Zimbabwe catches on to Facebook

What do Zimbabweans do when the landlines are down, the cellular network is unreliable and newspapers are relatively expensive?

Turn to Facebook, of course.

Thousands of Zimbabweans are looking for more personal contact with friends and relatives separated by thousands of miles. Frustrated by the refusal of state-owned fixed line monopoly Tel*One to connect them to the country’s three cellular networks over a payments dispute, they are making Facebook their medium of choice in a country where telecoms are a challenge at the best of times.

Given the fact that out of a population of 12 million, some 3 million Zimbabweans live outside the country, it is inevitable that the social network is used to transcend national boundaries.

“It has reconnected me with Zimbabweans in the diaspora who I would never have been in contact with otherwise,” said Colbert Mpofu, 42, headmaster of a school outside Harare. “That’s been the greatest thing for me, using it as a reconnection tool.” Mpofu has a particular interest in classical music so Facebook connects him to people he went to school with who now live abroad where they can indulge their musical tastes.
“It is unusable here,” he said of Zimbabwe’s classical music scene. “We don’t even have an orchestra. “But Facebook puts us together as a community.”

Facebook serves a dual purpose in Zimbabwe. The social networking site helps all users keep in touch with the dispersed community. It also allows Zimbabweans, who must cope with tight press restrictions at home, to air views, opinions and information.

Currently Facebook “walls” are abuzz with complaints over Harare city council’s decision to spend $153,000 on a Mercedes Benz for the mayor at a time when the city urgently needs to invest in a new water delivery system. Elsewhere a farmers’ organization supplies the telephone numbers of senior police officers who can be contacted if members of the force try to extract “spot fines” from motorists at roadblocks.

Outbursts of indignation aside, the social networking site provides a useful facility for alerting friends and relatives to birthdays and sending holiday snaps.

Impi Terblanche, 52, brought up on a farm which fell victim to President Robert Mugabe’s land invasions, runs a bed and breakfast establishment in Harare. Facebook enables him to stay in touch with customers, but perhaps more typically to maintain contact with family and friends.
“Eighty percent of my friends now live outside Zimbabwe,” he says. “Facebook enables me to share news and photos.”

Zimbabweans have become heavily politicized over the past 10 years, with those in the Diaspora taking a keen interest in the reform movement back home. A former Zimbabwean radio personality, Noreen Welch, disseminates news from her home in New Zealand, monitoring agency reports and sending them on to the hundreds of people connected to her as “friends.” There are dangers, however. Zimbabweans find, like many others around the world, that Facebook can be addictive. “Opening Facebook is the first thing many people do when they get up in the morning,” Terblanche said. He said he has “cut back severely” on his dips into the network, accessing it only after 12 p.m. and then for no more than an hour.

“It’s such an easy way to touch base with all your mates in the busy world we live in, without having to invite them all around,” said Graeme Pattinson, 42, a Harare businessman.

Pattinson, who travels up and down to Johannesburg every few weeks, uses Facebook for daily updates on his active social life. He likes to tell his friends what he’s up to on a blow-by-blow basis.

“It lets those far and wide know we are thinking about them and that they are still very much part of our lives,” he says just before having another peek to see what’s happened since he last looked 30 minutes earlier.