This morning, I found a handwritten note in my post box: a few scribbled words on brown newsprint from a woman I’ve never met. The message asked me to be at a certain place, at a certain time. Just like in the movies. The letter writer wants to get together to discuss media tactics, but she’s ultra-cautious. Or maybe paranoid. It’s hard to tell the difference here these days.
My mother always said I was a troublemaker. She’d turn in her grave if she knew what I’m up to at the moment. My siblings and I joke that our parents did it only three times, and we were the result. My mother was born in Fort Beaufort: a dusty, one-horse South African town. My father immigrated to South Africa because he was looking to leave behind the hopelessness and certain poverty that Scotland offered him. He was a dreamer and a fly-by-night. I was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, which is situated in mining territory, because my father was in his “gold mining phase.” (I actually lived in a caravan on the gold mine with my father for awhile.) He had many phases, including one where he dressed up in women’s clothes.
In many ways I think I do what I do today—work for justice—because of my mother. She instilled in me some of life’s essentials: tolerance, respect, fair play, and a sense of humor. Whenever I was down in the dumps, my mother would flip out her false teeth and roll her eyes. We’d fall over laughing, my dark mood broken. (When my mother was about 22 years old, she and two girlfriends decided to have all their teeth taken out. Apparently it was the fashionable thing in those days. I can imagine them, arm in arm, laughing while they made their way to the dental surgeon on Eloff Street, where they would emerge as “new women.”)
Today I had lunch with a friend. We spoke about many different issues, including the fact that one of our mutual friends, whose father owns a chain of cinemas, is selling cash. It reminded me how far gone we all are in Zimbabwe. No one can point a finger at anyone else because everyone is trying to make a fast buck. Talk about unproductive—selling your cash for a 10 percent commission. So now we have a parallel banking system. Outside every bank, queues wind around the block. Thousands of people wait endlessly in the hope of getting the equivalent of $2 in the United States (the bank’s limit on cash withdrawals) while others hoard cash and “make money for jam.” It makes me want to puke.
Last month, I was drinking coffee in a cafe in a suburb called Newlands. Suddenly, I heard the thud of marching men coming closer and closer. Voices grunted “uh, uh” in a rhythm synchronized to the beat of stomping boots. Across the street, a group of about 70 policemen waving their AKs in the air left shoppers scurrying in their wake. It was a show of strength from Mugabe’s urban militia. The cafe patrons around me carried on drinking their coffee. All froth and no bother. Those drinking $900 cups of coffee (in Zimbabwean dollars) live the good life and carry on as if everything is normal.
At the moment I’m reading some interviews with Samantha Power, author of A Problem From Hell. A lot of what she says resembles the current situation in Zimbabwe. We don’t have enough upstanders here, only legions of bystanders willing to look on while a few screamers rage against the power-hungry clique that controls this country.
I was in Bulawayo last week to run training workshops in electronic activism. This is a phrase I’ve coined to describe using e-mail and the Internet to advocate and mobilize. During my visit, I also conducted some interviews with political activists. One woman had been put in solitary confinement for 15 days, naked except for a blanket. She told me that the Zimbabwean prison authorities can no longer afford to give female prisoners adequate sanitary ware. Sometimes a woman gets one cotton pad cut in half—or nothing at all. Again, life’s inequities hit me in the face. Some privileged women wear panty liners simply to keep their discharge off their underwear while in a Zimbabwean hellhole of a prison cell, women bleed down their legs.
I’ve been giving Brenda (my partner) another ear-bashing, saying that in Zimbabwe—not to mention the world over—we need a fleet of aggressive peacemakers. Where are our Robin Hoods? We need to make some of our fairy tales come true.