ILEARNED to smoke in Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was called, after Cecil John Rhodes. ‘‘ Light me another one,’’ my mother would say, in the throes of a panic attack when she thought she was being followed by three black men in a car fancier than our own.
The smell of smoke came back to me when I had an email from writer and friend Simon Winchester, urging me to read Peter Godwin’s books about the country. I read three: When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa, Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa and The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe. Godwin and his wife and children live in Manhattan these days but he cannot resist visiting the country of his birth, however dangerous it may seem. He has courage galore. As Nelson Mandela said: ‘‘ I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’’
Just as an aside, the world’s hero is still very much alive, although frail; he’s 93 and is writing a cookbook containing recipes for the native food of Africa.
I have a nun who lives in Zim, in a town called Harare. She worked in Soweto in South Africa for yonks and then was sent to Zimbabwe. Well, I can’t really claim to own her, but I like to touch her because I am pretty sure she is going straight to heaven for giving up her life for the poor.
When my brothers and I had a huge family reunion, we managed to raise some money to send her home and have something to buy books for her pupils. She wrote to thank us, saying she had managed to get some good books and her students were enjoying reading them. It is not an easy life in Zimbabwe. People are dreading another election, afraid that violence will erupt, as it always does. There are many electricity outages that add to the difficulty, and elderly women find water cuts very hard as they have to go quite a distance to boreholes and carry water back. It is also not easy for parents trying to find school fees — children have been sent home to fetch money. Not to mention there are up to 60 pupils in a class.
It’s time now for us to show our compassion. The Zimbabwean vicar general of the Brothers of St Paul, Brother Blazio, is now amid us as a guest of Caritas and its Project of Compassion, raising money for the needy (he has implemented more than 18 Caritas programs in Zimbabwe).
The tragic thing is that Zimbabwe is rich in minerals including gold, platinum and diamonds, but wealth from these resources has not reached many. That’s why close to three million Zimbabwean citizens have left the country, often walking their way to South Africa. To get there they have to go through a game reserve, which brings with it the danger of being taken by wild creatures.
If they get to South Africa, there are other dangers. A friend of mine has a man from another country working for her but he can’t go out at night because locals blame him for taking one of their jobs. They’d like to kill these interlopers.
During my childhood I used to spend school holidays in a mining town in Zimbabwe. My mother, clearly keen to get rid of me for a month or so, would escape the day after she dropped me and I was always more than happy. My cousin Colleen, who recently visited her adult son and his wife in Sydney, and I have many reminiscences of riding our bikes together. My uncle and aunt would drive us all over the place and we never felt in any danger. Now the tragic truth: UNICEF says 3.4 million children are vulnerable in Zimbabwe and most of these are orphans.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe recently had his 88th birthday, for which there was a lavish party featuring a huge fashion parade. He claims to be in the healthiest condition.
It is a more than corrupt country. Four years ago, after nearly three decades of tyrannical rule, Mugabe lost the election. But instead of conceding power he was persuaded to launch a brutal campaign of terror. Godwin was one of the few observers to slip into the country and bear witness to this. He travels widely to see the torture, the burned villages, the few remaining white farmers, and the churchmen and diplomats who are putting their lives on the line.
At least they have someone like Brother Blazio, who does his best to bring communities together. The places where he works agree to share their wealth. No one is better off than the next person and they receive microfinance for such things as seeds and fertilisers to help them make a living.
And now my sister-in-law, who is my nun’s sister, is contemplating flying there to visit her. I’m keen to go, too.