A flutter of hope within them
When Asiatu thinks about having her first child, she wipes her hands over her face, as if washing away bad memories.
When Junica Dube thinks about giving birth again, she rests her hands on her belly, as still and silent as a statue.
The story of two babies, to be born in the new year, should be a joyful one. But their mothers do not smile.
Dube’s baby will be the first to arrive, in January. Last year, she spent four days in labor, in a hospital where nothing worked and the nurses scolded her for crying out in pain. Her firstborn son lived just a few minutes. He died with no name.
Asiatu’s baby is expected in May. Pretty and slender, with the same thin wrists and sad eyes as Dube, she doesn’t know who the father is. All she knows is that he isn’t the man she loved, the man she lost.
Haunted by their fears, the only thing that keeps these two going is a luminous thread of hope, looping forward against all odds into the darkness that is Zimbabwe, like a firefly fluttering out of reach.
The story of the two women, and the two babies yet to be born, is the story of Zimbabwe’s violent journey between hope and fear this last year.
It’s September. I’m running down a dusty Harare street. The frightened slap-slap of my feet joins an orchestra of thumping shoes, a crowd running away. Everyone is scared.
Part of it is pounding herd fear. But not far behind come our pursuers, a mob of young thugs for the ruling ZANU-PF party, hurling rocks.
As I run across a road called Rotten Row and pull around a corner out of the danger zone, a couple of old men laugh at me, and the idea that this 5-foot-tall white woman would come to their country in the state it’s in.
“Look at the murungu!” they say, using the Shona word for a white. “Hey, white lady! Don’t you know? This is Zimbabwe!”
I slap-slap for another half a block before slowing down, feeling slightly foolish.
When this day began, the sun was warm; people danced and sang. They believed that President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe for 28 years, was finally going to agree to share power six months after voters handed him a stunning defeat. I perched on a precarious rock to see the singing crowd, a forest of red-and-white opposition T-shirts, swaying in hypnotic rhythm.
Everyone was smiling.
Then she appeared at the foot of my perch, a sunny girl of 21 with a smile so wide I didn’t recognize her at first. The last time I had seen her, she was crying.
I jumped down and she introduced me to her mother. And then I watched her dive back into the choppy, joyful sea of people.
It was the only time I saw Asiatu really smile.
But then fights erupted between opposition supporters and a load of ZANU-PF reinforcements who had arrived after the power-sharing deal was signed. Rocks were hurled; T-shirts were torn. Hope evaporated.
Asiatu saw the crowds of people running away, and ran too.
When I first meet Asiatu, an opposition activist, in July, she’s been imprisoned for nearly two months in a ZANU-PF militia base, a rambling old farmhouse with a thatched roof outside Harare. She has to call her captors “comrades.”
It’s just after the second round of the presidential vote, and Mugabe’s campaign of violence, designed to reverse his poor first-round result in March, is still at full throttle.
Asiatu has seen his supporters kill people at the base, stoning them with bricks. She fears she could be killed too, if her full name is published.
When she’s not cleaning or cooking, she’s forced to sing ZANU-PF songs for hours on end. By turns bored and terrified, she is allowed out of the base for only a couple of hours each day to do family chores.
I meet her during one of her brief stints of freedom.
When I ask about her story, her face crumples and she starts to weep. She whispers that she’s raped daily by five men.
I hug her as her body shakes with sobs.
The year in Zimbabwe began with soaring expectations, like a kite on a wind: People were sure of a change. Then it plunged into despair, as if someone had shot the fragile paper-and-wood construction from the sky. Most of the time, though, people are so preoccupied with the grind of just surviving that change seems a quixotic dream.
As I’ve traveled across Zimbabwe over the last two years, I’ve met people in moments of tragic upheaval. I tell their stories and go my way. Finding them later is often difficult. But if and when I do, things have usually gone downhill.
People don’t fit their trousers anymore. Skinny limbs swim in their clothes like twigs tossed into a sack. In Harare, ragged beggar girls dash between the cars, palms open in supplication, dwarfed by the babies they carry on their backs. A mother sits on a dusty curb, her toddler’s belly distended. Dilapidated pickup trucks plow between the potholes, with people crammed in the back like sheep going to slaughter.
On a November day, an old man’s rattling 1962 bicycle tells its own story: Its tires no longer exist. Instead, he’s tied on bits of scrap rubber with any rubber strap, string or wire he can find.
Along the highways you see people trudging steadily, their plastic sandals worn paper thin, their ancient T-shirts reduced to a net of holes. They scavenge whatever they can find. The grains of corn that scatter from passing trucks are carefully collected for the day’s one meal.
I often think about Jane Sibanda, a 70-year-old woman I met last year near Lupane village in southern Zimbabwe. She was embarrassed to have to beg food from her neighbors, so she’d wait until hunger clawed at her insides like an insatiable beast. The food situation was terrible then.
But this year’s hunger is much worse. People are dying in villages and being buried there, with no count of the dead ever made. Perhaps she died too. I try to trace her, but fail.
Last month, on a deserted track in a dry, forgotten corner of western Zimbabwe, two old women and a man plod along carrying heavy bags. Heads bowed, they don’t even hope for a lift, for drivers usually ask for money. I tell my friend, who’s driving, to stop. The women’s faces are streaming with sweat. One carries a panting red hen. They say they have about 25 miles more to walk. Perhaps they’re exaggerating?
But it turns out to be 36 miles -- what would have been a three-day march on a stony track.
When they get out, they lightly clap their palms together, in Zimbabwe’s gentle thank-you gesture. I meet the older woman’s gaze for a long moment. She has tears in her eyes.
Driving through the crowded township of Mufakose one warm evening after ZANU-PF’s loss in the first-round elections, I pause to drop someone off. A crowd of young men catches sight of me, and the shout goes up, “Murungu! Murungu!” They throng around the car, reaching, shaking hands and laughing.
“This is the new Zimbabwe! The new Zimbabwe!” they yell. And it almost seems true.
But by nightfall, I hear that intelligence agents are raiding hotels and arresting journalists for working without accreditation. It’s started.
A few days later, I meet some opposition activists in a dark car. Their fear is so strong you can almost smell it. They describe being hunted down in their villages by ZANU-PF militias with AK-47 assault rifles. On their foreheads, beads of sweat glisten in the soft green light of the cellphone I’m using as a flashlight to take notes.
Week by week, the violence escalates. One late July night, I get a text message from an opposition man I’ve met only once: “Pliz help me, my life is in danger.” I call, but can’t get through. I hit redial again and again.
Every day in a well-to-do Harare neighborhood, I see a group of exhausted-looking gardeners landscaping a garden. When I talk to them in the lush, serene surroundings, their tale is surreal.
In the evenings, they’re rounded up in their township by ruling party youth militias, forced to dance, sing liberation songs and beat people all night long.
Sometimes they beat their victims to death.
Then the next day, it’s off to work by 8, laying tiles in neat circles, placing elegant statues in pretty corners, building ponds and water features in someone else’s garden.
There are luxurious islands in the violence. One day in June, I walk past a long, black Mercedes and into a Harare restaurant where I have a lunch meeting with one of the ZANU-PF militia base commanders. It’s warm in the restaurant garden; a flutter of tiny, colorful honeyeaters sips nectar from the flowers.
He’s dressed in a casual fawn-colored outfit with a cap and orders a T-bone steak, well done. He’s polite and refined and speaks so softly that at times he’s inaudible. He holds his teacup in long, fine fingers, sipping delicately.
Even more delicate: the subject of the election violence. We wend in wary circles toward a subject he seems keen to avoid. He calls it “re-education” and says it’s necessary.
He speaks in a singsong tone, sawing methodically at his meat.
“Now, what the government is doing, because of the utterances of the West, the government is saying: ‘You see, you’re forgetting that we got this country by shedding blood. You think it can be returned with a ballpoint pen. This is not going to happen.’ ”
More than a year after Junica Dube lost her son, she is almost ready to give birth again. A new life seems a happy event in a country full of pain.
But here, things keep on getting worse. It’s not just the decaying roads and the crazy inflation. Earlier this year, most schools and hospitals worked. Now most don’t.
Thinking of the birth, Dube, 29, stares blankly ahead.
“I can’t even say how I feel. I’m worried because there are no doctors. There are no nurses. I have to buy everything that is needed for me to give birth. And you can’t afford to buy anything.”
“I feel very fearful,” adds her husband, Luke Dube, 34, recalling the death of his newborn last year. “What I saw last time, if it can happen again, I’d rather die. We try to forget about it, but it comes back at any time and you think about it.”
Once, Asiatu dared to fall in love, with a fellow MDC activist named Phainos. But he fled in May during the election violence and hasn’t been heard of since.
“We were on the verge of getting married,” she says. “I’m afraid for his life, because the silence is too long.”
In her township, she often has to pass the “comrades” who raped her.
“I just look away and walk past. I feel so much hate and anger, sometimes I begin trembling.”
When I visit her at home in December, Asiatu wants an HIV test. So I drive her to a clinic in town. When I come by the clinic later, she’s sitting slumped on the curb, head bowed.
“I feel sorry for myself. They told me that I am pregnant,” she says later.
Despite being four months pregnant, she says she hadn’t realized her situation. “It hurts. It hurts a lot.” The HIV result will come later.
She feels no joy over the thought of a child born of rape. The father “is one of those guys, but I don’t know which one.”
I try to tell her that a baby’s always good news, but choke on my words. Sometimes, in Zimbabwe, it’s not. I brush away a sudden stream of tears. Where to start?
I take out my cellphone and pull up pictures of my daughter. My voice shakes as I tell her that I never wanted to be a single mother, either. But as difficult as it is to believe, it will be all right.
Asiatu considers the photographs carefully as I scroll one by one through my pictures.
“She’s beautiful,” Asiatu says softly. She tells me her child will be a girl too.
I ask whether she feels happy about that. Finally, the ghost of a smile flickers.
“A little bit,” she whispers.
Previous Column One articles are available online.
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