On the road in Zimbabwe

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p1100887Tourists and foreigners are often warned about the difficulties of travel in Africa, particularly driving. But is this reputation justified or is it merely foreigners making a fuss, ask Niamh and Giles Sacramento

Africa is perceived to be a continent of corrupt countries. Even David Cameron recently infamously described Nigeria as “fantastically corrupt” when chatting to the Queen. There is no doubt that corruption exists, as it does to some degree in most countries. But how does this actually impact on travel there?

Everyone we met, either driving in Africa now, or who had done in the past, was adamant that corrupt police made driving in Africa a nightmare. If you have ever considered a road trip in Africa but are worried about corruption, please do not let these stories deter you. Our experience was hugely positive. We never once – really, not even once, in eight months of driving in Africa – felt that a bribe was necessary, or even that it was being requested.

Bribery is not something that I agree with, which may seem like an incredibly obvious and unnecessary statement. But having met many travellers who had bribed police along the way, I think it needs to be said. Is offering a bribe morally superior to accepting one?

When we announced our plan (well, plan is a bit grand – ‘loosely formed and poorly thought out idea’ is probably more accurate) to drive around southern Africa, we were warned about corrupt border officials and dishonest traffic police. People regaled us with horror stories that they or their friends/family/colleagues/guy they met in the pub, had experienced. Travellers we met on the road would exchange glances knowingly and explain how to deal with these ‘hassles’. Even ‘old hands’ advised us to keep small denomination notes at hand in the car and advised us on techniques to bribe discreetly – “slip the US$10 bill in with your licence”.

Zimbabwe was the most often (and I would argue, unfairly) cited country. It was not unusual for us to meet people who had decided to avoid driving through Zimbabwe based on these negative reports. What a shame! They really missed out on a beautiful country.

 

Top tips for driving in Zimbabwe

  • Always be respectful. It seems obvious but it may not be to some. In bars or around the campfire, travellers openly (and sometimes proudly) admitted to losing their tempers at roadblocks. I’ve never been to any country where it was wise to be disrespectful towards the police. North of Harare, we watched a woman yell at the police out her car window and then drive off in a cloud of dust. Admittedly, I don’t know the circumstances that preceded this but it wouldn’t be acceptable in the UK. Why do it in Zimbabwe?
  • In every country that you visit, make an effort to speak the local language. Often, our attempts didn’t progress further than a few basic phrases, probably with terrible pronunciation. In Zimbabwe, we mumbled in Shona and Ndebele. Our attempts were met with an indulgent smile or full-on belly laugh. Either way, the police encouraged us and appreciated our humble efforts. All of our encounters with the police were friendly and pleasant.
  • Ensure that the car complies with road regulations. Again, obvious. But many people complained to us that they were fined for not having a fire extinguisher or warning triangles. It’s not a secret that the law requires them. Make your life easy by obeying the road law, as you would at home.
  • Acknowledge that sometimes, you may be in the wrong. After a few days on safari in Mana Pools, our filthy car was caked in mud, which I liked to think of as a wilderness badge of honour. The police did not agree. Apparently, you are required by law to have a clean car and can be fined for a dirty one. I genuinely did not know this. The friendly policeman accepted our plea of ignorance, waived the fine (without ever suggesting a bribe) and warned us to wash the car in Harare. Another obvious statement: if you’re in the wrong, apologise.
  • Be patient. Having lived, worked and travelled in Africa, I have learnt the art of patience. I accept that it’s harder to master if you’re on a two-week holiday when every minute counts or your daily working life is affected.
  • Think of it as an opportunity rather than an inconvenience. It’s not very exciting work for the police and they often seem (understandably) bored. Sometimes they like to break the monotony by chatting to you, and using this opportunity to hear about your travels and your home country. This is also your chance to talk to a local person and to learn about their life, or at least about the nearby tourist attractions. Instead of viewing the roadblocks as a hassle, appreciate the quick chat and friendly smiles. You can choose to become frustrated every 40km or enjoy the experience – it’s up to you.
  • In summary, exercise good manners and obey the law. Simple.
  • Finally, I can’t guarantee that you won’t come across corrupt officials in Zimbabwe. Maybe we were just lucky. All I can offer is my personal experience of driving and interacting with police here. Hopefully, it will encourage you to get on the road!
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