When hope turns to fear

You could see it on every face, in every pair of eyes. Here a hesitant smile; there a glint of hope. The weary and the hungry lined the early morning streets of Bulawayo as the elections results started seeping out, you could already smell the scent of change in the air.

I had arrived in Zimbabwe a week before the election, flying into Harare – an act of audacity I would never repeat. The streets wore a look of fatigue, a city too tired to care about anything very much, let alone an election that in all probability would be stolen. But timidly, insistently, hope crackled in the air. “We must have hope,” one woman intimated, “or else we have nothing.”
Zimbabwe once had much more than hope to feed on. It’s not a Congo, a Darfur or a half dozen of the other African quagmires. It is how far and how quickly Zimbabwe has fallen that people feel as deeply as the ache of hunger in their bellies.

Few Africans eat meat on an daily basis, but many Zimbabweans used to. Harare’s glistening airport was once the hub that Johannesburg has now become. Shoppers from Mozambique used to pour over the border at Matare to pillage Zimbabwe’s stores. Now, it is Zimbabweans who fly the other way, in search of the staple foodstuffs they can no longer get at home.

Surreal scenes underscore the new deprivation. A doctor friend told me she was driving her son home from school when they saw an officer worker, a man in a suit lying by the side of the street. Her first thought was that he had been hit by car. When she stopped to help, she discovered he had simply fainted after going without food for three days. He gobbled down the banana she gave him and as she helped him to his feet, he brushed down the dusty suit, picked up his briefcase and wobbled on his way.

In the slums, I met a generation of children without parents. AIDS was the killer but its impact was many times compounded by the collapsing health system and the health-straining effects of poverty. Girls like Lina and Precious had come here from the countryside after their parents died, unable to find any means to support themselves a rural economy ruined by violent farm takeovers.
Lina had tried to make a living selling nuts, but when Mugabe’s Operation Clean-up Trash was launched, the police stole her nuts and chased her from the street. “Then I had nothing left to sell but myself,” she said. And so she did. What did Precious expect from her future, I asked? “Everyone is dying of Aids so I expect to die too,” she said. I bit my tongue to stop the tears while Precious looked on blankly.

“Maybe when the elections are over things will be better and I can go home,” another girl told me. It was a common refrain – “after the election.” Hope had piled on hope so rapidly the crash would be devastating. People danced in the streets when the picture coming from the polling stations became clear: Robert Mugabe, the liberation hero with godlike powers and all too human failings, was losing.
The backlash took less than a week; a week of panic in the halls of power and premature triumphalism in the offices of the opposition. Sylvia was the first victim I met, the black skin ripped away leaving livid pink wounds after she was dragged behind a truck by Mugabe’s thugs. Hundreds more wounded followed, and then the corpses. All the time, the government kept up their surreal denials; that it was the opposition attacking them; that Britain was planning to invade; as Africa watched on, impassive.

“See you in the new Zimbabwe,” Sylvia said when I visited her a week later as she prepared to leave hospital. Perhaps. The hope of a new Zimbabwe raised by the election is now under siege, battling against both the state’s violent crackdown and the desertion of the opposition leadership. Hope had turned to fear.  When I left Zimbabwe, seven weeks later, the smiles had gone from people’s faces, the light from their eyes.

But as I had left the church, despairing for the child prostitutes, I heard their voices suddenly rising in song, chiming together with aching beauty. A song of hope, in the darkest of places.