Half-lives, nos­tal­gia and hope

The Africa Report - - FRONTLINE - By Petina Gap­pah in Ber­lin

In 2009, I found my­self in Gal­way, a lively city with a strong bo­hemian vibe on Ire­land’s west coast. It was not a place in which I ex­pected to run into Zim­bab­weans. Yet there was Martha, a men­tal health nurse who lived there with her fam­ily and was as de­lighted as I was to en­counter a fel­low Zim­bab­wean. Since then, I have vis­ited more than 30 cities on four con­ti­nents. In just about ev­ery city, whether Auck­land or Los An­ge­les, Helsinki or Mu­nich, Geneva or Mel­bourne, I have met Zim­bab­weans who have found new homes to form one of Africa’s largest di­as­pora pop­u­la­tions. The Zim­bab­wean di­as­pora cov­ers the spec­trum, from hospi­tal work­ers like Martha to UKbased ac­tress Thandie New­ton, cham­pion boxer Dereck Chisora and writer Brian Chik­wava. It was very dif­fer­ent in 1994, when I left Zim­babwe as a 23-year-old post­grad­u­ate law stu­dent. The di­as­pora was a trickle, but leav­ing the coun­try was part of be­ing Zim­bab­wean. Mi­grant labour at all lev­els, out­go­ing and in­ward-bound, was key to the coun­try’s devel­op­ment. But leav­ing also meant re­turn­ing. Mi­gra­tion ex­perts note Zim­babwe’s par­tic­u­lar­ity: a coun­try to which other Africans came to find work, and which its own ci­ti­zens left, also to find work. Some­times the tr ickle of leavers turned into waves. In the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thou­sands of min­ers re­cruited by the Wit­wa­ter­srand Na­tive Labour As­so­ci­a­tion left Zim­babwe and neigh­bour­ing states to work in the mines of South Africa, a hu­man traf­fic that is haunt­ingly evoked in Hugh Masekela’s song Stimela. Younger Zim­bab­weans also left to study abroad. Most of this first wave re­turned home. The mine work­ers never wanted to set­tle in South Africa. At in­de­pen­dence in 1980, the erst­while stu­dents used their newly ac­quired ed­u­ca­tion and tech­ni­cal skills to find good po­si­tions in the civil ser­vice and the pro­fes­sions.


As one group re­turned, an­other left. The 1980s saw the sec­ond small wave of the di­as­pora leav­ing the coun­try, never to re­turn. These were the dis­af­fected white Rhode­sians, un­easy about what in­de­pen­dence meant. They earned the nick­name ‘The When-wes’ be­cause their con­ver­sa­tions were pep­pered with nos­tal­gia-soaked ob­ser­va­tions be­gin­ning: “When we were in Rhode­sia …” Th e Gu k u r a h u n d i ma ss a c r e s , i n whi c h s o me 2 0 , 0 0 0 pe o p l e i n Mata­bele­land per­ished in the mid1980s, cre­ated an­other wave of di­as­po­rans. This wave washed up over the south­ern bor­der, where tens of thou­sands of Zim­bab­weans, pre­dom­i­nantly Nde­bele speakers, blended into the South African land­scape.

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