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Hope Deferred: Life Under Zimbabwe's Cruel Dictator

Zenzele, a Zimbabwean refugee, recounts his personal experience with the horrors of Mugabe's reign.

The following is an excerpt from Hope Deferred: Narratives of Zimbabwean Lives, edited by Annie Holmes and Peter Orner (McSweeny's, 2010).

OCCUPATION: Former police officer and teacher

INTERVIEWED IN: Vancouver, Canada

Zenzele lives in a cramped, government-subsidized studio apartment in a high-rise overlooking downtown Vancouver. He says he doesn’t like living so far above the ground, and that when he finishes school and is working again, he will find his own place, street level, something with a porch, maybe even a yard. A thin man, dressed in running pants and a T-shirt, Zenzele tells his story calmly, lying in his bed, staring at the ceiling. He smiles often. He closes his eyes and sings. But as he begins to talk about the events that led him to flee Zimbabwe, he stands and paces the room. He riffles through a dresser drawer, pulling out hospital records and other evidence, pointing at the pages, reading names and dates and diagnoses. As a teenager and then as a teacher in his native Matabeleland, Zenzele experienced the campaign called Gukurahundi during the 1980s. Joining the police in the late 1980s did not, as he had intended, prevent the government from harassing him. Instead, it launched him on a collision course with the authorities, leading to an appalling case of torture. He has been in Canada for a year and a half, and spends his days in school, his nights studying. When asked about the family he left behind in Zimbabwe, he became silent. He tapped his head with the flat of his hand and stared out the window at the city far below. I don’t like to talk about that , he said.

I’ve got a passport here. It’s called a refugee passport. It says, This guy can travel to all the countries of the world except to Zimbabwe. This is my first passport. I got it one week ago. On the first page it says, This refugee travel document is valid for travel to all countries except to Zimbabwe. I read the news from Zimbabwe every day. I just want to know whether or not it is safe to go back home. As soon as Zimbabwe is free, I’ll try to find an air ticket and then go, because I can’t die here. Of course, I am grateful to Canada for giving me a home as a refugee. But how can you make your life here by yourself? You need to go where there are people you know, where you are free, where you are happy. Here you are always depressed. You come into this room. You stay here the whole day. The food is a strange type of food. This apartment is too high and it’s too lonely.

I miss the wide-open spaces, the bush, the forest. I miss the sounds of barking dogs, and of crowing chickens. I grew up in Bulawayo, in what we called the western suburbs, where only blacks lived. But my childhood was okay – no shortages of food or jobs. When Mugabe came to power, in 1980, things were pretty good. The Zimbabwean dollar was still strong. But he ran down the country, bit by bit. I didn’t like him from the start. One thing is that most people from Bulawayo don’t like Mugabe. I had been taught to be anti-Mugabe. But the other thing is that he was just an impostor. During those first days he said, Reconciliation, reconciliation. The people in Zimbabwe must reconcile. And then he turned on the people. First he turned on the Ndebele people, and then he turned on the white people.

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