Exile is not just physical
A friend of mine has been asking me to contribute to this blog for a long time, to which I kept promising a few paragraphs that never came. What he did not know, until now that is, and what I have been all too reluctant to tell him, is that I have not seen in myself someone worthy, capable, or competent enough to contribute, let alone make a worthwhile comment on the country of my birth.
Thirteen years of sub-conscious, conscious, and then self-imposed exile from Zimbabwe have translated into a disconnetion. Empathy replaced with sympathy. Its development and events developing have become far removed from who I am. Every time I have travelled back to Zimbabwe, there is no escaping a longing for another place: my adopted country.
I left Zimbabwe in 2003 to study abroad. The Zimbabwe I left,, despite some challenges, seemed to be faring well. At least then people still spoke of Zimbabwe in glowing terms. However, whenever I went back home for the holidays, I was appalled at the speed and the extent to which the country’s political and economic systems were deteriorating. Over time, these trips became visits. The gaps between visits became longer and longer, and at some point I found no reason to go.
It just happened.
Now that I think about it, I am ashamed. I am horrified that my knowledge of what is happening in my country has been reduced to Twitter’s 140 characters and media reports that vary based on whether the originator is state-owned or private. My involvement is now limited to soundbites or blurbs. Writing for Conversation Zimbabwe has afforded me the opportunity for introspection. An opportunity to ask who I am, where I am, and why I am in the conversation about my home. Having finally taken that opportunity I do not like what I found.
A Zimbabwean’s shame
I am a 30-something Zimbabwean, I have never voted and, honestly, I have never been bothered by that. It’s not for lack of time or resources; I just haven’t cared. My reason has always been that I left Zimbabwe when I was too young to have any vested political or social interest. That’s just an excuse though. Like most Zimbabweans I know, I can join in when it is time to complain bitterly about the situation there and I always relate the story that being resident in a foreign country was never part of my grand plan but I am here and this is where I have to focus. I have a great job here and often feel lucky that it affords me the opportunity to travel the world. I have been to countries that I never dreamed I would walk their streets. In my line of work, I can recite statistics and probably statistics for those statistics relating to my adopted country. I’m sufficiently conversant in the political, economic and social discourse of my adopted country and I am comfortable discussing this with scholars, politicians, policymakers and diplomats. At international gatherings I think and speak from the perspective of my adopted country. However, if you start asking me about Zimbabwe and seeking something deeper or insightful, that discussion will probably be punctuated by multiple Google searches. Indeed, in stark contrast, there will not be any information, statistics, or opinion on tap when it comes to Zimbabwe.
Surprisingly, I am happy to brandish my Zimbabwean passport. It is almost always bound to start a conversation. At meetings and conferences I am quick to point out that I am Zimbabwean. So I should not think I am ashamed of being Zimbabwean. At the same time I am not sure if I can say I have become or am despondent about the Zimbabwean situation or optimistic about its future because I have never given myself a chance to be overly concerned or distressed about it. Let those that stayed in Zimbabwe deal with it. Somehow.
I have engaged in conversations about Zimbabwe. I have characterised or maybe even mischaracterised Zimbabwean people. I have tried to contextualise the situation. I talk about Gukurahundi. I talk about the political violence of 2008. I talk about plenty of other topics that form part of the prevailing Zimbabwean-in-another-country-other-than-Zimbabwe discourse. However, in all of this, I have never associated myself with being part of the problem. I have never been involved or thought of myself as being accountable for what has happened, what continues to happen and, optimistically, what could happen in my country. In the midst of this discourse and the words written and discussions had, I sit on the fence and I watch events unfold. I am nothing more than a disinterested spectator with no direct or even indirect interest in the final outcome.
In writing this piece, I did not get a chance, maybe I did not make one, to ask my Zimbabwean friends in our mutually-adopted country whether they feel the same. Maybe we are all on that fence or heading towards it. I have expectations, but those are most likely hopes for the people back home to act. However, those are from the perspective of an observer with nothing at stake. It is from that place that I have judged those people at home for lack of action. Surely they have to have built up enough anger and desperation to rise, strike, take to the streets, boycott, do something… anything really!
Delving deeper into what it means to be a Zimbabwean in this adopted country and what I have become, I am sure those currently resident in Zimbabwe have done all of this in one way or another; and thankfully, on my behalf. Yes, that’s arrogance. I know. All of this has to happen apart from me so that I can sit in the comfort of my townhouse, watching events unfold on television, popcorn in one hand and my phone in the other, voraciously going through what would undoubtedly be some very exciting twitter updates.
Maybe I do not have a single activist bone in my body. Maybe this will be the one and only piece of commentary relating to Zimbabwe that I will be willing be held to, the only effort I will ever make to hold the mirror to my face when it comes to my country. In the end I figured I would finally take the opportunity to reflect, however little, on what I and some of the people I know have done and what we have contributed towards taking Zimbabwe back to the glory days, back to the country of my childhood which is nothing like what Zimbabwe is right now. Maybe even move past nostalgia and see the possibility of something new built in the image of what home can be.
How can I expect others to be accountable when I hold myself up to nothing? How much are my expectations of others worth when I have no expectations of myself with respect to the present and future of my home? How do I ask that others act when I have chosen to be passive? I expected writing this piece to be difficult, searching for inspiration in cups of strong coffee. However, the moment I started writing I found anger, apathy, pessimism, disconnection, and so many other things that I had knowingly and unknowingly used to further remove myself.
I am young, I am Zimbabwean, and I am ashamed.
I have let my country down.
I have let its people down.
How will we ever get to that point where not I, not you, but all of us work to remove the rot? When will those like me or similar enough no longer be content being bystanders? When will we see the meaning that our words, our participation, or involvement, however little, can bring us closer to home? I am Zimbabwean and I don’t want to be too ashamed to care.