07 December 2011

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Thirty years ago the Republic of Zimbabwe was one of the richest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. A newly independent state, blessed with modern infrastructure and boasting the continent’s highest literacy rate, she was poised for a future that seemed to carry nothing but the promise of success. Africa’s Paradise, they called her, little did they know that soon Zimbabwe would, to quote William Blake, “build a Hell in Heaven’s respite”.

In ‘The Fear’ by Peter Godwin, which is in some ways a continuation of his bestselling, “When A Crocodile Eats the Sun”, Peter goes home to bear witness to a Zimbabwe, that not even I as a Zimbabwean am familiar with. A country with the highest inflation in the world, racked by political violence and gripped in the most critical economic crisis to hit a Southern African country. It is a book that I failed to put down for almost the duration of the 24 hours it took me to read it, it struck to my core and painted a grim, startling picture of what I call my home.

For those of you who share the same home, and to whom the name Godwin sounds familiar, Peter  is the brother of Georgina Godwin who used to be a Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) newsreader during the golden years of the country. Together with their mother, Peter and Georgina, were forced to leave the country as were thousands upon thousands of other white farmers during the chaotic land reform process of 1998 which preceded the decline of the Zimbabwean economy. It is a sore point in African politics with the fierce nationalists declaring it an African Renaissance whereas the pragmatics point to the land reform as an example of how to destroy a country. When I met President Robert Mugabe last year, he was still refusing to recognise a link between the eviction of the farmers and the economy’s spectacular collapse.

Fast forward to 2008 and a country in ruins, not even I am able to recognise it between the pages of this book. Political violence affects most of the rural population as the Presidential elections descend into chaos, political opponents resort to murdering each other, and Peter can do nothing other than bear witness, the very act of which is risking his own life.

“White man’s flesh marks easily, it is a pale canvas on which the path of pain is easily painted. But it takes a lot more to mark a black man. Somehow, the palette of black wounds seem more violent, tearing down through dark skin, into the yellow curd of subcutaneous fat, the red gristle of muscle fibres, down to the shocking whiteness of bones.” 

His more gruesome testimonies have their edges softened by his recollections of childhood, when he was a Zimbabwean citizen, before the political class change their minds. Furtive visits to estates where he used to spend the holidays, the portrait, well lit in his memories somewhat tarnished by the sad reality that faces him now. Gone are the vistas of crops, replaced by an ever growing wilderness and the rusty shacks of war vets who have displaced even the black farm workers.

“Our other home was in Mhangura in the north-west of the country, on the edge of the Zambezi escarpment. To get there we set out on the old Great North Road. It originates in Cape Town, continues the length of South Africa and up through Zimbabwe. At Harare, it veers west and goes up over the Great Dyke mountain range (a uniquely stratified chrome-rich igneous ridge, over three hundred miles long, visible from space). It winds through the once productive farming areas of Banket and Chinhoyi, and down through Lions’ Den, and Karoyi – which means ‘little witch’, so called because it was the site of witch trials by immersion (if you sank you were innocent) – to the Zambezi River at Chirundu where it crosses into Zambia, with a left fork to Lake Kariba.”

Littered with little nuggets of recollections that even I as a native Zimbabwean did not know the book for me raises the uncomfortable questions of the definition of an African. By all means, the refusal of the current government to recognise Peter and his kin as Zimbabweans with the rights to settle in Zimbabwe, extends by implication to my tribe, the Ndebele, who arrived and settled in Zimbabwe only a few decades before the white settlers arrived. But that is a philosophical question, Peter presents real problems, real issues that leave one gasping for breath and reaching for your nearest copy of the Zimbabwe Constitution, the Geneva Convention, or anything to try and convince oneself that normality still exists.

Because in ‘The Fear’, you are met with a world gone mad. Zimbabwean set upon Zimbabwean in an orgy of violence, political machinations that go in the night and care not an iota for the peasant in his hut. It is a story untold, a revolution that died in its tracks, heroes buried away in secret graves, activists disappearing in unmarked cars, carried into the dark bosom of the night, never to be seen again, their crime? Dreaming of a better future. I said recently to a friend of mine, that this book should be a set book in Zimbabwean schools because the stories that it tells are stories that need to be told, a conversation that Zimbabweans in particular, and Africans in general need to start having before we can create any recognisable path to a better future.

There are extraordinary men and women in Zimbabwe, extraordinary people who have dedicated their lives to creating a better land for their progeny. ‘The Fear’ documents their courageous sacrifices in the hope that their battle was not fought in vain, and that one day, when we have built, “a Heaven in Hell’s despair”, their names will be remembered, their sacrifices never to be forgotten.

1 comment:

  1. a dead man walking will never feel for anyone.