Flickering lights in Zimbabwe
The blogger calls himself a “fat white man” and jokes about the right way to approach a cordon of Zimbabwean riot police: Don’t wear an opposition T-shirt, or ask for the results of the recent one-man presidential runoff. Instead, greet them with a breezy “Good morning! How are you, sirs?”
“I note that there are no officers in the line, which is good as it means there’s nobody to order the cops to start hitting me,” he writes. “But then again if they do start hitting me there’s no one to tell them to stop.”
The “fat white man” is not just some cheeky cyberdissident -- he’s a British diplomat named Philip Barclay. His blog is found on the official British Foreign Office website.
Barclay’s exhilaratingly undiplomatic https://blogs.fco.gov.uk/roller/harare, at https://blogs.fco.gov.uk/roller/harare/, veers from humor reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves books to bleak horror. Zimbabwe, he says, is a country where “good manners and repression go hand-in-hand.”
With most of Zimbabwe’s independent newspapers shut down by President Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian regime, bloggers and cyberactivists fill the vacuum. It’s a world peopled with intelligence agents from the old white-led Rhodesian government, pumping out news updates; fleeing journalists who have parachuted into the wide, blue freedom of the Internet; and emigres who left the country 10 or 15 years ago but can’t get it out of their systems. But the most compelling blogs are from the people who have stayed home.
There are those who write everything in red, capitalized italics, calling for the violent removal of Mugabe. There are whimsical letters from the bush. There’s poetry. And there’s more than the occasional outbreak of whining.
In short, it’s a world filled with as much paranoia, rumor, frustration, stoicism, humor, rage and wild hope as the country itself.
Bev Clark, who calls herself an “electronic activist” and helped found a website named kubatana.net, portrays Zimbabwe’s bizarre contradictions and numbing frustrations with wry, cynical humor that sometimes bubbles into anger.
Comrade Fatso, a lanky, dreadlocked Zimbabwean poet whose real name is Samm Farai Monro, elegantly captures the atmosphere of a country that is waiting, trapped, afraid.
Cathy Buckle, a 51-year-old divorcee and author who lost her farm in Mugabe’s land seizures, posts angry, poignant letters on cathybuckle.com about the bare supermarket shelves, the deprivations of Zimbabwe’s “Fourth World” conditions, and the Msasa tree leaves pattering on her roof, promising a new season and hope.
Kubatana.net, founded by Clark and her partner, Brenda Burrell, organizes protests and sends out newsletters and text messages to reach people in a country where only a few use the Internet. Other sites clip and disseminate news from foreign media, adding their own commentaries in garish fonts.
What shines through it all are the small, colorful transactions of life, like bright postage stamps winking from a mountain of brown-paper parcels.
Barclay writes about meeting Marita, a teenage orphan who says she has HIV. It is just after the government has lopped 10 zeros off the currency because of galloping hyperinflation:
“Marita reminds me that she has not yet eaten and needs $200,000,000,000 to do so. I give her two shiny little new $10 coins and explain that they are worth the same as two hundred billion old dollars. She clearly does not believe me and gives me a filthy look -- the look one gives a man who cheats poor, sick girls -- and stalks off.”
Some afternoons Clark and the other Kubatana activists turn up their music loud in their suburban Harare office. They play the Nigerian hip-hop artist Dr Alban -- " . . . freedom is our goal . . . " -- and sing their hearts out.
Clark cut her teeth as a white gay activist in the 1980s and ‘90s, at a time when Mugabe called homosexuality “sub- animal behavior” and said gays and lesbians had no rights and should be arrested.
In the 1980s, when she published a gay and lesbian newsletter, Clark’s office was raided by about eight police officers searching for “pornographic materials,” which turned out to mean a booklet listing gay, lesbian and bisexual support groups.
These days, when worn down by the business of agitating for change, Clark retreats into a bubble bath in her home in Harare, the capital. That is, when there are any bubbles left in her bottle. Or any water in her tap.
She writes: “In no particular order, I’m fed up with: a) vendors selling me overpriced trays of eggs whilst I’m crossing the road; b) dead of night tsotsis (criminals) stealing telephone cables rendering all phones kaput; c) my hunting dog waking me up at 4am, 3 nights in a row; d) civil society fear merchants who say Don’t Do A Damned Thing, or we’ll provoke a state of emergency in Zimbabwe; e) Mugabe; f) waiting.”
The funny, angry woman of the Kubatana blog seems a little ironed down and formal in a phone interview. But Clark’s passion rises when talking about the need to jack open Zimbabwe’s democratic space. She has no illusions about the risks and difficulties involved, but can’t understand why Zimbabwean human rights groups release reports in Johannesburg or New York -- anywhere but in Harare.
Sometimes her rubbish-strewn, potholed home city gets to her, but you get the sense she wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere more comfortable.
In his blog, Comrade Fatso calls Harare “our comedy-of-errors town,” a city full of lines snaking out of banks or supermarkets, depending on the season. To him, each line is “a frozen riot” and the city is stale with waiting.
He sits in a car one quiet winter’s day, the sun hot through the glass. At a nearby market, a car crashes into several market stalls, hitting some women. A mob quickly forms and beats the driver. Fatso watches with distaste, later pondering the incident on his blog.
“Zimbabweans often give out mob justice like food at a ZANU [Mugabe’s ruling party] rally,” he writes. “We tend to vent our life-anger onto a thief who dared to steal a bar of chocolate and a loaf of bread. We tend to leave the creators of our misery in the luxury of freedom.”
For a time, Zimbabweans dared hope that their waiting was over. After first-round presidential and parliamentary elections in March, in which the opposition scored more votes than ZANU-PF, people were electric with optimism, even as they feared it was too good to be true.
“We await the rigging. We await the victory. With a hesitant joy. And a bounce in our step,” wrote Comrade Fatso in the long wait before election results were finally released more than a month after the vote.
The fat white man got caught up in the optimism too. He described the mood in the Foreign Office blog. Before the March voting, Barclay and his driver, Elvis, sped around the country, observing. As he left one political meeting, a woman pointed and said: “That party has a fat white man. We should go to their rally.”
The political meetings involved dancing, chanting, speeches and deep ululation that set Barclay’s heart racing. On election night, he watched the count in a remote settlement called Bikisa, in Masvingo province, always a Mugabe stronghold. He assumed the big pile of votes was for Mugabe.
But he was wrong. The big pile was for opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.
“I force myself to keep breathing steadily; fainting at this point would not become an officer of Her Majesty’s Government.”
But the hope -- and Barclay’s levity -- was not to last. Mugabe and his cronies and “securocrats” clung to power; the ruling party unleashed violence against the opposition.
On the day of the runoff election, everything was closed. Clark and her partner, Burrell, didn’t vote in the election, which Tsvangirai had boycotted because of the violence. Instead, they drove out looking at polling stations in suburban Harare.
With gangs of youth militias in the suburbs, Clark had a can of mace in her backpack, though she wasn’t sure what she would do if it was really needed.
“It made me feel a tiny bit safer.”
They decided to drop in on friends, Jenni Williams and Magodonga Mahlongu. In jail. The activists from Women of Zimbabwe Arise, arrested for a protest, had been in Chikurubi Female Prison for a month.
Inside the prison, it was a dusty 10-minute walk to see their friends, past lots of laundry drying out. They sat for half an hour on a rough wooden bench talking to Williams and Mahlongu.
Then they passed gifts through holes in the fence: an orange, potato chips, sweets and personal hygiene items. But the prison guard wouldn’t allow a jar of honey.
Later Clark took a bath, but she couldn’t relax, fuming at the fate of her friends.
“They’ve had enough of sleeping on a concrete floor,” she wrote on her blog. “They want to go home.”
Some of the loudest of the jostling cybervoices are in Zimbabwe’s distant diaspora. But Clark wishes Zimbabwean journalists running news websites from outside the country and cyberactivists would come home and force open a window from inside the country. She believes that Zimbabweans have to stand up for democracy and media freedom, and that the best place to do it is in Zimbabwe.
The place can look more frightening from outside, she said in the interview.
“I think that as Zimbabweans we have spent too much time accommodating this dictatorship one way or another. One of the things we have to address is this self-censorship.”
She laments in her blog that Zimbabweans sometimes give in to fear too easily, and she wonders “what it will take for Zimbabweans to rise up and liberate themselves.”
But as much as Zimbabweans live with fear and anger, writes the poet Comrade Fatso, they also live with hope. It soars or crashes on the wind of every rumor.
“We are so close to that sun on the horizon,” he writes. “I can almost see it through the dust. We need to walk together towards the sunset. We need to be crazy enough to keep hope alive.”