Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A Troubled Reunion
I have just returned to the rural Zimbabwean secondary school where I spent a year teaching twelve years ago before going to university in Britain. I am shocked by the degree to which the optimism of the past has been overridden by fear.
The school, when I first arrived as a teenager in 1993, was in a poor village. There was no electricity and no running water. This, near the small town where President Robert Mugabe was born and had built himself a small palace. Mugabe’s younger sister, Sabina, was the local MP for the ruling ZANU PF party.
Although few of the children had shoes and one book had to be shared between three of them, there was an overriding sense of optimism. Zimbabwe at the time was the bread basket of southern Africa and the talk was of improvement.
I was sad to leave. I had made good friends and had fallen in love with Africa and the way of life. As I followed the news in Britain from Zimbabwe, I often wondered what had happened to my school and my friends living there.
At last the opportunity came to return. I noticed the change as soon as I headed up the familiar old red dirt track towards the school. Where before the people in the homesteads waved and smiled, now they just stared sullenly and suspiciously.
I stopped first at the house of the bottle store owner, a good friend in the old days. He was pleased to see me but was plainly uneasy and uncomfortable. When I asked if I could stay with him he looked unhappy and said it was impossible since his sons were about to visit him.
I went to see Tafadzwa, an ex-pupil who was now subsistence farming on his family plot. Times are hard, he said - no jobs, little money and everyone is hungry. In the past the villagers grew maize for themselves and sold excess to the government Grain Marketing Board, GMB. These sales provided money for school fees, transport and grain out of season.
But now the GMB had no money, so there was no cash income.
We touched on politics and why things were getting worse, but he put his finger to his lips and said, “We mustn't talk about such things. This area is politically sensitive.” It was a clear reference to the absolute power ZANU PF wields in the area through the chiefs, police and youth militia, a violent outfit totally loyal to Mugabe and reminiscent of Hitler’s Brownshirts, but in their case dressed in bottle green uniforms.
I suggested we head over to the school, as I had bought some footballs for the pupils. Tafadzwa said that I should also give one to the “boys who are camping around”, the local youth militia unit who have the fearsome name the Green Bombers. He was also keen that I meet the Green Bombers’ leader – “just so there will be no trouble”.
As we approached the school, we saw a group of men moving in our direction. Tafadzwa became agitated and said that the leader was coming. He quickly showed me how to make the ZANU PF fist salute. Soon we found ourselves surrounded by five men carrying clubs.
The leader introduced his squad - himself, the secretary carrying a notebook, and three security men smoking marijuana. I explained who I was, that I had taught at the school and that we had come to donate footballs, one of which I would be delighted to offer to the Green Bombers.
The leader said it was compulsory for me to report to the local chairman of ZANU PF. We went to see him via the school. The library that we had installed was now just empty shelves. The science block, which was beginning to be built when I left, was still a pile of bricks.
Past the school we arrived at a homestead where about twenty young men were sitting around drinking locally brewed maize beer. On seeing me everything stopped and the ZANU PF chairman led the men towards me. Tafadzwa gave the fist salute and started chanting in Shona the ZANU PF slogan – “unity, togetherness”.
The ZANU PF chairman stared hard at me and, just for safety, I found myself also punching the air and chanting the slogan. He relaxed, offered me some beer and thanked me for the footballs.
I saw Nkani, who was captain of the school football team I had coached. He was now one of the ZANU PF chairman’s gang. He said he had been a miner for a while after he left school, but that he had injured his leg and returned to the village. “It is good that you have met the chairman, as now it means there will be no trouble,” he told me. I asked what he did these days, and he laughed, saying he was “just around, helping out with the guys because there is no work no jobs”.
Keen to get away from the chairman’s understated menace, I went with Tafadzwa to find someone from the primary school to hand over its share of the footballs I had brought. We met one of the teachers, Mr Marufu, who I had known well. I asked him what the Green Bombers did in the community. “As long as you kept quiet and have your party card then things are OK,” he said. Looking embarrassed as he showed me his ZANU PF card, he added softly, “Things have changed since you were last here.”
There followed one of the most unusual football matches I have ever played in. Both teams, other than Tafadzwa and me, were made up of Green Bomber youths. The guys were physical, boisterous - they all had the swagger of men who were used to a certain respect. My team won 4-1.
Afterwards, we headed to the bottle store where it was suggested I make a donation towards “refreshments”. I talked more with Nkani, who admitted, “Things are bad, but the problem lies with the West which is making it difficult for Zimbabweans.” I saw others whom I had known, but in the presence of the Green Bombers they were muted and watchful.
I sensed danger to myself and to Tafadzwa and his family if I prolonged my visit. The prevailing fear was tangible. It was clear also that ZANU PF and the Green Bombers have a total grip on the rural community that will translate into votes for the rulers in the parliamentary election on March 31.
Everywhere else I went the situation was equally grim. In the towns, fuel shortages, power failures, water cuts and downed telephone lines make daily life trying and business tough. Banks are being closed down because directors have fraudulently spent their depositors’ money.
Things will clearly have to get worse before they can get better.
In the meantime, the people just keep quiet and wait for change. One old man in my once happy village gripped my arm and said, “We have become like turtles, just hiding in our shells until it is safe to come out again.”
Jim Moffat is no longer a teacher. He now works in marketing in Paris.
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