Zimbabwe, A History



“Something which the White man must come to appreciate sooner or later is that the Bantu attach great importance to the history of their fatherlands and they have a clear perspective on incidents which occurred as far back as ten thousand years ago. This is something Europeans find hard to believe.”

– Baba Credo Mutwa, Indaba, My Children!

On the morning of the fourteenth of November of 2017, I wake up in Harare, Zimbabwe, with a profound dream licking away the last of my sleep. I write to my friend on whatsapp: I had a dream that I was swimming from Poland to Zimbabwe. My dead brother was there, as was your dead sister. Everything I gave to him, he gave to her. 

That morning, before the tanks rolled into Harare, before the drawn out, sickly stalemate of a 37-year reign, my friend writes me back: “In my dream Mr. President was dead ... He died in an aeroplane and I was there too. It was a funny dream.”

*          *          *

My friend’s sister died of tuberculosis, a complicating factor of AIDS. The first time she felt ill and went to a clinic, the doctors missed the Tuberculosis (‘how could they miss TB?’, I ask? They just did, he says). When her lungs kept on curling up in her chest, she and her brother went back to the doctor. You are dying of TB, they told her this time. Don’t worry, we’ll put you on an injection regime – you must come to the clinic for forty days, and each day we will give you an injection. Doctors are contemporary missionaries spreading the doctrine of chemical and technological medicine, and they know their stories well – Jesus fasting in the desert for forty days and forty nights, the people of Israel wandering for forty years in search of the Promised Land – doctors know that the number forty is the number of exile, trial, and coming home.  

“We have a word in Shona,” a Zimbabwean man tells me, “chidzimira – it means to wander in confusion, in circles, when the thing that you are looking for is right in front of you. It’s right in front of you, but you can’t see it.”

And so it was, that in the sleepy city that does not sleep – Harare, Zimbabwe – a brother and sister counted down together. Day after day, this brother would take his sister to the clinic for an injection, and then take her home. 40, 39, 38 … when she started feeling worse, she stopped going home and stayed at the clinic. … 30, 29, 28 … they got down to 20. It was then that Trimonishia died.

My brother also died with a syringe in hand. His injection was caused by a different illness, and it only took one needle to fly him out into a realm from which he never returned. The morphine shut down his lungs, possibly because of bronchitis, the initial autopsy report told us. Any later report was promptly lost in Poland’s slow and scrambled bureaucracy. Poland and Zimbabwe share a love of papers. Alexander and Trimonishia were born on the same day, and both suffered in their lungs.

All of this, my friends, is part of the history of Zimbabwe. Don’t you see?

*          *          * 

The day after the night that my friend has a dream about the president, Army General Chiwenga orders tanks into Harare. A news article later pointed to a possible deal struck by General Chiwenga, Vice-President Mnangagwa, and China, with the tacit agreement of the United States and Britain. For now, however, cars passing through town are searched by the army and people are told – don’t worry, nothing is happening. Go home. My boyfriend and I take a kombi to Greendale. On the way, we buy some avocados. When we get home, the messages start trickling in – the army convoys and tanks are seen coming to Harare. There is military activity in the city, roads are blocked off. The world explodes in rumors. The chatter on social media is relentless. We toast a coup with wine while glued to our phones. Does anybody know what is happening?

The answer? Some thieves have gotten into an argument with one other, and they are working things out between them. A sad old man died a long time ago, but is still breathing. The puppet strings got tangled and the puppeteers got drunk. Colonialism was never over. A country turned into a personal bank has been emptied and hands grabbing for cash are feeling the bare metal ass of the vault. A mad woman quotes the bible at a soviet-style denunciation rally and expects God to anoint her as president. Everyone is praying, but nobody believes in anything or anybody.

Let’s wait, Zimbabweans decide. Time will tell everything. Zvichapera, all of this will come to an end – so sing the old songs.

*          *          *

A few weeks earlier …

We are sitting, Sekuru and I, outside of his house in Bulawayo. He is mashing freshly picked tobacco plants into bhute as the sun snarls down on a dry Zimbabwe. People move as if in slow motion, their feet exchanging sweat for dust with the Earth. A hand to mouth life, sighs my Sekuru. We must pray. In the local shop I find corn puffs, freezits, and a butchery – like the shop itself has stopped believing in its own purpose to provide. A woman comes by to tell Sekuru her dream. Zimbabweans are dreamers, you see. Dreams are important here – for Christians, Muslims, Traditionalists, it doesn’t matter. Dreams are important, and it is not-dreaming that is considered an illness.

I dreamt I was advising Emmerson, telling him to be more confident, more sure of himself. I dreamt that he became president. What does it mean, Sekuru?

We must pray, Sekuru tells her. Many people are putting their faith in Emmerson. He would be a better candidate than Grace, and he has good connections internationally. Zimbabwe needs a good leader who can connect us with the world outside. You are dreaming for your country now. This is good. You are dreaming for your country.

Now, on the fourteenth of November, as events unfold, the world watches curiously, patronizingly, to see if one more African dictatorship will die and resurrect into a new dictatorship, like that strange post-colonial phoenix that haunts old behemoths of Euro-imagined parliaments across the continent.

TB Joshua saw it coming, the online chatters toss up, he said that there would be military intervention in a Southern African country.

The Zimbabwean prophets are silent, busy with their court cases, wives, girlfriends and failed prophecies. Their power is not dependent on the president, they know. So why should they care?

*          *          *

At 1.45 am on the fifteenth of November, shots are heard in Borrowdale Brooke. Politicians from the G40 group are arrested in their homes. Those in possession of Zimbabwe’s farms and cash are caught with their pants down at witching hour. Some have already fled. Rumors fuel stories, and stories birth new rumours: Jonathan ‘the Mouth’ Moyo hauled away as he runs for the American Embassy, hoping for asylum. Finance Minister Chombo stuffs millions of dollars of cash into bags when soldiers come to grab him. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, ZBC, is taken over by the military, and general Chiwenga issues a statement: “this is not a coup.” The army keeps on repeating. Not a coup, not a coup. The army takes over, Mugabe is under house arrest. Not a coup, not a coup. People are told to limit unnecessary movement. (I wonder how the diaspora feels about that one – which kind of movement is unnecessary, Mr. President, Mr. Army, Mr. Politician, Mrs. Gucci?) Journalists are falling over themselves to get the latest and best news – to really find out what is going on. I don’t understand why suddenly everyone wants to know what is really going on in Zimbabwe. Has anybody really tried to understand before?

*          *          *

“You are a spiritual person. And as a spiritual person, I can tell you this – those who led the Chimurenga in this country sought the help of spirits. After they won, however, they never went to the Ancestral shrine to thank the other world. So, there are some who say, that Zimbabwe’s troubles come from the fact that the spirits think we are still at war – and those who came in peace, create war around them, whether they intend to or not. We are never separate from what the spirits are doing, you see.”

*          *          *

The Western World prides itself on its knowledge and development of the very idea of history. As far as the World knows, Africa and Africans have no history, nothing written down, nothing to remember. ‘Oral tradition’ has become a patronizing term to try to understand how people lived without the past. Of course, this is patently absurd. How is it that this Western World that is so proud of history, does not grant Zimbabwe its history? This lukewarm coup d’etat is not in isolation of the country of Zimbabwe, or the Zambezi Valley, the home of Mbira, the home of Great Zimbabwe, the home of biras and spirits.

“If Africans had never existed, world history would be almost exactly the same as it is today”, white-supremacist Richard Spencer told Guardian reporter Gary Younge just this year.[1] Spencer was clearly a diligent student and learned well in school, because that is how history is taught. Africa does not feature in the linear cause and effects of dates, names, and numbers spouted by teachers and gargled by students. History is taught as an order of political events, a story of bloodshed. African history is hard for the Western world to comprehend. They make caricatures of its characters and think back only as far as colonization. Before the Europeans laid claim to Africa as a place that could be molded (previous contact goes unmentioned), before the Europeans created schools with curriculums where certain things had to be learned, before Africans were told that the land is a dead thing, and that nothing is alive except for a certain kind of people whose self-absorption goes beyond anything they can even imagine (the trees make fun of us all the time) – there were plenty of histories and stories to go around. Stories, traditions, land, ways of living, a whole environment that shaped a people, and shaped also their wars, their spirits, their ceremonies, their music, and their nation.  

And now, it is the Western and Westernized media that want to gorge themselves on shallow facts and orders of events. How can any story about Zimbabwe be possible without a mention of the spirit of Chaminuka, whose name was called out gleefully by protest leaders in Highfield today? How can any story be complete without the story of Mbuya Nehanda? Nyami-nyami? The absurd and abysmal nature of a colonialist-created and corporate-maintained poverty in a land of riches?

As usual, we are fascinated by the lives of the rich and the powerful. We believe in the games they play. We believe that we are nothing but pawns in their decisions.

What I know is this: the spirits don’t like that we think we can script life.

*          *          *

November is a month without ceremony in Zimbabwe. There are no weddings, no ceremonies, no rituals. November is a time for the spirits to rest. In this month of a spirit-free November, the polite coup that is not a coup (because what would SADC say?) happened, and the Western media that pities Africa for having no history, started to report on things that they don’t want to understand because African history has always been confusing to the West. “History has always been the foundation of every race’s culture”, writes Baba Credo Mutwa in Indaba, My Children!, “but where a race’s religion is based on ancestor worship, its history is no longer merely a foundation – it forms the very structure of their culture. One cannot honour and revere ancestors, seen out of context with the period in which they lived, and the deeds of fame or infamy they committed.” (Mutwa, 215) In the West where old people are forgotten and cemeteries abandoned, an epidemic of Alzheimer’s causing those who are forgotten to dutifully forget themselves. Still, the culture of forgetfulness has the audacity to claim that it is Zimbabwe that has forgotten how to act like a country should. The media is riding the farcical merry-go-round that is Zimbabwean politics, and other countries look on, patronizingly. Another African dictatorship in shambles…

“Straightforwardness, Authenticity – those are African traits”, Dagara Diviner Malidoma Some told me the first time I met him. To the world, it may seem that Zimbabwe is undecided, but that is not true. Zimbabwe is exposing the lie that everyone else is living – that politicians are taking their loyalties, commitments, intentions, goals, promises and struggles seriously, that they serve more than steal. Zimbabwe knows well that the politicians are all friends. They are all thieves together. They use the police and the army in their domestic squabbles. Sex is somehow involved, as are alliances, friendships, histories of a partisan nature. In the meantime, everybody goes about their business, trying to earn enough to feed their families. The day of the coup in Zimbabwe stores were open, sellers were selling fruit and vegetables on the streets. Let those at the top work out their problems, this everyday activity expressed. Guards were still standing in front of empty ATMS. Banks were open, doling out bags of bond coins, newly minted in South Africa and raining into the country – each coin a little lie that every Zimbabwean carries in his or her pocket. A little lie – I am worth something. A little lie traded for some food – the food then eaten. In this way, the little lies, en masse, have to be digested in the stomachs of the people. The people are hard at work looking for lies to digest. No wonder they are always hungry. The little lies burn holes in their intestinal tracts. When people go to sleep, they dream deeply. The spirits come at night and warn them – the lies are killing you, they say. What is a lie and what is the truth, the people ask? The spirits laugh. The people wake up thinking: our leader may already be dead. How would we know?

Stories in Zimbabwe go round and round, and rumors live their own life. Every rumor is born with a specific goal – if I live long enough, the rumor thinks, I will become true. And so rumors wait and wait and wait until they become truth. They are like Zimbabweans who wait and wait and wait for things to get better. How can that be? Such a well-educated population, the international organizations lament, there is so much talent here. Talent is a word that is meant to replace the idea that every person has a purpose. (Talent implies that some people are special. The others? The non-special ones should stop being born by means of birth control, since nobody can feed them or educate them properly anyway.)

People everywhere are the same. We see what we look for. The media will only see what they want. If they look for violence, they will find it. If they look for peace, they will find it. If they look for another African dictatorship, they will find it. If they look for hope, they will find it. If they look for politics, they will find it. The trees would tell them the truth about everything, but the media does not look for trees. The media does not see the trees that carry signs – Treecutter – signs of their own undoing, every tree hung with its own noose about its neck, the trees and the signs that would tell them more about Zimbabwe than any politician armed with soviet-speak. A nation of people who are willing to cut down their trees today, in order to have neither food nor trees tomorrow, is a lost nation –

Remember Nehanda Nyakasikana’s tree? What happened to that child of the Tree of Life?   

Some may marvel – what a peaceful nation! Peaceful and frozen, still unable to dream what they are to be. The spirits in Zimbabwe are confused, and the people wait for their spirits, looking for enough money to feed themselves and their families for that day. The people are scared, they can’t even tell each other what they think. They can be arrested for anything, the law twisted into anything it needs to be to suit the powers at be – this is indeed, Western law! – and all the while, the media shakes its head, unable to understand. Nobody calls on Chaminuka. Nobody calls on Nehanda. Nobody calls on the prayers and dreams and hopes of the children of the Earth.

Some of us believe in prayers, and some of us conclude that the Chinese must be pulling all of the strings.

Is this history in the making? Or was history already made and it is us who are forgetting it?


[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/nov/06/my-travels-in-white-america-a-land-of-anxiety-division-and-pockets-of-pain