This story appears in the May 2013 issue of National Geographic magazine.
There are at least two things to know about Zimbabweans. The first is that they have an immoderate attachment to their land, and no wonder. Anyone who has seen the spring-red blush of musasa woodland at the beginning of the rains, or felt the crackle-hot wind of a lowveld summer afternoon, or absorbed the scents of sweet potato and marigold as dusk settles over the bush will know that theirs is a soul-snagging land. Of course such an attachment to land comes at a price. For it, and over it, there will be wars and revolutions, and the inevitable loss of land by the vanquished or the politically unlucky will be so unendurable that the unmoored people will end up true ghosts, souls in search of soil.
The second thing to know about Zimbabweans is that they are a small but persistently noisy nation of storytellers and musicmakers. The Bhundu Boys were pop diva Madonna’s supporting act at Wembley Stadium in London in 1987. Thomas Mapfumo, the Lion of Zimbabwe, created a genre of protest music—chimurenga(uprising). Africa’s most prestigious literary award, the Caine Prize, has twice gone to Zimbabweans in its 13-year history (Brian Chikwava in 2004, NoViolet Bulawayo in 2011). Charles Mungoshi won two Pen International awards in 1976, and Dambudzo Marechera won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979. Doris Lessing, who spent her formative years in the country, won the Nobel Prize in literature.
I am not now Zimbabwean, but for several years in the 1970s my British-born parents owned a farm on the eastern edge of what was then the rogue state of Rhodesia. They fought—my father as a conscripted soldier, my mother as a police volunteer—to keep the country white-run and avowedly out of the hands of communists. By any calculation, it was a questionable cause: Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s prime minister, campaigned in 1965 on a slogan of “A whiter, brighter Rhodesia,” and for the next decade and a half a decreasing minority of whites (just over 200,000 in the early ’60s to about 150,000 in 1980) tried to hold on to power in a country populated by a black majority that grew from about 3.5 million to more than 7 million during that period.
By late 1979 liberation forces were coming into Rhodesia from camps in neighboring Mozambique and Zambia faster than government troops could kill them. A peace was negotiated. The following February general elections were held and won by the Zimbabwe African National Union—Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Its leader became Zimbabwe’s first prime minister. Robert Gabriel Mugabe exuded an air of conciliatory magnanimity. My mother wasn’t buying it. My parents moved north to Malawi.
Working along fault lines well established by the white minority government before him—which is to say, ethnic, racial, and political—Mugabe went about further dividing his nation and securing absolute power for himself.
There are two main ethnic groups in Zimbabwe: the majority Shona and the minority Ndebele. Mugabe is Shona. In 1983 Mugabe deployed his North Korean-trained Five Brigade into the west of the country to preempt any Ndebele political opposition. Over the following five years, an estimated 20,000 Ndebele were massacred. “He understood and manipulated our weaknesses very well,” Wilfred Mhanda, a formerZANU-PF liberation commander who fought along with Mugabe, told me. “There is nothing more deadly than someone so profoundly insecure mimicking the aggression of his oppressors and becoming an oppressor in turn.”
Mugabe tolerated corruption in his cabinet, as long as it came with loyalty to him. The country’s economy was collapsing, and by the mid-1990s there were fuel shortages, civil servants were striking, and liberation war veterans began to demand the compensation they had been promised at independence. Then, in 1998, Mugabe sent troops into the Democratic Republic of the Congo to prop up the teetering regime of Laurent Kabila, at an eventual cost equivalent to a million U.S. dollars a day. Zimbabwe’s economic fate was sealed.
The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was launched in 1999, headed by a former labor union leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe countered the new political outspokenness this came with and the increasing dissatisfaction among his own supporters by allowing them to appropriate white-owned commercial farms without compensation. In 2000, with Mugabe’s explicit blessing, unemployed ZANU-PF supporters led by war veterans armed with axes and machetes invaded the farms, shouting, “Hondo! War!” Domestic food supplies plummeted. In 2005, after the MDC won several parliamentary seats, Mugabe retaliated with Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Clear the Filth). Across the country market stalls and homes belonging to the urban poor, who constituted much of ZANU-PF’s opposition, were razed. An estimated 700,000 people lost their homes or livelihoods, and more than 2 million were driven further into poverty.
Then, in a first round of elections held in 2008, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF finally lost to Tsvangirai’s MDC. Calling for a runoff election, supporters and officials of ZANU-PFwent on a vicious state-sponsored rampage. Hundreds of MDC supporters were killed and thousands injured, hundreds of women and girls were raped, and tens of thousands of people became internal refugees. “If you wanted to commit suicide in 2008, you just wore an MDC T-shirt,” I was told. By November of that year, Steve Hanke, an economics professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, had calculated Zimbabwe’s monthly inflation rate at 79.6 billion percent, second only to Hungary’s in 1946.
To avoid worse bloodletting and even more unimaginable economic collapse, Tsvangirai withdrew from the race, and Mugabe declared himself the winner. Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa and a bafflingly uncritical Mugabe supporter, persuaded the two men to negotiate a power-sharing agreement. Mugabe retained control of the mines, the army, and the police and intelligence services—in other words, everything that ensured his continued dominance. Tsvangirai inherited the ministries of finance, education, health, environment—in other words, everything that ensured he couldn’t run away with power.
A tenuous purgatory of waiting ensued—waiting for Mugabe’s grip on power to ease, waiting for Mugabe to die (he was born in 1924). But in spite of rumored puffy ankles—cancer was one of the whispered speculations—Mugabe appeared as robust as ever. In 2010 Foreign Policy magazine named Mugabe the second worst dictator in the world, after North Korea’s late leader Kim Jong Il. In 2012 the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization the Fund for Peace ranked Zimbabwe fifth in its annual Failed States Index.
Still, when I arrived in the country in mid-October 2012, things in the capital, Harare, seemed to be business as usual. An influx of diamond money—the 2006 discovery of diamonds in the east of the country has been called the biggest find of its kind—had lent a Botoxed sheen to the place: adoption of the U.S. dollar had simplified trade, new cars were on the roads, shops were full of South African imports, mansions mushroomed behind massive walls in the suburbs beyond State House.
But beneath the impression of regularity, disquiet remained. Ahead of tentatively scheduled elections in July 2013, ZANU-PF youth gangs were stirring in densely populated market centers; on international television ZANU-PF officials were blatantly threatening that they would not support a Tsvangirai win. At the same time headlines reported Tsvangirai’s domestic intrigues, culminating in his recent marriage to Elizabeth Macheka, daughter of a ZANU-PF central committee guru. His position as a robust alternative to Mugabe seemed in question.
Meanwhile personnel from the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) were reportedly monitoring citizens’ activities everywhere. “Yes, there are people who say I should watch out,” Tafadzwa Muzondo, a 33-year-old Zimbabwean playwright told me. “But I have to do my duty. I am a citizen first. I am an artist second. And isn’t it better to say at the end of your life that you tried to make a difference?” Muzondo had suggested we meet behind the National Gallery in the Harare Gardens. It was a steamy morning, and thunderstorms threatened, but we stayed out in the open, the better to spot any government-sponsored eavesdroppers, although I didn’t see how a dried-up patch of lawn was going to do much to protect us against the CIO. But Muzondo had written a play that had provoked the government, and he was talking to a foreign writer, and to do either of those things in this place and at this time was to court trouble.
A concerned person can’t help but keep track: In the decade from 2001 to 2011 official oppression has forced at least 49 Zimbabwean journalists into exile, the fifth worst record in the world. Within Zimbabwe’s borders, scores of national and a few international human-rights activists, writers, and photographers have been intimidated or arrested, and one local cameraman, suspected of passing photographs of a beaten-up Morgan Tsvangirai to foreign media, was murdered in 2007. Since 2000 Tsvangirai has been arrested numerous times and once nearly beaten to death by Mugabe’s henchmen. In theory, freedom of speech is protected. In practice, a series of imaginatively broad laws attempt to ensure silence. Regardless of when or how Mugabe leaves power, it’s going to take his country a long time to recover from him.
“How do we intend to solve our violent history if we can’t talk about it?” Muzondo asked. “You combine my poverty with my fear, with my silence—life is not worth living. They might as well just do mass killing.” Zimbabweans are in the fearful position of watching themselves become the unspoken, the unheard—the mute, whose stories will be told only by foreign correspondents and Western aid workers. Once boasting the highest literacy rate in Africa—more than 90 percent—some predict that Zimbabwe’s literacy rate will fall to 75 percent by 2020.
“We know this. Without our voice, we have no choice,” Muzondo said. “Without choice, where are we? We’re forever stuck in violence.”
But Zimbabwean writers, artists, and playwrights haven’t given up yet. Robust, sometimes mordantly funny, politically controversial novels, art exhibitions, and plays appear faster than CIO agents can object to them. In the past eight years Muzondo has written half a dozen plays dealing with pressing social and political issues. His latest—No Voice, No Choice—was banned in August 2012 after an enthusiastically received run around the country. “People were coming up to us afterwards and saying, ‘We were scared of what would happen to us if someone noticed us watching your play, but then we noticed you were not scared of performing it. We felt more courageous because of your bravery.’”
The letter from the national authorities banning the play was Orwellian in its nonsensical doublespeak: “Please be advised that the Board of Censors read your Play Script and observed that the play is about discouraging youths participating in political violence … The play is inciteful and against the spirit of national healing.” I turned the letter over, as if shaking up its words would make it more coherent, to say nothing of rectifying the unintentional pun (inciteful/insightful). “Someone felt uncomfortable with the truth,” Muzondo said. “But that truth is this: We’re all in this together. Neighbors have assaulted neighbors. Now we have to sit down together and face what it is we’ve done to one another. The government doesn’t want us to have that conversation. But what if we did?”
This was never part of the political calculation. Eventually Zimbabweans might be brought together by their common bond of suffering and begin to insist on their own liberation. In fact, Mugabe seems to have deliberately turned so many ordinary Zimbabweans—soldiers and police officers, obviously, but also schoolboys ordered out of their classrooms to rape and torture—into perpetrators that there is now widespread fear a change of government might bring with it recrimination. “Victims of the political violence are afraid it will resurface with every election; perpetrators of the political violence are afraid it will end,” Rutendo Munengami, an advocate for victims of rape, told me. “Everyone knows who the culprits are; they are our neighbors and officials. They are not hard to find. Those people are afraid of a government who will call them to account.”
I met Munengami and fellow activist Margaret Mazvarira in the garden of a quiet Harare restaurant a few mornings after my meeting with Muzondo. The sun appeared to take up the whole sky, and musasa tree pods cracked, showering seeds on the barely rain-softened earth. The two women spoke over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, confirming the connecting braid of shared experience between them.
In the early hours of June 3, 2003, Munengami—whose husband was then an MDC councillor—was torn from her bed, her nursing nine-month-old son still in her arms. While soldiers looked on, Munengami told me, she was raped by a prominent ZANU-PF minister. Afterward, the minister drove her to a police station in Harare, where she and her son were dangled over a pit of acid while the soldiers decided whether or not to kill her. “They wanted to throw the baby to the ground,” Munengami said. “They shouted, ‘He will be the same as the father. He will want to give the country to the white man.’”
Mazvarira was abducted in 2000 from her home in Chivhu, a small town south of Harare, and raped by two ZANU-PF CIO officers after her 17-year-old daughter, an MDC organizer, was killed by a petrol bomb. Mazvarira contracted HIV from the assault. “They told me, ‘You and your daughter are Tsvangirai’s bitches.’” When Mazvarira went to the police station to report the attack, the officer in charge refused to hear her case. “The police are only ZANU-PF,” she said.
The two women are not placid about what happened to them, but what converted them from victims into activists is that they were never able to hold their attackers to account. “The government won’t help us. No one can help us. It is up to us, ourselves, now. That is where we are.” In 2009 Munengami launched Doors of Hope, a nonprofit organization that supports and speaks for victims of politically motivated rape. Doors of Hope now has 375 members from all over the country. “We are standing for women,” Munengami said. “Those so-called war vets raped so many women during the liberation struggle, but they don’t want to talk about it. So we are going to talk about it. Whether it’s 1975, or now, we don’t want this to continue. We have had enough. We are sick and tired of being quiet. Where has silence got us?”
In a nearby jacaranda tree, the call of a cape turtle dove echoed Zimbabwe’s eternal lament, “My mother is dead, my father is dead, all my relatives are dead.” From my recent travels across the country, I knew that organizations like Doors of Hope existed all over Zimbabwe. I had spoken to the director of Radio Dialogue, a small station in Bulawayo that had circumvented a ban on independent broadcasting by distributing cassettes and CDs to minibus drivers. I had spoken to survivors of political torture who had organized healing circles with their erstwhile attackers and were now running a nonprofit, Tree of Life, which had gone into scores of communities throughout the country holding workshops to help both victims and perpetrators recover from past political violence. I had spoken to the editors of Weaver Press in Harare, which still published brave, politically sensitive books, and I had picked up copies of poetry published by amaBooks in Bulawayo. I had spoken to artists and writers and doctors who were challenging the inevitability of a silent, violent future.
“I am like that tree,” Mazvarira said suddenly, pointing toward the jacaranda. “I’ve had my branches cut, but I am not dead. I am attached to this soil, and it feeds my roots.” She pushed her plate away. “Today I got to tell my story. I was heard. That is my rain.” She leaned forward with a smile of the kind that can come only when there is still hope in a nearly hopeless place. “So please tell your world not to turn the page on us yet. Tell them to keep hearing us. We are still speaking.”