“It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” – Voltaire.
The Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya ("Smoke that Thunders") in local
parlance, on the Zambezi river is one of the world’s great sights. At more than 1.7km wide and around 100m high, it is arguably the biggest curtain of water in the world. It is a World Heritage Site, and one of Southern Africa’s biggest tourist
attractions. The Zambezi forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and hence the Falls can be accessed from either the town of Livingstone (in Zambia) or Victoria Falls (on the Zimbabwean side). The memorable meal described below occurred on the outskirts
of the latter.
Zimbabwe in general, and Victoria Falls in particular, will always have a special place in my heart. My sentiments about this wonderful, sad country are paradoxical – an African yin/yang, I suppose. While I will always feel particular
affection for its gentle, long-suffering people, my loathing for the thugs who have ruined this African paradise will probably last just as long. And I will always resent Robert Mugabe’s apologists in the region who have condoned, nay tacitly encouraged,
his obtuse brutality.
Mugabe has managed to turn a country that used to be viewed as the bread basket of Africa into merely another African basket case. The causes are varied: first the genocidal suppression of civil unrest in Matabeleland province
that probably cost 20 000 lives, then his ill-advised intervention in the Congolese civil war, followed by the destruction of his country’s commercial farming sector (through officially sanctioned land grabs by his cronies) and then his refusal to abide
by the outcome of elections which the official opposition had clearly won. Despite widespread condemnation of his tyranny (and targeted sanctions) on the part of the West, the ageing strongman survives because of the reluctance of most of his African peers
to be seen as "undermining African solidarity".
Encouraged by the tacit support of most of his neighbours, Mugabe brazenly fiddles on while his country burns. The remaining viable businesses and farms belong to his political cronies and top securocrats.
His much younger wife is now one of the country’s biggest dairy farmers. Mineral concessions are sold to unsavoury foreign bidders as if they belong to Mugabe, and not the country. Worst of all, despite losing the 2008 election fairly and squarely (notwithstanding massive
fraud and coercion) Uncle Bob continues to rule the country as his personal fiefdom. Although forced into a coalition government with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) with its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai as Prime Minister, Mugabe mostly scorns his partners – making unilateral appointments, locking MDC leaders up on bogus charges and ignoring protests
at his more egregious actions.
Two of the most tragic outcomes of Mugabe’s reign are a worsening of the AIDS pandemic and a Zimbabwean diaspora. The widespread disruption of family structures and collapse of the public health care sector
have conspired to raise the incidence of the disease while simultaneously diminishing the country’s capacity to treat sufferers. Given the economic meltdown, it is no wonder that several million Zimbabweans have left the country. As tends to be the case
with economic refugees, many of the émigrés are well-educated people of working age who now contribute to the economies of neighbouring countries instead of their own. One can only hope and pray that, when the old tyrant eventually
departs for warmer climes, Zimbabwe returns to the rule of law and is able to lure back its brightest and best.
Outwardly, the Victoria Falls area has escaped the worst of the carnage unleashed by Mugabe and his henchmen. It is relatively isolated,
and its population is small enough not to represent a threat to the regime. Another explanation could be that the tourism revenue it attracts is one of the few remaining sources of foreign exchange for the Zimbabwean exchequer, and that it would be bad for
business to have foreign tourists take home tales of ZANU-PF pogroms.
Appearances can be deceptive, though. Spend some time in the streets of the little town, and it becomes clear that the population have not escaped the twin cancers of grinding poverty
and despair. To make matters worse, the turmoil and oppression in Zimbabwe have caused foreign visitors to start avoiding the country, leading to a tourism boom in neighbouring Zambia. The calamitous drop in tourist numbers has further depressed the scope
for employment and income in VicFalls. The situation has become so desperate that informal traders started accepting payment in kind (T-shirts, caps, slops etc.) rather than the all-but worthless Zimbabwe Dollar a long time ago.
The most ubiquitous
curios on sale in VicFalls are soapstone idols called Nyaminyami. The Nyaminyami is the mythical river god of the BaTonga people who have lived along the Zambezi for centuries. In appearance it resembles a coiled serpent with
a fish-like head. Tonga craftsmen also fashion beautiful sculptures of various African animals out of wood and even scrap metal.
The various hotels and lodges on the Zimbabwean side are battling on gamely. Whereas they used to hold all the trumps (the
Zimbabwean side commands many of the best views of the Falls) the bad press of the past decade, hyper-inflation and the Zim Dollar’s free fall have taken their toll. Because so many of their inputs are imported from South Africa, their profit margins
have been squeezed badly - hence the many special offers to tourists who pay in "hard" currency.
Another challenge the local hospitality industry faces is that tourism is largely seasonal. During the drier months (September to December) the great
river shrinks significantly, which means that the Falls are also far less spectacular. First prize is therefore to go there in autumn (March to May) when the river is high and the heat less oppressive. To try and mitigate the contrast between
"high" and "low" season, the hotels and resorts in the area offer incredibly cheap fly-in packages during low season.
One positive side-effect of the margin squeeze has, in my view, been that meals have become more authentic. Vic Falls menus now
contain mostly dishes based on Zimbabwean ingredients, and I when I am served barbecued meat in Zimbabwe I would much rather have impala chops than South African lamb chops. The same applies to fish – who needs imported hake or kingklip when the Zambzi teems with bream, chessa and nkupi? Even the wine lists – previously dominated by Cape wines – now give pride of place to local wineries like Mukuyu
and Stapleford, with the former’s wines my favourites. The estate, named after the wild fig tree prevalent in Mashonaland, is situated in the Ruzawi river valley in the cool Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and produces decent white and red wines.
only discovered that Zimbabwe had a wine industry when my father-in-law returned from a vacation there in 1999. While out souvenir shopping, he came across some Mukuyu wines and promptly bought a white and a red as gifts for me. The wines were very much drinkable,
and led me to research their origins, and I discovered that wine has been made there since the early 1960s! The chaos and oppression of recent years has unfortunately set the industry back, with soaring input costs and plummeting demand for quality wines.
One of the perks of my position as an analyst with an investment administration house was that I was frequently invited to conferences and "think tanks" hosted by various asset management companies. Because the
real aim of these get-togethers was to win hearts and minds, the hosts would typically hold them at popular venues to ensure a good turn-out. Because of the great value for money to be had in Zimbabwe, the conference in question was held at Vic Falls in October
2004. As many of the invitees had never visited the Falls, the organisers had no trouble getting together a full house of delegates.
Because of legislation governing conflicts of interest and buying
of business these types of events could only be held in Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, and include no more than two nights’ accommodation. We therefore
flew in on a Friday morning, and were driven to the game lodge where we were to stay. After a quick finger lunch, we headed for the conference venue and the start of proceedings.
Our hosts arranged a semi-formal dinner on the first evening, with a buffet
lunch served at the conference venue the next day, and a "bush braai" (an open-air barbecue) that evening. While I appreciated their trouble and expense, I had other plans! I duly attended the first evening’s dinner, but the next day I excused myself
at lunch and dinner time and headed for the Lodge’s a la carte restaurant for grilled fillets of Nembwe, as the Olive Bream is known locally. Some empirical research on available wines led me to conclude that Mukuyu Chardonnay goes down
particularly well with it.
As a nation, South Africans consume relatively little fish and seafood, and most of consists of deep-fried
battered hake fillets. Many people of my acquaintance will eat fish, as long as it doesn’t taste too much like fish… I suppose the explanation for this state of affairs is twofold. Firstly, we are a water-poor country. South Africa
is not blessed with an abundance of large rivers and lakes, and - with the majority of the population always having lived in the interior – none of our major indigenous cultures took up fishing and the utilisation of aquatic fauna to any great extent.
If one studies our geography, the second major reason for our national indifference to fish becomes apparent. Although we have a very long coastline (nearly 2 800 km long) most of the west coast is arid, and – apart from small bands of nomadic Khoisan
people - it was never densely settled. While the east coast used to teem with fish, and has a much more hospitable landscape, the Nguni tribes that settled there were pastoralists who were mainly interested in finding grazing for their cattle. The only real
enthusiasm for fish is therefore to be found among whites (whose ancestors brought it with them from Europe), so-called "Coloureds" (among whom European, Asian and Strandloper influences combined to create a community with a maritime
affinity)and South Africans of Indian descent. Even among these groups, fish is by no means a universal favourite, and red meat is often preferred.
If the appetite for the fruits of the sea is limited, fresh water fish is almost beyond the pale. South
Africans generally agree that, while fresh water fishing can be great fun, fresh water fish should either be caught-and-released or fed to the cat. This attitude is not without merit. The few large rivers that we do have are for the most part sluggish and
not particularly clear. Many of our dams and reservoirs are consequently murky as well, a state of affairs exacerbated by rampant pollution. Hence the common complaint that our freshwater fish have a "muddy" taste, or worse.
The exceptions to this
rule are exotic species. Thanks to the habit of Anglo-Saxon settlers to transplant their favourite fauna and flora to the colonies, European brown trout (Salmo Trutta) and North American rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus Mykiss) have been established
in the cooler parts of South Africa for more than a century. Today trout are not just caught by an elite group of sportsfishermn; farmed fish have become readily available and are eagerly
consumed by the bourgeoisie.
Unbeknown to both the abstainers and the trout snobs, Southern Africa is home to some of the tastiest freshwater fish anywhere. Hard core fisherman in the warmer parts of South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Zambia simply
love Cichlids like the Olive Bream (Serranochromis robustus), Largemouth Bream (Serranochromis altus), Blue Kurper (Oreochromis mossambicus) and Redbreasted Tilapia (Tilapia rendalli). The Zambezi system is probably the
best place to look for them if you appreciate the dogged fight they produce on light tackle, and enjoy the taste of their firm white fillets. Since I belong to the minority of South Africans who genuinely love fish, I had every intention of using every opportunity
the conference afforded me to tuck into "bream", as all Cichlids are known in Zimbabwe.
The restaurant where I was to indulge myself was more or less al fresco, with plenty of fans suspended from its thatched roof to keep the subtropical
heat at bay. It provided a panoramic view over the savannah towards the Zambezi, with a large water hole about 800m away attracting plenty of thirsty animals.
Being by myself, I struck up a conversation with Enoch (for obvious reasons not his real name),
my waiter, who was actually a History and Geography teacher by profession. He had, however, resigned and moved to Vic Falls where he stood a better chance of earning a living wage as a waiter than as a senior teacher in Masvingo. While the salary he earned
at the lodge was substantially lower, he at least he stood a chance of supplementing it with tips in hard currency. Like most educated urban Zimbabweans, he was a supporter of the MDC, but it was clear that he was wary of criticizing the regime too explicitly
– after all, I could be an agent provocateur. The only growth industry in his country, after all, was informing on real or imagined enemies of the regime.
No one I know has come back from Zimbabwe without raving about the people
– the general population, that is, not the surly officials who owe their jobs to ZANU-PF patronage. My waiter was no exception. He spoke English with a very slight accent, was exceptionally well-read, and had a wonderful sense of humour. When I
complmented him, he winked and said, “Black humour takes on a whole new meaning in this country!”
My food was all I had hoped it would be. The bream fillets were an enticing golden
brown on the outside, yet succulent on the inside. When I enquired about the interesting crispy coating, Enoch explained that the chef rolled the fish in sadza (maize meal) prior to frying it in very hot oil. Being coarser than wheat flour,
it gave the fish a delightfully crunchy texture. The flavour was simply superb – no question of a "muddy" taste there! The presentation was totally no-nonsense; just the two fillets side by side, some tartare sauce, crispy French fries
and some tomato-and-lettuce garnish. It doesn’t sound like much, but my mouth waters just thinking back.
Dinner was a repeat performance, except that my glowing feedback after lunch had caused a few of my fellow delegates to abscond from
the braai as well. I had warned Enoch that this might happen, and he had prudently stashed several bottles of the Chardonnay in the fridge. By the time we were joined by some more acquaintances returning from the bush braai, we were in agreement that a) Nembwe
was the tastiest fish ever, b) Mukuyu the top winery in Zimbabwe, and c) Enoch a future president of his country.
Amidst all the good cheer, I couldn’t help feeling sharp pangs of guilt. Here we were, citizens of the country which had done more
than any other to ensure that Mugabe could be president-for-life, flaunting our wealth and tipping a grown man who, had he been a citizen of another country, would surely have been solid middle class. It was like giving a man the proverbial fish instead of
teaching him how to fish! If only our leaders could experience an epiphany and force Mugabe and his kleptocrats to accept the rule of law, the Enochs of this world would soon be able to stand on their own feet.
From the plane on the return flight,
I said a quiet prayer that the Nyaminyami (and any other deities thus disposed) would come to the aid of Enoch and the millions of other Zimbabweans who simply want to be allowed the freedom to follow their own dreams. And I toasted their
good health with a dinky of Mukuyu Chardonnay
Making it at home
Although Nembwe is well-nigh impossible to find in South Africa, the technique I use to cook
it works equally well with our local freshwater bream species, members of the sea bream family (Sparidae spp.), black bass or any other fish with firm, flaky white flesh.
Preparation time: ½ hour.
Cooking time: 10 minutes.
Serves 2 adults.
Tastes best accompanied by a crisp, well-chilled Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.
1 x 300 g (or 2 smaller) filets of fish per person.
Sunflower or canola oil for frying.
100 g Fine white maize meal, or –
for a more delicate texture - white bread flour.
- Fillet the fish (approximately 1 x 300g fillet per person).
- Remove the skin by placing skin side down on a wooden surface, holding the fillet by the tail and slicing away from the tail
with a very sharp knife.
- In a large frying pan, heat enough oil to cover the bottom to a depth of about 1 cm.
- Slice the fillets in half lengthwise.
- Roll them in the flour.
- When the oil is piping hot, fry the fillets for
3-5 minutes (depending on the heat) on each side until golden brown.
- Drain the excess oil from the fish on a serving plate covered with paper towel.
Serve the fillets with lemon wedges, French fries and a garden salad. A tartare sauce
is also an excellent accompaniment.
“An empty stomach is not a good political advisor.” - Albert Einstein.