Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa

Zimbabwe

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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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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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Wednesday 19 March, 2008

Give me more madam politicians

Zimbabwe’s national television rarely if ever provides any useful information, but once in a while it is a source of comic relief. Election time in Zimbabwe is madness time.

All sorts of politicians crawl out of the woodwork. Promises are made that will never see the light of day.

Over the past few weeks I have been monitoring some of the weird campaign dances, messages and insipid advertisements on national television. Every election time politicians treat us voters like children, make false promises and sure, I am used to that now, but what I find maddening is that someone thinks I should vote for them just because they happen to be there.

The women’s organisations, which I believe have their hearts in the right place, have been running advertisements urging us voters to: “Vote for me, I am your sister or I am your mother.” Why stop there why not say “Vote for me I have one leg?” To say vote for me because I am a woman is irrational nonsense. It is simply not good enough!

People seeking political leadership should stop taking voters for granted. Show me a woman with credible qualities and I will vote for her. Give me a rational argument. Tell me how you are going to ensure that my children get the education they deserve.

For at least three days every week I wake up at midnight to fill up containers with water because there is never water during the day. Most of the time I do this by candlelight because power has become something that I can only imagine. We have water when we are supposed to be asleep and electricity comes back for a few hours when we are at work.

I would like to have a flushing toilet again and not be relegated to the bucket or bush system. We have all learnt defensive driving just by weaving in and out of the road to avoid craters the size of canoes.

I would like to see women in power but I am not going to vote them in on the basis of gender – I need more, I deserve more. Anyone who wants my vote has to realise that my vote is not for free. For me it is a ticket to a better life. Voters want change they can trust and believe in.

It is no good just empowering a specific group of people. Development does not come through empowering women, it comes from empowering society inclusively. For so long societies have suffered from selective development.

We should have policies that will help develop the community and society around us. Without development for all there is no justice for all. Political power has to be more meaningful and not just a ladder onto the gravy train.

While quota systems are a stop gap measure that may or may not work, there is no question that the main issue is education for all, equal opportunities and reform of our cultural systems that tend to see the girl child as a marriageable commodity and a second class citizen.

 

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