“If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own.” ― Chinua Achebe
(Photo by Maynard Manyowa)
I don’t begrudge anyone who asks me what Zimbabwe is like. It’s that weird faraway country CNN refers to every once in awhile with a wild story. It’s better than those who assume based on those stories; make comments or rely on the likes of rumours which makes them experts on how I should feel about my own country. I detest these ones. I never make comments like that without thoughtful research and conversations of citizens of those states. I know what it is like to have millions of people clumped into some giant homogenous black or white blob. I don’t begrudge those who genuinely ask and want to understand. I am not sure how to explain to them what my country is like. How do you describe the color grey? It isn’t like the burst of color that is yellow but it isn’t the complete blank of white… So in a desperate attempt to answer that question, I have spent a long time trying to write about home. Every time I do, I burst into tears at my cold desk thousands of miles away from home or am so angry I can’t write another word. So I’m going to do what my English teacher always suggested – ‘write what you know as simply as you can’. With your patience, I hope I can do that by perhaps telling you a bit of about how I grew up. The aim isn’t to write an autobiography – I have done too little for that big a feat. Further, I can’t stand the idea of writing pages of things I have done. The aim is to explain to you what is happening without diasporan haze or hate.
I will tell you the one thing about my country that has never changed – we still have the best sunsets anywhere and I will fight you on it. I have travelled a lot and nothing is like a Harare dusk. The sky bursts into orange with pink hues on a sinking blue sky and there is a cool breeze that moves clouds over the sun like a coordinated scene of a play. It does this without fail and I am taken away with it each time I am home. I grew up in a good home and was incredibly lucky. I say this to couch my story. Also to remind you that I may not be as representative of the 12 million Zimbabweans who live here as people think I am. My parents grew up in Rhodesia, my father fought in the liberation war and I grew up in a pro-black household. I was reminded regularly of the fact that our blackness is powerful. My parents with their English Christian names refused to have their children grow up with anything but Shona names of happiness and thanks. They dedicated themselves to the service of this country. My father was a research economist in government and my mother was a nurse. They raised us to believe in this country and its future. My father was so desperate we prosper he bought a set of encyclopedias when I started going to school at 6 years old. He also bought a complete set of ‘the classics’. I can’t tell you how many times I read the full version of Robinson Crusoe and Black Beauty with all the ridiculous old English. Rumor is he bought Beethoven CDs and played them to us in our cribs because he had read somewhere that classical music made your children smart. Education was how we would ‘do better’ and my parents were desperate we “do better” than they had. We were the second black family in our neighborhood. My father had gotten a loan and bought the house straight from a family desperate to sell to anyone who could pay up-front. There was a good school in the area and it was near the University of Zimbabwe. My father predicted – correctly – that by the time we were of school-age, the primary school would have diversified and being near the university meant my father’s dream of none of his children ever leaving home was complete. He could monitor our education and progress at close range. Poverty needed to be faraway from us at all costs. I was required to show my homework to them regularly, pushed to read over and above my ordinary readings. By the time I got to Grade 4, I was swimming my way through the Grade 7 library just so my teachers could keep me busy. If there were words in it, I read it. I was the school nerd and was bullied terribly for it, I spent most of my time in the library during break/recess reading or playing chess with the librarian to get away from the other children (yes, I know, I was that nerdy and hiding like that did not help). This was as normal a routine to me as when we had to queue for bread, flour, sugar, cooking oil or petrol after school. That was when it was bad. “It” being the unspoken thing that is our ECONOMY. Somehow a separate looming being that was in the news and meant we queued for everything with a shocking normalcy that we didn’t complain. I marvel now at all of us in uniforms – my mother in her crisp white nursing uniform and her children in their respective school or sports uniforms. Each person could buy one loaf and one liter of oil at a time. So this meant after after-school events included running around between different stores trying to get as many essentials as money and petrol would allow that we would freeze and store. We met other children in the queues, sometimes from my school. My mother would try keep us in control, usually exhausted from having slept too little after her night-shift and in her uniform to go back. My mother was a beast of a woman. She got a nursing degree while pregnant with my brother and caring for two year old me. She attended every prize giving, every play, every parent/teachers conference no matter how tired she was. I love my dad but my mom was and is a beast. And she normalized the madness the country was in as I am sure every mother did and does. Everything was simply normal and for all intent and purposes, I had a normal childhood. We had a dog – a German Shepherd who was the best friend to a nerdy little girl. I fought with my brothers. I had a giant poster of Janet Jackson and her abs on my wall. I think this is important I emphasize . Don’t they say boiling a frog is about raising the temperature slowly? That was what it was like. There wasn’t some great event like the Berlin Wall coming down that marked a change. Everyday was as normal as the day before. Just slightly longer queues, less and less water, more and more sanctions, hundreds became thousands then millions. The government went through a brief socialist phase where it capped the cost on all these items so they remained within reach of everyone. They placed themselves as protectors of the poor. The Basic Commodities Supply Side Intervention programme boastfully dubbed Bacossi. Totally ignoring how it would distort local prices eventually. We were all little economists at this stage. The temperature slowly rising.
At 16 I fell in love for the first time. Those who know me know I fall in love at least once a year, cause I am a romantic and with all my heart believe in romantic love that is deep and holds you. I fell in love at 16 with an older kid who rode a motorbike and smelt the way I imagined men smelt. He was incredibly kind and even gentle to me. Most of our dates included stopping to try find petrol for his bike and in hindsight, God knows how he could afford the thing. We would ride out to a field in the north part of Harare. Lie next to each other and name our children. At that stage, we were completely dollarised. For those wondering what that means – it means I was walking into stores and the milk was priced in good old fashioned United States dollars. In God we trust, right? You could walk into the bank and withdraw dollars. It also meant everything was expensive but it was available. Bread cost $0.50 a loaf. We started going without sugar cause my dad was diabetic and my mother didn’t see the point on wasting money on something that the main breadwinner couldn’t eat. I was in high school and a full on teen. I wanted to leave and see the world. By then my mother had left nursing. In her last few months at the hospice, the City of Harare had not paid their nurses in over 4 months. She figured leaving and trying to pursue any other venture was better than staying hoping for some sort of paycheck. She went on to sell soap, do dressmaking and eventually settled on poultry. At one point we had 50 or so chickens in our yard that our dog nervously avoided. My father had been promoted and often he would disappear late at night in a full suit called in to discuss important matters I am sure. It was important he was responsive. Zimbabwe was under international scrutiny. Continued violence around elections and claims the process was rigged were rife. Land grabs no longer made the news. I need to state my bias here clearly – land redistribution is a necessary component of post-colonial rebuilding. I won’t debate that with you or anyone else. However that discussion never really made the news… We were also under sanctions. That was the word on the news every night – it was sanctions that were destroying this country and the ECONOMY. All in all, it made sneaking out easy and sneak out I did at all hours of the day or night to see the older boyfriend. Hindsight is a bitch but God was I stupid. But I also thought I was in love. The worst of it was 2008, we lost so much. My father’s pension was wiped out in a heartbeat as well as a big part of our savings. Banks closed and people lost everything. There wasn’t anything to protest to or at because almost everyone had lost something. There is a solidarity in loss. When it is that widespread, it also starts to feel normal. There is that word again… We had been a little lucky, my mother had had the sense to squirrel some savings in a South African bank account. I will never forget watching my father walk across my high school yard, chest up to go ask the headmistress if we could delay paying my school fees. Parents across the country were making similar requests and lucky for me I went to a Catholic school where the nuns believed in academic excellence and money should not stop that. My father is a proud man. I know having that conversation killed a small part of him and reminded him that poverty was closer than he liked. His own father had had to do that too many times. He was supposed to have done better and 2008/2009 scared even him.
By the time I was getting ready for university, it was clear to my father that I wouldn’t be getting a degree in Zimbabwe. Majority of lecturers had left the country. Our once world class university education were falling apart. My father had to make sure we got what we needed elsewhere. So South Africa was the obvious choice. Close enough that they could check on me but still good universities. My parents borrowed and scraped that first year through. That first year was a combination of my relatives in the US lending us money, my mother’s growing poultry business and my father’s ability to get a loan out of any bank to support my mother’s entrepreneurship. What saved us was the unexpected (but actually should not have been a surprise) fact that my mother was actually an excellent businesswoman and a good farmer. She had a knack for running our farm. By the time I got to second year, my mother commanded a farm of 1000+ chickens (including layers), 20+ cows, tobacco, maize and groundnuts with 10 farm workers on site. She glowed in her success. I think she even surprised herself, more so when she got commended in a local newspaper. She read every book she could on poultry and tobacco. She watched every farming show on our local tv and attended courses GMB used to provide at the time. And lo and behold, by the time I was in my third year, my mother’s farm was paying for both my brother and I to do law. She defied all the times I had been told that black farmers could not run large plots of land. At that stage, things felt like they were looking up. I should explain what I mean. I mean that there were goods in stores. Still expensive but at least no one was driving to Musina in South Africa to buy groceries. It also meant I debated coming home briefly. Xenophobia in South Africa was rife. I was scared to speak on public transport because anyone could hear I was Zimbabwean. I mean that literally. With the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa, we were a ripe target. I had been cornered by one girl on my way home from class in Pretoria who screamed at me and pushed my back up against the fence. She called me Mugabe, told me to go back to my country and said I killed the Ndebele people. There was allegedly blood on my hands. She screamed in my face, her eyes popping wide and I was frightened properly. Busses were being attacked that came over the border from Zimbabwe then. What if she hurt me? I was saved by a passerby from my building and cried into my then-boyfriend’s arms that night. He was struggling as well. His previous employer had fired half the staff and so he was technically in the country illegally since his work visa was tied to his employment. He started waiting tables at local restaurants till he could make management somewhere and get his visa renewed under that. Till then, he was treated like trash. They would pay him irregularly, force him to work double shifts and kept the threat of being reported to Home Affairs over his head if he insisted on arguing back. It was a relief when he finally found a management post. It meant he was safe but it gave me a glimpse into how bad being Zimbabwean in South Africa could get especially without a permit. We started to talk about getting married eventually. We would move to Johannesburg. He would run a restaurant, I would be a high-flying lawyer; we would be happy. We dreamt of this all the time. We couldn’t forget things were steadily getting worse back home. His father was ill with a bad heart and could barely afford medical attention. Private healthcare was expensive. My father had fought to keep all his children on his government funded healthcare but this didn’t cover the trips he had to make to Johannesburg for his cataracts. All in all, we were well aware that no matter what happened, our respective families needed us to have good jobs. You don’t have to guess it didn’t work out. Money is a hell of a burden on any relationship. After five years together we went our separate ways. I think part of him didn’t see what his success looked like in my world and the world told him it was weakness to admit that to me. So we ended in a painful, cold silence and the deafening heartbreak afterwards meant I didn’t leave my bed for two days. I eventually left cause there was a Criminal Law test coming up. I had to prepare. Losing the man I had built a home with didn’t change that.
I started working at a small law firm in Johannesburg. A job I wasn’t sure I would get. Hiring a foreigner into a law firm as a candidate attorney was unlikely in South Africa. You needed to be a permanent residence to practice. It normally took two years to qualify as an attorney. A foreigner would have to wait several more to get permanent residence and only then could they practice. So for a firm it was a loss – why hire a foreigner out of school who can’t bring you money till 5 years are up when a local would bring bank in 2 years? I received multiple offers that informed me that if I was South African, I would be a sure thing. But here we are, am I right? So this little firm took a chance on me though again, in hindsight, I was at the top 10% of my class. Was I really that much of a risk? In any case, every spare cent I had went to my brother who was now studying law. Anything I could do to lighten the load on my parents. It was the first time I understood the phrase Black Tax and I could feel it on my bones. Then the most magical thing in the world happened – I got a scholarship to Oxford. A scholarship I applied for in the midst of my heartbreak and was certain I was undeserving of it. My father cried in the middle of Nelson Mandela St – the first time I had seen him cry in public since the death of my grandfather almost 10 years before. In his eyes, I was going to ‘do better’. He had succeeded. It was 2014. Things felt better. Queues for cash were minimal, petrol wasn’t so scarce and my mother’s farm was booming.
I won’t talk about my time in Oxford. It isn’t relevant to this story specifically but needless to say it was probably the most memorable time of my life. What was important was leaving broke up the normalcy of what was happening at home. I was more at home in the UK than I had ever been in South Africa. Everyone spoke English, my accent was considered as interesting as any other black immigrant’s accent. This allowed me to think about the ECONOMY for the first time properly. Granted, I was a broke student all over again. However I started to see things at home with more clarity. It isn’t normal to go days without water or electricity in your suburban home. If that was happening in the suburbs, then the growth centers and outskirts would surely be worse, right? I was also militant with how the British media spoke about my country. Like we were this wash of black under the hand of a crazy dictator that we happily refused to overthrow. Did they hear themselves when they said that? This was part their creation! White colonialist supremacy is a whole vibe and mood. In fact, you go on in righteous indignation to issue sanctions against the country claiming that these will push the people who need to be encouraged to remove this govt out, like a rod to a misbehaved child. How did people who campaigned in this manner think this helped us? Why was no one saying how mad this is? I was angry with my own government. They were not harmed by the sanctions but wanted us to condemn them. Why were things still so bad? Healthcare was a disaster. You wouldn’t get treatment without cash even if you were bleeding on the hospital stairs. My mother was growing concerned. It was all she could do to keep all the businesses running while my father remained fighting for his country at work. It was getting harder and harder to get money out of the country. ZESA and ZINWA, our wonderful electricity and water providers respectively, were a joke. They started a pretense of scheduling the blackouts or water shortages and eventually succumbed to the fact that they never stuck to those schedules anyway so why lie. Bills often showed up with inflated figures even when you had barely had power that month. I was so used to electricity going out or suddenly waking up without water we got better at managing it. See what I mean by slow boiling of the frog? It got worse so slowly it was years before we realized it was that bad or it wasn’t getting better. I knew exactly what to do when the power went out. Filtering and cleaning drinking water was easy. My father saved for a small generator. We had more buckets and containers filled with water than you can imagine. Petrol prices were back on the rise and queues reappeared, just when my brother had started running a petrol station to help my mother provide for all of us. My brother was my mother’s son. Unlike me, he inherited her love for languages and her ability to raise businesses from the dead. I started working in London and contributing to my brother’s degree. My brother was studying away at a degree he never thought he would get into and was desperate to do well in. Then one day in November, sitting in my childhood home, I was desperately trying to call my father and tell him to come home immediately. I saw a picture of a military tank in the streets of Harare on Twitter.
I should have that on my Hinge profile. How many people can say that they were in a country during an ‘almost coup’ – ignoring the other 12 million people in my country obviously. I was beyond frightened for my family. My mother was at the farm and too frightened to risk coming home with the military presence in the streets. My father went to work in a full suit. He had served this country in war and peace, he wasn’t not going to go in now. By that stage, things were pretty bad. The Old Man had insisted he was going to run for President in the upcoming election. Rumors were abound that his wife intended to run as his Vice-President – a madness if you knew what she was like. We would be more of a laughing stock than we already were. The opposition parties were all a mix of useless. The test of a true democracy is viable opposition and ours met the definition of not-viable. Their entire ethos was “we aren’t the existing government” and they figured Zimbabweans were stupid or desperate enough to vote on just that. Many did but without conviction. Most did not, desperate for a leader who could offer a stable new start. People who argue to vote for just anyone else have a fundamental misunderstanding of the idea of voting “for the devil you know”. The world wonders why we are so skeptical of this great democracy they all speak of but here we are. What does a country do when there is no good opposition but the current leaders need to be removed and everything needs to remain stable enough to fix the ECONOMY?
By the time there was a new President, we were filled with hope. We just wanted things to get better. Getting cash out of the banks was almost impossible. We must have been the most mobile and electronic financial society out there. My grandmother was a pro at mobile banking. Everything was still so expensive – bread was a $1 and sometimes more. Businesses were closing down. Top it all off, climate change. Oh, you didn’t know it was going to make a show here? My country has been in the midst of a drought for years, getting worse with each passing year. The year the Old Man was removed, there were disaster zones declared across Southern Africa due to the drought. My mother was desperately trying to keep the farm alive but irrigation is crazy expensive and droughts don’t care who you are or what is happening with the ECONOMY. People were literally starving in parts of the country. It is crazy that people who live in the developing world know without a doubt that climate change is real and dangerous and the most impacted will be people of color around the world. People like us. However this fact is lost on the very people at the uppermost echelons of power in the countries who have the most power to stop it. It is crazy and frightening… By the time I made that phone-call to my father that day with the pink hue in the sky, it wasn’t a surprise in as much a shock something happened. With all that in mind, can you possibly understand why we were so hopeful? Do you know what hope is? The essence of hope in those circumstances? What faith is? The belief in something unseen is what the Good Book says. A Zimbabwe that we believed should exist; that we deserved. We were beyond hopeful. We were joyous. Yes, I know all those sitting there with their “I told you so” but can you blame us? Maybe this was how we would get out. All of us. That is the nature of grey – it left room for hope.
On the wings of that, I moved to Ireland. My brother was halfway through his degree; we were almost there. Maybe we would move back after his degree? Help build our country? Within five years surely we would be better. I had a permanent post finally, my contract role was giving my father an ulcer. He was now retired in the new regime. My mother and my brother, the business pair, were now this family’s only source of income. I joined that fold and now we were three. But still hopeful of what the year would bring. When the news came that they were re-introducing the bond notes, my heart fell. Bond notes are not currency. They were meant to deal with the growing cash crises. I am going to try explain how it works but don’t stress if it doesn’t make sense because the ECONOMY rarely did. We were using money we don’t print. The green money that trusted in God was printed in the US of A. This effectively made it incredibly difficult to have cash in the formal economy. However people had money in their accounts in dollars and banks needed to give them something. Enter these bond notes. The government in all its wisdom decided to print almost-notes, like a bearer cheques. This could act like US dollars without being US dollars. Here’s the thing though, despite their insistence it wasn’t currency, the truth is the Black Market (another powerful body) started trading the notes for USD at a specific rate just like currency. First at 3 notes to the dollar and it fell rapidly after that. We were dealing with monopoly money with an ever-changing rate to the USD. It was lucrative business for the Black Market. Whether anyone wanted to admit it or not we officially had a currency and no steps taken to properly introduce one. In desperation soon after, the government announced an actual currency – the RTGS dollar or the Zim dollar and claimed this was all part of us ‘de-dollarising’. However, with the fluctuating rate, stores often used USD prices to price their goods. At that stage, I made my move back to London. I needed to be closer to the only family I had near me.Trying to see him regularly was a financial strain and he needed me closer. I was the guardian listed in his school and his school could reach out to me when appropriate. Lastly it was a lot cheaper to send him money from inside the UK. The businesses back home were just trying to stay afloat, let alone being profitable. We had been foolish. We should have gotten our money out of the country in 2016 and we hadn’t. We thought it was getting better. We were still luckier than most. Our businesses were still open. Everytime you turned around businesses closed, new ones opened and struggled in their spot. ZESA and ZINWA were still playing hide and seek across the country but this time without shame or apology. It was expected you would go without water or electricity sometimes. Remember we practiced for this? Remember the temperature was raised slowly for this so when it happened it wasn’t abnormal or uncomfortable. It was just a procedure. The news, amidst its one hour parade about how everything was “business is usual”, mentioned in passing that a cholera outbreak had impacted the outskirts of Harare. Otherwise, everything was fine. So our life continued as normal though we talked about money and the future more. With each conversation less sure about the future.
My brother started his final year of university in 2019 and my mother exclaimed that after 2020, she will no longer be paying school fees for the first time in 25 years. Imagine that? That is how long my parents have forked out their hardwork for us. For my brother, this starts the scary immigrant journey of job-hunting. His visa will run out soon. In a Brexit UK and Trump’s America, he is nervously wondering what the chances are for him to get a business to sponsor his visa much like I had several years before in South Africa and in the UK. I am writing this as I visit my parents and my childhood home hasn’t changed. ZESA has been good this visit. It is funny how quick you fall into habits once you are back home. All the buckets, drums and relevant bottles have been filled before the water can possibly go. I did all that before 8am this morning. I always wake up early when I am home. The air is clearer and warm. I start the day eager to go soon after sunrise. I sleep better when I am here as well. I don’t know what it is but I sleep like the dead and am full of energy when I wake up. Tomorrow, the water will hopefully come back in the morning but we are fine for a few more days. I didn’t bring enough dollars with me so its been FRUSTRATING to get around but there are still places that take Mastercard or VISA meaning I have been able to take my mom to get her nails done or my brother to nice lunches. Things they don’t do not because they can’t but are too stressed about their work to do so. The rate is $16.05 to $1USD at the bank but to $20 on that very lucrative Black Market. A cousin told me next time to bring pounds and change them with a dealer he knows and make a good profit. Getting money out to pay my brother’s fees is a Herculean task. This is the same for many parents who have sent their children away to help them ‘do better’. Zimbabweans value that above all else. All sorts of brilliant traders have emerged who can magically get your money in an account outside of the country at a fee and with significant trust on your side. But as my mom says all the time “what else can one do?”. There is an undercurrent in the air. Talks about what 2020 can hold and what it must certainly not hold. The situation cannot stay the same with elections 3 years away. No one except the 8pm News is hiding the fact that the the ECONOMY is not in a good place. The drought is as bad as it has ever been, even maize is expensive and getting harder to find in a country where it should be abundant. Petrol queues are back again, snaking around the streets. Veterans who have played this game before are having ice cream in the queue. This is profitable for those who sell goods by the side off the road in this heat. I walk around Sam Levy Village, a local shopping centre, in the summer sun and watch versions of who I was 10 years ago in tank tops and tight jeans whispering to boys in really ugly vest-tops trying to show off (I assume) their arms. Sigh, young love, even that is hopeful when things are strained. I would have had to sneak out of the house to get outside in that top but parents are different now I guess. It is so beautifully normal to be sipping this coffee in the Village and walking around away from the London cold. Nasty C, a South African artist, is scheduled to perform tonight so I make a quick exit feeling very old watching all these teens flood the Village. I love Zimbabweans. Our ability to keep on would make our former colonial masters envious. We did so not with a smile, but with a sadness and a grit… The sunset is glorious. It is showing off a darker pink against the orange and white clouds tonight. The sun is dipping quickly behind the row of cars lined up near the petrol station.