Reluctant Departure or Prudent Pull-Out?
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe 03 April 2008
Time to go. Accompanied by the son of a dear friend I walk along Livingstone Way to the border crossing and, passport stamped, smiles exchanged, from there along the spray-showered bridge over the Batoka Gorge, past a group of excited bungee-jumpers, to the Zambian side. A blue taxi takes me to Livingstone airport and my onward flight to Johannesburg.
I leave reluctantly, concerned for my many friends and acquaintances in these uncertain times for Zimbabwe. Among them is Amy who has lived all her life in Victoria Falls. Born in the area at a time when this country was known as Rhodesia, she married a local man and has four Zimbabwean sons.
And yet her Zimbabwean ID card classifies her as an alien and she is consequently deprived of full citizenâ€™s rights as a Zimbabwean, including the right to a passport and the right to vote.
â€œIt is a problem for me, because if there is trouble I cannot leave this town and cross the border into Zambia or Botswana except as a refugee… and the truth is that our neighbours do not want us.â€
The origin of Amyâ€™s problem appears to be that while her father was Ndebele, born in what was then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, her mother was Tswana originally from the British protectorate of Bechuanaland, now Botswana.
Her story is complex, there are gaps in memory and documentation which do not help her quest to get the authorities to establish her national identity and the citizenâ€™s rights which ensue, including that coveted passport that would allow her both to travel outside Zimbabwe, and perhaps more importantly, to return.
Like Amy there are untold numbers of Africans who cannot prove without doubt their parentsâ€™ ancestry, dates and places of birth and whose nationality is complicated by their residence in areas where two or more countries overlap.
Amy, Lindi and Charity are just three of the many women living near Zimbabweâ€™s western borders who anguish over what best to do for their childrenâ€™s future in these â€œinterestingâ€ times.
â€œAnita, we were praying so hard, so hard, for this change to come. All Zimbabwe needs it. But now we donâ€™t know what is going to happen and we fear the worst.â€
By Friday night, they should have a clearer idea of what is going to happen: the official result of the presidential election must be announced then.
Perhaps, against all the evidence, President Mugabe will be declared the winner. Perhaps the MDCâ€™s Morgan Tsvangirai will prevail. Perhaps there will be a second round run-off in three weekâ€™s time.
Casting their shadows over proceedings like a flock of vultures gathered patiently on the tree branches waiting for the right moment to pounce, are the â€œsecurocratsâ€ of the army, police and intelligence forces who, quite literally, will call the shots.
Amy, Charity and Lindi hope for the best-case scenario: that the Electoral Commission will declare Morgan Tsvangirai duly elected as President, that there is a peaceful handover of power, followed by a deluge of international grants and aid, and that Zimbabwe will gradually rebuild and their lives will improve. For now they can do nothing but wait.
I ask about contingency plans: â€œHave you thought where you might run to if you had to?â€
They have no desire to live anywhere other than their home town, Victoria Falls.
But life has become so hard over the past few years, they wonder if they too should take the road already travelled by an estimated 4 million of their fellow Zimbabweans and head into exile.
Charity has relatives in Zambia and could, in an emergency, take refuge with them. Amy knows of family links to a village in Botswana where, perhaps, given her late motherâ€™s connections, she might be accepted.
But Lindi is an Ndebele with no known family ties across the borders and of the three women she has the most to fear, having worked as a political activist for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Lindi tells me: â€œWhere can we go? Other countries donâ€™t want us. They have beaten us, raped our sisters… we are so worried about what will come now.â€
I worry for them too. More so because I am not Zimbabwean and must leave this beautiful country and return to pick up my own responsibilities at home, where I will be too far away to be of practical help in an emergency.
There is news of the arrest of some journalists in Harare and I wonder about the likely strategy â€“ will the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) be picking visitors off one by one, checking hotel registers in Harare and Bulawayo, stopping people in the streets and at vehicle checkpoints, requesting ID.
Our vehicle was stopped at just such a checkpoint two days ago on the Bulawayo Road. Questions were asked, satisfactory answers given. The strange thing is that this is still such a safe country for foreign visitors in spite of the circumstances. The numbers are down, but people do still visit Hwange game park and the Matobos Hills and other such attractions.
Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, but things can turn ugly in a heartbeat.
A good friend and generous host, J recounted some tales of what visitors to Harare Central jail can expect: â€œEven if they donâ€™t beat you, youâ€™ll be crammed into a baking, lice-infested cell, with dozens of others; denied food or water, denied access to a lawyer or consul for at least 24 hours… itâ€™s not much fun.â€
He introduces me to the son of friends, once an activist with the MDC, who suffered that experience and worse… beaten on the soles of his feet among other pointless tortures, only to be released eventually without charge.
I think of the New York Times journalist, one of several seized and penned in Harare, wondering if he might suffer the same fate. Even in the best-case scenario he will have an uncomfortable day or two before being deported, the words â€œProhibited Immigrantâ€ possibly stamped into his passport to deny him forever any return.
Perhaps he could have avoided the big hotels, steered clear of the politicians, watched from a little further off but I am pretty sure that his editors would not have been happy with the results.
The consequence of avoiding the â€˜movers and shakersâ€™ as I have done on this trip is that the voices you do report donâ€™t carry as much weight with the newsrooms back home.
In the space of several visits I have been fortunate to forge bonds of friendship with a goodly number of Zimbabweans and I make my farewells with real reluctance, promising to return when I can, offering small gestures of help as from one neighbour to another.