Why I'm Struggling to Believe in a New Zimbabwe

Why I'm Struggling to Believe in a New Zimbabwe

The crowd cheers and dances at the presidential inauguration ceremony of Emmerson Mnangagwa in Harare, Zimbabwe.

SourceBelal Khaled/NurPhoto

Why you should care

Because sometimes desired change fails to live up to expectations.

I watched last week as many parts of Zimbabwe — and Zimbabwe’s diaspora — erupted into uncontained joy at the announcement of Robert Mugabe’s resignation. And I felt bewilderment as to why I didn’t feel the same emotions. After the initial excitement of congratulatory Whatsapp messages and breathless calls with friends and family, I began to feel a deep exhaustion set into my bones — a familiar exhaustion I have struggled with about my country for many years.

Eventually, I broke down, my copious tears pasting my cotton shirt to my chest, offsetting a dull throbbing headache. I was scared, but even more than that, I was racked with guilt.

Why wasn’t I excited anymore? Why couldn’t I understand why everyone else was so excited? Was anyone else feeling this way? The more I spoke to people and scoured social media, the more alone I felt.

“We are free!” “It’s a new Zimbabwe!”

I wanted to be ecstatic and for it to be that simple. But instead, what remained most palpable to me was apprehension about having hopes and dreams that might again be trampled by a callous system.

Mugabes

Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace

Source Fungai Machirori/OZY

I wasn’t in Zimbabwe on the day — having stayed in the United States for an extended visit after a speaking engagement. I’d always believed Mugabe would die in office, and that we wouldn’t be told about it by the officials for at least a month. In my imagination, people would only express their true feelings in the privacy of their homes, fearing reprisal for any public display of emotions other than grief. I also never imagined it would be the military that ordinary citizens would celebrate with.

Perhaps it is this ability to discard, erase and forget — and so easily — that makes it hard for me to celebrate.

When I’d left home, just over two weeks before, nothing had hinted at such impending, momentous change. As my taxi driver drove me to the airport, down the streets filled with jacarandas wilting out of season, he spoke as usual about how hard it was to survive and how the only solution that remained in our collective power to change things was to register to vote.

And then vote Mugabe out.

“Who will you be voting for?” I asked.

“Anyone,” he replied. “Anyone is better than this.”

A week earlier — and with plenty of reservations about the transparency of our electoral system — I had registered to vote for next year’s elections, as per the requirements of our new biometric system. But what was meant to be a simple process that should’ve taken 10 minutes turned into a nightmarish metaphor. The biometric system had rezoned me to another constituency, even though I still live at the same address I did four years ago, when the last elections took place. Much to his irritation, I challenged the registrar, insisting that if he looked up my street address by my cross road, he would see that I lived in Harare West constituency, and not Mount Pleasant. I even showed him my voter registration slip from the previous elections to prove the point.

After a protracted process of resistance and disagreement, he looked up my address again. And without saying anything else, he printed a new registration slip that stated my constituency as Harare West and took the old slip — the one with the conspicuous error — crumpling it and throwing the paper in the trash basket.

Perhaps it is this ability to discard, erase and forget — and so easily — that makes it hard for me to celebrate.

Gettyimages 878436166

Supporters hold a portrait of Zimbabwe’s new President Emmerson Mnangagwa during his inauguration on November 24, 2017.

Source ZINYANGE AUNTONY/AFP/Getty

As I watched ZANU-PF’s provincial coordinating committees and politburo almost unanimously call for Mugabe’s resignation this past week, I couldn’t help but feel the hypocrisy that these had been the very same people who had passionately advocated for Emmerson Mnangagwa’s recall from their party just a week before he became president; the same people who had benefited so richly from Mugabe’s leadership over the years. Somehow, it reminded me also of 2008, when heightened hopes of change with what seemed an electoral win for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party and Morgan Tsvangirai so quickly turned into despair, and then a seamless and collective adapting to a new (ab)normal of obscene suffering.

Perhaps this is why I wept: I needed to resist forgetting.

A few years ago, I read an article by a Zimbabwean student in the United States whose words have stayed with me. It was titled “A breakup letter to Zimbabwe: I really just don’t care anymore.” In it, Dominic Mhiripiri wrote:

“To be away from home — say, to be away at your Ivy League university, is to realize, slowly, that you’re becoming the person that, in the days of youthful idealism, you feared you might become: the indifferent and resentful citizen who cares and stresses about the choice between hazelnut and java chip frappuccino, at Starbucks, more than the choice between mute acquiescence or an aggrieved uprising on the grim streets of Harare.”

I was still a fervent, young optimist back then, and those words rattled me, offended me even. Having returned to Zimbabwe after my master’s studies in the United Kingdom — and amid popular disapproval of my choice — I had believed so singularly in making positive change and returning to impart the skills I had had the privilege to gain abroad.

Happy birthday zimbabwe

Citizens celebrate Zimbabwe’s independence day in 2014.

Source Fungai Machirori/OZY

But four years later, I hear Mhiripiri’s words in my own musings, in emails to friends that feature lines such as the following, written just last month:

“Zimbabwe has ground me to dust. All the things I hoped and dreamed about, Zimbabwe has taught me to put away and replace with pain and mere survival.”

As I searched myself for words to share on social media on November 21, I found solace in those of poet Julius Chingono, who died some years ago.

“The African Sun
shines bright
even upon dictators
warms even
absolute rulers.
Sets even upon despots.”
(From the anthology Not Another Day)

Chingono was an eccentric and sharp-tongued man for his age — he was 65 when he died. I often wondered what his literary career may have been if Zimbabwe hadn’t imploded as spectacularly as it did in the early 2000s. I wept also for him.

I know that to hope is our only chance of survival. As human beings. As Zimbabweans. But I remain wary of forgetting and weary from all these years of needless strife.

And still, I cannot access any joy.

Fungai Machirori is a Zimbabwe-based writer.

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