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July 26, 2009 / kathrynllewellyn

Zimbabwe – Problem solved?

God I love Zimbabwe. Every time I come back here things have changed.

When I first came to Zimbabwe in 2007 I have to say I was terrified. I had worked with Zimbabwe trade unionist for two years before and had seen and heard how hard and dangerous things could be in Zimbabwe. When I arrived at Harare airport my fears were pretty quickly replaced by utter surprise at how grand it was. I was expecting a dilapidated building – instead I felt like I was walking through a new, but very empty, hospital.

I was one of four people on the flight and the only non-Zimbabwean – so I caused a bit of a stir and quickly returned to being terrified with a fake smile plastered across my face. After a small hold up and a bit of fib telling to the security (who were a little on the scary side and felt the need to take me into a room to discuss my visit) away I went. During that visit you could quite literally feel the fear and mistrust amongst people. I never quite understood the term ‘there’s tension in the air’ but there really was.

I would ask people questions and they would look behind them and answer as though I was testing them. I am so glad I came to Zimbabwe during some of its darkest moments and got to spend time with the people at the front line of Zimbabwe’s problems; the poorest people and most vulnerable. Many were broken, scared and understandably fearful of having me in their communities, but, some were so warm and welcoming and glad that I had come to witness their lives. One woman in particular sticks with me when she said “You are brave coming to Zimbabwe. Please tell people to come, we don’t all hate the UK you know. Don’t ignore us!” I still don’t know how people survived the fear, inflation and poverty. But if they were looking for brave they need look no further than themselves.

Long before I came to Zimbabwe the Zimbabwean people touched my life. In particular one man who from the first time I met him, he inspire me completely. The man was Lovemore Matombo the president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. After spending about an hour in his company I was sold – Zimbabwe needed saving and it was the eternal optimism of the Zimbabwean people that would do it! I have never met a person with such grace and courage and a desire to make things right no matter what the personal cost.

I remember one time, Lovemore had been tortured for fighting for the rights of ordinary Zimbabweans and he suffered some serious injuries. I wanted to give up for him, but in response to his torture he said “these are just challenges Kathryn”. I tell you what, if those are challenges, I have no clue what a Zimbabwean problem is.

I came to Zimbabwe a few months ago and things were so positive – people were using US dollars instead of trillions of Zimbabwe dollars, goods were now in the stores and cars were back on the roads. The most striking change though was the complete hope that the new coalition government was going to make things happen and that change was on the way.

This time however the reality is starting to hit a little. Prices are moving slowly upwards and change isn’t happening quickly enough for most people. I am not an expert and I would not presume to understand how hard life is in Zimbabwe. I can however see changes. Power cuts are frequent, water is in short supply and those who are working, which is little more than 15% of the population, are paying nearly 50% of their salaries on tax.

Despite this the hope is there and people feel free to speak their mind and discuss issues that even 8months ago they would not have dared. It would be foolish of us to look away now though. Zimbabwe still needs us to be vigilant. The country is on the brink of another cholera outbreak and the government is in no position to make things right. Luckily aid agencies are prepared and will save people from the same fate of the last outbreak, but there will still be casualties.

Zimbabwe is still facing “challenges” and still, I too find myself filled with their optimism and hope. Still, I don’t and hope you don’t think that now we have a step in the right direction we need not worry about Zimbabwe. We can’t tick that box just yet. The pen is hovering, but let’s keep supporting the Zimbabwean people for a while yet. My fear is that if we look away now I will come back in another few months and feel that atmosphere that once scared the hell out of me. My hope however is that if we continue to support the people of Zimbabwe and we help them deal with all the “challenges” they face, I can come back and experience what people like Lovemore Matombo have been fighting for – true freedom.



Leave a Comment
  1. Laura Whateley / Jul 26 2009 10:12 pm

    Glad to hear things are at last moving in a positive direction. Changes can only begin when people’s voices are heard. At least people have more freedom to speak now, even if their volume is still a whisper.

  2. Ben / Jul 28 2009 1:33 pm

    Very interesting. When you say we need to remain vigilant, how do you mean? I read the news, but what good is vigilance with no action behind it? I was vigilant when Mugabe rigged the last election. I looked on as the British government made various scathing statements but seemed to take very little action. I don’t know if they just didn’t get reported as much, but it seemed that the majority of western governments did or said even less than our own.
    We seem very quick to get involved in oil rich areas such as the middle east when we see a lack of democracy or an abundance of oppression, yet Africa doesn’t seem to be worth our while. I am all for us not sticking our noses in where it is not wanted, but not when we witness some of the problems Zimbabwe has been confronted with in recent times.
    I’m glad you have seen improvements in your recent visits, but due to my perception of Mugabe’s character, I have very little confidence that he will allow this power sharing deal to succeed as well as it could do. I tend to view his apparent power hungry tendencies as a major obstacle. He just doesn’t seem to be the caring and sharing type. And if it does all go wrong again, will neighbouring or more powerful and influential nations step in to help this time? I haven’t seen much in the past couple of years to suggest that would happen.
    Hopefully my pessimism will prove inaccurate.

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