The Zimbabwean way.

*Trigger Warning: This article contains information about rape and sexual assault, and may be triggering for some readers.*

“The response so far is just a foretaste of things to come.”  – George Charamba, spokesman for President Emmerson Mnangagwa (referring to the initial armed forces’ violent crackdown on protesters in Zimbabwe)

January has been a particularly painful month for Zimbabweans. Protests broke out during the #ZimbabweShutdown on the 14th, after a hike in fuel and food prices, chronic cash shortages and a doctor’s strike. Police officers and army soldiers were sent to ‘restore calm’. As usual, they did so with a disproportionate use of force. This resulted in over 600 arrests, 12 deaths, over 70 cases of gunshot wounds, mass beatings, and cases of rape.

While this was happening, President Emmerson Mnangagwa (nicknamed ED) was cozying up to government officials in Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. The President’s trip was cut short before he went to Davos, after Zimbabweans demanded he return to fix the mess he’d made. (Although one could argue that he would have wanted to avoid being grilled on his poor economic policies and his government’s rampant corruption and incompetence.) ED’s response to state sanctioned violence has been less than satisfactory, with no real effort made to stop the army and police’s actions. Other state officials aren’t helping either. Police spokeswoman Charity Charamba shocked no one when she said that “rogue elements” in the police force had stolen official uniforms, guns and cars and were responsible for the violence, not real officers and soldiers of course. The irony here is, if we assume she’s telling the truth (which I obviously do not), that we’re expected to trust a police and army force that can’t even prevent the theft of official uniforms, equipment and vehicles from being stolen. (A uniform? Maybe. An army truck? Come on, now.)

“The Zimbabwean Way”

ED had chosen to feign ignorance about police and military brutality, until SkyNews reported on the extent of police and army brutality. It’s important to note that even though Zimbabweans at home and abroad have been protesting, writing petitions, conducting campaigns on social media and mobilising donations for support for victims of violence, it was a foreign media channel that triggered ED’s empathy:

But what is the “Zimbabwean Way”?

What I think ED is alluding to is that in Zimbabwe, armed forces and police do not use disproportionate force against civilians; that any member of the army or police that abuses their power will be prosecuted; that the rule of law prevails and that Zimbabweans are always treated with dignity and respect throughout the legal process. None of this is true, and the president knows this. George Charamba’s comments on the military intervention before ED’s tweet were a glimpse into the President’s true feelings. The army’s brutal reaction was but a “foretaste of things to come” for our people. Now that, unfortunately, is the ‘Zimbabwean way’ that I’m familiar with.

For decades, the Zanu-PF led government has openly approved of using state police and army officials to enact violence against civilians. The most shocking and shameful example is Gukurahundi, where soldiers, under the 5th Brigade, attacked, killed, raped and destroyed property of Ndebele civilians. We have seen state sanctioned violence over and over again during election season, to rid urban areas of street vendors, to ‘teach’ peaceful protesters a ‘lesson’, and to prevent the opposition from gaining support. The ruling party has been unable to separate itself from the state, using state apparatus to maintain Zanu dominance. Zanu-PF is truly the thing that goes ‘bump’ in (both) the night (and day). You’re either with them or against them, and the latter could get you killed, jailed, maimed and even raped. The real ‘Zimbabwean way’ is therefore the Zanu way, and the Zanu way is littered with a trail of dead and violated bodies.

Women’s bodies: a battlefield for political violence

Rape crimes in Zimbabwe often go unreported, particularly when they’re committed by soldiers and police. The ones that are reported are often the last to come to light, mostly because victims are afraid of being targeted after they make a report. National statistics in the first quarter of 2018 showed that over 7000 women and girls were raped in 2017 and less than 50% of those cases were satisfactorily dealt with through the courts. More than 60% of rape cases involve minors, an important statistic when considering how many minors have been arrested and assaulted in the past two weeks. Worryingly, cases of rape in Zimbabwe increased by 81% between 2010 and 2016.

Politically motivated rape in particular has been a part of the fabric of the ruling party’s violent ways for years. Women’s rights activists and feminist groups have been conducting research and speaking out on it for decades now. The highest number of rape cases linked to political violence occur during elections and periods of public protest/unrest, where women and girls are often raped and sexually assaulted as a ‘punishment’ for their (or their spouse’s/family’s) support for the opposition. It is designed to destroy women’s dignity and harm them into silence and obedience.

ITV did a report on 11 women that said they were raped by soldiers during door to door raids after the protests. One soldier allegedly admitted to the crime, with no remorse. He was just following orders. His statement suggests that if those giving the order to ‘punish’ civilians for their dissidence are not directly telling their subordinates to rape women, they’re definitely not actively warning them not to either. This kind of punishment leaves lifelong scars and trauma, cultivates a culture of impunity for rapists, and entrenches the power of a ruling party that will do anything, including using brutal force against its own people, to stay in control.

As long as the “Zimbabwean way” is the “Zanu way”, Zimbabwean citizens will continue to be victims of state sanctioned violence, and we will have to continue fighting a system that exists to exploit and harm us.

(PS: Zanu Haichinji.)

Bye, Robert: The complexities of chipping away our oppression

Friday 24th November is the day Zimbabwe saw the swearing in of a new president, after what has been called a ‘bloodless coup’. It also marks the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the ruling party – one without Robert Mugabe. While the mood in Zimbabwe and amongst Zimbabwean communities the world over has been jubilant, what I have felt this week is a mixture of euphoria and anxiety, as I think deeply about the future of a people that have lost so much. This is my personal reflection on a system we desperately need to do away with to truly free ourselves of different forms of oppression.

Bye, Robert

My father had the kind of singing voice that could only be classified as atrocious. It was deep and lacked any sort of real tone or direction, and the only song I ever remember him sing from beginning to end, in three different languages, was our national anthem – a memory that still makes me cry with laughter whenever it crosses my mind. “Tone deaf and proud,” I would often call him.

In many ways, his tone deafness and pride in mediocrity extended beyond his attempts at singing, into his political life. He was a Zanu official for as long as I knew him, in different capacities. And it was his tone deafness – a characteristic shared by his former colleagues and our former president (that feels really good to say) that inevitably resulted in decades of state and police brutality, plundering of government resources, corruption, negligence and mismanagement at eye-watering levels. And so in essence, the same guttural voice that made me cry with laughter, made me seethe with anger at the horrid sate of affairs Zimbabweans were subjected to. Herein lies the complexity of where we find ourselves.

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Robert Mugabe, the former President of Zimbabwe, will not be missed. Photo cred: http://bit.ly/2i3vyYO

For years, Zimbabweans have been speaking and writing about the shocking state of the country’s decline. We were ruled by a government that had no interest in listening to anything other than the voices that were powerful enough to silence others. Mugabe was an awful leader. So when he was forced to resign (please stop saying it was by choice; it wasn’t), I danced and cried for the end of his political power that had been used to bully, oppress and marginalise his own people. For many, his demise symbolised the beginnings of a long road to recovery. Zimbabweans, I believe, should celebrate each victory we win as deeply as we have mourned our losses over the years.

Hello, Emmerson – we need to talk

But as I write this today, Emmerson Mnangagwa has taken over as the head of state. He was a close ally of the president who was part of government throughout some of its most violent periods and actions: Gukurahundi, Operation Murambatsvina, the political violence in various election years and so on. He was and is part of a system that none of us can say has ever truly served all Zimbabweans. Our country is in a mess, and it will take more than just a change in leadership to fix it, which most people are very aware of.

Now, this is the situation we find ourselves in. But this is not the situation we have to stay in forever. As a young Zimbabwean, I was swimming in apathy and despair for longer than I’d like to admit, and that is a sentiment that is shared across socio-economic statuses and geographical locations. The removal of Robert was one small step in a series of many large steps that need to be taken for us to truly be free. And it seems naïve to celebrate his removal, considering who has replaced him. But it is possible to be anti-Mugabe without being pro-Mnangagwa. It is possible, that after years of oppression, silencing and being mocked by Robert’s leadership, his removal is the push that some young people need to start thinking about how to build our country. Anything that chips away at the feelings of apathy about my country, I welcome with open arms.

It may be too early to tell where everything is going, but what is clear is that the entrenched system of violence and intolerance for opposing poitical views needs to be dismantled. We as citizens need to think and act in ways that emphasise our desire for a country where everyone is afforded the same opportunities. We need to keep fighting for a country that we can be proud of, and where political leaders are not deified, but recognise that they are to serve our interests alone.

My father lost his life because of the very system and people whose power he helped to consolidate, and so violence begets violence. The system and the people in it are not going to willingly change for us. I think we need to keep speaking and collectively cure the ‘tone deafness’ of our political leadership as we move forward. And I think we need to give each other the space to celebrate small victories, while we work out how to achieve bigger ones.

 

The darkest shade – black travel & rides through the desert

Amman

I think it was the staring that bothered me first. It was hard to ignore, but it was harder to convince myself that it surely couldn’t have been that many people staring.

It was.

Driving into the city from the airport the night before, I fell in love with Amman. It was a Friday and unusually quiet, but the little traffic we did run into gave me minor heart attacks. The driving here is of a standard I’ve never seen; frightful. Lanes seem to exist for no reason, as cars straddle the faint lines, speeding and slowing down at a whim. Amman is full of mini hills and valleys, and the summer sun beams down on the low buildings and the relatively sparse vegetation. Summer is drawing to an end rapidly – the evening air is crisp and I’ve been avoiding rooftop events, despite my love for sipping G&T at outdoor bars.

Having moved from Dubai I had grown accustomed to the adhan (the call to prayer), but I hear it much louder now. It’s soothing. That day, it reminded me of the Dubai creek; the original centre of the city’s commerce and an older part of the Emirate, unburdened by glistening towers, and overpriced cars, replaced by abras on a creek that charged a mere 1Dirham to cross over to the souq. As I walked down the street, a middle-aged man stopped me.

‘Excuse me! Hello! Where in Africa are you from?’ I must have stared at him for 10 seconds, puzzled. I looked back to see if anyone else passing by thought this odd. ‘Um, Zimbabwe. Why?’ I replied. ‘Well, you see I’d like to go to Swaziland…I have a travel agency, maybe we could help each other? Let me take you for coffee.’ I politely declined, half out of fear of what his reaction to a harsh rejection might be, half because perhaps I had expected something like this to happen. What followed in the weeks to come, were strange encounters with people I hope to never come across again. Sometimes I’d walk into the local supermarket and have children stare and point at me, both confused and amused. Their parents, to my disappointment, did nothing. At the Amman citadel, on the highest hill in the city, and where the Roman Temple of Hercules (yes, that Hercules) once stood – a group of young men shouted “Sudan?” or “Burkina Faso?” at me, hoping I’d confirm, so they could repeat the one phrase their domestic worker had taught them once. Just the other day, a woman in a shop came up to me and asked me if I was “Rosie”, another black woman who worked as a cleaner in her apartment building. She then proceeded to ask me to help her find the things on her list, ignoring the people who actually worked in the shop. “Tibvirei ambhuya,” I said eventually, smiling and walking away.

She smiled back.

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The Temple of Hercules – Amman Citadel

Wadi Rum, Aqaba & Petra

My weekend away in Wadi Rum and Aqaba was a dream. I was surrounded by expats – mostly European and American – who didn’t ask me uncomfortable questions, thankfully. Wadi Rum, the ‘Valley of the Moon’ is a protected desert in Jordan, with breathtaking sandstone mountains and ancient rock inscriptions and paintings.  As we climbed mountains and sand dunes, all that lay before me were miles and miles of desert. The emptiness, the silence, broken by the occasional sound of an old truck in the distance – it all made me feel very small. That night we basked in the light of a full moon, pointing out the few stars we could see. The cool breeze and the silence felt like a prayer – soft, soothing and bare.

Aqaba is the only coastal city in Jordan and lies on the shores of the Red Sea. A fierce blue colour and perfect temperature for a place that averages 33 degrees in the summer, the sea has been my favourite destination in Jordan so far. Our boat tour took us to the reefs, where we snorkelled in between diving off the boat and taking naps. You can see the Palestinian (they’ll tell you it’s Israel but we know better) and Egyptian side from the shores, miles and miles of sandy land and luxury hotels on the shore. Glorious.

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The Jordan side of the Red Sea – Aqaba

Nothing, however, could have prepared me for the splendour of Petra, the ancient ‘Rose city’, best known for its rock-cut architecture and advanced water conduit system. The city’s carved out temples and buildings tower over you, offering much-needed shade from an often scorching sun. My friend Tessy and I made our way up the mountains and across the valleys, walking for hours on what felt like a trail that would never end. As painful as the walking was, the joy of sightseeing with my black African friend in a predominantly Arab and white group of tourists, felt somewhat rebellious – grabbing our ‘otherness’ by the horns I guess. But also, at least I didn’t stick out alone.

Traveling while black in this region has definitely tainted my otherwise exciting experience. It means being both invisible and hyper-visible, stared at both in awe and in disgust, and both praised for your ‘perfect English’ and despised for not speaking Arabic well enough. My advice is to take a friend if you decide to visit this beautiful country. A black friend. A friend who gets it and who will calm you down when someone asks you if you speak ‘African’. Be prepared for the discomfort, but keep your head up.

You’re black, after all. Which means you’re magic, and not everyone responds in awe to things that outshine them. The world is vast and full of assholes, but there’s beauty too. It’s that beauty that makes the discomfort worth it at times.