New dawn in Zimbabwe

A pure stroke of luck finds me in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe at this most historic time. As I write, the reign of the ruthless dictator, Robert Mugabe, is coming to an end.

His image is still everywhere. Whether you’re in the airport, hotel, customs post to Zambia, entrance to the Victoria Falls National Park, or in the waiting area at the tourist helicopter flights, a framed picture of Mugabe is always glaring down at you.

But already, it looks dated. Within days, or weeks, he will surely be gone from most of these locations. Posters and official banners bearing his image are already being torn down across the country.

When he took over, Zimbabwe was seen as the bread basket of Africa. It was rich in tourism, farming, natural resources and relatively stable. Now the only real tourism is here at Victoria Falls, farms are derelict, natural resources plundered or undeveloped and the people are hungry, afraid and downtrodden. There are few animals to be seen anywhere.

Local children celebrating by trying to keep up with the train!

Local children celebrating by trying to keep up with the train!

But what is extraordinary is the instant willingness of Zimbabweans – and I have spoken to as many people as I could from all walks of life in the past 24 hours – to talk about hope and change.

Be it taxi drivers, gift sellers on the side of the road, customs officers, pilots, hotel management, waitresses or people cleaning hotel rooms, they all know exactly what is going on and are ambitious for change. Their ability to articulate their ideas about how the nation might progress, while avoiding violence and repeating the same mistakes is enlightening.  Happy children chased after my train, shouting and laughing, joining in the celebrations of their parents.  

Demonstrations and marches normally irritate others, but yesterday the horns blaring, flags waving and smiling from participants and onlookers was incredible to witness; their optimism was infectious.

One taxi driver told us that the way forward at a time of renewal, change and challenge would be to have a coalition of leaders from different parties, for an interim period until free and fair elections could be held, perhaps in 12-18 months time?

Another message of hope came in the shape of a 20-year-old streetside gift seller, with no parents and one child, who assured us that political change could deliver food and jobs, while simultaneously doing a brilliant job of relieving us of money for his local woodwork.

A quiet village near the jovial city of Bulawayo

A quiet village near the jovial city of Bulawayo

For despite everything that Zimbabwean people have had to put up with, it is obvious that the education system has held up well, that optimistic interest in change is prevalent, and that there are – as yet – few signs of anger or fear or desire for revenge.

There is always a fine balance to be struck, but the UK and the international community must stand ready to offer support and assistance on a rapid, generous basis.

Every effort must be made to prevent a repeat scenario of the one-party state, corruption and dictatorship. This is a country that thrives on peaceful democracy, which should help to ensure that a great, proud African nation can be restored to its rightful place as a beacon of hope, education and attractive investment potential, from which others can learn