Half-lives, nostalgia and hope
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.