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Forget The South Of France, Try Zimbabwe


Nicholas Kristof's column for The New York Times regularly takes him to places like Cambodia, Congo, North Korea, Darfur, and most recently Zimbabwe, though, as he noted in his column, journalists can sometimes find themselves in prison in Zimbabwe. So he traveled surreptitiously as a tourist with his family. The country, he says, is beautiful, its people friendly, talented and brave, the wildlife magical, but he describes the government as tyrannical, incompetent and corrupt.

If you'd like to talk with Nick Kristof about Zimbabwe today, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our Web Site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.


You can find links to Nick Kristof's columns from Victoria Falls in Hwange on our Web site, along with a slideshow of his photographs from Zimbabwe. That's all at Again, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist joins us now from our bureau in New York. And it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. NICHOLAS KRISTOF (Columnist, The New York Times): Delighted to join you.

CONAN: And you wrote your kids accused you of using them as camouflage.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yes, they did, since I was trying to pass myself as a tourist. On other hand, I usually take them to places, you know, drag them through villages, in rural areas. And this time they were really glad to, you know, I dragged them to the villages, but they also saw giraffes and zebras. And so on balance they were pretty happy with this trip.


CONAN: And as a tourist, would you recommend Zimbabwe?

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah, I really would. You know, people have been scarred off by Mugabe's oppression, and that oppression is very real. On the other hand, it doesn't really affect tourists and their, you know, the hotels are just empty. It's actually got a pretty good infrastructure, you can drive around - the economy has been dollarized. So on my previous trip, it was very hard to get gasoline except on the black market. This time you can actually buy gasoline. You can rent a car, drive around. It is an extraordinary country.

CONAN: Yet its people are suffering tremendously.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yes. And they've gone so far downhill. I mean that is the thing that is just really heartbreaking about Zimbabwe. Its a country of immense promise, immense hope, considerable human capital and, you know, over the last 20 years it's gone fairly steadily downhill. You can see that in any given family, in any school. And the stories are just heartbreaking.

CONAN: The most telling statistics - and you mentioned it in your column, in one of your columns - is that the average life expectancy there has gone from 60 to, depending on who you listen to, well, at maximum 44 years old.

Mr. KRISTOF: That's right. And you know, maybe considerably less. And in any given village you talk to people who, you know, a decade or two ago, lived, you know, not quite a middle class life, but they were able to send their kids to school, they were able to get basic health services. And now all that has, in many areas, completely collapsed. And you know, it just - in trying to, you know, trying to figure out how one can improve the continent as a whole, one key is to prevent some of these countries, like Zimbabwe, from just collapsing through the bottom.

CONAN: You tell the story again, discussing infrastructure before, there used to be a pretty good health care system in Zimbabwe. You tell the story of a pregnant woman who walked miles to a health clinic to get treatment for her malaria and had to leave empty-handed.

Mr. KRISTOF: That's right. As it happen, I had already visited that clinic and spoken to nurses, and then I drove on and stopped off at a village and spoke to a family where there was this young woman who had - she was actually a newlywed, it was her first pregnancy, and she had a very bad case of malaria. And pregnancy is one of the times when malaria is most lethal. It's crucial that one get attention. She knew that. Her husband knew that. They walked all the way to the clinic. If I remember right, it was - seven miles seems to stick in my head. And they got there, she had a blood test. She tested positive for malaria and she couldn't get the medication because she couldn't pay a couple of dollars for that medication which they had. And so she walked all the way back.

CONAN: And they couldn't give it to her for free because if they did, they would soon be out of business.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. When I was at that clinic, the nurses had - they had acknowledged charging. They said this was necessary because they got no support. And they pointed out their incredible needs. They had no ibuprofen. They had, if I remember right, they had four beds but only one mattress. And it, you know, the nurses were being paid negligibly. So many medical staff, so many teachers have left Zimbabwe to go to other countries like South Africa, like Botswana, to find work. There has been, you know, an emigration that has truly crippled the country.

CONAN: We're talking with Nicolas Kristof, the columnist for The New York Times. He's back from Zimbabwe. 800-989-8255. Email us:

Jennifer(ph) is on the line from Raleigh.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi. I had a neighbor who lived in Zimbabwe for 25 years, and had actually - I guess the political system was more informal. She'd actually had dinner at Mugabe's mansion or house. And she was a real fan of his early work and how - that he was a freedom fighter and that he really negotiated for the country with the British. And she talked about the British reneging on contracts they had made with them. And I know the country is in crisis now and he has really deteriorated, but I just wanted to get your take on his background.

Mr. KRISTOF: It's true that in the first 10 years that he was in power, he did a lot of really good things. He expanded education and expanded health care, and there was a lot of promise in those years. At the same time, I don't think it's quite right to say that everything was, you know, going fine until about 1990, because in that period he did crack down with extraordinary brutality on people living around the town of Bulawayo. And there were...

CONAN: His political opponents.

Mr. KRISTOF: His political opponents. There were thousands and thousands of people killed at that time. So, overall, governance, in many ways, improved in his first decade. He was moderate in many ways and, you know, in many ways, he was indeed a pretty good leader for that first decade. But the fact that you had so many people slaughtered in the early 1980s, among his opponents, you know, makes me weary of saying that he - everything was great the first 10 years.

JENNIFER: Well, I appreciate the perspective. I mean, I was getting my information from her, and I hadn't done any research. So thanks for sharing that with me.

CONAN: And thanks for the phone call, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go next to - this is Neyasha(ph)- I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly -from Spokane.

NEYASHA (Caller): Hi. I am actually from Zimbabwe, but I've lived in the country for 10 years, and I wanted to get your speaker's perspective on what his Zimbabwean colleagues are saying about the country and what's happening on the ground.

CONAN: The colleagues publishing newspapers and broadcasting in Zimbabwe?

NEYASHA: Correct.

CONAN: Okay. Nicholas Kristof?

Mr. KRISTOF: Well, people are - I mean, everybody is terrified of journalists at this point. And so it's - I mean, after 2008, after the election in 2008, there were, you know, there were a couple hundred, a few hundred people killed and a lot of women raped, that really made people very scared of interacting with journalists. And frankly, the fact that one of my New York Times colleagues was arrested there during a visit, made us journalists kind of worry about some of those interviews.

I can't say that the window that I got from, you know, as an outsider going around, talking to people, was particularly - was necessarily a full picture of, you know, what Zimbabweans think. And I think you, as a Zimbabwean, may well have a much better picture than I can get ever get.

On the other hand, one thing that just - I head over and over and just made me flinch - was how many people in the villages talked, with nostalgia, about how things had been better under white rule. And I kind of came of age when Ian Smith and that white regime was being pushed out of power. You know, they were racist, they were a nasty regime and Mugabe had been welcomed with such joy. And then to hear people wax nostalgic about the quality of life in that period, just was so painful.

And the other thing, I think, you know, maybe as outsiders, we sometimes make it a mistake. We talk about the dispossession of the white farmers there, since 2000. And, you know, obviously, it's very unfortunate that those white farmers lost their land, lost their livelihood. But the real losers in Zimbabwe haven't been those white farmers who have been forced to leave the country and have lost their land, it's been the far greater numbers of, you know, black African children who haven't been able to get health care because of the collapse of the health system, and, you know, who have died - and those parents watching them die.

CONAN: But getting back to Neyasha's question. Is there a vibrant Zimbabwean media?

Mr. KRISTOF: There is a Zimbabwean media and a Zimbabwean - I mean, there are elements of - to a civil society and of - there is an opposition. There is a judicial system, at times, you know that, at times, functions. And but everybody is pretty nervous about the security systems, about the security forces. And so I'd say that there, you know, are the forms of a multiparty system, the forms - some elements of democracy, but I sure wouldn't call it vibrant.

CONAN: Okay. Neyasha, thanks very much for the phone call. I appreciate it.

NEYASHA: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go next to Paula(ph), Paula with us from Tucson.

PAULA (Caller): Hi, you guys. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

PAULA: Listen, I often find myself turning away from discussions of Africa, almost out of a sort of grief or heartbreak at what seem to be so many stories about the suffering people because of an inept government. And I wonder if Mr. Kristof has any kind of perspective on how the history of Africa, the changes that may have been imposed on what may have been tribal sorts of governments or something...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

PAULA: ...may have created what we see today.

CONAN: And is it a universal story, yes.

PAULA: Probably not, but yes. That would be my question.

Mr. KRISTOF: In terms of the first part of the question, I mean, there is no doubt that colonial boundaries were arbitrary, created a lot of problems -legacy problems for these governments. The way colonial powers often favored one ethnic group over another, often created further problems. I think the second part of your problem is maybe a more interesting one. And it's one that I worry about a lot, frankly, as a reporter, and that is that, you know, as a reporter I go to Africa and I go to eastern Congo, I go to Darfur, Sudan, I go to the Zimbabwe of the world. I focus on those things that are wrong.

And I do worry that the result is that I and other journalists tend to portray a continent that is - that comes across as more broken than it really is. And indeed, there are a lot of successes in Africa. But, you know, in journalism, we cover planes that crash, we don't cover planes that take off. And when we cover aviation, everybody knows about that, and they can take that into account. Africa is so far away that I think people don't have enough of a concept that there are a lot of planes here that are taking off.

The country right next to Zimbabwe is Botswana, which is one of the most successful economies, not only in Africa, but in the world. And so I do worry that just the nature of journalism and the way we concentrate on failures tends to magnify some of the problems - to discourage tourism and to discourage business investment in ways that ultimately are unhelpful for the continent as a whole.

CONAN: Paula, interesting question. Thank you.

PAULA: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Nicholas Kristof, the columnist for the New York Times. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's go next to Matt(ph), and Matt's calling from Rochester, New York.

MATT (Caller): Hi, good afternoon, sirs. Thanks for taking my question.

CONAN: Sure.

MATT: I've recently got that back from Botswana and was in Gaborone. And I noticed a large influx - and even from the local Botswana - of Zimbabweans coming into the country, looking for employment. And I wondered if Zimbabwe was doing anything to try and curb this. I know that the unofficial and the official employment rates are extraordinarily high.

Mr. KRISTOF: Yeah. It's a good question. There has been an extraordinary flight from Zimbabwe, both of the skilled human capital and also of just ordinary laborers. And the courage of some of these people, leaving, cross - you know, swimming across crocodile-infested rivers. Many of them go to South Africa where there is increasing resentment against Zimbabweans there, and in many cases they face violence there. But, it's the only way they have any hope of earning money to send back to keep their kids in school.

And the, you know, the resentment in South Africa is growing and growing in -and it undermines those societies, and many of the Zimbabweans in South Africa have turned to crime. In Botswana, when I was doing, working - reporting on HIV on an earlier trip, I remember interviewing a lot Botswanan prostitutes about whether they would insist on condoms. And they said that because - the even more desperate Zimbabwean prostitutes would agree to sex without condoms. That they felt that they, you know, that they couldn't compete and that they could not insist on condoms.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Matt. Appreciate it.

MATT: Thank you.

CONAN: Nicholas Kristof, there was, a couple of years ago, a great deal of international pressure on Zimbabwe to accept the political opposition to stop being completely a one-party state, and to allow the prime minister of the government to be from another party. That went ahead. Is there hope that this is going to result in some sort of operating political system?

Mr. KRISTOF: Hope but not very much maybe is the way to put it. Look, things have gotten better in some ways, over the last two years. You know, you have fewer of these political killings, political rapes. The economy is being managed, somewhat better, and the economy has improved since its nadir, two years ago.

On the other hand, it is still a really horrific mess. And the government of Mugabe is essentially willing to let the opposition take control of ministries that are peripheral, but he doesn't want to let them near the security apparatus.

CONAN: And given that - we just have a few seconds left, but what process, what mechanism is there for this to change?

Mr. KRISTOF: Well, I mean, Mugabe's age. Any octogenarian in power is not going to be around forever. And I think also that South Africa really can play a more constructive role here. It was South Africa, a generation ago, that pushed out Ian Smith. And I think that increasing discontent among neighboring African countries can hold Mugabe's feet to the fire and can force freer elections.

CONAN: Nicholas Kristof, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. KRISTOF: My pleasure.

CONAN: Nick Kristof, columnist for The New York Times, coauthor with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn of "Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide." He joined us today from our bureau in New York. Again, you can find a link to his columns from Zimbabwe on our Web site, along with a link to his slideshow of his photos. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, NPR's Nina Totenberg on the shifts in and the future of the Supreme Court. Plus, we'll talk with SEIU chief Andy Stern amid reports of his coming retirement. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.