People seemed to enjoy my last travel piece, so here goes another one...
At the time, I didn't know this would be my last visit to the last country on earth. I simply boarded the plane in Portland. Twelve hours later I was in London. Twelve more hours were spent at the airport awaiting my connecting flight. Another twelve hours down through South Africa to my final destination, Zimbabwe.
The year was 2005. Zimbabwe had been suffering greatly for years. A combination of corrupt government, hyper inflation, lawlessness, aids, and famine had wreaked havoc on the country. And yet, its talented artisans still toiled in the hot African sun, so I came. I flew half way around the world to secure some of the best stone carvings in the world.
They are called Shona sculptures, after the tribe that the majority of the sculptors come from. They are carved in a range of stones from the hard verdite, springstone, opalite, serpentine to the soft, carvable by a knife, soapstone. The range of colors and textures are almost endless. The subject matter and form differ almost as greatly; from modern to primitive, abstract to realistic. It was all there. All I had to do was travel the country, find it, negotiate, and figure out a way to get it back to my Portland gallery.
This year, I wasn't met at the airport by a BMW 7 series, but a beat up old Peugeot. It looked like its life had been prolonged 10 years past its prime; washed daily to preserve the look despite the ever-present scratches and dents. The tires were completely bald, with the threads on the verge of bursting. And burst they did. After clearing the two police barricades as we departed the quiet but modern airport, we drove past a couple closed gas stations. The whole country was suffering from fuel shortages, rationing and 'black marketeering' now dominating the distribution. The normally bustling roads seemed abandoned. Within several miles of the airport, one of the tires blew. I was told there were no replacements in the country, so your only option was to repair the one you had, over and over. After changing the tire with the spare that looked in worse shape, we limped back to the homestead. The guard opened the metal gates, and we drove through the high walls with broken glass on the top.
I wasn't staying at some posh resort or hotel, but at the home of my usual host, a Shona sculptor friend of mine. Anyone who owns a half decent home needs these security precautions to protect their possessions and their safety. In the courtyard sat his prized BMW 7 series, under a tarp, idled these days as it was too expensive to run and brought too much unwanted attention. It was a big letdown to the young sculptor's ego to travel around in that humble Peugeot when he had worked so hard to gain status with his other cars. He was a well known musician and sculptor, but he was also a dogged survivor of Zimbabwe's harsh current conditions.
The rules for this trip were quickly laid out for me. I was never to go anywhere alone. I would only travel during daylight hours. I was always to have a driver and another person/guard to watch my back as I traveled around on my buying trip. No more evenings going to see live music in Harare.
In years past, the strict currency laws required I travel almost daily to the banks to exchange my traveler's checks and get the proper documentation. Things had devolved to such a point that people ignored these regulations, as the banks didn't have any cash or exchanged it at such an unreasonable rate that the black market was the only option. Hard foreign currency was king. The customs personnel would be bought off later.
The currency was in such hyper inflation that negotiations of the black market rates changed each time I engaged in them that month, varying up to 20%. The soaring inflation made their money nearly worthless. The government hadn't been able to generate newer higher denomination notes, so when you exchanged US $2000 for instance, you had to pack the equivalent Zimbabwean millions of dollars in a suitcase. Unlike previous trips, there was no way to be inconspicuous with a money belt under your shirt. As an art dealer going around to individual sculptor's homes and studios with suitcases fulls of cash, you were constantly a target to be robbed, or at the very least be solicited at every turn to relieve you of some of that cash.
In the following years they have printed new bigger notes, that are almost equally worthless, but less bulky. Ever wanted to be a billionaire?
Fortunately, the artists were still thrilled to see me. They were reliant on my yearly buying trips. They were aware that the world economy had slowed, even if not nearly as much as the Zimbabwean economy. That year, I represented one of the few Shona sculpture galleries who chose to come in person, despite the dire conditions. They were hungry for business, but still savvy as ever in their negotiating.
All over Africa, negotiating for most things you purchase is a necessity and high art form. It is to be relished, not avoided, by both parties. Fixed prices don't exist. They enjoy and expect the communication, the give and take. The sculptors have a keen sense of who their buyer is and how much they can try to charge them. My former partner, an Americanized Zimbabwean, and I joked about it all the time. In the early years of the gallery, when we alternated buying trips, he was always able to get better prices than I could, because he was Shona and spoke the language. But the artists were also savvy enough to know that the Nike's he wore indicated he wasn't living in Zimbabwe, and thus they charged him a higher rate than they would a local Zimbabwean.
Due to the nationwide shortages of fuel, on this trip, travel planning was critical. I couldn't just roam the cities and countryside scouring it for good art and artists. I had to focus on predictable pockets where I would have reliable results. Thankfully this wasn't my first trip, and I had an established network of artists I had worked with for years. We bought a 40 gallon drum and arranged for some fuel from a gas station owner. That was where some of the fuel that did get delivered to the gas stations went, to the highest bidder. I was willing to pay a premium, to ensure some ability to travel each day.
After securing one drum, we arranged a couple special one day trips up north. One trip we traveled to the mythical stone community of Tengenenge, where many credit the Shona sculpture movement originated in the 1950s and where hundreds of artists still toiled. While I'm personally not a big fan of some of the styles from that region, it is an inspirational environment with thousands of sculptures spread through hundreds of acres under the trees and throughout the village.
The second special trip was to an aids orphanage where we contributed funds and tried to set up an ongoing association of helping. It was an inspirational and equally disheartening setting, where hundreds of children had been orphaned, but were cared for in this big community of volunteers and nuns.
I will spare you the details of the bureaucracy, shipping challenges, bribes paid, and government hassles. I survived the trip and succeeded in purchasing some lovely sculptures, some of which are currently warehoused after my gallery closed down. I couldn't have pulled off the trip without my prior years of experience and connections. Zimbabwe has sadly become the last country on earth, not just alphabetically, but least desirable place to live due to having one of the most despotic evil rulers who has beaten down his people and destroyed its once impressive infrastructure. The level of suffering is tremendous. Although I was trying to be a positive influence and support the positive aspects of their rich culture, it ultimately became too much.
Some day in the future, I would like to return under happier circumstances. I wish the people well.