Posted on August 22, 2008

Farewell My Beautiful Zimbabwe: How Paradise Turned to Poverty

Justine Shaw, London Independent, August 21, 2008

The cursor hovers over the “send and receive” icon and I hesitate before pressing enter. I haven’t heard from my parents for a week. Although I know the telephone line had been faulty, I desperately hope that it has been fixed—however temporarily—simply so they can reassure me they’re OK.

I have three new emails. The first informs that I have enough FlyBuys points to purchase free electronic products online. It has been 19 months since my husband, two children and I settled in Australia, and yet, I’m still amazed by the giveaways, promotions, sales and bonus offers.

The second email is deleted immediately. It’s advising me to resend it to seven friends within 10 minutes or be cursed with years of hardship. It’s already disappeared, but suddenly I feel superstitious. I’m a Zimbabwean. For years I’ve binned emails like this. Perhaps all my fellow countrymen did the same? It certainly seems that nothing but misfortune and bad luck have shrouded our beautiful country for more than a decade.

The third message is the one I’ve been waiting for. I’m relieved and happy, eager to hear my parents’ news. I still retain a desperate longing to keep up to date with the dismal state of affairs unfolding at home. The recent flawed election process has once again propelled Zimbabwe into the news and my appetite for information about the situation is insatiable.

My parents, left in the capital, Harare, form part of a population subjected to unabated, deplorable actions sanctioned by their government. In five months’ time, I can initiate an application for a visa that will hopefully give them the opportunity to begin a new life with us here in Australia. Whenever I hear from them, left behind there, I feel a terrible sense of guilt, and find myself wondering. . . . Could I have made a difference had I stayed?

I can’t help but feel I have let them—and Zimbabwe—down, choosing to slip through the gap in the fence and run away from the chaos.

When I look at my children, Karly-Emma and Kieran, now seven and six respectively, I see how they have grown in just 19 months. How different they are from the shy, apprehensive, withdrawn immigrants that arrived in Australia. They have become outgoing, confident characters, focused on the business of growing up without being ground down by the transference of our worries, fears, insecurities and stresses. We took them away because we were fortunate enough to be able to move. We took them away because we wanted them to have a normal life, one where their father didn’t carry a gun and they weren’t afraid of walking out of the front gate.

We have started life again. However, I cannot let go. I am constantly revisiting the place, a cauldron of 33 years’ worth of memories—delightful, happy, exhilarating times and ones that still seem so unbelievably tragic that it often seems surreal that I was once a part of them. A piece of me remains in Zimbabwe with my parents. A piece is still trying to comprehend how they lost their farm four years ago and how we lived through and recovered from an armed robbery five years ago.

I regularly ponder how it became possible for one man and his handful of ruthless, greedy colleagues to so carefully orchestrate such devastation and reduce a once thriving country to a desperate, starving nation crying out for salvation.

Of course, we are the fortunate ones to have the choice of starting again. So many thousands have no option but to remain in the country and I can only admire their resilience, their determination and their will to survive this continuing holocaust of suppression, food deprivation and brutality.

I turn back to the email, typed by my unshaven, unwashed father and my mother who is “hanging on with very shredded fingernails”.

When they left the farm in 2004—a household run on borehole water, with ageing power cables and serviced by an erratic party telephone line, 40 kilometres away from the nearest town, they should have been leaving erratic services behind. Their suburban rental in Harare should, by all accounts, have had more efficient services; council water, reliable electricity and a telephone line not shared by neighbouring farms. I continue to read their news.

They have only had municipal water once in two months, and that was only for 12 hours. During this time, they managed to top up the swimming pool—water from which they use for filling up the toilets and doing the laundry. Buckets of cold water are carried from the pool into the shower to wash. It is like a black comedy and I manage a small smile as my mother describes herself “bottoms up and bent over a bucket” in the shower, dousing herself with cold, chlorinated water in an effort to keep herself clean.

They have a quarter of a loaf of frozen bread which they’ve preserved in the freezer by running the generator for an hour each day. My mother is an artist, but she’s now been forced to supplement their income (to cover rent and the spiralling cost of living) by teaching. After work, she begins her search—scouting from shop to shop looking for grossly expensive commodities to ensure they have food for the week. Supermarket shelves are generally empty and street vendors haunt the pavements, selling anything from eggs to cooking oil at extortionate prices that increase daily. Most of their groceries are sourced from various “contacts” that have various “contacts”.

The power cuts are frequent, haphazard and unannounced, so they are unable to plan activities around them. They cannot run the generator for too long as there is still the ever present prospect of fuel shortages. Their rent has just gone up 6,250 per cent.

They spend days queuing at banks and building societies with scores of other Zimbabweans, resigned to hours of idleness as they wait to withdraw vast sums of money that will only enable them to buy a loaf of bread or a tin of baked beans. There is an automatic 50 per cent price increase if you pay by cheque, simply because this is the amount the currency will have devalued by the time the cheque is cleared.

My mother has just become used to performing mathematics in the trillions and will now have to reprogram her arithmetic. To date, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe has dropped 13 zeroes off the currency, although this does little to lift my parents’ spirits. They sign off the email with assurances that they are coping, that they are safe and send much love to their grandchildren.

I stare at the screen and glance across the words, trying to convince myself that the most important thing is that they are fine and that as long as they can battle on until the end of the year, when they will qualify for a migrating parent visa, they have more than many other Zimbabweans can hope for. However, I find myself banging my fists on the computer table with tears in my eyes, screaming, “It isn’t fair.”

My parents have lost almost everything and instead of arriving at a point where their lifetime of hard work rewards them with adequate pensions, a home of their own and long afternoons of reflection, they are confronted with the overwhelming necessity of starting again.

They are not alone.

The commercial farm invasions continue, intensifying during the election period, in spite of the increasing need for productive agricultural areas to feed a starving nation. While the President, Robert Mugabe, cradles his well-fed belly, he offers little comfort to the nation, reminding us in speeches and interviews that like most of the problems faced by Zimbabwe, hunger is a result of actions sanctioned by Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and George Bush.

Zanu-PF and the ruling elite set the stage for a guaranteed victory when they held the elections earlier this year. Re-education camps were set up to brainwash, beat and coerce people to remain loyal to the dictatorship. Food aid organisations were banned from operating, accused of gathering support for the opposition. Suspected opposition supporters paid the price in life and limb simply for exercising their democratic right to vote. The voices that cried out for change were heard, but only for an instant and then quickly silenced. The results of the elections were ignored and Zanu-PF remains in power, as though there had never been a vote. Terrified Zimbabwean refugees fled across the borders and, in South Africa, found themselves in another hostile environment where they were subjected to horrific xenophobic attacks and blamed for rising unemployment and escalating crime.

Four months later, the talks on power-sharing between Zanu-PF and the opposition MDC have failed to produce a deal. Mugabe has snubbed the world and lords over a crippled nation. The democratic right of the people has been ignored. However, as the impasse drags on, nothing improves for ordinary Zimbabweans and they continue enduring a miserable existence where scavenging for food is the hot topic each and every day. And I can’t help but feel guilty.

Perhaps my guilt comes from the fact that we could escape while so many others are sentenced to see things through until the end, and I am powerless to help them. I didn’t run away or pack it all in for an extraordinary adventure in a new country. We did what had to be done for our children and I will always cherish the memories and the amazing, unpredictable place I used to call home.

For a while, I had it all. My earliest childhood recollections are a fusion of vague recollections. I was born in colonial Rhodesia and had the geographical privilege of growing up as the country made the transition to independence—as the African nation of Zimbabwe.

My parents played a large part in preparing us for a multiracial inevitability and ensured that we held no biases with regards to race or colour.

We confidently became Zimbabweans and, in spite of the sudden exodus of many white countrymen who predicted doom and degradation of the black ruling party, chose to remain.

My parents purchased a farm, and were committed to a future in a racially tolerant community. After independence, laws stipulated that when farms were made available for sale, they first had to be offered to the government for resettlement or redistribution to the indigenous people. My parents received the required “certificate of no current interest” from the government and embarked on a three-year project of constructing their home, a place in which they imagined they would grow old.

My childhood was an exhilarating period of adventure, experience, lessons and an eager anticipation for a future unknown. I was given the opportunity to dive into whichever activity I deemed imperative to my advancement and drifted through the years, driven by the common aspirations of becoming a princess, an actress or a prima ballerina. I was blessed with storybook parents who made me believe that anything was possible and loved me unconditionally.

My only sibling and younger brother was a friend, accomplice and constant playmate. Together, we tackled life growing up on a farm, playing cowboys on real horses, rearing orphaned calves and climbing lichen-encrusted kopjes. We swam in dams, took annual bilharzia medication and spent our childhood with freckles dancing across our cheeks like small flecks of sunlight.

School inspired, challenged and facilitated the cementing of lasting friendships. It was where I met my future husband, Ross. I was impatient to grow up and become independent, imagining a future of motherhood and homemaking.

However, after a less than a decade of silencing the sceptics, Mugabe and Zanu-PF could no longer disguise the evidence of corruption, embezzling of the country’s wealth and constant bleeding of taxpayers’ money to feed rapidly swelling personal coffers. Instead of reviewing their mistakes and making proactive decisions in response to the trade unions’ riots against rising costs, unemployment and inflation, they diverted the nation’s attention by resurrecting promises of returning land to the peasants and embarked upon a destructive course of governance, authorising war veterans to invade white-owned farms and claim them as their own. Soon, Zimbabwe’s land seizures made headline news.

I married Ross, and, at the age of 30, I was the mother of two young children. With the responsibility of parenthood came the realisation that Zimbabwe was no longer the country I’d grown up in and that my children would never have the same carefree childhood that I had been so privileged to enjoy. Daily chores had become insurmountable challenges.

My parents relocated into the city, worn down by uncompromising vagrants, threats, blackmail and the sad evacuation of so many neighbours. But in spite of everything, we all clung to the belief that things would be resolved and that the atrocities would have to cease. However, the carnage of the land invasions spilled over into the city. Unemployment spiralled, accelerating residential armed robberies, hijackings and muggings.

In January 2003, armed robbers attacked my family, threatened my children’s lives and violated our home and our sanctuary. Suddenly, I could no longer focus on better times to come. I was constantly afraid and found my ability to perform as a mother, wife and Zimbabwean were compromised horribly by fear and loss of hope. I became numb. We were content to go to bed each day knowing that our finances were still adequate, our children were safe and our large wall, alarm system and electrified fence would protect us from any intruders. We ploughed through each day, resigned to the uncontrolled political anarchy, trying to ignore the racism, the inflation, and escalating crime. We received our regular bills for irregular water and electricity.

And we watched as the nightmare “Operation Murambatsvina” (Drive Out Filth) was skillfully executed by the government and military. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans were left homeless as their humble dwellings were burnt or bulldozed to the ground.

With every new tragedy and every new incomprehensible act of dictatorship we became more and more grateful that we had food on our table, a roof over our heads and a routine to follow each day. I no longer expected anything or hoped for more. Once I refused to entertain bribery. Now we were forced to establish various “contacts” to ensure that passports and vehicle licences were issued.

Finally, we were forced to sit down and take a long, hard, critical look at our lives. The preceding four years had been a vacuum, a regimented sequence of parenting, feeding and protecting an existence that became more desperate with each passing month.

My father always says the hardest part is to make the decision and we made the decision. It made me smile, laugh and explode with uncontrollable tears. I was inspired and devastated. Inspired to begin again and devastated to be leaving my home, my country and my parents.

Life is a constant process of moving forward and leaving behind. Most of the time, this progression goes largely unnoticed among routines and daily commitments. Occasionally, we find we have to take a giant stride in order to move forward. We took our great leap in January 2007 when we packed up our lives and emigrated to Australia.

Now I sit here with a cupboard full of groceries, a deep freeze stocked with meat and a fridge packed with yoghurt and eggs. I am only just starting to regard them as “groceries” and not luxury items. I am only mildly concerned about the world fuel price increases, secretly grateful that I can fill up my vehicle without having to purchase fuel on the black market. I and my family are becoming part of a society that functions, where there are prospects for the hard-working as opposed to the corrupt and connected. I have learnt not to be astounded by the things thrown away during bulk refuse collection days and no longer want to stop and pick up every abandoned television. I am slowly becoming an Australian, but I am humbled by where we have come from and will never take for granted the opportunities that lie ahead.

The Zimbabwean exodus continues and we are a halfway house for family and friends who all hope to have their immigration applications approved. We watch as they walk down the same paths, come to the same conclusions and make the same decisions that we made 19 months ago. Mugabe has crippled Zimbabwe, reducing most of its people to beggars or barterers and black marketeers. The ultimate irony is that, whether by accident or design, it has taken 28 years for them to prove the racist detractors correct when they prophesied that the incoming Zanu-PF government would be incapable of governing the country.

If you would like to find out more about Justine’s story, please contact

Sidebar: From Breadbasket to Bare Shelves

by Laura Scarrott

1931: The Land Apportionment Act gives one million blacks 29 million acres; 48,000 whites are are given 48 million acres in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia.

April 1980: Southern Rhodesia becomes independent Zimbabwe and the green colour in its new flag symbolises agriculture. White farmers produce three quarters of agricultural output including maize, cotton, tobacco, wheat, coffee, tea and sugar.

1990: President Robert Mugabe implements a plan to confiscate land from white farmers, and denies the right to appeal for compensation. “It makes absolute nonsense . . . that most of our arable land is still in the hands of our erstwhile colonisers,” he declares.

1997: The government publishes a list of 1,503 farms—12 million acres, representing 45 per cent of land held by commercial farmers—to be expropriated.

1998: In need of loans from the World Bank, agriculture minister Kumbirai Kangai declares that no land will be seized. In November, Kangai announced the seizure of 841 white-owned farms.

2000: The government and war veterans launch a land redistribution programme which included the forced expulsion of white farmers.

2001: Mugabe orders the expropriation of virtually all white-owned farms without compensation.

2002: In May, 3,000 white farmers are given 45 days to stop all production and a further 45 days to vacate their properties. Harvests plummet and Zimbabwe has to rely on food imports and aid supplies. Seven million people are at risk of starvation.

2005: Mugabe implements Operation Murambatsvina. Its literal translation is “getting rid of the filth” although the government claims it meant “Operation Clean-up”. Its stated aim is to clear slums across the country, stop disease and illegal housing, 300,000 people are displaced.

2008: In March, elections are dogged with accusations of rigging and violence, with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai later withdrawing from the second round citing violence against his supporters. This week Zimbabwe’s inflation hits 11m per cent, a new world record.