You arrive in Zimbabwe. You are amazed at the solid infrastructure compared to many other African capitals. You enjoy the lack of painful traffic, the smiling faces, the posh shopping centers. You wonder exactly why someone declared this country a failed state. What can that possibly mean with crowded fast food chains that aren’t American and solid roads?

You stay. You realize that the country imports all its power. At the end of a week, one of the local blacks tells how she had a good night the evening before since it was the first time her family had had power in a week before midnight. All your taxi drivers tell you how no one will ever drive along the road that has Mugabe’s State House if their car is misbehaving. A flat tire along there will result in much more trouble than one might expect… You hear how when the currency switched from the Zimbabwe dollar to the US dollar in 2008, everyone with local money lost everything. You’re told that your hotel room will likely be bugged; that night you hear noise on the phone lines…You remember a friend who worked for IRI, an NGO focused on democratic processes, who can’t come into the country because of the type of work she does.

Where We Have Hope by Andrew Meldrum is an amazing story of a journalist who came to Zimbabwe in 1980 to cover a new multi-racial democratic country as it emerged from a 14 year civil war. I’ve been reading it to get a better sense of what is going on here. The author goes from being a hopeful journalist witnessing the end of a long British colonial rule to being physically forced out of the country for writing about the atrocities performed by Mugabe’s regime.

White Zimbabweans make up about 1% of the population here. Colonial rule is still strongly felt; there’s no local cuisine. What everyone eats is sadza, stiff British porridge made from the maize that the colonials got everyone to grow. The minority white population was extremely racist prior to the revolution, and I’m not clear how much better it’s gotten. The controversial land reform here certainly didn’t help matters. Begun in 1979 as a way to more equally distribute land between the whites and blacks, it started as a winning buyer, winning seller model until 2000. With this model white farmers were paid as their large plantations were converted to communal farming. Almost half a million people were able to settle onto new plots of land with this program. The fast track resettlement program that began in 2000 was not a bright spot. White farmers were violently forced from their land without compensation; the Zimbabwean Parliament has now passed laws so those white farmers cannot challenge the right to the land they once owned.  The group forcing the farmers out were supposedly “war veterans” from the war for independence though many were just youth who often became violent.

Our team members who are working in Malawi heard a lot of accounts from these expelled white farmers. In a newspaper article the other day, white Zimbabwean farmers were granted the right to keep the national Zimbabwean assets they had seized in Cape Town, South Africa, as payment for lost land. Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, much of the land that has been acquired has not been farmed properly. Driving through the countryside, it’s clear that former farms are no longer producing crops. Zimbabwe used to be the breadbasket of Africa, now it imports almost everything.

On our weekend in Imire, we heard the story of Di, a local white Zimbabwean who lost her farm to a city bidder who wanted it to be his weekend house. She had worked to build up a successful farm. “My workers had a good wage. We had a primary school, an adult literacy program, a nursery. We taught them how to have a nutritional vegetable garden. We had such a wonderful place. Now most of them have had to leave because there is no one running the farm. That man doesn’t plant anything. He just lives in my house a few days a year.” I was impressed with how she had started her life over again, but part of me can’t help but feel there is a sense of superiority in this set-up that while improving people’s lives still does not give them control over their own property.

You may have vaguely heard of the economic crash that happened here in 2008. Notes were printed with a hundred trillion Zim dollars (and you thought the lira had been bad). Eventually locals refused to take the national currency. When the currency was completely forced out of circulation, everyone with a Zimbabwean bank account in local currency lost everything. This was just in 2008. People could not find anything to buy in the grocery stores. Now in 2011, the shelves are full, but most people still cannot afford the imported goods. Petrol is prohibitively expensive, almost $6/gallon.

So there’s the land issue, the economic issues, how all of this ties in together. And there is Mugabe, the “president.” In the 1980s, he launches a secret campaign that slaughtered 10,000-20,000 Ndebeles in Matabeleland, most of them young males who would have been a threat to Mugabe’s Shono party. Ndebeles were the ethnic minority of black Zimbabweans who on the whole did not belong to Mugabe’s party. This happened at roughly the same time that Mugabe was talking loudly to the world about how badly apartheid needed to end in South Africa, how something had to be done. It was a time when Zimbabwe was seen as the shining beckon in Africa, a democracy that could lead the way for others.

The country is Dorian Grey, at first glance beautiful, vibrate, but with a dark secret. One day in class on this trip, I had been talking to an American about how beautiful I thought Zimbabwe was: the kind and generous people, the impressive balancing rocks, the wildlife. She pulled out a folder and said, “This place is deceptively beautiful. Look at this. This is what is happening in Zimbabwe.” She opened up a booklet of graphic photos depicting violence including behinds of people that had been hacked off. “Most of our [work] partners are in jail.”

Having seen those photos of abuse, I had a vivid imagination when reading about the beatings of farmers by the “war veterans” around 2000, onwards. Also punished were people who supported the MDC, a new political party that was trying to stand up to Mugabe. This is the party that won the election in 2008, which Mugabe won’t recognize and likely the election in 2002, probably 2000 as well. Our tour guide at Great Zimbabwe, Phillip, mentioned to us how such violence affected his family. His father, a school supervisor, and his mother, a nurse, were rumored to be in favor of the opposition (MDC). While Phillip was at work as a tour guide, some of the “war veterans” came to his family’s hut. They locked the family inside and burned the house down. He lost his whole family and hid in South Africa for six months.

These stories make it hard to reconcile the friendly and beautiful Zimbabwe we have experienced with the facts of the atrocities that occurred in that same beautiful land.