Zimbabwe: Rebuilding the house of stone
When music legend, Bob Marley, composed the song ‘Zimbabwe’, a rousing anthem for the newly democratic African nation, he could scarcely have guessed how its lyrics would one day yield bitter sarcasm and pain with every pluck and twang of the guitar strings that form its beat.
“I was in third grade when we got independence,” recalls Ngoni (not his real name), enthusiastically, upon hearing the lilting reggae song play. “It was so exciting for us as children and the adults were singing and dancing, and crying and chanting slogans. Then we got some paper caps with the colours of the Zimbabwe flag. Oh my God!”
In one of the verses of the song that celebrates Zimbabwe’s 1980 attainment of independence from British colonial rule, Marley sings, “No more internal power struggle/ We come together to overcome the little trouble.”
But just over 30 years later, those words stand in stark contrast to the present Zimbabwe situation where an intense power struggle plays out against social and economic decay and mass migration of Zimbabwean nationals to all parts of the world.
Zimbabwe is a land-locked country in southern Africa which touches borders with Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia. At the end of 2010, Zimbabwe’s population was estimated at just over 12 million. However, it is believed that there are over three million Zimbabweans living outside of the country due largely to the political tensions that have erupted over the years. Most recently, in 2008, the re-run of a highly contested presidential election between Zimbabwe’s two main political parties led to widespread violence and intimidation. But it is the forcible reclamation of white-owned farm land by Zimbabwe’s government in 2000 that will forever symbolise the rupture of the nation’s previously peaceful political environment.
Several farmers were killed, tortured and intimidated and it is estimated that the land reform process saw the transfer of nearly 8 million hectares of land (one-fifth of Zimbabwe’s total land mass) owned by about 4 000 white farmers to 160 000 mostly black households. Previously, white farmers controlled approximately 70% of all of Zimbabwe’s total arable land. At this time, white people constituted less than a tenth of Zimbabwe’s total population.
But what was meant to herald prosperity for the black majority has largely not borne fruit. Owing to the violent and unplanned manner in which the farm resettlements were carried out, there was and remains little to cheer about for many ordinary Zimbabweans. Nationwide food shortages caused by a shift from skilled large scale to semi-skilled small holder land farming, and exacerbated by erratic rainfall patterns, have led to a major decline in Zimbabwe’s food security levels. This has been accompanied by sky-high hyperinflation recorded at approximately 6.5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent by the end of 2008, widespread unemployment (calculated at over 80% of the adult population in 2009) and the shrinking of productive markets across all of Zimbabwe’s business sectors.
In short, these untenable living conditions experienced over the past decade have led to a mass exodus of Zimbabweans to various parts of the world. And Zimbabweans of every race and background have been affected.
Twenty-six-year-old Amy (not her real name) remembers well the reasons for her own family’s departure from Zimbabwe. “We left in December 2001 due to the economic situation in Zimbabwe,” she recalls. “My dad's business relied on foreign currency for him to be able to procure inventory; but getting forex in Zimbabwe at that time was challenging at first, and then it became illegal. My dad was not willing to do forex trades on the black market and risk getting arrested or worse, so he decided to move to South Africa.”
Amy’s situation is one lived out by many Zimbabwean families whose business enterprises folded in the early 2000s after the country’s supplies of foreign currency dwindled to a drop of the national need. During this time, the forex black market trade mushroomed with many illegal traders, nicknamed ‘bo’sphatheleni’ (a Ndebele term meaning ‘what have you got for us?’) supplying illegally sourced currencies to desperate Zimbabweans.
Amy eventually moved to Texas in the United States, where she studied, and now lives in Houston. “Initially, when I moved to the US in 2002, people would inevitably detect an accent and I would tell them I was from Zimbabwe,” she remembers. “But from the blank stares I got in response, I would have to add that Zimbabwe was a country in southern Africa. And then they would think I was from South Africa. Eventually, I just started saying I was South African as it was easier."
Over the last few years, Zimbabwe has enjoyed its fair share of international media attention – but all for the wrong reasons. Once termed the bread basket of southern Africa (owing to its previous food security role in SADC, southern Africa’s regional bloc) Zimbabwe is now often derisively referred to as the basket case of the region. Infinitely long food queues, nationwide shortages of water, outbreaks of cholera and politically charged murders and beatings are just a few of the causes of Zimbabwe’s tainted public image. But for many, Zimbabwe still remains an unknown land and concept that draws blank stares and confusion.
Amy’s situation is complicated further by her being a white Zimbabwean, a concept which she says many people have trouble understanding. “One thing that is frustrating for me is that people here do not really believe that I could truly be Zimbabwean, or even African for that matter,” she adds. “They almost always assume that my parents must have been missionaries or that I can't really be connected with the country.”
Given that Amy’s family history in southern Africa dates back at least five generations, she finds it insulting that her childhood experiences of struggle are somewhat discredited due to the colour of her skin
For 28-year-old Nontsi Mutiti, a black Zimbabwean also based in the US, her frustrations have been somewhat different. “I have experienced racism,” she states. “This [the US] is not my country and there is a history of oppression and prejudice that runs very deep here.”
To diffuse tensions, Nontsi says that she and her group of multicultural friends crack racial jokes among themselves. But she remains mindful of the fact that the school where she is studying provides her and her peers an “artificial” environment in which she is surrounded by people from various countries and parts of America. This, she feels, offers her protection from the social tensions playing themselves out beyond the parameters of their school.
No example depicts the social tension that Zimbabewans experience upon departure from their country better than the May 2008 xenophobic attacks that took place in South Africa. In that month alone, 62 foreigners were killed, 670 injured and 30 000 displaced after pockets of South African resisters to integration took to violently attacking migrant workers whom they felt were robbing them of jobs and sustainable livelihoods. It is estimated that there are about 1.5 million Zimbabweans living and working in South Africa.
Ruvimbo, a Zimbabwean working in South Africa, knows this tension all too well. Though the violent attacks flared - and continue to flare - within poorer communities, Ruvimbo says that she too has experienced discomfort in her middle-class Johannesburg environment. “I am often reminded that I am not welcome when I walk into a shop and the attendant asks me something in a language that I don’t understand. As soon as I answer in English, a look of fear and disgust registers and I realise that even though I am the same colour as the person, I am different.”
But with prospects of a brighter future for Zimbabwe still remaining an obscure fantasy, it seems that many Zimbabweans living abroad will have to continue to endure these challenges.
The signing of a political agreement in Zimbabwe, and the formation in 2009 of the government of national unity among Zimbabwe’s three feuding political parties, has marginally improved living conditions for the ordinary man and woman. Under a clause in the agreement that addresses economic recovery, the parties commit themselves to working together to address challenges around production, food security, poverty and unemployment.
Also, a three-year Short-Term Economic Recovery Program (STERP) is in place and is beginning to yield results which include the reduction and stabilisation of Zimbabwe’s inflation. Zimbabwe no longer uses Zimbabwean dollars as its currency and now relies on foreign currencies such as the United States dollar and the South African rand. Through this fiscal stabilisation, it is estimated that Zimbabwe’s economy grew by 4,5% in 2009 and was projected to expand by 8.1 % in 2010, and 9 % in 2011.
However, there are still many problems that require urgent attention. While HIV prevalence - currently standing at about 13% within the adult population - is on the decline, it still remains one of highest national HIV epidemic figures. In addition, poor remuneration of civil servants and the effects of the loss of skilled labour (due to AIDS, land reform and migration) are still being felt. And perhaps of most universal concern is the emerging rift among the three parties that constitute Zimbabwe’s coalition government, namely ZANU-PF, and the MDC parties, as rumours of imminent and violent elections continue to swirl.
“I do not wish to return to Zimbabwe as I feel my home is here now,” affirms Pratiksha Parmar (26) who is based in New Zealand. As with many other families, Pratiksha fled Zimbabwe in 2000 due to the political tension and uncertainty. She adds that she has adjusted well to her new country and is happy to be living in a place that guarantees her security and stability.
Nontsi, on the other hand, wishes to return, but remains of two minds. “I am not sure if I could maintain the standard of work I want to do if I move back permanently,” she shares. “Zimbabwe is a very insular society and I have not felt that I fit in well even before I left. Going home after being in a place where I can fully express myself may prove difficult especially when I have to interact with people who are very quick to judge anyone who does not conform to the standard expectations of Zimbabwean society.”
Amid all these negotiations of home, race, identity and belonging, what seems apparent is that there is need for organised support systems for Zimbabweans living abroad. While all of the women interviewed noted that they were members of Facebook-based networks of Zimbabweans living abroad, they felt that these were not useful for promoting meaningful interaction. Networks that encourage Zimbabwean women of the diaspora to share constructively their unique experiences of discrimination and longings for their home country could prove to yield solutions to many concerns.
An example of this is the Zimbabwe Women’s Network UK (ZIWNUK) which was set up in 2003 to focus on the issues concerning the rights and welfare of Zimbabwean women refugees, asylum seekers, students, migrant workers and their families living in London. The network also aims to implement projects that promote and nurture girls' and women’s skills so as to enable them to lift themselves out of poverty.
While efforts on the part of this journalist to make contact with the network were fruitless, it appears that the network has assisted women and their families to acclimatise to the new demands of their lives abroad; lives that breed a multitude of challenges and complexities.
In the music video for Bob Marley’s ‘Zimbabwe’ the crowds of people - young and old - dance, shout and scream euphorically as the Union Jack is lowered and Zimbabwe’s flag is hoisted flapping proudly against the night breeze. Prince Charles salutes the moment while other dignitaries stand at attention. This is Zimbabwe's new dawn.
Zimbabwe’s flag is symbolic and tells the nation’s story in vivid shades of colour. Red represents the blood shed in protracted wars of independence. Yellow represents Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth. Green symbolises agricultural fertility and black is for the attainment of majority rule by Zimbabwe’s black population. Amid this kaleidoscope of colours is the mythical Zimbabwean bird set against a red star and white triangle – a symbol of the peace and magic of a land whose name means ‘house of stone’; a house of shattering stones that needs rebuilding not only in Zimbabwe, but all across the diaspora.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.