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From the U.S. to Africa ... and back

How 23 years reporting in Zimbabwe enriched my life

Coming from a small town in Ohio, where everyone knew me and everything seemed orderly and predictable, I had a burning desire to go out and see the world. I decided to become a foreign correspondent.

I had no idea that my decision would result in my staying nearly three decades in southern Africa.

First I ‘earned my spurs’ in journalism, working on a weekly paper in my hometown, Hudson, Ohio, then on a small daily on Lake Erie and on to a bigger daily paper in California. I also succeeded in getting a Masters degree in journalism from Columbia University.

I hung on to my dream of becoming a dashing foreign correspondent and I scouted the big newspapers and wire services that would post me overseas. After seven years in journalism, I could see that it would take me several more years to achieve my ambition.

When I wrote a feature on an African professor who was leaving California because his home country was transforming from white minority-ruled Rhodesia to black majority-ruled Zimbabwe, I was fascinated. I saw Zimbabwe’s independence, in 1980, as a great opportunity for me. The country’s progress from a bitter race war to peace and reconciliation appealed to me and I left my job, sold my car and bought a ticket to Zimbabwe.

My timing was right. The war correspondents covering the Rhodesian war quickly left when peace broke out, and I found several freelance opportunities. I thought I would stay for a couple of years, get experience and then, like so many other journalists, move on to another continent, another country, another story.

At first I got to do something rare for a journalist, I wrote stories about positive events such as the first black mayor of Harare, the first black Miss Zimbabwe, the quadrupling of primary school enrollment because black children were encouraged to go to school.

That honeymoon period came to an end in 1983 when I reported the Matabeleland massacres. Robert Mugabe ordered the army to put down a violent but small protest group. In a brutal, bloody campaign the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade killed an estimated 10,000 rural peasants from the Ndebele minority.

I no longer believed that Mugabe was a wise statesman but I was proud that my reporting helped to bring the atrocity to international attention.

Zimbabwe was in my blood. I was compelled to stay on and report the country’s story, as well as Mozambique’s civil war and the stirring anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. It didn’t hurt that Zimbabwe enjoys an unparalleled sub-tropical climate and a warm, welcoming people.

By 2000, Mugabe was still in power and widely unpopular. He used the army, the police, a domestic spy network and gangs of thugs to keep the country in his grip. We journalists covered his seizures of white-owned farms and wrote stories of violence, mayhem and murder. Those stories did not bother Mugabe. In fact it dawned on me that Mugabe wanted to be portrayed that way — the radical African leader who rid his country of the last vestige of white colonialism.

It was when I reported on Mugabe’s systematic torture of members of the opposition party that I got into trouble. Mugabe did not want the world to see him as the torturer of black Zimbabweans. After several exposes of human rights abuses, I was roughed up by state agents, thrown in jail, put on trial and, although I was acquitted, I was abducted and forcibly expelled from Zimbabwe.

It was a dramatic, traumatic exit from the country that had become my home. I went to work in Johannesburg where I continued reporting on Zimbabwe, as well as South Africa’s tumultuous politics.

It took a wonderful Nieman fellowship for journalists at Harvard University to bring me back to the U.S. And now, I have the great fortune to be working on this exciting new website devoted to international news. I will continue working on African news, including news out of Zimbabwe, where the stories are heartbreaking. But I am looking forward to the day, in the not too distant future, when we at GlobalPost will be conveying the news of Zimbabwe’s return to democracy and prosperity.

I went off to Zimbabwe for adventure and to report great stories. I got all that and much more, such as the gratification in covering the sweep of history and standing up for human rights and press freedom.

“Africa is like malaria, once you have it in your blood, it never leaves, ” wrote Nobel Prize-winning author Doris Lessing. I agree with her sentiment, but for me Africa is not so much a disease but an enduring love that has enriched my life.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/africa/090110/the-us-africa-and-back