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Outside Zimbabwe
By Miranda Post

Peace is on a pay phone attempting to call a friend in Gaborone, Botswana when the Botswana police apprehend him in a routine 'stop, question and search'.

"Omang…. omang!" (Identification... identification!) they demand, as Peace produces his Zimbabwe passport complete with 20 legal days on his 90-day Botswana visa. As police officers throw Peace into their small, covered truck alongside 20 other Zimbabweans, he knows he is about to experience the prêt-a-porter justice system Botswana reserves for its Zimbabwean visitors.

Brought to a remote office/court, somewhere on the outskirts of Gaborone, Peace is told he has committed the inexcusable offence of "idling" in the dusty, donkeyed streets of Botswana's capital. In the hot dusk of evening, Peace listens to the magistrate dictate his choices for punishment; four strokes with a sjambok, an African version of a cat of nine tails whip, on his skinny buttocks or 6 months in jail, both followed by deportation back to Zimbabwe.

He chooses the strokes.

"There is a lot of injustice here. Human rights to Zimbabweans in Botswana, they do not apply," explains the Pharell Williams look-a-like from Plumtree.

Peace is not the only Zimbabwean in Botswana with tales of arbitrary arrest and detention, deportation or cruelty. The day I interview Peace is his second attempt at obtaining a 90-day visa in 2003. The wounds left by the whip have healed on his back, but for this extra-heavy duty truck driver, the woes of his homeland persist:

Mad inflation rates (400% in 2003).

Political oppression (Opposition leader Morgan Tsvingirai is constantly being jailed on trumped up charges of treason).

A dying non-governmental service sector (church, community and foreign aid groups are continually being shackled by harsh legislative rulings regarding how and why they will operate).

Soaring HIV/AIDS prevalence rates (est. 33.7% in 2002).

A stagnant economy (GDP decline of 11.5% in 2003)

Peace and many men and women in their mid-20s leave Zimbabwe to look for work, practically any kind of paying work, to help families in their troubled home.

The day I meet him, Peace is dangerously near the end of his 90-day work visa. He joins the couple of hundred other Zimbabweans who line up daily at 6:00 a.m., filing into the human caterpillar queue, attempting to get more days on their visas.

'Getting more days' for the mainly working class Zimbabweans entails a lot of patience and persistence. The cycles and rules that govern the 90-day loops are stringent. Once you are out of days, the Citizenship and Immigration people are unforgiving, especially for Zimbabweans. Ridicule. Jail. Beatings. Deportation. So, life for many runs in 90-day cycles. Looping, hopefully infinitely, so that the bearers of the omang can continue to eat and ensure their families back in Zimbabwe can do the same.

Peace is not in Botswana because of his political beliefs or because he fears persecution if he goes home, he is here to feed his family. Peace and his kind are not refugees, numerous Batswana tell me. Despite the kak (shit) Peace and his country have endured during the twilight years of despot-President Robert Mugabe's rule, most Zimbabweans fleeing their country are not classified as refugees.

Peace is just one of the 130,000 Zimbabweans who've traversed the rocky flatlands between Plumtree and Gaborone in the last four years, seeking a salary paid in almighty Pula. This is his second time to Botswana; during his first visit he was also flogged by the Botswana police.

Thanks to Peace and his determined peers, the tiny grouping of portable offices that comprise Gaborone's immigration centre has earned the moniker "Harare" after Zimbabwe's capital. Every morning before the white-hot sun rises over Gaborone's near-prairie landscape, people emerge from the acacia-pricked landscape in search of three more months of legal existence in this Southern African nation. Botswana's economy, fuelled by 30 years of democracy, a small, educated population and a healthy diamond industry, acts as magnet for its neighbours, mainly Zimbabweans and South Africans.

While many of the South Africans who settle in Botswana are white collar, many Zimbabwean are blue collar, searching for work, any work that pays in pula. Fulfilling the immigrant roll of overworked and underpaid, many skilled tradesmen (welders, marketing specialists, chefs) end up doing work that many of the Batswana find undesirable. Zimbabweans remove your garbage, cut your lawn, lay bricks for state buildings. They usually live with relatives or friends. That is, if they are tolerated. Peace is not the only one who has stories of intolerance.

There is T.K.P. who was staying with a student friend who was run out of the dormitory block because of his nationality.

There is King who worked for a week, without a work permit, for a local family doing garden work. The day before payday his employers called Citizenship and Immigration. Instead of his pay, he received a free ride in the back of a cattle truck over the border into Zimbabwe.

Another man, Shungu, relays a similar story about being hassled by police even though he legally lives in Zimbabwe.

Like black South Africans during apartheid, to venture anywhere in Botswana as a Zimbabwean without your omang is forbidden. Like the diamonds that bolster Botswana's currency with foreign investments, however, the Pula shines and beckons Zimbaweans by the thousands to put up with the harassment.


The morning I visit 'Harare' I succumb to the nasty rumours that plague both the press and conversation about Zimbabweans. I am unfairly scared of the people I hope to meet. Unsavoury words like predator and tsotsi (common criminal) are usually paired with Zimbabwean or Harare in the same breath. Stepping out of my spacious, protected ex-pat flat I start my little Mazda and head for Harare. Nervousness and curiosity flood my head during the five-kilometre journey through groups of school children and munching donkeys. The sky is light gold and the temperature climbs unreasonably high before the sun peeks over the eastern horizon. Gaborone is not a handsome city. It could be any medium sized prairie town, with donkeys replacing cattle and squat Toyota buses replacing the long electric transit buses of Canada.

As I step out my rental car, I ask a young man if he is Zimbabwean. He looks at me like I've got a third eye and points to the all familiar caravan, where I too had to 'sign in' to renew my visa a few weeks back .

I approach the security guards, who offer surprisingly compassionate explanations for the Zimbabweans that I hear plague this small, proud country.

One guard, Mr. Saka, who works the graveyard shift, explains that the reason many Zimbabweans come to the complex is because they want more days on their visa or they have lost their passports. Many, he notes, "have nowhere to sleep. They sleep in the bush."

Mr. Saka is bothered by the situation with Zimbabweans and shows compassion, something uncommon in Gaborone. "We are worried. We are not feeling well," he comments. Each night Mr. Saka guards the compound and cattle trucks used to transport the illegal immigrants back to Zimbabwe.

As I chat to Mr. Saka and his co-workers, more people gather at the table where they must sign in. During the two hours that I talk to guards, work permit contractors and Zimbabwean visitors, the queue grows from 45 to 135, each person humbly lining up behind their neighbours and country-mates.

Often 300-plus people line up at the Department of Immigration, standing beneath sparse Jacoranda trees as respite from the summer heat. Eunice Mouamodi and Boitsarelo Puontwa, two smartly dressed women who offer their services to employers of Zimbabweans for a fee, jostle to attain work permits for those in line.

On average they tell me, the breadbox-sized immigration office can process 100 requests per day. Requests to extend the veldt life that runs in three-month cycles, 90-day chunks of life steeped with unwelcome and suspicion.

"It's tight," says T.K.P, a welder, who luckily has a steady construction job across the street at the ultra-modern Ministry of Health development. T.K.P. says many of his countrymen sleep in a place called White City, an upmarket slum near "Harare". Every morning the Zimbabwean men and women who don't manage to secure regular work gather on a small side street. As you drive towards the centre of town, towards the banking complexes, posh United Nations offices and the Ambassador's barbed-wired ranchers, the Zimbabweans are always there - waiting for someone to stop and offer work. Gathering to pick up casual work in White City is usually the last resort. Many Zimbabweans prefer to obtain work through relatives or friends already settled in Gaborone.

As the intake process starts and the immigration office doors open I need to leave as well. My own time here expires in a week and I have to go to work. If I want, I'm told I could extend it easily. I hold a navy blue Canadian omang, a symbol of both privilege and pride that I sometimes revile and sometimes embrace here. I will never be rounded up in a cattle truck and shipped back to Canada for forgetting to ask for an extension, hanging out at the mall or working in a friend's garden.

Miranda Post is there in the clutch.



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