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Young superheroes living in a hut

VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe — Why is Africa poor?

Is it a legacy of colonial exploitation? Tropical diseases and parasites? Or is it that local mammals, like the zebra and the African elephant, were difficult to domesticate and harness in agriculture?

There's truth in each of these explanations. But a visit to Zimbabwe highlights perhaps the main reason: bad governance. The tyrannical, incompetent and corrupt rule of Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, has turned one of Africa's most advanced countries into a shambles.

In a village less than a day's drive from Victoria Falls, I stumbled across a hut that to me captured the country's heartbreak — and also its resilience and hope. The only people living in the hut are five children, orphans from two families. The kids, ages 8 to 17, moved in together after their four parents died of AIDS and other causes.

The head of the household is the oldest boy, Abel, a gangly 10th-grader with a perpetual grin. He has been in charge since he was 15.

At one time, the two families reflected Zimbabwe's relative prosperity. One mother was a businesswoman who traveled abroad regularly. A solar panel that she brought back from Zambia lies in the courtyard.

One of the fathers was a soccer coach who named his son Diego Maradona. Diego may have inherited some of his father's talent, but he has no soccer ball and no soccer shoes — indeed, no shoes at all. And here, as in much of Zimbabwe, a once-impressive system of schools and clinics has pretty much collapsed, along with tourism, agricultural production and the economy itself.

The household stirs to life each morning when Abel rises at 4 a.m. and sets off barefoot on a 9-mile hike to the nearest high school. He has no watch or clock, so he judges the time from the sun, knowing that it will take three hours to get to school.

Abel and the other children have no money to pay school fees or buy notebooks. But the teachers allow them to attend class anyway, because they are brilliant students who earn top grades. They're a reminder that talent is universal, although opportunity is not.

After Abel leaves for school, responsibility shifts to Diego Maradona, who is 11. He wakes the three younger children, feeds them cold cornmeal mush left over from the previous night's dinner, and walks with them to the elementary school they all attend a few miles away.

When Diego and the younger children return in the afternoon, they gather firewood, fetch water, tend the chickens and sometimes search for edible wild plants. Abel returns by about 7 p.m. and cooks more cornmeal mush for dinner. He dispenses orders and affection, nurses the younger ones when they are sick, comforts them when they miss their parents, spanks them when they are naughty, coaches them with their schoolwork, begs food from neighbors, fixes the thatch roof when it leaks, and rules the household with tenderness and efficiency.

Abel's goal is to graduate from high school and become a policeman, because the job will provide a steady salary to support his siblings. He does not know how he will come up with the modest fees to take graduation exams.

I asked Abel what he dreams of. "A bicycle," he said. Then he would be able to get home from school more quickly and manage the household better.

"Life was a lot better when I was younger," he said, a bit wistfully. "From what my parents used to tell me, life was a lot better under white rule. There was a lot more food and clothes, and you could afford to buy things." But Abel insisted that he was optimistic that life would eventually get better again.

Westerners sometimes think that Africa's problem is a lack of initiative or hard work. Nobody could think that after talking to Abel and Diego Maradona — or so many other Zimbabweans who display a resilience and courage that left me inspired.

I found Zimbabwean superheroes like Abel often in my week of surreptitious reporting in Zimbabwe. (Mugabe subjects journalists to imprisonment, so it seemed best not to advertise my presence.) Parents sacrifice meals to keep their children in wretched schools (one teacher showed me his two textbooks for a class of 50). And a growing number of Zimbabweans risk crocodiles, drowning and violence to sneak into South Africa in search of work.

So Zimbabwe's tragedy isn't its people, but its leader. Likewise, Africa's failure has been, above all, one of leadership. It is telling that Africa's greatest success story, Botswana, is adjacent to one of its greatest failures, Zimbabwe. The difference is that for decades Botswana has been exceptionally well and honestly managed, and Zimbabwe pillaged.

© 2010 New York Times News Service

Young superheroes living in a hut 04/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 4:25pm]

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