically. That is the effect he has on me anyway. His prose is so effortless that it carries me along as if I am in a trance, from the beginning to the end of his novels.

In one sense, not much happens in this story. The major event, the death of Nora Webster’s husband has already occurred when the book opens. The novel is taken up by her slow journey through grief over the next three or four years. But Tóibín’s achievement is to take us deep into the mind of the grieving Nora Webster, to show us how every minute of her day, her every reaction to the parochial world of rural Ireland, is consumed by grief. This may sound dark, but there is a lot of humour in this novel. Tóibín takes us, as he always does, into the claustrophobic, incestuous, church dominated, busy-body world of Ireland in the early 1970s.

Nora has to deal also with the grief of her children, especially her two young boys. Her two girls, who are in their teens, appear more self-sufficient and self-centred. She has to deal with the loss of her husband’s physical and emotional presence, his fathering of the children, his income and then the stream of well-meaning or just plain nosy townspeople constantly knocking on her door. At the same time, Tóibín shows us the warmth and good-heartedness of many in Nora’s community. She is forced to drop her pride and accept the help offered and slowly to assert herself and take control of her life again. She also opens up to friendship with people she had formerly resisted.

From my perspective, Tóibín appears to have brilliantly delved into the mind of a grieving widow. I would be interested to hear from women who have read this book, to see if they agree.

View all my reviews

In Vietnam: APEC Upheaval

APEC 2017 has finally descended on  Đà Nẵng. Well it’s been descending for weeks, with never-ending motorcades, police motorcycle outriders and blaring sirens hooning up and down the beach road near where I live. Trump, Merkel, Putin and others are about to, or have arrived and will be staying in the most upmarket of hotels and resorts. Unfortunately, the city has been hit by a typhoon in the last week, and is not looking its best. The efforts of the city elders to install new toilets and rubbish bins, to screen off unsightly wasteland, and to generally spruce up the city, have largely been undone by days of damaging winds, torrential rain and high tides.

The schools are closed for the next two days (Friday and Saturday 10th and 11th November 2017) in honour of APEC. Tonight was to be my last class until Sunday, but I didn’t make it into the city, because the authorities decided to close the three main bridges over the Han River during rush hour, presumably to allow APEC limousines to carry their precious cargo to their plush hotels without having to wrestle with Đà Nẵng traffic. After an hour or so scooting back and forth. along with thousands and thousands of other confused  Đà Nẵngians, trying to find a way across, I eventually gave up and went home. But I can now look forward to 4 of the next 5 days off and hopefully a return to normality next week.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017

In Vietnam: The Pharmacy – Nhà thuốc

There are pharmacies on most busy streets in Vietnamese cities, sometimes several. They are usually small shop fronts with a counter or window opening straight onto the street. Unusually for Vietnam, they usually have a small number of staff on duty. I say unusually, because most shops have numerous staff. A smallish bakery might have half a dozen staff serving. Pharmacies tend to have one person in a white coat and one assistant. Customers will sometimes ride straight up to the window on their motorbikes.

I was once waiting to be served in Ho Chi Minh City, when a guy on a motorbike pulled up right in front of me (queuing is not a custom in Vietnam), and asked for one condom. The girl behind the counter duly got out a packet of three, opened them up, tore off one condom from the strip, and served it to him. As a friend of mine said “not a long-term relationship then”.

The same applies to other products. You can buy a strip of paracetamol instead of the whole packet, or you can buy x days supply. They are happy to cut off the required number of pills from the blister pack or count out loose pills from a bottle.

Anyone can buy antibiotics or other medications without a prescription at these Nhà thuốc.  Vietnamese public hospitals are overcrowded and of questionable quality. Vietnamese people tend to self-diagnose and self-prescribe, and often they will self-prescribe antibiotics. I recently went to a Nhà thuốc because I had a cold and wanted something to relieve my sinus congestion and sore throat. The first question was “do you want some antibiotics?”. Unsurprisingly,  Vietnam has a very high incidence of antibiotic-resistant infections.

The white coated staff members may or may not have some sort of qualification. I’m guessing  most do not. They are, however, almost always helpful and attentive, and will do their best to find what you are looking for or an equivalent. Google searches have been done almost every time I’ve called in. The range of drugs available is limited however. There are some drugs I have prescriptions for from Australia, that I can’t get here.

Everything is securely locked in glass cabinets, probably to prevent theft. This can mean, for non-Vietnamese speakers like me, a lengthy process of pointing to various packs on shelves “no up, left, down, right, yes that one” in order to retrieve something that may or may not be what you are looking for.

Apparently each pharmacy has to be registered to a qualified pharmacist, but there is no requirement for the staff to be qualified. The white coat probably means little. If you’re worried about drug interactions or correct dosage, you’d better check that yourself.

The pictures here are a couple of typical pharmacies, close to where I live in Danang

 

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017