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Exclusive: Excerpt from Douglas Rogers' new book "The Last Resort"
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.