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Exclusive: Excerpt from Douglas Rogers' new book "The Last Resort"
Editor's note: Zimbabwean writer Douglas Rogers' new book, "The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe," is a dramatic account of his parents' tourist lodge that, over the course of the country's economic and political crisis, has served as an informal brothel, a hideout for illegal diamond smugglers, and a safe haven for political activists. The sweeping saga of the ups and downs of his family and many other Zimbabweans, both black and white, has won glowing early reviews.
Here, in an exclusive excerpt for GlobalPost, is a chapter in which Rogers describes going to a rural political rally in June 2006, that was addressed by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who is now Prime Minister in the power sharing government with President Robert Mugabe.
Dad woke me with a cup of coffee. ‘Brian James just called. He wants to know if you want to go to a rally.’
‘A rally? Jeez. Okay, when?’
‘It’s on Saturday. Give Brian a call. He says Tsvangirai’s going to be
‘Really? Wow. Ja, I’ll definitely go.’
I had the chance to meet Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the
Brian James was a white friend of my parents’ who’d become a prominent MDC member in town. He and his wife, Sheelagh, a slender brunette whose aristocratic demeanor belied a wicked sense of humor, had lost their chicken farm in the early days of the land invasions. Brian had never considered himself remotely political – ‘I just wanted to farm and play cricket on weekends.’ But he joined the MDC, and by 2006 he had become treasurer for the Manicaland province, replacing Roy Bennett, the famous Shona-speaking farmer from Chimanimani, known to his legion ofrural black supporters as Pachedu, meaning ‘one of us’. Bennett was perhaps the most popular member of the MDC after Morgan Tsvangirai and Tendai Biti, and he had won a seat in Parliament in 2000 in a landslide, thrashing the ZANU-PF candidate. In 2004, however, he was sentenced to a year in a maximum-security prison in Harare after he ‘pushed’ the justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, during a confrontation in Parliament.
After his release, fearing assassination, Bennett moved to South Africa, where he became the party’s treasurer in exile and a prominent spokesman. Brian had big shoes to fill.
I knew him from my cricket-playing days as a good medium-pace bowler. An intense, soft-spoken man with wire-rimmed glasses and sandy hair, he’d always struck me as more academic than agricultural. My father said he was fearless, though – which helped explain his rise in the MDC. Sheelagh strongly supported his new high-risk political career while at the same time managing to affect an air of amused detachment, as if it didn’t worry her. Brian had spent four days in jail on trumped-up treason charges (several of my parents’ friends had now been in prison).
When Mom phoned Sheelagh to ask her how he was doing, she said, ‘No idea, Ros. I don’t do jail.’
I was excited about attending an MDC rally and seeing Tsvangirai speak, but I was nervous, too. I had no media accreditation, and I knew I would stand out in a crowd, the only white person apart from Brian, who was already well known in the area. MDC rallies were filled with informers, CIO spies. I phoned Brian.
‘I definitely want to go, as long as no one finds out I’m a reporter.’
‘Don’t worry about that,’ he said. ‘Just bring a packed lunch.’
‘Where’s the rally?’
My heart sank. Buhera was a remote, arid rural area two hours’ drive southwest of Mutare, far from any town. It was Morgan Tsvangirai’s home district and it was there, one night in 2000, that two of his organizers, including his driver, Tichaona Chiminya, were burned to death in a firebomb attack on their vehicle by ZANU-PF hit men. I had also heard rumors that it was the home district of Joseph Chinotimba, a ruthless thug who, although he had never fought in the liberation war, had branded himself a war-veteran leader and become a feared government enforcer, leading many farm invasions and attacks on opposition activists.
There would be no hiding place in Buhera.
‘Okay, just as long as I am not identified as a journalist,’ I reminded Brian.
‘So you are the journalist! Welcome. Welcome!’
It was 6:00 am. I was standing outside an MDC safe house in a suburb of Mutare, surrounded by a dozen young black activists in T-shirts emblazoned with the open-hand symbol of the party, all waiting for a lift to the rally.
They were thanking me for joining them, excited that a foreign-based reporter would be coming along for the ride. So much for being incognito.
‘Guys, guys,’ I hushed them, ‘don’t tell anyone I’m a reporter. Keep it quiet.’
They laughed and slapped hands with one another.
‘Don’t be afraid. You are safe with us!’
I was struck by the lack of fear. Rather, there was a sense of excitement, as if we were going to a soccer match. Which, in a sense, we were. Soccer was the country’s national sport, and the MDC’s symbols mimicked those of a soccer referee: the open hand was the signal a referee made when sending a player off. MDC members also brandished red cards and blew whistles, exhorting Zimbabweans to ‘send Mugabe off’.