Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa

Zimbabwe

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Wednesday 10 February, 2010

You be the change you want to see

Embassy Queens, HarareThe past year was politically confusing but economically more bearable because of  the country’s switch to the use of more sensible multi-currencies.

I must admit that although towards the end of the year I felt spiritually exhausted, I was still hopeful and one of the social projects carried out by the embassy just before Christmas helped reinvigorate me.

The embassy sponsored a women’s soccer tournament driven by People Living with HIV/AIDS. More than 500 people living with HIV/AIDS used the tournament to launch the Positive Initiative Trust at Zimbabwe Grounds, in one of Harare’s oldest high-density suburbs, Highfiled.

The enthusiasm exhibited by members of PIT was contagious. Closer to the date of the tournament our office was abuzz with excitement. Female members of staff wanted to participate in the soccer competition but numbers were not on their side.

Second Secretary Catherine Carr is a keen soccer player and Blessing Seke from our small projects section worked hard to get a team of sorts. Their efforts paid off. They were joined by our human resources manager, Cynthia Ncube, Debra “Maradona” Sithole from estates, Vielly Bafana from the consular section and management section’s Herfie Magwenzi.

They needed to get more players so children, sisters and wives of colleagues were roped in. Debra’s sister Ivy and her daughter Rumbi  joined the team and so did my daughter Tendai, who fortunately plays college soccer. Our colleague Munyaradzi Korovedzai happily encouraged his wife Rachel to join the team and from our sister organisation DFID we had Neil Satchwell-Smith’s wife Pippa.

Finally a team was made, now officially named the Embassy Queens, the girls were raring to show off their skills. They did not win the trophy but they played their hearts out. A good time was had by all. I was just the official photographer but I had just as much fun.

At times when we are going through difficult times we forget the small things that make all the difference. We forget the seemingly insignificant things that not only make us happy but also bring light to other people’s lives. We forget to count our blessings.

For Blessing and Catherine this was work and play. They do not get to do both often. They are an enthusiastic team. Their commitment and hard work is rarely witnessed by colleagues but from what I have seen on the ground it is immensely appreciated by the beneficiaries.

The embassy awarded PIT a $25,000 grant to kick-start HIV/AIDS activities across the 13 districts of Harare Province. The Initiative has also given birth to 16 women’s soccer teams.

We do not often make the time to come together as a team but the few times that we have done so we have proved that we can make a difference.

Political and survival worries will always be there but this year we must make ourselves a promise: “To be the change we would like to see in others and take a more positive outlook towards life.”

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Tuesday 03 February, 2009

Life goes on

Someone dies, someone disappears and later reappears in court or their body is discovered decomposing somewhere. More than 50,000 people are struck by cholera and 3,028 of them die.

We all worry about these developments, do what we can to help ease the pain butat the end of the day, life for those still free to move around goes on. We go out,we invite friends to dinner, get invited to share a curry or a drink and slowly we continue with our lives.

This is the reality of life. Even in war torn countries life of sorts still goes on.A toddler spends several weeks with an abducted parent and later becomes a guest of the state in one of the country's worst prisons. Still we talk about it for a while and soon enough we move on.

Several are starving but those with the means feast -their lives go on. Survival itself has become a major feat and those who still can drag themselves around do so with dwindling empathy and patience for the less fortunate.

Two 13-year-old girls incessantly ring my gate bell and when I answer, they tell me they are looking for jobs and that they have not eaten in days. They will work for food because being paid in local currency is useless. They have walked all the way from the high density suburb of Dzivaresekwa, west of the Harare.

I already have domestic help so I give them water and two slices each of bread. The food and water soon disappear. The two skinny-looking girls thank me profusely and ask me for old clothes.

My youngest and only daughter is an 18-year-old who is built bigger than the two. She is away studying but before she left home she cleaned out her wardrobe and gave various cousins some of her clothes - so there is nothing to give.

My heart bleeds. No child should ever have to go through what those two are going through.

All this gets me thinking about how really jaded we have become with political, economic and social situation in the country. Even as I spoke to the two girls it struck me how distant I managed to remain even as I gave them the bread and water.

There is something dead in us as a people. Several stories were written and appeals launched on behalf of journalist, turned activist Jestina Mukoko. She is a prominent person, so journalists tend to focus on her. The toddler who went missing with its parents got a mention every now and then if it was lucky.

Even when the toddler turned up at a police station with its parents being accused of banditry, we as a nation failed that child. We behaved as if it was the most normal thing for a baby to be incacerated. News that the baby too was beaten to force the mother to confess, just makes the whole story very sordid, and still no one raised a voice.

The Child Protection Society suddenly died - not a single word from them. The other so called children's rights organisations just disappeared off the earth. We have become damaged goods.

We are facing a bleak year. Politicians want power but they do not seem to realise that with power comes responsibility. When I sit through 16-hour powercuts it does not make me feel better to find out that the same is happening in Nepal. Citizens deserve the best from their government.

When people hanker after power they must realise and accept the fact that they must be accountable and that citizens expect improved standards of living and not to be taken back to the dark ages.

Zimbabwe used to be Southern Africa's breadbasket. It is shameful that today we produce nothing. Today we import turkeys from Peru and chickens from Uruguay. There is something very wrong and we can not even ask God anymore to put it right because God left Africa ages ago - in fact when he did he never even passed through Zimbabwe.

So in a way life goes on.

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Wednesday 15 October, 2008

Blog Action Day: Poverty and poor government

Everyone's blogging about poverty today. I'm unqualified to do so. I've never been poor. But I do think it's a brilliant idea to have a global debate about the reasons people are dying preventable deaths in the twenty-first century.

So I've made an effort in the last few days to meet and speak to people who are poor to ask them how they are poor; and more importantly why they are poor. I don't need to go far to find poor people in Zim. I've cycled a couple of miles to an area of Harare I know well - Hatcliff Extension.

First Maria. I've met her a few times over the years. She's a tough, elderly lady, standing today where she always stands - outside her shelter, a framework of wood covered in sheet plastic. According to Zimbabwean culture Maria should be enjoying retirement as a wise woman, supported by her children. But she looks after seven small grandchildren now that her kids are all dead. Food is hard to come by. Education is now unaffordable.

"I am poor because they do not give food any more. Because they destroyed my house. And because my children have passed. Things are so bad there is no hope for me. Only God can help".

Then Ephard, who says his name means 'a man from Ephesus'. Ephard is sitting on the side of the dirt road with his prized possession - a clapped out bicycle, which he uses to run errands or fetch goods. We compare notes about cycling in Harare and agree that the drivers are terrible. By way of payment for our ad hoc interview, I give Ephard an Allan key, with which he is delighted. I ask Ephard what Maria means about her house being destroyed. He waves his arm towards the muddy field in front of us, which is full of scruffy plastic shelters, occasionally reinforced with a few bricks or an iron sheet.

"They did all this four years ago. They came with bulldozers and destroyed every house. It was our reward for voting MDC. Even today they tell us that anyone who builds up their house will have it destroyed. During the election they set up camp over there. They beat us and said that anyone who did not vote for the President would be burned alive. Honestly we are too scared to do anything in this area. If we grow anything or sell anything we know they will steal it."

Finally, Sheila, a beautiful woman, smartly dressed. Her outfit is spotless, although I have managed to get a fair amount of Hatcliff's mud over me during my short visit.

"Sure, I want to give up my job at a bank in town. The bus fare is up to 500 thousand dollars now. But all I can get out of the bank is 20 thousand each day. I take sweet potatoes and stand by the road until I can find someone who will give me a lift for a vegetable. Some drivers say they will take me every day if I will be their mistress. But I want to be a good catholic and I will not do that. It takes me till late at night to get home. I am just so tired. And I don't make any money. I am just clinging to the job, hoping things one day get better".

I've deliberately visited the area early to avoid attention, but fat white men in Hatcliff Extension do get noticed and I reckon it's time to leave.

As I'm cycling back the pattern seems obvious. None of the people I've spoken to are lazy, stupid or uneducated. They speak English more properly than I do and work hard, but feel like their lives are going backwards. They are not poor because of any lack of effort or aptitude on their part. They are poor because they have been made poor. They are poor because the Government wilfully devalues its own currency, spitefully brutalises its people and negligently allows the collapse of health and education systems. There seems little that they (or you, or I) can do to improve life in Zimbabwe until a Government which has different values is in place.

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Tuesday 19 August, 2008

The Land of Jam and Honey

Businesses which do well in Zimbabwe are those selling hope. 12 Million percent inflation, raids from the price police, shake-downs from ZANU-PF gangs and the prospect of a return to mass violence: this isn’t exactly the recipe for business confidence and economic growth. So most entrepreneurs have given up and moved elsewhere. But there are outlets dispensing optimism and trust in a higher power (even higher than ZANU-PF) and these are doing well.

One of the biggest hope outlets is the Celebration Centre, a huge and popular church packed out on Sundays. I must admit I don’t go to the Celebration Centre much. Their huge posters put me off: “Spiritual Success through Fasting.” I’ve never been too good at fasting.

But I’m dropping in today because the Centre’s café is one of the last places in Harare actually serving food and coffee. I sip a perfectly fine cappuccino and munch a jam doughnut. I hope that the gospel music is improving my soul a little.

I reflect that it’s a bit mean to all the fasting people to serve doughnuts right under their noses. But more seriously it just seems wrong to fast in Zimbabwe. Most people aren’t getting enough to eat anyway and those who are sick and malnourished go downhill very quickly.

So I drive out of the centre’s gates feeling a little ambivalent about my doughnut and almost run over a teenage girl who walks out in front of my car and waves at me. I wind down the window to see what’s up.

“My name is Marita. I am HIV positive and my parents have both passed away. Can I have a lift into town please?”

After a pitch like that I can’t refuse and Marita gets in with me. But before I can get started a vigorous young woman called Esther bounces up to my window and asks if she can have a lift too.

This is a tricky one. The Embassy Security Manager (who is a lovely fella, ex-Royal Navy, fists like granite and humourless when it comes to Embassy folks taking chances) is always telling us never to give lifts to hitch hikers. There’s an obvious risk that we’ll be car-jacked by the people we’re helping.

Now I’ve always taken that with a pinch of salt. I’ve always felt that I’m on safe ground giving lifts to people like Marita. She is thin for her fourteen years and has nasty sores on her skin. With the right drugs, nutrition and shelter she might rally. But she ain’t going to get any of that in Zimbabwe and - awful to say - she is not long for this world. In short, if she tries to mug me I am pretty sure I can overpower her.

But Esther is a different proposition. Not only is she fit and well, but she could be a honey-trap car-jacker . The papers often carry stories of drivers who stop for comely young women only to be overwhelmed by thugs hiding in the bushes. But I’m sitting outside a church; there’s a policeman standing by the roadside and I’m feeling full of doughnut and gospel music, so I open the door for Esther too.

“Thank you so much. The lift is for my husband Simon, this policeman.” And before you can say ‘sucker’, Simon’s in the back of my car and Esther is bounding back into the church.

I can’t believe I fell for it. So here I am driving into Harare, in a British Embassy car, with a girl who could croak at any moment and a Zimbabwean policeman. I am a headline waiting to happen. There’s nothing for it but to have a little polite conversation, in the Zimbabwean style.

Simon tells me, very matter of fact-ly, that God is sponsoring his police career. He recently prayed for advancement within the force and was immediately promoted from Sergeant to Warrant Officer. The Celebration Centre is a great place.

Marita interjects to remind me that she is HIV positive and has no money. I reassure her that the lift is free and she falls silent for a minute or two. My response is not what she had in mind.

Simon is now thanking God for his wife Esther. Can I confirm that she is very beautiful?

I feel we’re drifting into dangerous territory so I change topic. Did Simon notice all the terrible violence that took place in June? Oh yes, the Police know that hundreds of people were beaten in Chisipite just a few hundred metres from the Celebration Centre. But what can be done? The people who carry out the beatings cannot be touched. The Police have orders to let them carry out their violence.

I ask Simon what God would want him to do about the violence. That brings conversation to a bit of a halt as Simon makes little groaning noises and admits that it’s a problem.

I deposit Marita and Simon in the centre of town. Marita reminds me that she has not yet eaten and needs $200,000,000,000 to do so. I give her two shiny little new $10 coins and explain that they are worth the same as two hundred billion old dollars. She clearly does not believe me and gives me a filthy look – the look one gives a man who cheats poor, sick girls - and stalks off.

I’ve had my jam and honey (trap) for the day. Unfortunately there’s no milk, as the dairy farms have all been shut down. Welcome to Zimbabwe! Perhaps the Celebration Centre could arrange for some Manna?

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Friday 18 July, 2008

Legacy and Long-legged Birds

Sorry there have been no posts recently from me, I’m just back from the most welcome holiday of my life.

My previous blogs have reflected Zimbabwe’s plunge from hope in March to despair and fear today. The feeling on Harare’s streets is that – yet again – the people have been denied the leader they voted for and that – yet again – the world doesn’t care. Some countries’ choice to prevent the UN Security Council from taking action last week has convinced Zimbabweans that they are on their own, facing a lethal and cruel Government with no interests beyond clinging onto power.

Despair and fear infects us working at the British Embassy too. Living through such a period is taking chunks out of us. In June we held our annual reception to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday, and give some aid and comfort to our community and friends here. Some of the guests could not attend, as they were being held as political prisoners. Others have been savagely beaten since the party. It hurts to see such cruelty close up.

Every day we see the latest victims of torture and murder – sometimes photos, sometimes face-to-face. The latest man to die horribly is a driver called Gift Mutsvungunu, whose ‘crime’ was to move the furniture of a previous murder victim. Gift was abducted. His eyes were gouged out and he was burned. Only then was he killed. His torture was sub-human. It’s only motive was the sadistic fury of ZANU-PF’s revenge on the MDC for its 29 March election victory. It is shredding us inside to see such horrors, particularly when all we can do is document what we see and hope for eventual justice. 

And we feel that our little bubble of diplomatic safety is contracting. The state-sponsored papers are loaded with hatred every day. We are accused of causing the crisis, of ordering the MDC to commit murder, of racism. When we venture out of the Embassy, we are treated as suspicious people. We are questioned and sometimes even threatened. We feel reasonably confident that the police will do us no harm. But we see ZANU-PF militias on the streets – young thugs pumped up with alcohol and drugs and indoctrinated to believe that whites are the enemy. How stable are these people?

There are rewards of course – like reading that the Prime Minister used the very latest – and particularly shocking – information, supplied by ourselves, to argue for action at the G8 summit. But real results are scarce, and after a few months of Zimbabwe in a tail-spin, we all need a break to stop our heads dropping. For me that meant a couple of weeks of safari and beach in Tanzania.

One of many sad thoughts I had about Zimbabwe while on holiday is that it can be misused as a piece of evidence to confirm the racist and incorrect prejudice some still hold that black Africans cannot govern themselves, without dictatorship, genocide, starvation or economic collapse. At the time of the Gleneagles’ summit in 2005, ‘the year of Africa’, when we were full of hope for the continent’s future, figures like Idi Amin belonged to another century. Now we have Zimbabwe, a Uganda for the 21st century. The cynicism about Africa that Zimbabwe is generating is just another piece of ZANU-PF’s rich legacy to the world. 

If I was having any doubts, Tanzania showed me that the stereotype of the corrupt African is not just unfortunate,  but also untrue. I met diverse people who didn’t agree about everything, but managed to disagree without killing each other. People were united in the desire to create a more happy and prosperous country. The economy is doing well, people speak without fear and I saw plenty of evidence of the tolerant government that Zimbabwe lacks.

While I was in Tanzania, its Human Rights’ Commission published details of violations in the last year and urged the Government to address the problem. The newspapers discussed a recent building collapse and criticised the Government for not regulating construction. Continuing tensions between the mainland and the Zanzibar archipelago were openly reported and discussed. I’m not an expert on Tanzania, but it looks like a great country, honest about its problems and trying to do better. I hope the UK looks as open, friendly and tolerant to foreign visitors.

And in case you think I spent all my time reading newspapers, let me tell you that I sat in the Serengeti watching lions gnawing wildebeest, pondered whether that bright-eyed, long-legged bird at Ngorongoro was the black-winged or Senegalese variety of plover; and relaxed on the beach, letting the Indian Ocean splash over my toes. All washed down with crates of ‘Kilimanjaro’ beer to keep my belly in shape – heaven!     

Please keep Zimbabwe in your thoughts, as its terribly put-upon people consider their options at the start of another five-year Presidency. Zimbabweans showed enormous courage on 29 March, but others have not matched that courage and the future is now grim.

And please also don’t give up on Africa, most of which is peaceful and beautiful.  And if you’re looking for a holiday – try Tanzania!

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Monday 09 June, 2008

Respect for life is invaluable

I found myself recently wishing we had the gift of prescience.

If we knew what the future held in store for us we would be better prepared to deal with some of the problems that face us today.

We would know whom to vote for with certainty. We would know the consequences of some of our decisions. We would know when trouble was headed our way and we would avoid it.

Being helpless is debilitating. Having no control over your present or future is a frightening thing. You go to work and in a normal society you expect that your family will be safe at home and that you will also safely re-join them after work.

A week ago I was torn up because one of my aunts visited some relatives in the capital and found out they had not had a proper meal in two weeks. They were surviving on boiled sweet potatoes and avocadoes.

On visiting yet another branch of the family, she found they too were existing on the same diet. They had for two months failed to get cornmeal to make our staple sadza (thick porridge).

In the extended family system we share what we can get. It is painful to see your relatives suffer. It is even more so, when you yourself cannot offer any help. Our earnings belong to the whole family and its various extensions.

Grappling with a lack of adequate food is one thing, but being faced head on with the brutality visited on one's members of  family is another.

I am sure someone somewhere figured that if you want to break a person's spirit, you burn their home and beat them senseless. You do not stop there - you burn their grain and cause whatever harm you can to their livestock. This is what is being visited on people perceived to have voted the wrong way. But what does such senseless violence hope to achieve? Roots in families run deep. You kill or brutalise one family member and the whole family stands against you.

These are stories some people see on television but some of us have to live with. Only people who have experienced this bashing of spirits and burning of homes will fully understand what Zimbabweans who are not seen as being politically correct are going through right now.

In all this, we all still have to go to work, our children go to school if they can and carry on as if everything is normal. Friends and relatives who have lost homes, been brutalised and displaced need our strength and help to carry on but we feel sapped and at most helpless.

No, this is not a normal life. We never signed up for this. Belonging to a country must mean more than being bashed every now and then. Governance and democracy must stand for the protection of every member of society irrespective of their political affiliation.

Now is the time for everyone to realise and accept that a political rival is not an enemy. Difference of thought, perception and association is what makes a people and this is not a crime. We should embrace our diversity as a blessing that can be harnessed for the greater good.

And on the 27th of June Zimbabweans will go back to vote in the presidential run-off. My sincere hope is that we will all vote for respect for life and greater respect and understanding of our political and social diversity. A nation and a leadership without empathy is lost. We desperately need to regain our respect for life.

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Thursday 05 June, 2008

Killing with Kindness

Good manners and repression go hand-in-hand in Zimbabwe. The officers who arrest, abuse and detain peaceful demonstrators, do their immoral work with a cheery smile.

It was like that on Friday when I turned up at Harare Magistrates’ Court. An amiable chat about the weather with some cops with enormous assault rifles; a wave and a joke with a dozen prison officers, sitting round waiting for somebody innocent to lock up; and a friendly chat with the court clerk, who asks me (half seriously) for a visa to go to the UK, as she can’t live on her Government salary any longer. After some banter she waves me into the building.

Into court six, where 15 women belonging to an organisation called “Women of Zimbabwe Arise!” are sitting tensely waiting for the lawyers and magistrates to carve up their fate. I have a chat with the women. They have been locked up at Harare Central Police Station for two nights already and are worried that their detention may be extended further. They are cold – Harare is at altitude and this is winter; nights are really chilly. They are developing coughs. Three of them have been beaten, but these women are tough and shrug the injuries off as ‘not too bad’.  They are trying to keep their spirits up, but are dreading a weekend, or more, in the grim and unsanitary cells.

 The women have, of course, not been found guilty of anything. Their offence is holding a peaceful demonstration without permission. Under the terms of Zimbabwe’s Public Order and Security Act – remarkably similar to Apartheid legislation – this innocuous act of civic expression is a criminal offence. A few women calling for no more than ‘bread and peace’ therefore experience violent arrest and detention with no ready prospect of release. Meanwhile forty miles from Harare, ZANU-PF militias are killing, beating and burning, while the police sit on their hands, deaf to the cries of those being tortured.

The magistrate finally comes in. It’s late afternoon and he wants to go home. Praise be! He accepts the application from the women’s lawyer that they be given bail. But the prosecutor – his smile warmed by the power of tyranny – has an ace up his sleeve. He immediately appeals against the Magistrate’s decision. Under Zimbabwe’s prosecution-happy legal code, he is given a week to prepare this appeal. The women are devastated as they realise the consequences. They will have to spend another week away from their families, in squalor, despite the triviality of their charges and despite not having been convicted of anything.

We at the Embassy see these things happening, and far worse. We see the corpse of murdered MDC activist Tonderai Ndira. We see evidence of the torments he was put through before he died. And we wonder what we can do. We worry that we are not doing enough.

Certainly we show our sympathy for the repressed and the beaten - we go to their trials and their hospital beds. We catalogue abuses, hoping for eventual justice, and tell our Ministers what is happening so that they can condemn and instigate international action. But it never seems like enough.

This impotence in the face of cruel abuse stings, but is not ours alone. Zimbabwe’s government is increasingly deaf even to its former friends - neighbouring African states - which have finally realised that the violence, electoral fraud and the economic decline have to end. The violence in South Africa has shown the region the ghost of SADC future, a region haunted by Zimbabwe’s political sickness and economic failure; the ghost of Tonderai Ndira, the Steve Biko of Zimbabwe, which will haunt the region until something is done. This Government of old men, basking in isolation and basting in the hatred which the people now feel for them, has few friends.

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Tuesday 25 March, 2008

Donkeys and Democratic Space

Easter Friday in Zimbabwe. It’s hot enough for flabby Englishmen like me to break sweat. Elvis the driver (seriously, that’s his name) is hammering around the uranium mountains and malarial valleys of Masvingo. We’re monitoring how ready Zimbabwe is for elections on 29 March.

We scream past a donkey plodding along the road, stoic under its sack of soya beans. Zim’s a country of worshippers and many today will be thinking of a particular Palestinian donkey carrying a man to his death. For the early Christians it was a knife-edge moment between palm-waving hope one day and injustice and despair the next. It’s a neat metaphor for Zimbabwe this week. People are visualising a better future, but don’t know if they’ll ever see it. And all that hope will make the despair all the deeper if Zimbabwe carries on down the road to Golgotha after 29 March.

For now it’s wonderful to see a country where people are engaged and alive. We pass an election rally in a field four miles from nowhere. Once Elvis has found the brake pedal, I get out to have a good look. 200 people seated in a neat circle. No police. No coercion. No youth militias. Just people voluntarily meeting to talk politics. The programme is varied – first some humorous chants about the state of the nation. Then some singing: "the fist which liberated us is now a hammer destroying the nation". The words sound grim in English translation, but there must be some extra spice in the Shona, because everyone’s in stitches. Members of the audience spontaneously spring up into the space inside the ring to offer a few words, an amusing variant on a chant, or some nifty dance steps. Their contributions are greeted with a deep ululation that sets the heart racing.

It occurs to me that the space inside the circle is the embodiment of one of those banal pieces of jargon diplomats like. It is a democratic space. And people are enjoying using it for the first time in a long time.

Then the candidate, a small serious man in his forties, gets up to speak. His delivery is reminiscent of the ‘I have a dream speech’: slow sentences, long pauses populated with moans of appreciation from the crowd, building to a cresceno: the country is hungry and dependent on food from Malawi (the crowd laughs, Zimbabwean farmers used to feed Malawians with their surpluses). People are dieing and people are leaving. But the Government says it’s stronger than ever. Seems like the Government is at its best when the country is at its worst. This point brings everyone to their feet – the candidate looks like he had a bit more to say, but a sustained bout of singing persuades him to call it a day.

As I leave, a group of women wandering down the road point at me and say: "That party has a fat white man. We should go to their rally". In the interests of balance I decide that I’d better go and stand outside the other parties’ rallies too, so everybody gets the benefit or disadvantage of the fat white man effect.

Zimbabwe feels like a country on the brink of change, but during the long sticky afternoon – no cafes, or cokes, or doughnuts for 100kms! - I hear from plenty of people, who’ll believe it when they see it:

Eli is a wily old trade unionist: "They know every trick in the book. They’ve rigged three elections in a row – there’s no way they’re going to give up power now. They’ll win this election by cheating in a way we haven’t even thought of."

Peter is a parliamentary candidate: "I am well ahead in my constituency, but all the traditional leaders have been bought. They all have cars and electricity. They are telling their people that if they vote for me, their houses will be burned and they’ll be exiled."

Raymond is a headmaster. He’s been taking part in the Government’s official voter education programme: "I think it’s good that they’re trying to educate the voters, but they have excluded me from the programme now, because I keep telling people that they are free to vote how they want and that nobody can monitor a secret ballot. That’s not a message I’m allowed to deliver in the rural areas".

Last stop of the day is dinner with a (ZANU-PF) MP standing for re-election. While I’m catching up on my calorie deficit, he’s in philosophical mood. "Our time may be up. I don’t think I can hold onto my seat. We have to admit that people are tired and hungry and some of them are angry. Of course, our problems date back to what the IMF did to us in the 1980s and that nasty letter your Clare Short wrote to our President in 1997. It might be time to move to the UK and join my family..…." We carry on into the evening. We don’t agree about the causes of Zimbabwe’s problems, but he’s an honest man and he knows that his party is facing the lash of a furious electorate on 29 March.

So what do I think? I think it’s fantastic that the Foreign Office is letting us out of the office for two weeks to assess and understand this election. There were security worries and the usual money shortages, but we’ve got past them and are busily getting waist-deep into this wonderful country and its weird election. Some other Embassies haven’t made it out of Harare’s coffee shops yet.

I also think Zimbabwe is truly hungry for a change of direction. The leaders who took it to independence are revered for that, but people want them – or anybody! – to start running a country which creates jobs and well-being and stops the punishments of abuse, hunger and premature death. But I have to agree with Eli, Peter and Raymond that there are powerful people who have no intention of leaving power, other than in a box. (This a perfect balanced Foreign Office answer – looking clever, but not committing myself to a prediction of the result!)

So that’s Zimbabwe, at Easter, less than a week away from the polls. The man on the Palestinian donkey came back from the dead. Sadly the recovery Zimbabwe needs is similarly biblical in scale. And given the barriers put in their way, it will be an Easter miracle if the people of Zimbabwe are allowed the Government that they would choose in a free vote.

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Friday 29 February, 2008

A Trail through Two Cities

Philip Barclay

It is the best of climes, the worst of crimes....

I can honestly say, even on day 742 of my posting in Zimbabwe, that I never overlook the beauty. As I’m brewing up in the kitchen, I see armies of Abdim’s storks impaling frogs, shadows 10 metres long cast by the dawn sun; hooded weaver birds defying gravity with their nest-building and my ancient Rhodesian Ridgeback, bounding around consumed with the joy of another bright morning, impervious to the fact that the country he’s named after no longer exists. It’s a great day for us both to be alive.

Sadly not all is beautiful in Harare and as I cycle the 20km from home to the British Embassy, I see much that is vile and immoral, alongside the decency and kindness of a terribly put-upon people.

First I pass the turn-off for Hatcliffe Extension: a township flattened by the Government in 2005 as a collective punishment for electing an opposition MP. I remember standing chatting with Savemore, a remarkably crinkley granny, in the ruins of her house, a plastic sheet her only roof. She can’t understand why she’s been targeted, as she’s never voted. Her grown-up son and daughter-in-law died of AIDS leaving her to look after four grandchildren, in her damp and feeble shelter. God knows if she’s still alive – and indeed God is the best chance for her and her family. Churches are doing brave work rebuilding homes and lives smashed by the Government in 2005, with a little help from the British taxpayer.

Onwards up steep Crow Hill. As I labour along, gasping and wheezing, everyone has a friendly word – wishing me a good morning and asking after my health. (My health would be better if I lost some weight). The humblest Zimbabwean is literate and fluent in several languages and the universal practice of good manners never fails to lift my spirits. There is a dark-side, of course. Female cyclists can be harassed with wolf-whistles and rude suggestions; an echo of the silent crimewaves of rape and child abuse, which shatter families and fuel the HIV epidemic.

Finally the top of the hill – it’s flat all the way now. There is a remarkable number of people waiting at the junction for a bus. The buses aren’t running too well at the moment, because ZANU-PF has appropriated their fuel for electioneering.

And there’s another problem deterring people from travelling. The police – plundering like modern Defarges – have set up a roadblock a few hundred metres along. They are pulling over buses and making passengers turn out their bags. Anyone carrying maize meal is threatened with arrest for being an illegal trader. So people trying to take food to their families on the other side of town don’t want to risk boarding transport just yet. They may have to wait for hours. As I cycle round the roadblock the coppers give me a cheery wave – amazing how people can be so happy while condemning their compatriots to hunger. But I suppose they are desperate too trying to survive on a few pence a day.

Down Domboshawa Road I cycle past waste ground. A group of Apostolic women pray in radiant, white robes. Graffiti: "Vote MDC!" has been crossed out and replaced with blood red letters: "Vote ZANU-PF or you will all starve." It’s normal for parties to play dirty tricks on each other, but the message is a chilling reminder that the campaign leading up to the election here on 29 March will be more than dirty – it will cost many lives.

Picking up speed, I head into town on Borrowdale Road. I pass a particular rock, about the size of a football. It sticks in my memory because one dark, rainy night a year ago the Presidential guard pulled a man from his car, beat him, then hit him on the head with that rock. His ‘crime’ was failing to pull his car sufficiently far off the road as the motorcade roared by. He was lucky to survive. The truck carrying these brutes then drove dangerously fast to catch up with the presidential limousine and had a horrific head-on collision. L'État, c'est moi.

A right turn into quiet Fifth Street. I pass a hospital and remember a sunny day when I handed over a generator paid for by the British Embassy Community Projects fund. We do what we can to help the people left behind as the economy crashes. Again there are darker memories, of March 11 last year when dozens of civic and opposition leaders were brought here after being tortured by the regime. Doctors braved death threats to help them - it is a far far better thing they do than I have ever done! The state media accuses us of using British resources to bring down the Government. In fact our assistance goes to victims like those tortured on March 11. We have nothing to apologise for.

Nearly there now. Avenues lined with dense purple jacarandas. Parents carrying children tied with towels to their backs. I pass State House, dripping with gaudy furnishings. I can almost imagine the residents to be Louis and Marie, baking huge cakes to celebrate their endless birthdays, which the people never eat.

The Embassy. Two floors of a failing office block right in the centre of town. There’s a power cut, so no traffic lights. I weave my bike through gridlocked chaos. The lifts are out so I drag my sweaty blubber up six flights. As I get into reception a stick-thin woman gets painfully to her feet and introduces herself as Esther. Can I look at her application for funding? I could really murder a shower and a coffee (and maybe a doughnut), but there’s a spring of hope in Esther’s eyes, rather than the usual winter of despair. She’d like a few billion dollars - which luckily translates into little more than a hundred pounds - to set up a small peanut-butter factory in her area for HIV+ people (of whom she is one). The scheme is well thought-out, practical and offers a chance to a group of people who will soon return to dust if they can’t make a living. I agree to the grant on the spot. I hope she doesn’t think I spend my whole day in crumpled shorts and a sweaty t-shirt.

After meeting Esther I check out the notice on the Embassy door. The exchange rate for a pound has gone up from $12 Million to $35 Million. Damn. I’ve got $500 Million in my pocket, so I’ve just lost £25. We live in the age of foolishness here.

Finally through the door and nearly in my office. It’s 8.05am, I’m almost on time, the day’s just starting, but I feel that I’ve lived my whole life in Zimbabwe - a country with everything before it and nothing before it - in the course of my journey to work.

We've decided to expand this blog from just my observations to those of other members of the Embassy. We hope this will enable us to give a broader picture of life in Zimbabwe and our work here.

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