My Working World: H is for…
It’s on days like today I realise how big the world is, how long the alphabet is – and how little I’ve seen of either, despite travelling on business for more than twenty five years. We’ve reached H, which I thought was going to be an easy one. But obviously not. Of the four countries listed, I have only visited one, or two if you count The Holy See, but I want to keep that back for I or R. Wikipedia lists 177 cities of 100,000 inhabitants or more. Many of them are in Japan, where I have never been; one is Helsinki, but that was only a case of touching down at the airport and taking off again. So that leaves me with just one. But luckily, it’s a fascinating one.
I first visited Zimbabwe back in 1991. It was my first trip to Africa – because I don’t think a disastrous holiday in Tunisia in the 1970s counts – and I flew into Harare on a flight from Johannesburg. And to put it into context, we need to review the political situation in southern Africa at that time. South Africa was still operating the Apartheid system. I had not enjoyed my first visit to that country at all, finding the divisions in society uncomfortable and the atmosphere understandably tense. Zimbabwe was very different: it had moved away from the tension and unrest of the 1980s and one year after the election of Robert Mugabe to the role of President, it was enjoying a period of peace and hopefulness that gave no hint of the terrible future awaiting.
When I asked the wife of an ex-pat manager working in the factory I was auditing whether she was worried about her children growing up there, she looked quite offended. “Why would I worry?” she asked. “It’s safe and peaceful now and at least I won’t have to worry about drugs and violence like you do back in Europe.” I often wonder about that family and how life turned out for them in the end.
1990s Zimbabwe reminded me of 1950s Britain – except it was much warmer! Everyone was friendly and I was made to feel very welcome. The factory was small and relatively undeveloped, but as it was operating under licence to my multinational employer, it had good systems in place and there were no concerns about the quality of the drugs being produced. They also had the advantage that the local regulators had been trained by the South Africans, who were at the time the toughest act in the continent. So we were happy that the company was being well-controlled and monitored.
The first thing I did when I got back to UK was plan to return to Zimbabwe on holiday. And later that year, Michael and I stood at the window of our hotel in Harare gazing down at the jacaranda blossom along the street, at the start of a memorable three weeks travelling around the country – a trip which regretfully I am never likely to be able to repeat.
I returned to Harare several times over the next few years. And each time, it was obvious the situation was deteriorating and hope was fading. On 19th March 2002, Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth due to electoral irregularities. That happened to be the day I landed in Harare on what was to be my final visit. In my pocket I had a letter explaining I was working on behalf of the Commonwealth Secretariat and should be given whatever help I required. Needless to say, that letter never saw the light of day!