When I was in Zimbabwe, I realized that there was a subtle resentment that most Zimbabweans at home directed towards those in the diaspora. In the years of extreme hardship; it was easy to either envy those who were outside the country or to resent them for what appeared to be their good fortune in having escaped. With the advent of new and social media forums; Zimbabweans in the diaspora have found a means to engage in conversations about the state of affairs in the country and they are mostly a very vocal, angry and boisterous lot. While I was in Zimbabwe, I never really understood why these diasporan Zimbabweans seemed so angry over the lack of electricity, medicine in hospitals, teachers in schools, food in supermarkets, doctors and nurses or every other calamity that was being endured by those of us who were within the country’s borders. Why were they getting so upset, I wondered.
Especially since they had had the ‘good fortune’ of escaping and now from the comfort and distance of their ‘adopted’ countries – they could still muster up enough energy to display so much outrage at the suffering they couldn’t possibly understand because…well…they weren’t here, they weren’t in Zimbabwe. They weren’t the ones standing in long queues, they weren’t the ones sleeping outside banks, they weren’t the ones waking up at odd hours to fetch water from distant boreholes in the city; they weren’t the ones losing property to high voltage electricity surges that accompanied load shedding. I just didn’t understand why they would get so furious – often they sounded more furious than those of us who were enduring these hardships. I would read more venomous denunciations of the state of affairs in Zimbabwe from the remarks of diasporans online than I encountered in public commuter taxis or buses or places where people grumbled and complained and cursed about the dwindling fortunes of the country.
Why were they so angry?
What ‘right’ did they have to be upset?
Weren’t they the ‘lucky’ ones that got away?
These were some of the thoughts I had and sometimes, I was even tempted to think that their outrage was just a show they liked to put on… just to make the rest of us who were actually going through the torment feel like they really cared. And sometimes, I saw their Facebook profiles – pictures of Zimbabweans frolicking around in the snow without a care (or so it seemed) or hanging out in posh-looking bars where they were often the only brown-skinned faces in an ocean of white ones. It seemed, from those Facebook pictures that they were in the diaspora having a jolly good time while the rest of us struggled in grinding misery. What did they know – really know – about our suffering?
Insulated as they were (or so I thought) by the ‘good living’ they were enjoying in Canada, Australia, the UK, the USA – places I did not dare dream of setting foot in. Places that represented privilege and money and most of all – opportunity. And I remember the irritation I would feel when in the middle of a discussion about some latest catastrophe that had befallen us (Cholera outbreak or what-not) someone from the diaspora would butt in to air their views and have the ‘nerve’ to sound more upset than we were!
What right did they have, I thought at the time, what right did they have to care about what was going down in the country they had chosen to flee? But I was wrong in assuming back then that any Zimbabwean had a choice or that anyone would freely desire to live in a foreign land and face the kind of hardships I have now learned so many of my countrymen and countrywomen have endured these last years. In my various meetings and discussions with them, I hear terrible personal testimonies of struggle, fear, suffering, agony and indignity that befell them as they tried to eke out a living in a land they did not belong to. I write this blog post with an incredible sense of shame; I am ashamed that I judged so harshly people who suffered just as much as I did and who did not have the benefit of having a support system in the form of family, friends, home and familiar places.
Now I understand why they are angry – angrier even than those of us who were in Zimbabwe in its worst recent years. They are angry because they made huge personal sacrifices that have forever altered the course of their lives. They are angry because they live in countries where they are treated as second class citizens, stripped of their dignity and forced to forget their glowing transcripts and dust-covered degrees and certificates to become lowly menial labourers. They are angry because they have lost loved ones and not had the chance to say good bye or to bury them. They are angry because they have fallen sick and gotten better without a single relative to nurse them back to health, because they have been hurt and they had no one to call out to in an alien land. They are angry because they suffered too. And they are angry because deep in their hearts they know that their suffering was needless; that the downward spiral our country took was avoidable and they are angry because they were forced to swallow their pride and work under the most appalling conditions; live under the most harsh terms and watch their lives hang in suspension for years as they apply and wait for papers and permits and residence statuses and indefinite leave to stay!
They are angry because they are now a disenfranchised group, because they have borne children here and because their lives are uprooted from where they come from. They are angry because their identity has been threatened with the refusal to grant dual or multiple citizenship. They are angry because they have worked shift-upon-shift and sent money back home to spouses, children, relatives or friends who took advantage and squandered what they sweated so painfully to earn. They are angrier than I could ever have a right to be, they have suffered beyond what we could have imagined… and I am ashamed that I once thought of them as being without legitimacy to complain because I believed their absence stripped them of the right to speak about the suffering I thought they had escaped.
I live in the UK now and I tolerate it. I remind myself of the goal, of why I am here and of how I am going back home soon. And so I have a new respect for these sons and daughters of Zimbabwe, who have borne it all with little complaint; who have soldiered on with little appreciation coming their way. I am ashamed and mostly – I am so sorry. Sorry that in my mind I had created an ‘otherness’ out of them; that I had been complicit in reducing their status as legitimate citizens and stakeholders in sharing Zimbabwe’s fate. And when they come home to visit, having gotten papers after so many years… don’t we just like to remind them how we suffered in their absence? Don’t we like to remind them every chance we get that, “you were not here” – and in that statement we welcome them with reproach and also we silence them by reminding them that they don’t know the story because they missed out on several chapters.
But here’s the thing – we (who live in Zimbabwe) don’t know their story as well. We also were not there, and in the weighing scales of suffering – we like to assume that our suffering was greater and therefore our entitlement to complaint is higher than theirs. The truth, I am learning in this cold, foreign land is that Zimbabweans within and without the borders of the Motherland have all suffered.
We have suffered. And it is not right that we have had to suffer. It is even worse that we should use that suffering as a divide to keep us apart. Having lost so much these past years – can we afford also to lose one another? I want to believe that as long as we have one another – there’s hope, surely there is hope for a people as brilliantly gifted and talented and resilient and hard-working as we are?
Or am I just a dreamer? I used to think this was always a passport to freedom…turns out for many Zimbabweans..it was a passport to a different kind of captivity.