Learning To Love (And Live) Zimbabwe From A Distance

Written by Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 11:03
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Harare So Far

“Tell me, have you ever loved a country like it was a person? Have you ever had your heart broken by a country as if it were a lover who had betrayed you and broken all the wonderful promises whispered into your ear in the velvety darkness of night? Do you know what it’s like to watch your lover/country raped and defiled while you watch?  Zimbabwe, my defiled, broken but resilient country is on my mind this night and every night and I watch as they battle all over again for her virtue, and wonder… into whose hands she will be delivered this time and… what will become of her, her children?”

This was a Facebook post I put up a week or so before the July 31 elections. And it encapsulates this crazy love that I have for Zimbabwe.

Mine is not a nostalgic love that pines for the good old days. Neither is it a love based on some fantasy of a utopian country where everything is perfect. I have lived in enough places in the world to be able to say with conviction that there is no perfect country or place in this world. However, I do think that what my Facebook post expressed was the sense of disappointment and sadness at the precipitous deterioration, before our eyes, of what was once a prosperous country.

And the hope expressed in my post, was a hope borne of the memory of what this Zimbabwe once was, the acknowledgement of its incredible potential, if given half the chance to realise it.

Plan B To Z

Along with millions of other Zimbabweans who toil within her borders, and millions who are toiling outside in other countries, I am part of the potential that Zimbabwe possesses.

And among the many Zimbabweans I know who live in the diaspora, there are very few who do not speak the “going back home” language; a language that is not always uttered in overt statements and pronouncements. Oftentimes, it is nuanced, interwoven into conversations on various subjects from health care (“Imagine a public health surveillance system just using cell phones to monitor infectious disease outbreaks.”), to restaurants (“A chain of African cuisine restaurants in Zim would really do well, and would be so easy to manage.”), and so on.

Gatherings of Zimbabweans abroad are often characterised by sadza, Zimbabwean music and stories of those who dared return, and those who went back and had to leave again because they just could not do it. These conversations are punctuated with elaborate re-entry plans, and exit strategies, and plans B to Z just in case plan A fails.

We provide our own political commentary on issues and exchange and compare notes from our various ‘at home’ sources, all in an anxious attempt to predict what the future political landscape will look like, and whether any of our plans and strategies stand a chance.

When we hear of someone who has just come back from home, we call to drink in the latest news, ask feverish questions about the water situation, the power cuts, the power sharing, the power struggles.

We sip in every sentence – every inflection in the sentences – just to catch some hope, some optimism, some sign that says ‘home is there’.

It is waiting.

The haemorrhaging has stopped.

Home Is Waiting

On every occasion that I encounter racism or some cultural insensitivity or ignorance, I feel a sense of relief at the prospect of a home to go back to, if and when I want to.

This is the attitude I have had for the last 22 years since I left Zimbabwe because unlike most, I am a Zimbabwean who did not flea a failing country. I left home in the early 90s when Zimbabwe was, by all standards, a great place to live.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) had just begun to implement its Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP), and its terrible economic effects were not yet apparent. There was no load shedding, no floating bodies in the drinking water, no empty food shelves in stores across the land.  Save for the episodic drought-induced reduction of maize and wheat production, food shortages were a rarity.


I left Zimbabwe out of choice, in order to study and to go back to my country to contribute as a responsible citizen. However, with every subsequent annual visit to Zimbabwe, things got worse. By the time I had finished my undergraduate degree in 1996, many people were leaving the country and the advice from family and friends was to stay out here in the wider world as things did not look good.

Most of us did stay in foreign lands, like birds perched on power lines waiting, watching for the first signal of a change in the weather; a signal that would have us flocking en masse back into Zimbabwe. But during this waiting, we married, had children, bought homes, charted career paths and invested. We realised that we had to live, that we could not continue to purchase stick shift right-hand-drive cars and TVs from obscure stores all because we were eventually going back home.

And so ‘eventually’ became five years, then ten years, 15 and so on. During this time, elections came and went, and hope rose and fell. And rose again.

Reaching A Watershed

This year, for me, was the watershed year. I have never been so invested in an election in Zimbabwe as I was in this one. I followed the goings on like a hungry puppy watching for scraps falling off its master’s table, catching them before they fell to the ground.

This year was significant because I am now in my forties and have four children to think about. This is no longer about what I or my husband want for ourselves, but more about what is in the best interest of our children. Living in a state of limbo – with one eye trained on Zimbabwe and the other navigating life here – is no longer a viable option.

Barbara Mhangami and daughtersI had always imagined that I would raise my children in the country of their cultural heritage. A visit with them in 2011 left me hopeful that they would transition with relative ease if the move was made sooner rather than later. My oldest child was 10 at that time.

What had given me hope on this trip was the people of Zimbabwe. Despite all the hardships they have endured, the majority are still kind, generous and very accommodating. The love of my family – my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins – and the manner in which they embraced my children was priceless.

Watching Zimbabweans hustle and seeing their creativity and ability to make a dollar go further than anyone else on this planet could stretch it simply filled me with pride. And I wanted to be a part of this nation whose survival skills were second to none. I imagined a Zimbabwe that would come back better, stronger; one that would emerge as a nation of creative people able to reinvent themselves, under stable governance.

I envisioned a nation of people fully invested in their own destiny, milking every udder of opportunity to become prosperous and competitive in all sectors. I saw a nation of people who had struggled and had overcome, and who had shown the world that in spite of the politics of the day, they had triumphed. This is the Zimbabwe I envisioned on the eve of the election, because I believed that this nation and her people had paid their dues and their hope for transformation would be fulfilled at last.

That visit to Zimbabwe left me with enough anticipation of good things to come to sustain me in my state of limbo.

Until the next elections.

Hope deferred

I held tightly to that hope; a collective hope.

But on election day, I watched this hope being chipped away slowly.

I had held hope for free and fair elections, no matter the outcome, but the news of irregularities kept coming in. It was a wonder to see large crowds, captured in photographs from polling stations, casting their votes. Yet it was these same images that made me angry because in so many ways, this seemed an exercise in futility.


That human quality that gives tired bones and embittered minds the energy to get up and push on even after the worst kind of defeat. That most precious of human qualities that helps us to turn away from the darkness of today and cast our eyes towards the promised light of tomorrow.

What becomes of human beings when their hope is callously trampled upon, trivialised and sacrificed at the altar of politics? Is this when apathy and numbness set in? As one  young Zimbabwean abroad so eloquently put it, the point where one starts to have deeper introspection about whether to order a hazelnut or a java chip frappuccino, than about issues affecting people back home.  Is this when people stop caring about the greater good and start to focus on their kith and kin, their own lives?

I do not know how loss of hope affects others, but for me, my hopelessness snapped me out of my nebulous state of mind, out of my state of limbo and into the stark reality of where my life is.

I can no longer continue living with the expectation of a future back home. Home is here, where I am right now. Home is where my children and my husband are. Home is a deep yearning; not for a geographical place but a state of being at peace.

Home is in me.

I still care about Zimbabwe, the place where the stump of my umbilical cord is buried. I will be tethered there forever. I will work for Zimbabwe in much the same way as I will work for the world, for women in the world.

Yes, Zimbabwe is my first love. But I now realise now that it can no longer be my last.

I have come to a place of acceptance that the Zimbabwe of my dreams is not the Zimbabwe that is.

And with this acceptance, comes a wakeful peace. And a chance, finally, to move on.

Last modified on Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013 17:56

Barbara was born and raised in Zimbabwe and currenty resides in the United Sates with her husband and four daughters. Barbara’s background is in public health (epidemiology), and she writes fiction as well as blogs on social justice issues at onbarbsbookswriting.blogspot.com. She is currently working on a novella and a collection of short stories. Barbara is the Regional Coordinator for One Billion Rising for Justice, Southern Africa, 2014.