We were once a proud nation, now scattered to the four corners of the world and the subject of online insults. As the countries in which we have sought refuge become less tolerant, we must confront our future, writes Chris Kabwato
Once upon a time, the purple blossoms of Harare’s jacarandas were the rage for international visitors. From the 1980s into the mid-90s it seemed everyone wanted to hold their conference in Harare or Victoria Falls or Kariba.
They said the Harare weather was the most pleasant on earth. All the people spoke perfect English, even in the rural areas. The country had the hotels, lodges, game parks and infrastructure. So where better to hold the 1991 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) than at the refurbished Harare International Conference Centre? Why, even the Queen felt at home sipping tea from dainty china with one Robert Gabriel Mugabe, giggling at his stories whispered conspiratorially in that British public-school accent.
The CHOGM was preceded by the Commonwealth Human Rights Conference where the late Chief Justice Enoch Dumbutshena could confidently quote what President Robert Mugabe had said in 1989 at the opening of a judicial colloquium on – wait for this – the application of international human rights norms to domestic human rights:
“The importance of human rights, both at the domestic level and internationally, can never be over-emphasized. Human rights and fundamental freedoms allow us fully to develop and use our human qualities, intelligence, talents and conscience to satisfy our spiritual and other needs. It follows, therefore, that the denial of human rights and fundamental freedoms is not only an individual and personal tragedy, but also creates conditions of social and political unrest, sowing seeds of violence and conflict within and between societies and nations.”
Few could have predicted the enormity of the tsunami that would hit our shores from the late 1990s into the early 2000s.
When the bough breaks
Our teachers at Zimunya Primary School, Mrs Rondozayi, Mrs Nyambawaro and Mrs Katso, taught us some beautiful songs in Shona and English. One of my favourite nursery rhymes was When the Bough Breaks:
On the treetop
When the wind blows
The cradle will rock
If the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
But mama will catch you
Cradle and all.
I could not understand how a song could be both joyful and sad at the same time. When the economic bough broke in Zimbabwe, there was no Mother-Shero to break the fall. We seemed to have fallen into an endless pit – something akin to those scary black holes in faraway galaxies that are caused when a massive star collapses on itself. And so, Zimbabwe, our star had collapsed. Going down the hole we knew this was not some Alice in Wonderland adventure. It was Dracula come alive.
The green passport – escape from the Chikurubi of a nation
For many years, I fought with my father over getting a passport. I told him I did not see the need for one. I had no intention of going anywhere outside the geography of the teapot-shaped country of my birth. He persisted. I relented. Our first trip was to buy a television set at some shop called Solly’s in Pietersburg (now Polokwane). It was a wonderful trip, lying at the back of his Datsun 1200 van and going through the South African side of the Beitbridge border “manned” by khaki-clad, intimidating and serious-looking Afrikaners.
Fast forward to November 1997 and I am at the then Jan Smuts International Airport, on my way to the Cape Town Film and Television Market. I do the confident Zimbo walk into a foreign currency bureau to change my Zimbabwe dollars into Rands.
“I can’t,” says the teller. “We have just been advised not to accept the Zimbabwe dollar.”
Unbeknown to me, my national currency had crashed that day, and no one wanted to touch that note with a pitchfork. The war veterans had gotten their compensation of ZW$50 000 each and it had cost the country dearly. The stock exchange was in a tailspin as foreign investors made a dash for the exit. The political apparatchiks could not care less – they had secured their political futures by acceding to the demands of the “o-vets”. United, the liberation axis could now train their guns on the common “enemy”.
For an ordinary couple living in a flat in the Avenues and trying to raise their daughter, this was the cue to begin to explore options across the Limpopo. Hitherto, we had diligently been contributing to a Ministry of Housing fund so that our allocated stand in Tynwald could be serviced. In that same period, the original Dr Amai got delivery of her “Blue Roof” mansion and some judge told us the housing fund had been looted dry. The upshot is that all we have as an insulting memento are the receipts – the broken tooth that your tongue acknowledges daily.
Learning to ride a bike
My first trip to West Africa was to Burkina Faso. I was struck by the fact that everyone seemed to own a motorbike (more of a moped) and there were hundreds of these on the street. Weaving along the streets without helmets, the riders seemed to just do it effortlessly.
Jump forward to 2023 and the delivery-on-demand industry is in full swing in South Africa. Since it is an exploitative industry, the best employee is the migrant living on the margins. So here we are, Zimbabweans who do not have a culture of motorcycling having to learn how to ride these machines and crisscross Johannesburg to deliver burgers and Lactogen. It is a daily ritual of mine to watch the awkwardness with which our people sit on the motorbike – the uncertain posture as if one never rode a bicycle, the hesitation at overtaking, the dangerous weaving in and out of traffic. Sometimes there is an accident, and you hope the police that will arrive on the scene will not use the occasion to create trouble for the biker.
On the same street are our young people waving flyers for one or other car servicing business. No one wants to take the flyers but under the blazing sun, our native sons in their ridiculous orange overalls and orange helmets diligently try to execute their duty. At a better level is Sydwell the Uber driver. But he is now tired of the weakening of the Rand as he must send money in United States dollars to the family back home.
“We [Zimbabweans] are all now looking to move to the UK.”
On becoming a man: pride and dignity
Once upon a time we prided ourselves based on the lies we told each other as Zimbabweans. We were the Yankees of Africa – proud of our education, proud of our diligence, proud of our English proficiency. We looked down on everyone. We could not understand how Zambians were crossing into our country to buy cooking oil, sugar and salt. We could not understand how Malawians pronounced the “a” in I can see a fat man chasing a fat rat.
Of course, the wheel of fortune would turn, as it always does. On South African social media, we have become the favourite caricatures, the gym punchbag. A special kind of hatred seems to be reserved for the Zimbabwean. We are the bogeyman that has caused every imaginable economic pressure on Mandela’s country. Speculation on every criminal act starts with the suspicion that a Zimbo should be somewhere in the mix. I am no longer sure if we did not participate in the manipulation of the Rand…
My father was a proud, self-educated man who read voraciously. Aspirational, he wanted us to have that which colonial Nyasaland and Southern Rhodesia had denied him. He bought his daughters and sons two books to read (both written by Harold Shryock): On Becoming a Woman; and On Becoming a Man. Although the men’s book was written in 1951, and is largely outdated due to its conservative views, the idea that my father had was that we could model our behaviour around certain values. He cared deeply about his name and how anyone who carried it conducted themselves. I doubt he ever envisaged that, post-independence, we would live in places in which we would have to justify our humanity.
The scattered tribes of a broken country
The decision to leave your country should, in normal circumstances, be a voluntary one and there should be a right to return whenever one desires. Two weeks ago, a relative of mine arrived in the United Kingdom from Zimbabwe with his wife and two children. Officially he is on a three-month leave, but he has started a new job in England. He leaves behind his mother and his grandparents. His children will have to adapt to a new world. As our scattering continues unabated, some malignant symptoms are arising that will take generations to address – if ever. Language and the family unit are the most affected, with marital strife being a common refrain. The result is a plethora of mental health challenges for all our people, but especially children and the youth.
What we shall realise at some point is that we need the physical country called Zimbabwe to have a different politics and a different set of values. The countries in which we have sought refuge are becoming more authoritarian and less tolerant. We remain easy scapegoats – by colour and/or nationality. The right and ability to influence the course of Zimbabwe’s future will be an inescapable imperative.
We can run and shelter in the false security of other people’s countries but some day we shall need to confront the beast that continues to devour our future.