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’.
To the side of the group I noticed a handsome dreadlocked guy, similar in age to me, a notebook in his hand, calmly smoking Madisons. I introduced myself.
He said his name was Sydney Saize. He was a local journalist who filed radio reports for Studio 7, the Voice of America station that I had listened to down at the camp the night before. Sydney also wrote for local newspapers, but he mostly survived on assignments for VOA because they paid him in US dollars.
‘Is it safe for me out there without accreditation?’ I asked him.
‘It should be,’ he said. ‘The police hassle the leaders and the supporters more, try to stop the rallies. Hide your notebook. You should be fine.’
‘Have you ever been arrested?’ I asked him.
‘Yes, in January. I have to go to court for breaking the Access to Information Act – ‘peddling falsehoods’. A story I did on some teachers who were beaten up by ZANU-PF youths in Marange. I filed my report by cellphone from the school, and a war veteran overheard and made a citizen’s arrest.’
‘What could happen to you?’
‘Twenty years in jail.’
Then he smiled and offered me a cigarette.
It was humbling to meet people like Sydney. Hundreds of local journalists worked in Zimbabwe for little money or recognition, and at great risk to their personal safety. Few of them could afford cars, offices or computers; they would hitch lifts and catch buses to interviews and political rallies. The stories I did for British and American newspapers were relatively well paid, and I risked little reporting them compared to these guys. They were on the front lines: followed, threatened, their offices bugged, their newspapers banned, even bombed, their friends bribed to become informers.
But still they did it; it was their life. Just how brave they were would become horrifically apparent in March 2007 when Morgan Tsvangirai, the man we were about to see, would be brutally assaulted at the prayer meeting in Harare where the MDC activist Gift Tandare was shot dead.
Tsvangirai’s skull was cracked by police truncheons; he blacked out several times during a later assault in prison. The world never would have seen images of his bruised and battered face if Edward Chikomba, a freelance cameraman, had not smuggled out of the country footage he’d shot of Tsvangirai’s bloodied face. That one act might have helped change Zimbabwe’s history: the MDC’s struggle suddenly became a major news story. Tsvangirai was a symbol of resistance to brutality. Two weeks later Edward Chikomba was abducted from his home; his mutilated body was found dumped in the bush, on a farm south of Harare.
We drove off, Brian behind the wheel. I sat with an organizer from Buhera named T Chimonya in the front seat; the others piled in the back of Brian’s truck, happily waving the open-hand salute at passing pedestrians as we left town.
Half an hour later we turned onto a rutted dirt road, and suddenly, as if we’d crossed a border, the cool green of Mutare’s mountains and valleys gave way to the hot, dry breath of the communal lands. The earth – parched, cracked, the color of bright copper – was semi-desert here; only baobabs, scrub and thorn survived the ruthless onslaught of the sun.
We passed no other cars and few people except, occasionally, at dusty settlements of mud-and-thatch huts set in the shade of rocky outcrops. And as we drove past these huts, a strange thing would happen. On hearing our vehicle, scores of villagers, most of them beaming middle-aged women in bright white skirts and neat red headdresses – the MDC colors – would run out at us, waving both hands high in the air in the open-hand salute, imploring Brian to stop and give them a lift to the rally.
We piled so many of these women into the back of the truck that soon the chassis scraped over the bumps in the road, and we slowed to the pace of an ox-cart. They began singing in Shona as we drove. We must have sounded like a traveling gospel choir.
I noticed there were few young people in the villages we passed. Most had moved to the cities or out of the country to send back those remittances.
But at one stop a group of snotty-nosed kids, barefoot children wheeling the rims of bicycle tires through thick sand, ran up to my window to ask me for food, money – ‘Mari, sa, mari, sa!’ – and writing implements.
‘Please, mister, give me pen! Give me pencil! I need pencil. Books.
I had hidden my notebook under the car seat in case of a police roadblock,
but I pulled it out now, gave a spare pen to one of the kids, and tore out several pages.
The urge to read is not uniquely Zimbabwean, but under Robert Mugabe in the 1980s and 1990s, Zimbabweans did learn. The country became one of the most literate in Africa. Now it was regressing. Schools were closing, textbooks were too expensive and pens and pencils were in short supply.
After two hours we came to a series of low, windowless cement buildings fronted by the parched grass of a soccer field. It was the Buhera high school, and the rally, I learned, would be held on the field. A white tent covering a row of dirty plastic chairs had been erected beside one goalpost. We were in the middle of nowhere; scrubby bush and sand stretched to the horizon.
I had always been under the impression that the MDC was an urban party, strong in the cities and among the young and the educated, but with little support in rural areas, where an older population with deep memories of the horror of the liberation war supported ZANU-PF, the party that had won freedom from white rule. And yet by midday 5,000 people had gathered on that field in the blinding sun, many of them old men and women, wizened as prophets. They arrived like pilgrims – on foot, in creaking donkey carts, emerging from the thorny bush around us, dusty and bedraggled, yet triumphant. One old man smiled as he told me he had walked throughout the night, more than 20 miles to hear Tsvangirai. He called him ‘my president’.
I left my notebook and tape recorder in the truck, bummed more cigarettes from Sydney, and sat, a little self-conscious, on the grass to the side of the field, the only white person in the world, it seemed, apart from Brian.
Tsvangirai arrived suddenly and without fanfare in a bulletproof red Isuzu twin-cab. He stepped out looking busy and purposeful in a floral dress shirt and a black leather cowboy hat. A frisson of excitement rippled through the crowd, a murmur that rose to a crescendo of whistles and open-hand salutes. He waved as he walked with his wife, Susan, two bodyguards, and Brian and T, and took his seat under the tent. Sydney sat at the back of the tent, the only official reporter present.
The rally turned out to be more a traditional Shona celebration than dull political stump speech. The crowd and the activists ran the show.
Slogans were chanted in Shona by an activist near the stage, and the crowd responded, knowing every word. Since the MDC’s formation in 1999 its manifesto, as its name suggested, had been democratic change, and the most common slogan at a rally, done in call-and-response style between an activist and a crowd, was ‘Chinja maitiro! Maitiro ako ayo chinja, hezvoko
bwaa!’ Change your deeds, bad ones, your deeds should change.
I knew this slogan fairly well by now, but soon the entire crowd had broken into song, a beautiful, mournful Shona ballad that I saw brought tears to the eyes of those singing it around me.
I asked the man next to me what it was about.
He whispered in broken English. ‘A man and a woman were burned here some years ago. It is to them.’
Tichaona Chiminya and Talent Mabhika had been attacked at dusk, not far from this field, as the sun set. They had been trailed from a local bar by CIO agents and war veterans. Stones were thrown at their vehicle, then petrol bombs. Engulfed in flames, they stumbled screaming from the vehicle and rolled in the sand on the road trying to put out the blaze. They burned to death.
It was the same weekend the farmer David Stevens was murdered. A message had been sent; Zimbabwe would never be the same afterward.
Another song was about Operation Murambatsvina – Operation Drive Out the Trash. Starting in April 2005 and continuing into the frosty mists of that year’s freezing June and July, more than two million Zimbabweans living in slums and shantytowns on the edge of the country’s cities were violently driven out by police and soldiers who arrived in bulldozers and tractors to demolish their shacks and homes. Many of the slum dwellers were former farm-workers already displaced in the land invasions, and after their shacks were destroyed they wandered the country, homeless, haunted, ghostly nomads. Some would have been in this crowd.
It was said that the Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, who lived in asylum in a posh Harare suburb, advised President Mugabe on the removals, since he knew the destitute slum population was a strong MDC base.
The song described the Operation Murambatsvina clearances in nearby Mutare: ‘Mutare residents were living peacefully until ZANU-PF came and destroyed their homes in cyclone tsunami style.’
I was so taken by the spectacle, the effortless repartee between crowd and stage, that I failed to notice someone standing over me, blocking out the sun.
‘What media organization are you with?’ a voice commanded.
I looked up. A man, about fifty, in a filthy, torn white T-shirt, hovered over me. His face was hidden by the glare of the sun behind him.
‘I’m not with any media organization,’ I said, shielding my eyes.
‘You are! What media organization are you with?’
I stood up now. He had a stringy beard, bloodshot eyes and alcohol on his breath. I was conscious of the people around me whispering and murmuring. For a moment I thought this might be Chinotimba himself.
‘I’m not with any media organization,’ I said, more annoyed than afraid.
He moved his face close to mine.
‘You are! You are a journalist!’ I felt flecks of spit.
He grabbed my forearm and squeezed it, trying to pull me away.
Some of the people around me stood up, talking excitedly now, but the rally continued; our mini-commotion was too far from the stage to be noticed.
I am not a brave person. I try to avoid conflict, to run from confrontation.
But, perhaps inspired by the people around me and the stories told in the songs and chants, or perhaps simply because the man was not in uniform, didn’t have a weapon and was drunk, I pushed his hand off and shoved my face at his.
‘Fuck off,’ I said. ‘I am a farmer. A farmer from Mutare. Fuck off.’
And then, out of the crush of bodies now standing around me, another hand appeared, grabbed mine, and pulled me away.
It was T, one of the organizing officials we had come with.
‘Come,’ he said. ‘That man is CIO. You are safer sitting in the tent.’
I was dizzy, pumped with adrenaline, and more paranoid than ever. I sat next to Sydney and told him what had happened. My hands were shaking.
‘Spies,’ he whispered. ‘Everywhere there are spies.’
By the time Tsvangirai rose to speak, a dozen uniformed policemen had gathered on the goal line some way off. They were talking to two men in white shirts. I was worried it was about me. Was one of the white shirts the man who had confronted me? He pointed to the stage. This was it.
I wanted to run.
Sydney shrugged again.
‘Relax, Douglas. This always happens. The MDC have to get permissionto hold a rally. They get it, then the police arrive and say, ‘It wasnot for this time,’ or ‘It is too late,’ or ‘You have five minutes left.’ They are always harassing. They want to stop Tsvangirai from addressing the crowd.’
The white shirts were MDC organizers trying to persuade the police to allow the rally to continue. I saw T among them. He had his work cut out for him.
Despite my paranoia and the constant threat of menace, it was inspiring being at the rally, watching the crowd. The open hand is a joyous sign – the very opposite of the violent clenched-fist symbol of the ruling party – and while the songs about struggle and resistance were emotionally wrenching, there was also great humor displayed at the proceedings, a remarkable ability to laugh at one’s enemies. Sydney explained another song to me: Tambirai Morgan pamusika weMbare, Bob NdiWhindi, pamusika weMbare. ‘It references Tsvangirai as a dignitary while Mugabe – Bob – is a tout at a bus terminus who should carry Tsvangirai’s luggage.’
What struck me most powerfully, though, was that the supporters, the activists and Tsvangirai himself were not victims. There was none of the belligerent self-pity everyone now associated with the tirades of the ruling party, a party that constantly blamed the West, Britain, America, Blair, Bush, Tsvangirai, sanctions, sellouts, puppets, stooges, whites, the weather or the drought for the chaos in the country. They had held power for more than twenty-six years, they controlled every aspect of the state to the extent that you couldn’t openly say what you thought, and yet someone else was always to blame. Belligerent victimhood is a mark of tyranny, an ugly and dangerous thing to behold.
The rally finally ended with a comic one-act play so shocking in its audacity – given the police presence – that I found myself too nervous to laugh. The crowd had no such fears. A skinny old man in a worn-out suit stood up unsteadily in front of the crowd. He held a walking stick in a bony hand and wobbled on it while reaching into his pocket with his other hand for a pair of sunglasses. The crowd whispered excitedly as they watched. The old man put on the glasses and staggered about, groping, falling, pretending to be blind. The crowd was laughing now, hooting their approval, and I suddenly heard what they were saying: ‘Mugabe … Mugabe …’ The man was playing President Mugabe as a lost, blind, out-of-touch old man. The policemen looked on sullenly from the side.
I wouldn’t have wanted to have been that old man afterward.
I made my way back to Brian’s truck with Sydney. I wanted to speak to Tsvangirai, but his bodyguards hurried him back to his car, and the crush of people made it hard to get close to him. His vehicle sped off down the road in a cloud of red dust.
So much for meeting the leader of the opposition. At the same time I was relieved. I wanted to get out of there, get home. Who knew what dangers lurked as afternoon gave way to dusk? Then Brian came up to me.
‘He’s waiting for us at Birchenough Bridge.’
‘Morgan. You can speak to him there.’
‘You arranged that?’
‘It’s safer. Let’s go before it gets dark.’
It appeared I had a meeting with the man who would be president.
We drove due south on a busier dirt road, which might have been a good thing, but it made me nervous again. A popular method of political assassination in Zimbabwe is to ram a military vehicle into a targeted car.
Here I was in a carload of opposition party activists driving in the late afternoon on a remote rural road. We were obvious targets. But we passed no military vehicles, no police roadblocks. It was eerily quiet. Even that struck me as suspicious.
By four o’clock we had arrived at a run-down hotel on the banks of the Save River in the shadow of the Birchenough Bridge. The bridge is a gleaming single-arched steel structure, 329 metres in length, that rises out of the arid veld like the silver fin of a giant sailfish. A stunning, futuristic masterpiece built in 1935 by Ralph Freeman, designer of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, it seems utterly out of place, almost a mirage, in this dusty, primeval landscape.
The hotel was better suited to the surroundings: a sleepy, run-down property of airless, peeling chalets and bougainvillea-splashed bungalows, the only shade provided by the veranda of a bar and a baobab tree on a lawn. I remembered this bridge and this hotel from another time, and my mind drifted back to it. It was 1977, and we were waiting in our Chevrolet in a queue of cars in an armed convoy to drive to the border for our Christmas holiday in South Africa. The area was a hotbed of action, and the hotel was pockmarked with bullet holes and boarded up. My sisters and I sat and smiled at the Rhodesian troopies with their machine guns guarding the bridge, and counted the crocodiles basking on the banks of the Save River below.
I snapped out of the reverie as we pulled up.
Tsvangirai and his wife were sitting on garden chairs under the tree, outside the bar, relaxed as honeymooners at a desert resort. His cowboy hat was on the table. For a second I imagined we were in west Texas. His bodyguards drove off to find food in a nearby village, and I joined the Tsvangirais at the wrought-iron table. We spoke as the late-afternoon sun glinted off the steel arch of the bridge, and two vultures circled in the sky.
Say what you like about Morgan Tsvangirai – the ruling party branded him a puppet, a stooge of whites and the West; the MDC Senate faction that had split from his party a year earlier denounced him as an autocrat; intellectuals and many liberals in South Africa called him uneducated and inarticulate – but there can be few braver people in the world.
He was born in the southeastern province of Masvingo, not far from where we now sat, in 1952. The eldest of nine children of a poor bricklayer, he dropped out of high school to support the family, working for a while in the textile industry in Mutare, and then in the mines. He didn’t fight in the liberation war but joined ZANU-PF after independence, rising rapidly up the ranks of the mineworkers’ union. In 1989 he became secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. By 1997, however, he’d split with the party over its misrule and corruption, and he became an outspoken critic of Mugabe’s dictatorship. He was promptly hung out of his tenth-floor office window by state security agents. They would have killed him, but his receptionist walked in. He founded the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999 and had been looking over his shoulder ever since, surviving two more assassination attempts, several assaults and arrests and a highly public treason trial. When I spoke to him, his worst beating was yet to come – that 2007 prayer meeting assault.
I asked him if he felt safe, and I glanced over my own shoulder as I did so. A white Mazda sedan pulled up, and three men in jeans and T-shirts stepped out. Tsvangirai had the round, compressed face of a chipmunk and talked in a deep, raspy voice that came out in a machine-gun staccato.
‘I do not travel anywhere in the country where I feel in danger from the people,’ he said. ‘I feel insecure by the state machinery. But they would not dare do anything to me. It is too risky. My security comes from the people.’
The three men walked into the bar.
What did he make of South African president Thabo Mbeki’s approach to Mugabe? Mbeki was the world’s designated point man on Zimbabwe and for six years had advocated a policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ to resolve the crisis. Tsvangirai rolled his eyes. I chuckled. My father always did the same whenever anyone mentioned Thabo Mbeki.
‘Mbeki’s quiet diplomacy will never work. It is quiet approval. The biggest mistake on his part is to endorse all the flawed elections. The human cost of that is enormous. He gives Mugabe the opportunity to defy everyone.’
I sipped a Coke as the sun dipped lower. The three men stood at the bar drinking beers. One turned his head to look our way, then turned back. Brian lounged by the truck, staring at his watch.
It was often remarked that Zimbabweans were a docile people, that they lacked the courage to stand up to Mugabe, to force him from power. From the safety of my perch in New York, I often expressed this view myself. Knowing it to be true of me, I asked Tsvangirai whether he thought it true of the majority of Zimbabweans. He shook his head forcefully.
‘They are not docile. The people know the experience of the violence from the liberation war. It was not an easy experience, and they know this time it is not like we are liberating ourselves from a white oppressor. We are now fighting brother to brother, and the ruthlessness may even be much worse.’
‘Worse. I mean, look at the whole of Africa. We don’t want that. We can’t fight another independence war. We fought for that and won it. We are now fighting for democratic change so we can express ourselves freely again. But let me tell you – don’t underestimate these people. They are not docile. Not at all.’
The three men moved outside now. They sat at a table across the lawn.
I asked Tsvangirai about white farmers. I wondered where people like my parents, Brian James and other whites would fit in if he came to power. His reply would have pleased my dad.
‘White farmers are Zimbabweans. Some are third, fourth generation in this country. They know the climate, the soil, the agriculture. It’s not like you can come here and just start plowing. It needs a culture, long-term understanding of the culture. White Zimbabweans had this.’
He rolled his eyes again. ‘Now Mugabe has a policy to “look east”. To look to the Chinese to invest in us. What is a Chinese going to understand about Africa? It will take another hundred years! Mugabe’s policies are denial. The base of the Zimbabwean economy is Western investment for over one hundred years since colonialism. The fabric of this economy is investment.’
The sun was setting, and it was beginning to get dark. I had one more question, and it was about what had struck me so much about the people at the rally. The support for the MDC has long been in the cities, among the urban working class. Rural Zimbabweans, especially the elderly, had always been Mugabe’s constituency. Yet there were so many old supporters at that day’s rally. Was this happening elsewhere? Was Tsvangirai starting to get rural support outside his Buhera constituency?
He nodded confidently.
‘Let me tell you: Mugabe can never win an election in this country.
Eighty percent of the people below the age of forty support us, and that is most of the population. But now what you are seeing is that the older people are overcoming their fear, too, influenced by their children in the cities. You can see that at our rallies – the drumming, the singing, the choirs. ZANU-PF has lost that spirit. People are coerced to their rallies. Forced. Our rallies are alive. Everyone volunteers; no one is forced to come. Between the leadership and the people there is a symbiosis.’
The sun had now set, and it was time to go. I stood up and shook Tsvangirai’s hand and thanked his wife for their time. The three men sipped their beers. They were facing our way. Tsvangirai paid them no mind. I told him I was going to Kariba in a few days’ time with my American wife.
He smiled. ‘Watch out for elephants.’
I glanced at the three men.
‘Watch out for yourself,’ I said.
The heat of the day had rapidly given way to the cool of a winter evening. It was another starlit night. We piled into Brian’s truck again and drove north. Brian hit the accelerator. I looked in the rear-view mirror for the headlights of a Mazda sedan to appear. Brian drove faster still.
‘Are you worried they’re following us?’ I said.
‘Nah. I have to get home soon. Sheelagh hates it when I’m late.’
In the back of the truck the activists sang Shona hymns. We sped on through the night.
Reprinted from "The Last Resort: A memoir of Zimbabwe" Copyright (c) 2009 by Douglas Rogers. Published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House, Inc.