Africa, the first time. Passports are important things.

You learn a lot from travel, not always the obvious things about culture, diversity, language and stuff.

My first trip to Africa taught me that you really should keep your passport up to date. Especially if you have ‘journalist’ as your occupation (when you’re not any more) and you’re visiting a place that’s recently been a battleground.

The year – cringe, was it really that long ago – was 1982. The place, Zimbabwe.  Quite exciting times. Salisbury had just become Harare, Que Que had just become Kwe Kwe and Bulawayo – well, it was still Bulawayo.

I arrived (with said passport stating ‘journalist’) and was told I had to report to the Ministry of Information. Given I was visiting Philips’ operation there I wasn’t too worried – after all, with a massive international business behind me (gulp) there would be a fuss if anything went wrong.

And the most they were likely to do was throw me out, right?

So, I went to the Ministry and queued behind a handful of ‘real’ journalists.

The windows were criss-crossed with brown tape. It took me a moment to realise that it was not there for decoration. I’d become used to the billowing ‘net’ curtains in London that were supposedly there to catch glass fragments in event of a bomb blast, but sticky tape? I am not, despite my great age, a war child, I never saw the windows of the blitz years, though now I have seen pictures.

It went off uneventfully. I left with a permit. A bit of a disappointment? No, thank you, quite a relief.

Thanks to my employer I was privileged to be staying in the Meikles Hotel. What a sophisticated place! I felt as if I was in a movie from 1950s America. Cosmopolitan, smart, modernist. Such good service, such good food, such a pleasant room.

By way of contrast, my first visit to an African factory was an eye-opener. I guess the voluptuous, shiny vehicles on the road should have been a clue. If the hotel was a little like the ’50s the cars were a lot. Beautiful.

Through years of sanctions under Ian Smith (following his Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain) Rhodesia (as it then was) had become used to making do and mending. Deprived of modern goods people kept the old beautifully. Of necessity.

Telecommunications technology was also a time-travel experience. No semi-conductor production lines with people in hairnets here. No, it was wiring diagrams on the wall, copper cables in coloured plastic.

And the people. Black or white, white or black, people were friendly and optimistic. To me, to my face, anyway.  One of the white folks who showed me around wanted to start a shrimp farm. I wonder if she ever did and if so – well, maybe best not go there.

My final treat was a trip to the big commercial show of the year. Like one of our annual agricultural shows but with a big audience seated around a show-ground. A visit from the Air Force was one of the turns of the day. It was a helicopter.

I’m sad to say that despite sanctions, despite war, despite everything, my first trip to Zimbabwe set me up with expectations that my first trip to Zambia dashed. But then, three days in Harare was hardly preparation for a visit to Mumbwa Caves . . . Of which, more, next time.


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