Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Photographer

Neither a political refugee nor a typical white Zimbabwean, Sara Catterall struggles to find a place in the expatriate community.
By Jennifer Koons
Sara Catterall tosses her cigarette to the ground and shakes her head. Today was supposed to have gone differently.



She planned to spend the entire afternoon packing – packing up her life in the United Kingdom so she could return to her native Zimbabwe.



“I thought I’d be going home today,” she admitted. “We were just waiting for Mugabe to leave. And now that opportunity is gone.”

The day before, Zimbabweans went go to the polls in an election denounced around the world as a fraud.



The vote in the run-off for March’s disputed presidential election went ahead despite the withdrawal of President Robert Mugabe’s only rival, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.



Catterall now plans to stay put, and she acknowledges that she’s in a much more enviable position than many Zimbabweans who are struggling to find work and establish a life in the UK.



She appears almost apologetic as she quietly notes that she has a British passport – a luxury for Zimbabweans in Britain.



“I was lucky,” she said. “I am a third-generation Zimbabwean but my father is originally from London. We were privileged. When the violence began creeping up, I was able to leave.”



A freelance photographer when she left six years ago, Catterall said she decided on London because she was anxious to find work.



“My brother lives in Harare, but he is there by choice,” she said. “My father and mother are no longer alive and three of my cousins have left for America. They feel as I do that leaving Zimbabwe was always supposed to be temporary.”



When she arrived in London in 2002, she found work as a receptionist in a gallery. Eventually she began taking photographs again and met her husband, a professional photographer from France, when the two were covering the same event.



“My husband has never seen where I grew up,” said Catterall. “He has never met my brother. I have shown him many pictures but I want him to see what is there for himself.”



The two live near his sister and her children in North London.



Catterall said she has struggled to find a place within the Zimbabwean expatriate community.



“I am not like the refugees who have come seeking political asylum,” she said. “But I am not like the other white Zimbabweans who think they are British and pretend they have always lived here.”



She said she has tried to get more involved in political activities during the period leading up to the run-off election, but has spent most of her time contacting her brother and his family in Harare and planning to go home.



“My brother said there is no water or electricity,” she said. “He said things keep getting worse. But we thought this was the very bad before the good.”



She had put off plans to have children until she returned home but now she said she is no longer sure she will wait.



“I have been on a holiday for six years. I have not wanted to make roots here,” she said. “I should not keep putting it off. My husband tells me I must accept that this is my life here. I fight it.”



A week after Mugabe announced victory in the sham election, Catterall said she has begun to adapt to her changing circumstances. Instead of flying to Harare to meet up with her brother, she is taking a trip in October to visit her eldest cousin in San Francisco, California.



“Perhaps I will like America,” she mused. “I don’t know where I will end up now.”



Her brother called her the other day and said he is also thinking about leaving. She is worried that there will be no familiar faces in her country when she is finally able to return.



“My cousin in America has had a little girl,” she said. “I’m bringing one of my old photographs with me. It will hang in her room and she will grow up looking at Zimbabwe on her wall. Maybe she will be the one to go back someday.”



Jennifer Koons is an IWPR reporter in London.



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