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Conflict and Contradiction: My Life in Zimbabwe


Thursday, August 21, 2008
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I was only 12 years old, but I still remember former South African President Nelson Mandela and Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe walking together as they opened Harare’s Agricultural Show.

If one of the two men was not the embodiment of justice and hope for Africa, then surely the man standing next to him was the next best candidate. A steady buzz of eager clapping filled the crisp Zimbabwean air and the only discernible interruption to it was the occasional volley of ululations from admirers.

I certainly was not out of place in that sea of exhilaration rather, I was elated albeit for a different reason. The grass arena in which we stood was filled with Zimbabwe’s finest cattle all lined up in a neat row awaiting inspection. My greatest pleasure was derived from the animals, not those two old fellows who inexplicably wore suits and dress shoes to this sanctuary of stench and dung.   

To say that I loved the agricultural show would be an understatement of enormous proportions. A year earlier, my school had sent its troop of Cub Scouts on an outing to the resort town of Nyanga, near the Mozambique border. For most students, a week of mountaineering, orienteering, obstacle courses and camping was to die for. I declined to go because the trip coincided with the show and I wanted to be with the animals.

On the day Mugabe invited Mandela to the show, I was handling a large bull, ready to show it off to the two leaders. Despite my preoccupation with the bull, I noticed that Mugabe and Mandela looked extremely calm and dignified as they skillfully maintained possession of their hands during that gauntlet of vigorous handshakes. Mugabe though, occasionally straightened and patted down his suit in the jittery manner that is his custom.

The security guards were making me increasingly nervous so I shuffled closer to my father who stood beside me. Eventually, the distinguished gentlemen stopped in front of us and took a brief, if patronizing, interest in me. I smiled, and recognizing that they had many more vigorous handshakes to go, shook their hands mercifully.  For a few moments the animals left my mind, as I succumbed to a profound sense of awe.

As the two heroes moved along I felt proud to have encountered the heads of Zanu-PF and the ANC so intimately. However, I remember looking up at my dad and noticing that he appeared extraordinarily unmoved.

Although my family belongs to a class of African technocrats who subscribe strongly to ideas of individual freedom and curiosity, this group still has a sense of tradition that runs deep and is heartfelt. Within the family, the wife never questions the husband and the children follow suit.  Perhaps this is why I did not ask my dad about the tension I sensed so strongly in him. Despite these walls that our culture erects between generations and within families there are still channels through which information flows freely, even if unintentionally.

I often heard my parents discussing current affairs with their friends. It was always fascinating when at weekend braais (barbeques) the discussion would touch on the subject of the Fifth Brigade – Robert Mugabe’s private army. I later discovered that this brigade had terrorized Joshua Nkomo’s people who, as it happened, posed the most formidable threat to Mugabe’s power. Everyone’s voice would descend to an almost inaudible whisper. I could see the intoxicating mixture of excitement and fear come over the adults’ faces as they all leaned in to hear the latest gossip and analysis. 

It is only now, in my adulthood, that I remember standing in line in that arena and looking up at my dad’s face that I realize that his thoughts were probably with the thousands who had died in Matabeleland on Mugabe’s orders. Perhaps, after shaking Mugabe’s hand, he felt their blood was now indirectly on his.

Zimbabwe has always been a country of conflict and contradictions and looking back at my childhood there, I realize that my life unfolded on the epicenter of those challenges.

I was raised on a 2000 hectare commercial farm, 20 kilometers outside Harare. The farm was owned by the Anglo American Corporation – the parent company of Cecil Rhodes’ DeBeers Diamonds. My family raised both dairy and beef cattle. The land was red and fertile with maize, soy beans and peas as the main crops grown. Unfortunately, we did could not grow tobacco, then Zimbabwe’s main foreign currency earner, because the soil was too thick and heavy for a plant as picky as tobacco. My father ran the dairy for about ten years before becoming the general manager; both of these were remarkably rare accomplishments for a black man in Zimbabwe.

While our family was never rich my father had been studious and lucky enough to earn a full scholarship to study agriculture in Cuba in the 1970s. His job provided us with comfortable accommodation, access to good schools and a life lived in stark contrast to the austerity in which black farm laborers or rural subsistence farmers faced.

One of my earliest memories of discomfort in contradiction occurred when my parents dropped me off at boarding school at the beginning of first grade. I can still remember my mother sobbing bitterly as my dad pried her from me so that they could begin their journey home. I had been brave until that moment but her flowing tears immediately conspired with my own and we sobbed together.

The school was in the heart of a white rural farming community about 70 kilometers north of Harare. Out of 300 students or so, I was one of the 12 who were black. Of course, I made it a priority to make friends as children naturally do and I managed to fit in very well.

In spite of this, words such as “munt”, “kaffir” and other racist expletives were used around me routinely. Not even the teachers were above such abuse. None insulted me to my face, really. And when they spoke about other blacks in derogative terms, they were sure to make me feel special, “Not you Abdallah, you’re not like the others.” This was usually enough to allay my deepest fears of rejection. We would continue on as friends but of course, an acute unease eventually began to brew within me.

Not all the whites at school retained that Rhodesian mentality. Indeed, it seemed that some of them had never been infected by it at all. One such fellow was Greg, a shy blonde boy with a square face. He was completely at ease with everyone, including the black students. Surprisingly, racial bias was conspicuously absent in his parents too and in time both our families became good friends. Such genuine interracial friendships were extremely rare in my experience. I suspect this is because older generations grew up in an overtly bitter and divisive society.

On the farm there was a comfortable house next to the dairy in which the foreman lived. For as long as I could remember this position had been held by Maximus, a former freedom fighter whose angular face and shaggy beard fit his profile as well as his name. Rumors had it that he still had his weapon from the liberation struggle and that it was on display in his home.

His son Stanley and I were good friends and one of our favorite activities involved me begging my parents for change. If successful we would cycle to the farm store and fill grocery bags with mountains of chewing gum. We would then go to the local dam and perch ourselves on the dam wall where those mountains of chewing gum would be dispatched into our mouths with remarkable efficiency

One day I approached Stanley’s house, hoping to have an adventure of some sort when I was turned away, not by words, but by a stern scowl from Maximus. I later learned that Stanley had not paid his school fees as his father had instructed him to. I didn’t see him for months.

Maximus was inconsolable, but it was not only because of Stanley’s dishonesty. He was disappointed in Stanley’s unwillingness to seize opportunities that his father had not lived with but had been prepared to die for.

At that time, Zimbabweans believed that there was hope in their future. Continued and overwhelming black poverty was not enough to dash those hopes. If one prepared for the future, through education for example, one could hope, realistically it seemed, to succeed in life. That’s what Zimbabweans did then; we made plans, prepared and hoped for a better future.

Suddenly, the farm that employed my father was put up for sale. Unfortunately, the new company that took ownership of the farm decided that they did not need the services of my father. While he accepted this decision outrage ensued when they snubbed his contractual right to a severance package.

For the second time in my life Zanu-PF reached its hand into my life and the effect was exhilarating. All it took was a phone call (made at the behest of a family friend) and the firm made my father an excessively generous offer. We didn’t realize it at the time but what we were experiencing were the first signs of the violent social upheaval that awaited Zimbabwe.

I often wonder if anyone else benefitted from Zanu’s intervention. What happened to the ordinary farm laborers, who barely earned enough to survive? Did they have friends who were powerful enough to intervene on their behalf or were they snared by the yoke of oppression that barely missed my father?

My father bounced between jobs until the hurricane of expedience or infamous land invasions descended on Zimbabwe in 2000. The anticipated demise of Zimbabwean agriculture left him with no choice but to leave the country to seek better opportunities. At that time, black and white Zimbabweans were being intimidated and the opposition party received what turned out to be a mere dress rehearsal of the violence it would endure in years to come.  It all seemed like a dream.

The image of my father standing in line at Harare International Airport, waiting to board an U.S.-bound plane is still crystal clear. Every now and then his face would turn over his starched collar so that he could glance back at us. He wore a look of stern assurance on his face yet behind the facade of steel I could see vulnerability. He was leaving Zimbabwe and did not know when next the family would be reunited. I think we were all registering as many last images of each other as we could.

My family eventually ended up in the United Kingdom or, Harare North as we Zimbabweans call it. I landed up at a university in Minnesota. At first I felt grown up and liberated being far from my family. I have since discovered however, that while absence can make the heart grow fonder it can also make life extremely bitter and lonely.

Millions of Zimbabwean families have been split up and scattered around the globe. It feels like we are all waiting for Mugabe’s demise; waiting to see when we will see home again; waiting for the day we will hug our mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters again.

Now, I am used to waiting, bitterness seems normal to me and I can’t imagine that it is any different for other Zimbabweans. So many years ago that arena in Harare’s show grounds seemed filled with joy and national pride. Yet, I now wonder about my father’s expressionless face. So many questions come to mind. How many others wore stoic looks that day and what exactly did they know? Were any, even at that early date, overcome by the bitterness that now consumes us all? 

I lived in Zimbabwe when life was great for some and decent for most, now it is miserable for all. Some say that since the re-run of the presidential election, Mugabe has been exposed as the brutal dictator he always was. Yet I am still conflicted. As the son of a black man who was betrayed by the progeny of Cecil John Rhodes’ wealth I benefited under President Mugabe’s rule. His policies, however, ultimately forced me from my homeland and from my family. My heart is torn because there was an undeniable need to redistribute land but I wonder if the price we paid to do so was too much to bear over such a short period of time. I believe in his words, “Africa for Africans and Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans”, unfortunately his actions are in conflict with his high rhetorical standard.

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