A breakup letter to Zimbabwe: I really just don’t care anymore

What else is new?
What else is new?
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Recently, I found myself hunched on a library cubicle, tucked beside a giant window on the 4th floor of the building, alone, writing, the gentle thrum of summer rain asserting on the massive panes of glass. With my pen and a notebook, I was trying to take on Zimbabwe: the country in southern Africa I call home and maintain a fierce love-hate relationship with. Indeed, there was a feeling that day of writing to an aloof and self-satisfied lover, whose transgressions one has been cataloguing in silence, waiting for an opening to iron things out. But instead of finding new things to rant about, novel problems to propose solutions to, I found myself confronted by the sameness and repetitiveness that characterizes Zimbabwe’s politics. Something else, after all the thinking, crystallized to me: I just didn’t really care anymore.

But before I talk about disillusion, here is what happened in Zimbabwe that had me taking to pen and note in the first place: on July 31, President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai contested in presidential poll, the third such duel between the two since 1999. Mugabe, 89, in power since the final days of Jimmy Carter in the White House, he who controls the army and police and the electoral commission and state media and the thoughts his countrymen are allowed to have and the sort of opinions and stances fellow African leaders and their election-monitoring delegations can officially take, won—no, eviscerated Tsvangirai, getting 61% of the presidential vote and sweeping into a parliamentary majority. But it’s never a Zimbabwean election when you don’t see things like this, among a myriad other flaws: almost a million voters prevented from voting in opposition strongholds; a reported 1 million dead voters on the roll; an incumbent and supposed sharer of power who nonetheless reserves a) the right to call a snap election as whim dictates b) the right, should he choose (he never fails to, when cornered,) to unleash state security forces and the army to break a few limbs, gas a few demos, orphan a few hundred young children—or, if you choose to look at it another way, boost demand in the coffin-making industry (we’re looking at several hundred new orders per election cycle. The number peaked, during the 1980s and comprising almost entirely of poor villagers who dared hold “wrong” political allegiances, at around 20,000).

In 2002, in 2008, and now, in 2013, Mugabe has coolly stolen the poll and left Tsvangirai sulking and ordinary Zimbabweans wallowing in a collective, funeral-like reverie of gloom and despair. Zimbabwean elections are thus boringly cliché: predictable and formulaic, especially the part where Robert Mugabe behaves in the exact sort of way one expects Robert Mugabe to behave. The wonder, then, when Tsvangirai walks into the trap. The leader of the MDC-T party (the “-T,” if you can handle the bizzare shock of it, is some kind of surname, standing for “Tsvangirai”) is an expert reactionary, quick to call press conferences lamenting the punches he got from a bully who has been thumping him at the same spot on the schoolyard, at the same time of the day, having used the same un-clever trap to woo his victim every single time.

The maddening lack of vigilance by Tsvangirai is astounding. Taking on Mugabe in an election requires not less than three years of laying the groundwork with unblinking concentration: an election run by an international and diversely comprised body; a new, electronic, public voters’ roll; a diaspora vote for Zimbabwe’s 4 million-plus expatriates; at least a year of nation-wide campaigning, including the use of social media and technology the way they’re used in the 21st century; iron-cast guarantees from the regional bloc (SADC) South Africa, and the African Union that they will not accept anything less than these stringent and open-vote conditions. But if these things seem elementary, they do are entirely lost on the contradictory and indecisive Mr. Tsvangirai, who complains about glaring cheating mechanisms on display a few days before the poll, but goes right ahead anyway and contests, as if hoping from some magical turn of fortunes that somehow wins the poll for him against the reality of time-tested rigging machine.

That Tsvangirai lives in this illusory world of magical thinking; that he has the maddening lack of vigilance in pinning down a man who’s been channeling his inner Hitler since the 70s; that his party’s intellectually hollow but deceptively quasi-religious rhetoric (“a New Zimbabwe is coming”) raises hopes of downtrodden millions—hopes it can’t fulfill; that nowhere in his career has he endorsed Zimbabwe’s right as an independent country that shuns Western paternalism and neo-imperialism (a gap that Mugabe—despite hawking Zimbabwe’s mineral wealth and other economic goodies to China—exploits with devilish glee); that Tsvangirai has clung to the helm of his party since the previous century, aging in the process, with next-to-nothing to show; that he’s a flip-flopper on key issues and deaf to any advice that doesn’t caress his well-fed ego (at MDC-T rallies, one has to brave a litany of unmelodious jingles that praise the name of Morgan Tsvangirai, the bravery of Morgan Tsvangirai, the cultural totem of Morgan Tsvangirai, the goodness of Morgan Tsvangirai, the fatherliness of Providence of Morgan Tsvangirai, the wife of Morgan Tsvangirai, the stylish pants and classy shoes of Morgan Tsvangirai—before all of these virtues are repeated, for good measure, in a speech by none other than—you guessed it—Morgan Tsvangirai) and shallow vision (he caused his party’s split, in 2006)—all of this, and more, could be excused had Tsvangirai not been the sole hope of the people against Mugabe. Zimbabweans—that demographic of ordinary, impoverished, bullied, exiled, terrorized human beings—usually ignore Tsvangirai’s flaws (or do not grasp their enormity,) and rally behind him. To attend a Tsvangirai rally is to encounter a tempestuous and loud-ringing sea of red (the party colors) and to see, if you can imagine it, hope and belief written on beaming, brown faces that are usually ashy and smeared with the sweat of south-of-the-poverty-line daily toil. To lead on suffering people and then foolishly disappoint them, on the scale (and frequency) that Tsvangirai has, is simply, unacceptable.

To be away from home—say, to be away at your Ivy League university, is to realize, slowly, that you’re becoming the person that, in the days of youthful idealism, you feared you might become: the indifferent and resentful citizen who cares and stresses about the choice between hazelnut and java chip frappuccino, at Starbucks, more than the choice between mute acquiescence or an aggrieved uprising on the grim streets of Harare.

As I tried to write down thoughts in the library, I noticed that all things considered, I no longer cared. In the full-blown meaning of the word care. To care, after all, is to maintain one’s capacity for outrage in times of stupidity and injustice from demagogic dictatorships. MLK has some sort of saying about becoming silent about the things that matter. But the truth here, in the maddening déjà vu of yet another a stolen Zimbabwean election, is that caring subjects one’s feelings, one’s inner core, to the unflinching battery that comes from investing hope in unchanging tyrants or their challengers who arrogantly choose to dwell in the bubble of unassuming, unsophisticated, un-vigilant, un-combative, uncreative, and outdated approaches to modern politics. One, after all, still has his own life and professional goals to chase, and the choice to raise the middle finger to events one’s own native land, despite the selfishness of it (and the occasional anguish that lurks underneath,) is a rational, perfectly acceptable, if self-seeking one.

To be Zimbabwean at home right now is to know that your ordeal will make great fodder for foreign newspapers, but soon, even that will quiet down, forgotten, and the reality and dreariness and hopelessness of knowing you exist under Robert Mugabe’s rule will continue. To know, without any illusions, that yours is the land where evil triumphs over good (complete with the evil grin and a fat cigar smugly clenched between gleaming teeth).

In thinking of home, after my library blackout, I found myself caring, deeply, about something else. A few days before the poll, Chiwoniso Maraire, a mbira music genius of world renown, at the age of 37 inside a hospital a few hundred meters outside of my old high school, in my hometown, died. She died of a pneumonic illness, and I imagined bereft medical resources as a possible, if not decisive factor, in her demise. Even though I had idolized her, I had never met Chiwoniso. Yet I felt grief in its unalloyed, first person form: deep, pricking, and on many levels. It seemed hers had foreshadowed the death, a few days later, of a much broader thing in Zimbabwe, and its African neighbors: hope. And democracy. And courage, given African leaders’ spineless reaction to Mugabe’s charade. The stark contrast of Chiwoniso’s age to Mugabe’s—37 versus 89—rubbed salt onto a fresh wound. The young and gifted ambassador of a culture, a people, seemed sacrificed at the altar of some callous fate, all as a prelude to the chest-thumping, uncontested victory of an ancient tormentor, fork in hand, over ordinary people.

So in the wake of it all, the Zimbabwe I actively think about is not the one of Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai and their skirmishes that only trample underfoot the same ordinary people they each purport to represent—my friends, relatives, old schoolmates, fellow citizens. What I dwell on these days is the Zimbabwe, imagined and celebrated and chronicled and evoked, in yearning voice and proverb and libation and turns of phrase in Shona—and the high-sounding twang of a mbira instrument held, stroked, by the peerless and immortal hands of Chiwoniso Maraire.