Living in Southern Africa makes it difficult to escape
Zimbabwe. The prophecies and conspiracy theories about Robert
Mugabe and the possibility of African or Western intervention,
woven with racism and/or sympathy do infinite loops around
smoky jazz clubs, conservative dinner tables and earnest
activist meetings in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Gaborone.
This year the loops tighten round my consciousness daily
because Zimbabwe and its people are no longer confined to
stories from talking heads on television. They affect the
way I live and work.
Zimbabwe and its people's struggle permeate headlines:
"Unstoppable Tide - We join the flood of Zimbabweans
risking life and limb to reach South Africa".
Robberies are almost always performed by desperate Zimbabweans,
especially in Botswana: According to a recent interview
with Agence France Presse, Botswana's representative to
the United Nations Alfred Dube says, "We are concerned
about what is going on [in Zimbabwe]. It is very unfortunate
that we have our houses being burgled every day and our
children being harassed. We understand why our people are
saying that Zimbabweans must go."
Zimbabweans sell bed sheets out of enormous backpacks,
trekking around in 40°C heat: "Please madam don't
you want to buy a nice sheet set. I'll sell it to you for
a good price," pleads a man my age outside a plush
shopping complex in Gaborone, Botswana.
Skilled Zimbabweans ply their skills elsewhere because
their currency is so weak it is printed on one-sided pieces
of paper: The Zimbabwe dollar's street value is approximately
$5000Zim to $1US and falling.
The constant stories of economic decline, human rights
and social systems in Africa's former breadbasket carve
riverbeds of grief through the dust on my cheeks. These
narratives emanating from in and around Zimbabwe hold me
hostage in a slight case of obsession.
land redistribution programme.
To bear my obsession out, it is necessary to tell the stories
of Zimbabweans as they are, not just as urban myths or column
inches buried in the newspaper, but as truths observed so
close I can make you smell the body odour and feel the quiver
of angry, fear-full tendons. These Zimbabwean stories of
consternation, sadness, and near slavery are not only theirs,
but every other Southern African resident's reality, whether
we like it or not
* * *
The cattle trucks and my Canadian privilege
I will now join them
those tossed away
like cigarette ash
those wearing the leaves
those with no blankets
but the sky and the grass
--from "I will join them" by Zimbabwean poet Julius
* * *
"Eish, these Zimbabweans. You know every year [the
government] spends something like half-a-million Pula taking
them back to Zimbabwe," says my colleague Jabu as we
ease over the moguls of the Botswana Department of Immigration
parking lot in Gaborone.
A small collection of portables, cattle trucks, caravans
and vast amounts of Zimbabweans gather in the department
complex that Botswana locals jokingly call 'Harare', after
Zimbabwe's capital. Each morning at 5:00 a.m., Zimbabweans
begin to queue for extra days on their visitor's visas in
the skeletal shadow of Botswana's nearly completed Ministry
of Health building. Many are here as transient labourers,
staying with relatives and hitting the streets each day
in hopes of earning enough money to send home to Bulaywayo,
Harare or Plumtree.
I am here to have my days extended as well. I have a week
to go before my one-month visitor's visa runs out. I need
another month-and-a-half to finish my two-and-half month
contract in Botswana. In my sweaty palm I carry a letter
saying that my employers have seconded me to the Gaborone
office (from Joburg) to help with marketing and training.
"Sometimes you see officials loading them into the
trucks. No water, no belongings," Jabu continues, "When
the truck is full they drive them non-stop to the border
and dump them off that side." She motions east, towards
Zimbabwe. From where we stand the closest border crossing
is about 700 km away. It is a fine September day, 11:00
a.m., 30°C and soaring.
We are looking for the end of the slithering line up. Babies
play in the dust. Neon-striped beanies perch on rotund little
heads. Snotty, button-sized black noses turn our way as
they pause for a second before resuming play at the feet
of nervous mothers and aunties. These women clutch their
passports as I clutch mine. An idle mix of the indigenous
languages Setswana and Shona fills the air. Some people
look like posh office workers. Others look like 'working
girls'. Most are simply the working poor with scarves tied
on their heads, teeth missing, and neat but tattered colourful
Jabu acts as my translator and asks where the end of the
queue is for her co-worker from Canada. The immigration
guard motions towards a broken-down caravan trailer, where
some ladies are selling bananas. We shuffle past the babies,
mothers, fathers and grandfathers and out a hole in the
fence toward the banana lady. Jabu asks where the 'register'
is. On a torn piece of notepad paper, I sign my name next
to number 54 and resign myself to a long wait. Only 53 more
Zimbabweans before I get to apply to extend my working days
Back through the torn fence, past the over-dressed babies
and I start to sweat. Queues and uniforms always make me
nervous. Jabu nudges me past the line into the tiny, burglar-barred
Immigration office. Some men shimmy down their bench for
me, the lone white person, to sit down. Jabu sits in the
guard's chair, buzzing away at him, all rolling 'Rs' and
complicated 'Ss' that collide into each other and comprise
the lilt of Setswana.
The petit man behind the counter motions for me to come
over after a mere five-minute wait.
But it's not my turn.
I go to the counter and practice my most demure Canadian
please and thank-yous. Within two minutes, 60 more days
have been scribbled into my passport over top of my previous
Botswana gate stamps. I mutter 'thank you' again and shuffle
past the nice Zimbabwean gentlemen who moved over for me.
I try to avoid their gaze.
We exit past the queue for the third and final time, me
suppressing my own motherly urge to reach down and scoop
up one of these perfectly round, raggedy babies. As we pull
out of the parking lot an Immigration official swings open
the back doors of one of the cavernous cattle trucks, eyeing
the group of men lolling under the sparse trade of the trees
in front of my car.
Post is an exception to the rule.
i. Mail & Guardian, South Africa, October 3-9, 2003,
Vol 19, No 40.