TOURISM IN ZIMBABWE: Discovering Africa's Paradise
ExpoTimes Executive Editor Ibrahim Seaga Shaw just back from Zimbabwe reports on what he discovered about Tourism in Zimbabwe
"I cannot stop you from making the trip but you need to be very careful as Zimbabwe is no longer a safe place to visit especially for journalists; you may be killed and nothing would come out of it." These words quickly flip-flopped my mind as the Air Zimbabwe Boeing 747,on which I and five other colleagues from
But as a journalist who is always eager to depart from the usual arm-chair journalism youofter see in Paris, London, Berlin, New York and what have you I, unlike Michèle, refused to fall victim to this media hype, and instead decided to accept the invitation from the Authority to join the 13-day tour of European journalists with the aim of re-discoveringthe country's rich eco-tourism. At least I saw it as anopportunity to see things asthey are, and not as the editors and journalists in Europe, largely following the lead set by their home governments, would want us to believe.
And this was how I found myself on the plane heading for what looked like a Hollywood-style adventure from which you may have to count your blessings to live to tell the story. The 10-hour flight from London Gatwick appeared less boring than anticipated perhaps not only because we were in the business class but because I managed to punctuate it with long casual chats with two Zimbabweans also in the business class. Half-way through our flight, I hopped from my seat in the middle and joined a man seated on the far right who simply introduced himself as Simon, a white farmer returning to see what was left of his1000 hectares of land.
"Why are you visiting Zimbabwe; don't you think that you are risking your life", he ventured when I introduced my self as a journalist based in France.
"I thought it was better to come and see for my self what has become of this grat country and in any case a journalist worthy of the name should always be ready to go for the truth even if it means risking his life", I said cautiously hoping to sustain the dialogue.
Simon recalled how he fled with his family (wife and two children) to the safety of the United Kingdom when 700 hectares of his land was taken away from him and redistributed under the new policy leaving him with 300 hectares. He said Zimbabwe recorded about 75 per cent drop in the production of the country's main export crop tobacco because, according to him, most of the lands that were seized by force are yet to be put into productive use.
On my way from the gents located in the rear of the business class, I spotted a Zimbabwean businessman called Eddie who proved to be equally outright. He told me how the land issue was put on hold for 10 years following the country's Independence in 1980 but, he added, when the government saw that the white commercial farmers and their British government backers were not ready to co-operate in the 'willing seller willing buyer' arrangement without a fight, it decided to take the bull by the horns to embark on the fast track land redistribution scheme. "Of course many Zimbabweans are yet to see the benefit from this land reform programme but as is the case with any revolution it will take some time before this would happen", said Eddie.
Equipped with these two different positions, I returned to my seat. Still full from the well served dinner of salmon herb crust decorated with roast parisienne potatoes, spin arch buttered and turned carrots, I managed to squeeze some sleep at least till 5 in the morning. I only appreciated how big the plane was when this time I strolled down the right hand gents of the Economy Class on the tail end near the kitchen. At least, unlike the Business Class, all the seats here were occupied. I beheld black and white faces, perhaps mostly Zimbabweans, in both classes, leaving me with the impression of a multi-racial country. We were served with a rich breakfast at 5:30 am starting with fresh fruit salad according to the menu of the executive class.
"We apologise if, due to previous passenger selection, your choice is not available" and "Thank you for flying with us-do it again...soon!" were the lines that quickly caught my attention on opening the menu. The crew was just extraordinary as they served us drinks routinely throughout the flight.
We landed Harare international Airport Friday morning April 4 at 6:20 Zimbabwe time, an hour ahead of British time, where we spent another hour waiting for the ZTA representative who was to help us through immigration formalities. At least here, unlike other airports I have visited in Africa, notably the Lagos Murtala Muhammed International Airport, I didn't observeany incident of immigration or custom officers demanding or receiving bribes from unsuspecting passengers. When the ZTA man finally turned up with a mini-bus, he introduced himself as Stanley Banda and apologized for the delay which he blamed on the change in the flight schedule-leaving London an hour ahead due to an unexplained reason. Driving about five minutes from the airport to the centre of Harare the visitor is greeted with a banner 'Zimbabwe Independence in 1980' on an arch across the road. I quickly realised that here, like Zimbabwe's former colonial master Britain, right hand drive is the norm.
Bvumba: 'The Misty Mountains'
We checked in at the Cresta Lodge located in the eastern outskirts of Harare where I had a well deserved shower. We had another breakfast at 8:30 with a buffet where we were joined by the ZTA Marketing and Communications Director, Givemore Chidzidzi, and Christine Kirsty, the German TV freelance journalist who came a week earlier on a cycling tour. Following a snappy briefing by Givemore and Stanley on the tour itinerary and handing over of the usual ZTA information packs labeled 'Zimbabwe: Africa's paradise, we headed straight for the mysterious Bvumba mountains near Zimbabwe's eastern border with Mozambique.
'You are welcome to savour the hospitality and beauty of our country ... Your itinerary has been structured to expose you to as much tourism diversity as possible. It is all our hope that you will enjoy the best there is in Zimbabwe and above all share this experience with your friends and people at home.' was the highlight in Chidzidzi's letter I found in the information pack as we drove on the same minibus. Edging out of Harare on the main tarred highway linking the capital to the east we crossed a make-shift police check point after our driver showed his driving license and other required documents without coming down.
The five-hour drive to Bvumba was punctuated with two short stops first at Marondera, a big industrial town 60 kilometers from Harare, and next the city of Mutare, district headquarter of Manica land province for quick sight-seeing, shopping, phone call and attending to the call of nature, where necessary. Anticipating late arrival in Bvumba, Stanley, our Tour guide, brought some packed sandwiches and drinks from the Cresta Lodge to which we occasionally helped our selves as we drove. A familiar sight to the visitor along the long stretch of road from Marondera to Mutare is the string of mountainous rocks dotted with small farming settlements. You have to drive between 30 to 40 kilometers before meeting a big village or town along this road suggesting a sparsely populated area of a country with a population of 13 million.
Fast-track from Mutare we began our 30 minutes ascent for the mystical Bvumba as we snaked our way on the zigzagged, but good-tarred, road winding beautifully up through the steep mountain ranges. This string of mountains, quite fascinating in its rugged beauty, literally inundates Zimbabwe's eastern border stretching some 300 km from north to south. For a holiday-maker in search of rejuvenation, its appeal is glaringly evident as it offers peace of mind in a tranquil, but stunning, environment with lots of scenic views. These 'mountains ofthe mist' are dotted with many cozy country hotels famous for their good cuisine, hospitality and plenty of peace and quite. It was at one of the most famous of these, the Leopard Rock Hotel, renown for its award winning world-class 18-hole golf course and magnificent views down into Mozambique, we checked in after arriving Bvumba at 3 pm.
Like any other curious visitor with longing for nature, I quickly fell in love with this hotel despite its location in the wilderness for buzzing with a beautiful blend of a refreshing green vegetation and luxury trimmings of all what one would expect of a five star hotel on offer. When I opened the window to my room equipped with satellite TV, direct dial telephone, mini bar..., I smelt the freshness of the air oozing out of the thick vegetation all the more. It was as if nature and modernity were meeting in the room right before my eyes.
From the terrace where we had our late lunch, I got a better view of the golf course lying on either side of a small lake and dotted with divers species of flowers, the sparkling swimming pool, the bowling green and flying birds, all combining to add to the elegance of the hotel. Before sunset we strolled to the Bunga Forest and national park home to many animals such as impalas, hyenas and leopards. From this point we got a better view of the legendary leopard rock overlooking the hotel from which it got its name.
Our hotel guide led us into the story behind the legend of leopard rock. About five hundred years ago, a village called "Damara" meaning "Utopia" for being rich and healthy rested at the foot of the Chinyakweremba, 'The Hill of the Tired Legs.' One afternoon there was a big party with eating and dancing when an old man limped in seeking food and shelter. "Go away", jeered the revellers, "We haven't got time to worry about a silly old man like you". A girl in the village however followed and offered him beer and bread. He thanked her and warned: "Be far away from this place before sunset, for I have cursed and will destroy it." When the girl reported this warning to the others, they dismissed her. Good to his promise, the old man caused a heavy thunder which forced the mountain to break and crash down in huge rocks killing all the villagers save for the girl who heeded the warning to live to tell the story.
Night life at the Rock for the visitor is equally cool and relaxing in the bar or casino after a well balanced dinner. Formerly opened in 1946, the hotel was given royal accolade in 1953 when Queen Elizabeth the queen mother and Princess Margaret stayed there. The Queen mother is reputed to have said: "There is no where more beautiful in Africa".
Leopard Rock's Assistant Manager Terrie Kagande told me how the historic golf course and many services on offer are still attracting local and foreign guests from far and wide including Europe, Australia, South Africa, Mozambique although he was bold enough to admit a drop in the inflow of the latter due to what he described as "negative publicity in the foreign media". "Despite the political and economic problems, we are hosting at least two conferences by various international and local groups per week on average", said Kagande.
Nyanga District: A Rich Cultural Heritage
On our way to Nyanga, about two-hour drive north of Mutare, in the morning of April 5, we toured the Bvumba botanical gardens laden with dozens of species of flowers and trees and the wonderful Prince Charles View overlooking the Bvumba mountains from where we got a better view of the border town linking Zimbabwe to Mozambique. For the tour in the Nyanga district the team was transferred into another vehicle, this time a jeep, driven by one Spencer who Stanley introduced as our new guide from Sunset Tours. The dirt feeder road here, unlike the one we used to tour the Bvumba botanical gardens, turned out to be very bumpy as we had to occasionally hold tight to avoid hitting our heads on the roof top of the jeep. Here the visitor is immediately greeted with pine forests beautifully lining the road. Our next stop was Mtarazi falls, the second highest in Zimbabwe, but had to do a five minute walk on a bushy footpath before we could get a better view of it. We drove up the famous Pungwe View from where we got a scenic view of Mount Nyangani (2593 m), Zimbabwe's highest mountain, which takes a relatively little mountaineering skill to climb to the summit along a clearly marked trail lasting two hours. The landscape stretching from the Pungwe view to Mtarazi falls is inundated with many scenic spots which often play host to picnics organised by visitors.
The highlight of our Nyanga tour met us at the Rhodes Hotel where we met Mrs. Masaya of the Nyanga Tourist Association (NTA) who quickly turned out to be the most jovial and amusing of all the tour guides I met on this tour. Mrs. Masaya, a white Zimbabwean and wife of a black who teaches Economics at the University of Zimbabwe, took us on a conducted tour of the Rhodes Museum rich in achieved pictures of Cecil Rhodes and black heroes who fought the war of liberation against colonial rule. At the Rhodes hotel we were taking to a room which has the bed and other furniture Cecil Rhodes used during his life time. At least I was able to touch the bed and wardrobe of the man who carved one of the largest British empires in Africa (Rhodesia and the Nyasaland) during the colonial period.
As we drove to Nyanga village proper, this time on a tarred road, Mrs. Masaya gave us a brief run down of how Nyanga used to be the home of a farming community who moved into the valleys about 400 years ago but whose descendants were forced by white settlers to move upwards to the rocky hilltops after a fierce battle. We were treated to a cocktail with members of the Nyanga Tourism Trade at the Kamusha Kadiki hotel run by a Zimbabwean Indian lady, Davina Rana, also a member of NTA. Here we were provided with the first opportunity to freely discuss the issues affecting the tourist industry in Zimbabwe with our hosts. "In Europe we are told there is no press freedom in Zimbabwe but reading the papers on our way to this place I realise journalists enjoy a lot of freedom here", said Pascal Baeten, the freelance Belgian journalist and tour participant. I agreed. The consensus that emerged out of the discussion was that something should be done by all Zimbabwe's stake holders to resolve the political impasse over the land issue to revive the tourist industry and other economic sectors of the country.
We had dinner at the famous Montclair Hotel and Casino, about 30 minutes drive from Nyanga village and headed straight to the Trout beck Sun Hotel, another hour drive. Exhausted after a very hectic day with what appeared to be the tightest itinerary from Bvumba and Nyanga, a shower proved a stitch in time.
Our tour in Nyanga was however still not over as we joined Mrs. Masaya again in the morning of Sunday April 6 at Nyanga Tourism Association library which offers the visitor a huge collection of books about the history of Nyanga and the rest of Zimbabwe. From here we strolled on the main road of Nyanga village spotting the post office, hospital and string of shops, including a pharmacy.
At the Ziwa museum and Monuments, about an hour drive on a dirt but relatively motorableroad from Nyanga village, we discovered a huge collection of stone structures representing one of the most impressive and extensive set of ruins to be found anywhere in Africa. The most notable of the these structures built over 400 years ago were loophole hilltop forts built of large granite blocks and boulders with absolutely no mortar. We literally frog-matched through a narrow outlet of one of these loopholes leading us to a wider inside with a dug-out gorge where our museum guide told us the people use to keep their buffalos against wild animals. Hunter-gatherer tools, iron smelting sites and rock paintings conjure up visions of activities of a people in bygone days. In truth, Ziwa represents the interpretative centre of the history and archaeology of Nyanga-a must-visit for any holiday-maker with curiosity to discover the humble beginning of what is today the historic Nyanga district.
On our way back to Nyanga village, our guide Tambu, Mrs. Masaya's assistant, took us to the Arts and Crafts shop and sculptor centre where we bought souvenirs at give-away prices. We made a quick stop-over at the ecology-rich home of Mrs. Masaya, who introduced her husband and surprised us with a birthday cake and champagne to celebrate the birthday of Charles Ofoji, the German-based Nigerian journalist and tour participant. I found the cozy two-storey home of the Masaya's, with an imposing thatched roof top surrounded by artificial fish ponds and green vegetation, quite amazing. About 40 minute drive from Nyanga on our way to Harare we passed through the Inn on Ruparara equiped with a game park and traditionally built residential rooms for visitors with longing for nature.
We got to Harare late in the evening and checked in at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers, one of the three five star hotels in the capital. At least here, in the executive lobby on the 15th floor, I was able to check my emails in four days. Watching CNN and BBC from my hotel room, I saw correspondents beaming with confidence as they report the fall to US troops of the Saddam Hussein International airport in the outskirts of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, a report which the Iraqi Information minister was later seen dismissing as untrue. In this war fought more on propaganda than in the field, it was indeed difficult to tell where the truth was coming from. Feeling more relaxed, I began to reflect on our experience in the great Manicaland province where, save for the few petrol queues we saw in Mutare, life was normal as we did not experience or see any evidence of violence or human rights abuse you often read about in the mainstream media. We even bumped on a group of tourists and golf players from Germany who told us they were enjoying their stay in the beautiful country with no worries.
Kariba: Africa's best kept secret
We checked out of Sheraton in the morning of day 4 of our tour and headed for Kariba in the northwest of Harare. Lying on the main road about 90 km from Harare is the big agricultural town of Chinhoyi in the Mashonaland west province where we stopped briefly to buy local newspapers. We arrived Makuti where we picked up our tour colleague Christine, who said she completed her cycling tour with no problem. We also met Robin Brown, a white Zimbabwean tour guide of CANSAF adventures, who drove us to probably the wildest and loveliest National Park in Zimbabwe-Manapools, near the shore to which the mighty and famous river Zambezi ambles its way from Lake Kariba. We left the tarred road as we crossed the checkpoint into Manapools proper on bumpy and pot-hole laddenned dirt feeder road where we got our baptism of tse tse fly attacks. From the 4-wheeled open Toyota truck, the best for such rough drives, we felt more exposed to the tse tse flies although we took consolation in the animals ranging from impalas, birds, elephants, wild dogs, monkeys to hyenas we occasionally spotted as we wobbled on.
We arrived our destination of tented camps mounted on the bank of the
Robin, who said he has been working as a guide in canoeing safaris on the
There are two ways visitors experience the extraordinary offers of Mana Pools. While the less-adventurous visitor may prefer to enjoy the fun from a near-by luxury lodge with game drives and walks, the adventurous may prefer sleeping in a tent on the river bank and enjoying the close-up thrill of four-legged visitors, such as elephants and hyenas, monkeys..., during the day and night! But since we were programmed to experience the latter we had no choice but to prepare ourselves for it. Sharing a tent with Charles Ofoji, who was bold enough to confess how shaky he was in going through this experience, and despite the few scary groans probably from hippopotamuses, I passed the night with the soundest and longest sleep I had throughout the whole tour with no four-legged visitor, at least not one that I took notice of.
The next day, day 5, we were off again to Makuti where Robin, accompanied by his assistant Fisher Ngweome, dropped us to join our mini ZTA bus. A quick call to the ZTA Chief Executive, Dr. Chokonya, to arrange interview meetings with some farmers and government ministers slightly delayed my lunch at the Makuti Lodge and had to literally hurry up to join the others. Half-way to Kariba, I received a call from Dr. Chokonya on Stanley's cell phone telling me that he has managed to book some appointments for me on the following Monday April 14. I felt some relief over the possibility of tipping in a little into the land issue which, largely due to its misrepresentation in the media, has affected the tourist industry among other sectors. I am grateful to Dr. Sylvester Maunganidze of the Zimbabwe embassy in Paris for linking me up with Dr. Chokonya.
We crossed the beautiful man-made lake kariba by a small machine-propelled boat to Fothergil Island and national park. Lake Kariba, which was completed as a dam in 1958 stretching 290 km long and 32 km at its widest point, provides Zimbabwe with hydro-electric power and countless pleasures for tourists and locals such as fishing, water skiing and sailing, including the offshore Matusadona National Park. The exciting crossing lasted about an hour, and after checking in at the Fothergill Island Lodges, we went on a quick game drive around the national park in the island where we spotted elephants, baboons and Impala's at close range. My room at the Lodge was a small but self-contained v-shaped roof-thatched hut where, after a refreshing shower, I felt closer to nature again. With no TV and land telephone, this lodge is the place for a holiday- maker who wants to be at peace with nature far away from the troubles of the world. I met two French couples at the restaurant at dinner who told me they work for Total Fina in Zimbabwe and they were out there enjoying their holidays. They told me Zimbabwe is safe for tourists although most of their relatives and friends back home who would love to come explore its beauty often complain about the high hotel rates in the country compared to its neighbours.
At dawn we geared up for a game drive around the island with a very elegant sunrise skyline and this time got almost to a striking distance of the impalas and elephants. Our guide Sean Hind, a white Zimbabwean with an Irish background, showed us an airstrip where small planes from South Africa and other neighbouring countries often land to have a feel of the huge reservoir of wild life.
We set sail for the Sanyati Lodge situated alongside the spectacular Sanyati Gorge and Sheltered by the Matusadona mountain range where we were treated to a nice blend of buffet for lunch. Offering luxurious accommodation built from a combination of stonewalls, rough plaster, indigenous timber and thatch, the Sanyati Lodge provides a peaceful haven for the ultimate in relaxation. The Sanyati Marketing Director, Frenchman Laurent Picherit told us their lodge has been able to survive because of new marketing strategies such as encouraging more locals, including western diplomats, and foreign clients from neighbouring countriesto sail on the lake Kariba, explore the rich reserve of wildlife in the Matusadona National Park and relaxat the Sanyati. "When these diplomats and foreign clients return to their embassies and countries, we expect them to report the peaceful and wonderful experience they had here to their people". Despite its location in the wilderness, the lodge buzzes with ultra-modern facilities including conference centres, Internet, satellite TV etc. Interestingly enough this was the only lodge or hotel we visited whose rates are in Euros and not US dollars.
We sailed again across the lake Kariba this time to the town of Kariba where we visited the famous dam wall across the river Zambezi which connects Zimbabwe to Zambia in the north, checked in for dinner and the night in Kariba Breezes hotel. Following a quick meeting with members of the Kariba Tourism Publicity in the morning, we made our way for Harare by road on the same ZTA mini bus which we had left near the shore in Kariba on our way to Fothergil Island. We punctuated our drive to Harare with a quick tour of the mysterious Chinhoyi Caves and the great mysterious hole. Once at Sheraton Harare where we checked in again, our ZTA guide Stanley told me arrangements had been made for me to have a day off to visit some farms and talk to some farmers on the land issue the following day, Friday April 11, day 9 of our tour. This day-off meant I had to forgo the flight to Bulawayo, the country's second capital. Lying in my hotel room and reflecting a bit on our tour to all the national parks that link lake Kariba and the river Zambezi, I found it difficult to disagree with the publicity stunt-Kariba: Africa's best kept secret, which, for all you know, is still being explored, albeit on a rather low key level.
My trip at sunrise to the farms in the Mazoe district in the Mashonaland east province, some 60 km from
So far so good on my visit to the farms in Mazoe, at least for now, hoping to say more of my experience there in a subsequent article.
Victoria Falls: Among Seven Wonders of the World
I didn't fly the next morning, Saturday April 12, from Harare to Victoria Falls where I was supposed to join the team because they missed their flight from Bulawayo due, I was told, to the illness of Wolfgang who works for the second leading travel newspaper in Austria. To keep me busy, Stanley and Gladys arranged for a United Tourism Council (UTC) tours to take me on a conducted city tour in Harare visiting the national museum, Alexandre Park, Kopje, course way, Mbare market and the Unity Park, formerly called Cecil Rhodes.
I was billed to fly the following Monday April 14, day 10 of our tour, to theVictoria falls, to join the others and at least make up for the loss of not visiting Bulawayo and the Hwange national park which, I was told, is home to over 80, 000 elephants. My experience in Victoria Falls also proved wonderful and extraordinary, the most momentous being flying by helicopter over the falls, voted one of the seven natural wonders of the world; the fun of getting brutally wet from'rain' water splashing from the falls as we walked within close range on the overhanging piece of land standing on the other side; sunset cruise on the Zambezi on a UTc boat withother tourists from France, the UK and South Africa; spectacular cultural and traditional African dances at the Falls Craft village entertaining us and a little over a dozen other tourists, all white; and dinner punctuated with occasional cultural performances at the famous Boma restaurant offering traditional game meat and other Zimbabwean dishes.
Sharing Tour Experience with Tourism Ministry Officials
Back in Harare in the evening of the following day, the last but one of our 13-day tour, we checked in again at Sheraton where we had a meeting and dinner with the Tourism and Environment minister and some of his senior officials ostensibly to hear from us on our tour experience which they thought was going to be useful for policy. In summing up, Ludwig Shauchser, publisher of the popular German-based online travel newsmagazine, Afrika Aktuel, said on the whole the tour went on fine leaving all the participants with the perception that the country is still safe for tourists since we didn't see or hear any case of a tourist or a visitor being molested or harassed, adding that we were particularly encouraged by the warm hospitality of all the Zimbabweans we met. Ludwig, who last visited the country in 1991, however noted that we observed few petrol queues, the bad feeder road into Manapools, the relatively high hotel rates and the disappearance of the triangular Kariba, Victoria Falls and Harare flight shuttles which make touring these places much easier. I suggested that the government should try to provide more institutional incentives that would encourage more tourists to flow in as a way of overcoming the negative perception of the country caused by travel advice by their home governments, which, I warned, is proving difficult to change.
But the German freelance TV journalist and author Christine Kirsty quickly became the centre of attraction when she was given the floor to explain how she, coming a week earlier, cycled long distances including that between Mutare and chimanimani all by herself without any attack or harassment from either 'four or two- legged predators'.
"Before coming, I discovered that it was hard to convince our publishers; when I say I want to write a story on Zimbabwe, they will say: oh no! Not yet! Even on television, the story has been the same", said Kirsty
When Tourism Minister F D Nhema came in to ask "But Why", Kirsty simply retorted: "'Because of your political situation' is the answer. I think the problem is most of the publishers have the same opinion as the German politicians; if I must be honest I must say I felt a little bit insecure because of this sheet of paper: DONT TRAVEL TO ZIMBABWE". She was however optimistic that her story of a German woman (herself) cycling all alone without a guide in Zimbabwe to live to tell the story would be published back home when she returns because she thinks it would make interesting reading.
Speaking to me in an interview over dinner, the ZTA Chief Executive, Dr. Chokonya said: "We have been trying to shift the focus of our industry to south-south trade with the Asian and Southern African market as a way of cushioning the negative effects the north-south trade has suffered in the past two years. Of course it is clear that we want tourists to come from everywhere although that should not make us forget that south-south trade is more important to us in the developing world than north-south trade."
Showing that he meant every word he said, Dr. Chokonya said that was why on assuming office as Chief Executive, "we were about to send Tourism representatives to London, New York and Frankfurt, but I immediately changed that because those places are not our priority, and instead we are now sending them to France-because France as a county has been less hostile to us and here there has not been this deliberate week-to-week warning of their people not to come to Zimbabwe. The other two are going to China, our biggest Asian market, and South Africa."
Our tour ended the following day April 16 after a debriefing meeting with stakeholders of the Tourism industry in Zimbabwe to hear from us about our experience. We left Harare that evening for London after checking out of Meikles Hotel, with a lot to report back to our people.
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