It’s dark down here. It’s sweaty and smells bad. The humid greasiness is overpowering, the daily grind of potholes and gunk. It gets depressing. Stuck in a never-ending cycle of living for the next pay cheque, the next deal, the next scheme, the next loan from fed-up relatives and naïve friends. We are surrounded on all sides by unemployment, gangster churches, power cuts, and water cuts… unyielding border posts. The smiles on our faces hide our fear, anxiety, depression. Our stress is at chronic levels. The lame jokes and the cracked, hollow laughter are all different shades of denial, escapism and religious fanaticism. We are unwitting soldiers in a never-ending war. The lack of gunfire doesn’t make this struggle any less damaging. War kills not only the body but the mind. We are zombies in a tri-decade movie, a drama-cum-horror-cum-thriller, and judging by B-Metro, I swear there is some sci-fi up in here!
These were thoughts that flooded my mind as I drove on the old road I grew up on. I’ll leave it unnamed lest I become a statistic like whoever laid that red carpet last week. I was lucky enough to be driving a 4×4 (not mine, and a tank would have been preferable), but it took me almost 20 minutes to navigate a 4 km stretch of “tar.” I later searched for that road at the Historical Library in City Hall, and found out that the same strip of road was over 100 years old. Wow, they built some solid roads back then! I wonder if we have ever resurfaced it. Seriously though, have we done any maintenance in this country? That is what pisses off my born-free Zimbabwean batteries, the lack of care and/or pride we as a nation have shown ourselves. We have let our house fall apart, and we get offended when our children leave. Just last week on Facebook, I ranted at TelOne for treating me like a small house on probation when I was paying good money for my ADSL service, or lack thereof as the case may be. Then a fellow sidechick asked me why I was raising my blood pressure and applying for an ulcer when I knew full well that TelOne didn’t care, and leaving angry messages wasn’t going to get me any attention. I sat down in a defeated puff of ZESA-free smoke and lamented how familiar that position was – the one where you are at the bottom of the food chain and no one gives a damn.
In the last few weeks I have read Jimmy, Richard and Memory’s pieces on the will to, and actually leaving Zimbabwe, finding greener pastures and staying there. Jimmy is threatening to leave (like we will miss him or something), Richard and Memory are assuaging their guilt with cries of, “So we are gone, but it is REALLY hard to come back, but we still care…sort of…. okay?” Sorry Jimmy, you I just don’t have time for. The world owes you nothing; that world includes Zimbabwe. It is up to you to make your life meaningful and successful wherever and however you are.
Jimmy, I respect your struggle, I respect your decision to leave. However, your struggle was not any more difficult than that of any other Zimbabwean. In fact that you have had the option to leave means you are one of the privileged few. We are all in the shit together, and declaring your intent to leave is as attention-seeking and impotent as it is to declare to ones’ friends that you’re leaving Facebook. Like Nike says – just do it!
The other two pieces I would like to engage with more deeply. I feel a plea for understanding emanating from both – hey, I could be wrong. I am only human, but it is hard to feel sympathy for someone of whom you are jealous. It is like the pretty girl in a group telling her friends that she feels soooo ugly so that they can chime in, “No, but you are prettier than the rest of us.”
I will start with Richard’s piece and address the alienation experienced by white Zimbabweans. First, I must clarify that I am speaking from my point of view as a member of the majority population in the country. I am not trying to diminish the lived experiences of white Zimbabweans, and certainly this is not an attack on Richard as an individual. I am just describing what I see through my own lens.
First of all this howling victimhood I keep hearing from many white Africans is really tiring. The land invasions in Zimbabwe were carried out by a specific group of people. We all know who did it and why. We all know that it wasn’t our neighbours or our fellow parents at the school PTA. So can we please stop pretending that black Zimbabweans are lusting hungrily after your ill-gotten/inherited/don’t know what happened/maybe I worked hard for it farm? As a nation we need to start placing responsibility where it belongs and stop knowingly buying into meta-narratives that are purposefully meant to divide us. Therefore when a white Zimbabwean talks about feeling alienated from their homeland I am inclined to ask, as opposed to who? The Matabele? The victims of Operation Murambatsvina? What makes your struggle more special? And whose responsibility is it to make you feel “welcome”?
This goes in line with the dual citizenship and ancestral visa argument. As much as I think it was a human rights abuse to declare white Zimbabweans aliens in instances where they were second generation Zimbabweans, I also feel that there is a certain hypocrisy in claiming British ancestral citizenship and then still complaining about feeling unwelcome in Zimbabwe. When things get real in Africa, white people are often the first to leave. Perhaps because they have a “home” to leave to – their place of origin.
If one is to claim to have justified and equal rights as an African, then one must actively engage in the issues of the soil of your birth. There is a lack of active political and social participation from white Africans, and I will throw in the Asian community here too. It is not just about learning the local language; it is about making real connections with the people you grew up with and working together for change. The politics of division and racism that became evident and rampant in 2005 were only possible because we already live in a polarised community. It is so easy to believe “malicious gossip” about a person who looks down their nose at you anyway. The aloof “we will stick to ourselves and not mix with these blacks” attitude is what added fuel to the flame of the “remixed truth” that was the land invasions. Holding on to your privilege is what isolates you as white people, and makes it difficult for us black people to be sympathetic towards your cause. And in terms of your being in the diaspora, it is the very fact that you are able to claim British ancestral citizenship that you are able to leave Zimbabwe in the first place. White passport privilege is a real thing.
When I apply to the British Border Agency, my surname alone puts me at a disadvantage and we can’t pretend that doesn’t happen, not just with visas but with university applications, also with job applications. My flight risk as a black person is perceived as being much higher than that of Mr. Thompson; who is not only as qualified, but as much of an economic refugee as I am. As a white Zimbabwean abroad you’re seen as the victim of the despot; as a black Zimbabwean, you might as well be his direct relative.
Moving on to Memory’s moving piece which read like an in-depth study of how honest and self-effacing a person can be about not caring. I couldn’t miss the well placed hints about how good life is out there. As a Zimbabwe-based reader, I felt left with the responsibility of showing empathy. It’s that pretty girl thing again. (You can definitely tell I was the ugly friend, right?) The thing is, Zimbabwe is a nation full of us “who missed the train”, most from circumstances beyond our control, some from poor life choices, and some from political delusions. There are, of course, the rare unicorns who chose to come back and build at home, but those exceptions are few and far between. It is not easy, when you are struggling to pay rent and feed your kids, to listen to someone more privileged than you expressing pity and remorse over a situation they clearly are not invested in changing. These moments only serve to make the privileged feel like they are somehow fulfilling their social obligations by engaging in a “difficult topic”, while the rest of us live through it. Nothing is more patronising than, “You’re so brave for staying!” – It is not courage dear, its necessity, and your kudos won’t buy me Cash Power.
In general, I am tired of Africans as a whole comforting ourselves with pats on the back about how strong we are in the face of struggle. This is anything from Zimbabweans calling ourselves “survivors and plan-makers”, and black power people claiming ownership of the Nubian kingdoms of the Nile. As Africans we have made great strides in the history of civilisation, as well as overcome all forms of obstacles, this is true and wonderful. Yet I also feel we still suffer from a deep inferiority complex that makes us desperate to feel proud of something, so we keep grasping at historical achievements that may or may not have anything to do with us, instead of building ourselves in the present. This is the self-absorbed inaction and self-soothing that changes nothing. It is a quest to feel better about ourselves as individuals, and does nothing to correct the issues that give rise to our insecurities in the first place. We would not have to hold support group chats for our diasporic selves if the country of our origin was not a place to feel ashamed of to begin with.
Those with the best “connections” are gone. Ironically, that includes the children of the “liberators.” Remaining are the B-grade connections who are the gainfully employed 5 %. Then come the wifi-free everyday ninjas who hustle on a daily basis – some honest, many not-so-honest, corruption being the grease between deals. Last are the rural folk, the honest, hard-working (or so I’d like to think) humans, who have nowhere to go. They make up the majority of the population and connections do nothing for them. Are we not all part of one another? This dependence on corruption and nepotism is what feeds into the self-serving poisonous attitude that trickled down from the top two decades ago, and no progress will be made until we take a moment from our endless hustle and think of the greater good.
Beyond whining, we must offer and seek solutions. In part II I reflect on five main ways in which this can happen:
- Personal accountability
- Socio-political engagement
- Active public participation
- The diaspora making a meaningful contribution
- Encouraging positive role modeling