“It’s a Little Inconvenient”: Memories of a Bulawayo Book Club
By Althea Farren
When Robert Mugabe took over Rhodesia in 1980, we feared the worst. After all, we – as white Rhodesians had been fighting a guerrilla war against Mugabe’s ZANU forces and the ZAPU forces of Joshua Nkomo for years. At first, we were pleasantly surprised. Mugabe appeared to be responsible and statesmanlike. He urged all of us – whites and blacks – to work together for a united Zimbabwe.
Three years later between 1983 and 1987, Mugabe massacred over 20,000 of Nkomo’s Matabele people, and then forced Nkomo to sign a Unity Accord in 1987, thus neutralising the threat he posed. After this, all opposition was effectively eliminated.
In the year 2000, a referendum was scheduled on a proposed new constitution. When passed, it would give Mugabe even greater power and a longer term in office. (Twenty years weren’t enough.)
A new party, The Movement for Democratic Change, emerging from the trade unions, opposed Mugabe. The whites were firmly behind the MDC – this included white farmers, who had contributed financially to the new party. The farmers were politically influential, as they employed large numbers of rural people, for whom they provided free education and medical care. Farm workers were a crucial element of the rural vote.
In February 2000, the people went to the polls and voted “No” to the proposed constitution. Mugabe was furious. It was the first time he had lost a vote. Within weeks, he had mobilised a horde of drunk, drug-crazed thugs – the so- called “war vets” – to attack, brutalise, beat, rape and kill defenceless rural black people, many of whom were farm workers. The whites had stolen the land, he said, and it was time to take it back, and return it to its rightful owners. (This is not what happened. The farms forcibly taken from the whites were not redistributed to landless black people. They were occupied by his relatives and cronies, (who knew nothing at all about farming) but who were a crucial component of Mugabe’s patronage system.
We, whites had been politically passive for years. What could we do? We were vastly outnumbered – 1% in a population of 12 million. Our attitude changed when Mugabe declared us to be “enemies of the state”. We wanted to get rid of this despot. Many of us became politically active, more patriotic and more alert to the horror that was being inflicted on our black countrymen.
Each election since the referendum has been rigged. Before each one, Mugabe and his party carry out a campaign of intimidation. Afterwards, another more systematic and sinister operation takes place: this one designed to punish those individuals and communities who voted against Mugabe and ZANU PF. (It is, in fact, a military operation.) Since they voted “the wrong way”, they are tortured, raped and murdered. Their homes and all their possessions are burnt, stolen or destroyed. The tendons on the legs of their cattle and goats are cut. Even the animals are tortured for their association with the MDC.
I had belonged to a ladies’ book club for many years. We enjoyed getting together once a month to review and discuss the books we’d read. We were also a support group: there for Margaret when her hearing began to deteriorate and when her daughter lost a baby; there for Colleen when she was burgled for the third time, there when Joan and Stella were thrown into jail for their political activism. On Diana’s birthday, we gave her a gallon of petrol – it was much more useful than flowers or a bottle of wine.
Very soon, our money lost its value. We found ourselves spending millions of dollars on basic commodities like food and toilet paper. We had to queue for hours and sometimes days to withdraw our cash from the bank. When our banks ran dry, we had to buy cash from the supermarkets to pay our workers’ wages.
Flanking Mugabe are others, equally corrupt, rich beyond your wildest dreams and mine. They are all jockeying for power. And they are all above the law – there is no justice in Zimbabwe.
A few years after we’d left to come here to Ireland, diamonds were discovered in the remote Marange district. If proceeds from these diamonds were channelled into the treasury, as they should be, the problems of the country could be solved very quickly. The lives of the poor, the sick and the hungry could be transformed. Instead, Zimbabwe’s “blood diamonds” are making the obscenely rich and powerful even more obscenely rich and powerful. Diamond revenue is also being utilised to pay for and strengthen the armed forces – who have been given diamond mining rights – and who are crucial to Mugabe’s strategy for retaining power.
Our book club operated as a tiny microcosm against this complex and confusing backdrop. Life was often hilarious, though, as you’ll see from many of the incidents I describe in the book. “Bizarre” is the adjective we would have used most frequently.
An article we came across last month illustrates one of these ironies.
Evicted Farmers Supplying the Bulk of Imported Maize
The bulk of imported maize being supplied to hungry Zimbabweans is coming from former white commercial farmers evicted during the chaotic land invasions in 2000.
Many dispossessed commercial farmers from Zimbabwe went to Zambia, where they bought new farms.
Since then, Zimbabwe, which used to be southern Africa’s bread basket, has been buying most of its maize from Zambia. (We used to export to Zambia before the year 2000!)
Because the Zambian bags have the white farmers’ names on them, they are destroyed and the grain is repackaged in Zimbabwean bags and then sold as Zimbabwean produce.
Zimbabwe is the strangest mix of the Beautiful, the Brutal and the Bizarre. This is what I hope I’ve illustrated in “It’s a Little Inconvenient”.