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Me, Mugabe and Bob Geldof

Updated on November 15, 2017
John A Duignan profile image

Wrote his account of his twenty years ‘in the Scientology fold’ published in 2008. Earned a BA at UCC in 2012. He is now a full time writer.

Persona Non Grata

I had slept badly again; poisons seemed to infect my muscles while somnolence embraced me. Grey steely light filtered through the blinds as I dragged my aching carcass through the semi-automatic awaking routine. The aches slowly dissipated as the first hour progressed, I briefly wondered how this same pattern would manifest itself in ten years time. The thought was banished with a shudder, as more urgent considerations clamoured for attention.

I hated being back in England, its noise, chattering radios, neurotic newspapers gaudy TV shows, grey concrete and traffic jams. When the dark moods engulf me I, recumbent in my darkened room, direct my thoughts to another time and place.

The early evening found me ambling abstractedly down back streets searching for supplies. The melancholy strains of Joshua Dube’s wrenching Mbira songs drifted out from whitewashed buildings onto old, winding, narrow streets while the warm evening sun washed everything with soft gold light. The screech of monkeys, soft calls of the Upupa bird and the babbling of women in colourful dresses and huge clumsy looking headscarves; exotic and sensuous, I was intoxicated by this strange, dusty city.

Another time finds me driving a pickup truck on parched, red, dirt roads. The back is loaded with African workers; there were a bunch of them hitch hiking near Borrowdale. George, the Mozambican army deserter, had me give them a lift. We dropped them home to their settlement outside Chitungwiza; they are laughing, smoking cheap tobacco and drinking crude ‘Ndlovu’ beer.

George collects a dollar off each of them. I laughed. Then the long lovely evenings on the huge veranda, sipping ‘Cutty Sark’ and chatting, while servants tidied up after dinner. Living the life of a king in this forgotten outpost, this fragment of a shattered British Empire was the very definition of pathos. The cracks were turning to fissures as the remorseless wheels of fate dragged us toward disaster.

I read a small column in last weeks Times; Mugabe’s police set upon Morgan Tsvangirai, a former Trade Union activist and now the leader of Zimbabwe’s’ Movement for Democratic Change party, savagely beating him at a rally in Harare. They bashed his head more than twenty times into a concrete wall, smashing his face to a pulp, leaving him unrecognisable, unconscious, and his followers shaking with terror. They left then, these brutal thugs, the sharp end of oppressive regimes throughout history; their bawdy, bloody, laughter following them into their air-conditioned jeeps as they sped away.

It was not only the remorseless facts detailed in the account that so deeply disturbed me; I had met Morgan, a long time ago. The violence meted out his body is almost symbolic of the rape and savagery Mugabe and his thugs subject whole country to. While we cowards in our cosy ‘civilised’ world avert our gaze.

The pernicious erosion of democracy and the decent of this once great country into chaos has followed me, like a hollow eyed, hungry waif, since my involuntary departure fourteen years before.

Less than a year ago I met Julius. He had had piqued my curiosity, a limping, frail looking old African with haunted eyes, at a bus station in Birmingham. He seemed out of place, in a baggy nondescript raincoat and brown unevenly creased trousers. We shared a cup of tea from Styrofoam cups and he told me his story.

Since the mid nineties the embattled Trade Union movement had forged close links with the Movement for Democratic Change, better known by its acronym; MDC. It is the last remaining opposition party in Zimbabwe and violently opposed by ZANU-PF, Mugabe’s ruling “Democratic” Parliamentary administration.

Land seizures and invasions, sponsored by a rapacious administration, coupled with the worst droughts on record in this region, had almost wiped out food production and ruined the economy. The people who took over the farms did not know anything about agriculture; Mugabe had annihilated a skills base of more than two thousand experienced farmers in a period of less than five years.

Generations of work went to wrack and ruin, and the country began to starve. Ever increasing oppression became legal with the Public Order and Security act in 2002, curbing free speech and practically outlawing opposition parties, price hikes; fuel had gone up by 70%, coupled with hunger, resulted in further riots and agitation across the country in 2003; Julius had been a Union leader in Plumtree, and led protest rallies against the regime.

One morning at 3am they kicked the door in. He had been forewarned and already escaped. He fled to Botswana and then with the British Mission to a political refugee camp near Stains in Southern England. He continued to agitate against Mugabe from his new home in Birmingham, giving interviews to ‘The Zimbabwe Voice’, a newspaper run by political refugees in London. Mugabe’s people were not happy.

The CIO – the regimes secretive Intelligence and dirty tricks arm, - recruits direct from the once splendid Harare University. Bright young students are speedily divested of any concept of social rights and justice, trained instead in the murky arts of espionage.

The few I met while in Zimbabwe were rough-hewn and crude, the three Julius encountered must have been of a far higher class. The agents arrived in the UK, infiltrating the burgeoning Zimbabwean refugee community; guns were procured from the criminal underworld, an untraceable Vauxhall Vectra from a dodgy dealer in Streatham.

He was walking home from the shop around nine pm, his wife had made him supper, and the child was in bed. They found his bullet-ridden form a mere hundred yards from his door; he had been shot six times. Julius believes that God had saved him to carry on his work. The fact that he spent several months in a coma, but alive, is in itself a small miracle, that he recovered the use of his arms, legs and mental faculties is indicative of either an incredible tenacity for life or intervention by a supernatural power.

As Edward drove his battered Datsun 120 down Samora Machel Avenue, we were bracketed on the left by a Chinese built army troop carrier, on the right by an ancient Peugeot 504 station wagon, its elongated rump scraping the dusty road, packed beyond capacity with ragged looking Zimbabweans; a ‘taxi’, African style.

I stared up into the truck cab; the bereted corporal glared back down, a glinting gold watchband sharply contrasting his ebony skin. Hard, contemptuous eyes never leaving mine, even as the truck veered off toward the barracks on the west of the city. ‘Welcome back to Zimbabwe’, I thought to myself.

Danny had lent me his superannuated Land Rover Safari for the duration of my stay. He had finally liberated it, thanks to a substantial bribe, from the customs warehouse in Beitbridge. The Italian Embassy were not so lucky, they had refused to pay the bribe to release their fleet of seven brand new short-wheel-based ‘90’s’ fresh from Solihull, they had been confiscated, and were now owned by lower level government functionaries, the people higher up stuck exclusively to the new Mercedes 200 range, purchased with British and Swedish foreign aide.

I spent a couple of weeks consolidating my ‘tourist’ cover. The rugged, sand coloured 4X4 rattling and bumping down dirt tracks that crisscrossing thousands of acres of the dry Lowveldt to lush sub tropical forests and then through the Masvingo province, teaming with a fantastic array wild life. I visited old friends in Bulawayo, Trish and Peter, they treated me like a diplomat, gave me the run of their fine colonial bungalow, magnificent food, and long evenings relaxing on the veranda, chatting about old Rhodesia as the sun slipped away beyond the bush, while the huge African sky cloaked us with night.

I explored places I had missed out on last time, stopping frequently, awestruck by herds of Giraffe nibbling tree tops, keeping my distance from great African elephants, and, laid out in the back of the ‘Landie’, would fall asleep to the rich scents and sounds of the African dusk.

Paul arrived in from England with a couple of laptops and a final briefing on our project. I had been in the country for a month, and had settled in well with the remnants of the white Rhodesian colonial community. It was a highly stratified society; the top dogs were the powerful ruling elite and their extended families, often illiterate and thus incompetent, were given important ministerial posts and cushy government jobs.

The comparatively wealthy end of the white population attempted to run their businesses and live out their lives in some semblance of the better times before the vicious guerrilla war shattered the lovely illusion they had created. Below them is a poorer class of black, white and Indian small business owners and tradesmen struggling to feed wives and children in an unsympathetic system lacking any social services net. I got to know a man of Dutch descent; he used to make a good living running safaris up in the Zambezi Escarpment area, till a fight with a 30 ft long crocodile left him crippled.

I would often see him and his wife begging in the hot dry sun on the dusty Main Street. Then there are the massed throngs of destitute migrants from the country, hungry for work and living in atrocious conditions. The millions in aide sent by Britain for schools and water delivery systems for outlying villages never got to them, it was appropriated by Mugabe to buy the Hilton in London and finance The Air Zimbabwe 737 jet ‘borrowed’ by ZANU-PF for ministerial junkets in the Bahamas, New York, London and Rome.

Somewhere in between these extremes is a multiracial class of well-educated professionals, running newspapers, engineering, hospitals and the myriad administrative tasks required of any system of state. It was among these people that I found my place and formed a perspective on this complex nation.

African Society is brutal when compared with our highly evolved and refined Western Democratic system, the endemically entrenched tribal tradition of extended family is prevalent throughout the continent. This ancient social system, deeply ingrained in the conscience collective of its people has been little understood by early day Christian missionaries, and latter day NGO’s foolishly attempting to impose an utterly artificial European value system and society on a people who live by a different creed.

Had these well-intentioned, yet naive crusaders for God or democracy, studied the seminal writings of Emile Durkheim, and worked within the social paradigms he described in 1900; it is likely that much of the endless wars, bloodletting, starvation and slaughter suffered by these people would have been avoided, and indeed an organic system of positive change could have been nurtured to a more worthwhile end. The best they can hope to achieve is some small comfort for the tiny percentage of people they have the resources to reach.

The civil engineer, Joshua, explained the social prerogative to me; He had returned to Zimbabwe after completing his Civil Engineering degree in England. He got a good job with the water works, bought a house, got married and was even able afford a car. He came home one day and his house had suddenly become home to thirty distant relatives from the country, none of whom would work, he had to support them, he was the successful breadwinner. Joshua was deeply uncomfortable with this; his Western education had given him a new and foreign value system. He looked worn and exhausted; the duty of the extended family an impossible burden that blighted his hopes and aspirations.

I was involved in both teaching and the administration of the Harare and Bulawayo branches of what I can best described as a controversial American operation. Both were failing badly, and needed managers from the British office to sort them out. I first went out there for about a half a year in 1990, and because I was considered acclimatised, was selected again in 1992 for the next phase of an ongoing project.

The work was pretty straightforward, we had certain educational and administrative products, in the form of seminars and courses, which we sold and delivered to both businesses and individuals. Our first job was to get these places making money, and using, at least to this cut-off backwater, slick sales techniques, we did just that. I shuttled back and fourth between the two cities, drumming up business, delivering lectures and teaching classes. We worked at a feverish pace for three months, pulling the operation back from critical to ‘comfortable’ then we were able slow down a bit.

Zimbabwe at this time was still officially a democracy. The Reverend Sithole and Ian Smith had formed The United Front as a viable opposition to ZANU-PF, in an attempt to counter Mugabe’s increasingly autocratic measures, and hopefully steer the country back from the looming disaster toward which he had been driving the state since he first became prime minister in 1980. While I was somewhat wary of Smith, I had great respect for Sithole, and attended the party’s inauguration dinner in the George Hotel.

I, along with most of the educated population, had great hopes for their success. The international community oversaw the elections three years later; on the surface the electoral process appeared to follow accepted guidelines. But ZANU was in power, and ‘social conscience ’ was not a trait one could attribute to Mugabe, he was of course able to plunder the coffers of state to finance his promotional campaign, making outrageous promises to the poverty stricken and ignorant masses, most could not read, all were despairing for a better life.

Following up on tactics used during the civil war, Mugabe promised these desperate people the white man’s farms if they put him back in power. Meanwhile his secretive Central Intelligence Organisation was busy intimidating blocks of voters, and imprisoning union agitators.

I had stood on the flat roof of the Lottery Building and watched as student riots flared up across the downtown district, police and military beating civilians senseless with vicious clubs, the tear gas, fired with abandon, wafting up and stinging my eyes. I was heartbroken; they didn’t have a chance in hell of achieving anything but endless incarceration in medieval prisons subject to vicious beatings, torture and rape, the only hope of release from torment being death.

A national bylaw demanded that all educational and business premises had to have at least one framed picture of Mugabe in every room. That day I removed all of them from our offices in the Lottery building. I wrote two articles for Harare’s main broadsheet, The Herald, complaining about the increasing despotism evident in the state, and though not a national, recommended that people support the United Front, stating that it was probably the only single hope the country had if it was to avoid disaster.

Within a week I spotted a crude attempt to infiltrate our staff by a CIO operative. I had a chat with him, and let him know that I did not swallow his story and asked him to leave. I began receiving threatening phone calls, warning me to be careful of myself and one evening I found the Land Rover’s tyres had been slashed.

A few weeks later I reported to the immigration office to renew my visa, I should have known better, I could easily have slipped across the border into Mozambique and claimed protection at the embassy, I had discussed this option with two British Army Paratroopers I had been drinking with at the Hilton only four days before. They were rotating back to that never-ending conflict after two weeks rest and recuperation, and could have squeezed me in among their kit in the back of their army Land Rover 110. I chickened out much to their disgust.

The Harare Hilton inhabited a strange world of its own, protected by armed guards and prices that would feed the average national for a year. Its tinkling fountains and gold panelled exterior attracts a fantastic array of the wealthy disenfranchised elite. I was there as guest of a one legged ex Rhodesian Army captain, his hobbling condition thanks to a landmine that had shredded his platoon near a quarry in the Masvingo province.

Here I shared a sauna with an unusual woman, a proud, former revolutionary, stunning, statuesque, forty-something a member of the Mashona people. Her eyes were bitter as she described the rapid erosion of the altruistic socialist dreams she had fought for during the prolonged Chinese and Russian sponsored insurgency.

They had won, but she had lost as Mugabe and Nkomo consolidated power and the country's rich resources under a small clique of the most powerful, most willing to use violence to attain their greedy hedonistic ends. Machiavellian manipulations had stunted her ministerial career, but she was a fighter and proved to be a spanner in the works to Mugabe’s real intentions.

She had finally been worn down and bought off with a generous annuity, medals and the Teflon coated title ‘Heroine of the Revolution’. She was pampered and wealthy now, but caustic and sickened by the excesses of the ruling elite. She regretted the revolution that had left her people hungry, powerless and demeaned by ZANU’s broken promises.

The official smiled as she compared my passport to a document below the counter, then said, in that lovely clipped enunciation only African English speakers can carry off; “Please wait here”. I tensed up, but had little option, and was relatively calm when the two khaki clad police officers escorted me to an interrogation room. I had been trained to not to give anything away, to be calm and polite and reasonable. This probably prevented an ugly scene.

A big bald detective in a dark suit went through my details, exhaustively, often backtracking to throw me off my cover story, which was good as it was mostly true. After two hours he lost patience, shouting, accused me of being a spy, and informed that I was in deep trouble, I asked if I was to be detained, he confirmed that indeed I was, on the grounds that I was guilty of a visa infringement. I had to agree, ‘tourist’ was an inadequate description of my activities here in Cecil Rhodes former playground.

I was carted away in a wire mesh cage on the back of a Toyota pickup, the brief humiliating trip across town ended at the Central Police Station, huge gates closed behind us as we entered the courtyard.

My fingerprints had been taken, followed by a further interrogation; I was then left in an office with a police guard. I chatted to him, and made friends. He was from Bulawayo, and because it is a small town, knew my friends Trish and Peter. He let me use the office phone; within an hour I had an excellent lawyer, a very decent man, David Barclade.

He had worked with a law firm in Croydon before returning to the family practice in Zimbabwe, and had a pathological hatred of Mugabe’s regime. David was able to gain custody of the prisoner, sparing me the horrors of incarceration in the state institution, while I waited for the case to go to court.

A delay in proceedings thanks to the judge being on an extended shopping trip in Botswana provided me with a week on a friend’s ranch. Ashley was a wild man, ex South African Air force, an accomplished stunt pilot, brilliant and restless. He had set up a very successful hardware business after moving to Zimbabwe in 1988. When I arrived he was in the process of building a huge steel hulled catamaran, for work on Lake Kariba, it looked more like an ocean going vessel to me.

He had employed a German speaking Mozambique welder, George. Most evenings as the sun went down, I would go out and share a beer with him by the fire. George was born in Nampula, and had been forced to join the military at the age of thirteen. He had been shipped off to the DDR, where he picked up fluent German, to learn welding and machining skills. On his return, the devastating civil war was in full swing. George did not like the army, and one day he crossed over into Zimbabwe.

The courthouse is a huge circular structure, decorated incongruously with huge carvings of the twelve star signs. I looked up at Scorpio before I entered, and wandered what he had in store for me. I was astounded that ‘espionage’ had been introduced as one of the prosecutions’ charges against me, this would have some very serious consequences were it to be upheld, and fortunately David knew his business.

I was eventually charged with violating the terms of my visa, and was given a week to leave the country, case closed. The burly police sergeant played a dirty little trick on me after I exited the courtroom. I was handcuffed and taken downstairs; all my effects were confiscated. This area reminded me of a cattle mart. I was led past a group of prisoners being forced to kneel on the concrete by a machine gun toting guard, shouting commands at them.

A blond haired Caucasian man looked up at me, the only other white face in sea of black, he grinned resignedly, and then was crudely forced to look back down at the floor. A young man was screaming as two guards kicked, punched and beat him with rifle butts. I was placed in a packed holding cell, awaiting a truck that would transport this huddled mass to the state prison.

I offered my dejected fellow criminals cigarettes, and got them talking. One had stolen a bicycle, one had raped a girl, another had been convicted of murder and two were members of a union. The rest were sullen and silent, looking at me surreptitiously, with animal like eyes; hardened criminals, evaluating easy prey, me, in my white shirt, tie and chinos. They were all clad in dirty, brown prison smocks. Degradation and deprivation had dehumanised them.

David was like a raging bull, or to my eyes, an avenging angel. He had picked up on their game, and moved swiftly. He got me out of there and back to the ranch.

He drove me to the airport a few days later. He was very proper, old school English and I am not very expressive, but man, I gave him a farewell hug that could have broken his ribs.

As the plane circled into its final approach slot to Addis Ahab I stared down in awe at the lush green landscape, the swollen rivers, deep, brown and cascading joyfully over the heavily vegetated slopes. Rain had washed the customs facilities, packed with a fresh batch of Mercedes 300SLs, up to one hundred of them, eagerly awaiting delivery to government officials and sycophants in the cosy one party administration. As we landed I watched a yellow bulldozer shifting great mounds of rich, damp earth along the edge of thickly forested woodlands that disappeared into the distance, dressed in a fine, damp mist.

This was my introduction to Ethiopia, at the height of the famine that Bob Geldof had brought to the forefront of international news with Live Aide. It was a far cry from the harrowing images of starving children and skeletal mothers in a dry sandblasted desert, depicted in harsh black and white, on the posters that dotted the civilised world to which I was returning. An Irish aide worker, with whom I shared a delicious coffee, informed me that the famine was in an isolated province far to the South, the tribal leaders had a disagreement with the ruling elite, here, in lush, rainy, lovely Addis Ahab.


© 2017 john duignan

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