Chris Kabwato remembers a time when Zimbabweans could dream. He writes about a group of talented Zimbabweans that once came together to build an economic plan for the country they loved
For the longest time, I have been fascinated by dreamers – those people who believe in something no matter how impractical it means to try to achieve it. It is the same with every generation – there is always a yearning for something.
It can be the yearning for freedom when under oppression as Angolan poet Agostinho Neto articulates succinctly in the poem Kinaxixi, where the persona, sitting on a bench in a square, observes ordinary people passing by:
I would see the tired footsteps
of the servants whose fathers also were servants
looking for love here, glory there, wanting
something more than drunkenness in every
Or it could be Dambudzo Marechera cajoling us:
Lynch those who hoard our national dream,
lining their pockets
with coins from the povo’s hymn.
One of my favourite novels is Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Written in Spain in 1605, the main character is a delusional man who thinks he is a knight and embarks on the kind of adventures he has read in the books on chivalry. Don Quixote is clear on his motivation:
…he decided not to wait any longer before putting his plans into action, encouraged by the need that he believed his delay was creating in the world: so great was his determination to redress grievances, right wrongs, correct injustices, rectify abuses and fulfil obligations.
Don Quixote finds beauty in the harsh reality around him. The idealistic refusing to yield to an ugly and cruel world.
The books and dreams of a free Africa
Once upon a time, we were the Don Quixotes of Harare. We read widely and books were everywhere in our lives. One such place where you could get free good books was the Soviet Cultural Centre at the Karigamombe Centre.
We had been told that everyone in the Soviet Union of Socialist Republics (USSR) read books. You could find an alcoholic with his vodka in one hand and a Dostoevsky in the other, so one fable went. Maybe there was a little truth in that, but what was true was that the Cultural Centre and Paul Brickhill’s Grassroots Bookshop (it was located next to the current location of Old Mutual) were a haven for an amazing range of literature – Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the Don, Gorky’s Mother, Leskov’s The Enchanted Wanderer and Collected Russian Stories. We were fascinated by the Russian people’s journey from Tsarism to the October Revolution in 1917.
The pan-African sensibility was most visible in October 1986 when university students protested the death of Samora Machel in a plane crash under suspicious circumstances. They accused the apartheid regime and Malawi of having conspired to lure Machel’s plane into South African territory and then bring it down. The rage resulted in certain embassies and airline offices being targeted and damaged. The memory of Samora was carried on for years, with one of the leading theatre groups, Zambuko/Izibuko, staging a popular play called Samora Continua in which they chronicled Mozambique’s liberation struggle.
Thomas Sankara’s assassination in October 1987 deepened the grief and the sense of being under siege. We bought copies of Thomas Sankara’s Collected Speeches and marveled at one address titled ‘Dare to Invent the Future’:
You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from nonconformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.
When love is unrequited, and history is a nightmare
Zimbabwe is like that person who perennially disappoints you but somehow you persist with them – hoping that they will mend their ways. But one’s relationship with Zimbabwe is not some mere lovers’ tiff. It goes deeper, and Marechera’s pre-exile poem, Pledging My Soul, captures the deep relationship between a citizen and their country of birth:
When I was a boy
I climbed onto your granite breasts
Smooth and round….
I was yours
And you were mine.
The symbolism of the umbilical cord and the ties to a place was the title of poet Chirikure Chirikure’s poetry anthology, Rukuvhute. One of the colourful characters of the Harare of the early 1990s was someone called Franco Matambanadzo. Franco had a real ear to the ground, and when narrating the big stories, he would first assert his origins: “Rukuvhute rwangu rwakadyiwa nekatsi munaDanyeri Street muMbare umu’’ (my umbilical cord was eaten by a cat in Daniel Street in Mbare). This is how strong we feel about places we were born – places we wish could be better than when we were growing up.
Whilst on the one hand one has this deep love, there is also the sense of truth in Irish writer James Joyce’s most famous line in Ulysses which reads ‘history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’
Zimbabwe does a great job of dishing out the beautiful and the horrific.
When we were young and dreamt
I first met Double D (allow me to call him just that) in 1998 when I was at the British Council. I am not sure how we came to be friends, but we did become very tight, spending many evenings at the Keg at Sam Levy’s Village, arguing, agreeing, howling, laughing, and dreaming. Double D was in the financial world – a hardworking young man, gregarious, well-connected, and passionate about Zimbabwe.
He had started off at a commercial bank that the government had at one point controlled 100%. He then moved to a financial house where, together with some friends, they broke away to form their own vehicle. In a different country, he would have thrived, but he was not willing to cut deals with Harare’s political leeches.
But I am going ahead of myself. What did we dream for Zimbabwe? In one of our key ideas, we said given our geographical position, a relatively developed infrastructure (then), and an educated youth we could position ourselves as a provider of services to the whole of the Southern Africa region other than South Africa: education, health (don’t snigger), transport, agriculture, tourism and more. So, our country would be about services.
When Double D became president of an influential business grouping, we thought our moment had arrived. We had fleshed out the proposal and, by coincidence, he was asked to lead a business delegation to Mozambique (Beira and Maputo) on a fact-finding mission. Well, the mission found out what every woman in Mutare knew and carried it on her head across the mountains into the neighbouring country. Mozambique needed Coca-Cola, cerveja (beer) and Colgate.
Parallel to my discussions with Double D, the Scientific Industrial Research Development Centre (SIRDC) in partnership with the British Council had initiated a programme called Creating Wealth Through Science (CWTS). The premise of the programme was simple and compelling: let us exploit the intellectual property of our scientists in academia through linkages with venture capital. Into this mix we would bring lawyers to handle IP agreements, encourage established companies as partners and form joint spin-off companies.
To prepare our scientists, we would run workshops to orientate them and make them savvy at pitching their ideas. Of the universities approached, the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) was the most enthusiastic and nimble. It helped that they had the dynamic Felix Moyo as their communications and marketing lead. The UZ moved with the usual tortoise smugness of incumbency.
The Creating Wealth Through Science initiative brought together leading thinkers from Zimbabwe’s scientific and technology community including Professor Christopher Chetsanga (then director of SIRDC), Dr Fortune Mhlanga (informatics), William Gwata (IT) and Dr Joseph Gopo (biotechnology). We had key supporters such as Professor Clever Nyathi who was then at NUST.
From industry, we had members drawn from engineering and oil companies. You may wonder how someone like me who can only analyse novels such as Makunun’unu Maodzamoyo could fit in such a group of eminent persons, but such was the democratic nature of this project that we were all welcomed and put to good use.
Whilst much was achieved in a very short space of time, the country was headed for stormy weather. In 1999 I had become a specialist in sleeping overnight in fuel queues. By 2002, our initiative was hobbling until it stopped breathing altogether. Other countries had beckoned and many of our members left the geography of the teapot – never to return.