Easy Sunday Read: Nothing new under the sun
When the world was small
When I was a small boy growing up and playing with my friends in the village, our world was very small. We thought the world ended where the earth met the sky. We could hardly imagine what lay beyond.
We watched at dawn, as the sun rose above the mountains in the east and at dusk, as it sunk into the horizon like a red ball plunging into a big pool. "The sun has gone to its mother," we used to say, before our little world was immersed in a sea of darkness, interrupted only by the valiant efforts of the stars and sometimes, the moon when it was in the mood. Back then we had very little appreciation of the beauty of sunrise or the splendour of sunset or even the dazzling beauty of the stars. It was normal. We lived with these things every day. They were part of our lives. We laughed when visitors observed how beautiful the stars were. Do you not have stars where you come from, we would ask.
Occasionally, some light aircraft made its way over the village and then it would disappear into the clouds. We wondered how it managed to navigate its way through the clouds but we made silent promises to ourselves that one day we would find ourselves up there on an aeroplane. It seemed like an impossible dream, one that could not be announced publicly lest you became the subject of laughter. The more familiar machines were the cars and buses that used the gravel road which linked the local townships, Sadza and Wedza. We knew that beyond Wedza, they would go to Harare or Sosbheri (Salisbury) as the capital was known then.
That was our little world. It was simple but we were happy. We were happy mostly because we had each other. Learning the world
Later, with school, we began to learn more about the world beyond us from books. The teachers told us that actually, the world was like a spherical ball. It was fascinating to see the model spherical ball turning on the axis upon which it was mounted, with all the countries represented on the world map. We learnt that there were other countries and other people far away from our land. Then, over the course of our education, we studied the history of the world, geography and English Literature. We read Shakespeare – Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Hamlet and all, grappling with the old English, which we found both difficult and fascinating. We had to stretch our imagination to make sense of what we were reading, because a lot of it was alien to our world. Then, of course, came television and newspapers which did much to enrich the imagination. That is how many of us began to understand the world.
But back then, the ambition was to study hard, go to college or university and get a job. Dzidzo – education, was revered and held in high regard. It was the passport to a good life. It wasn’t paradise but Zimbabwe was generally alright if you were a professional or a tradesman – and I use this term in a generic and flexible sense. However, my view and understanding of the world and its diverse peoples did not open up fully until I went to Britain in 1999, when I went to do my postgraduate studies.
Learning to see home away from home
There, in a foreign land, wet and cold, I began to see the world and its people in different ways than I was accustomed to. Incredibly, it was the first time I had ever travelled outside Zimbabwe and I was 24. It was the first time I had ever applied for a passport! I realised how, despite my university education, I knew very little about the world and the nuances of its politics. I discovered how narrow some of my personal perspectives were on various issues. I read voraciously and met many people from other countries. The lessons I learnt from interacting with them were far more enriching than what I got from the lecture room.
I also saw how my home was represented in the British media and what locals in Britain thought of it. I did not agree with some of it and decided then that I must use the pen to also tell the story of my home and its people. I vividly recall one issue of The Economist in 2000, a widely read British weekly newspaper, which carried the title, “The Hopeless Continent” and reading it was a painful experience. “The beasts and bugs are big, and they bite”, is one line from one of the stories in that issue that stuck to the mind. The title of the story, “The heart of the matter” read like a pun on the title of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. I found the stories difficult and painful to consume, but even through the harsh tones, there were issues I could not ignore, particularly the point that a lot of the challenges were man-made and could be prevented or corrected.
At the time, I thought, maybe to change this narrative we also had to write our stories of home and more importantly, our leaders had to do more to correct the man-made problems. 18 years later, I wish I could report that things have vastly improved on all fronts. They have not. Media representations are still patronising and condescending and many of the man-made problems on the continent abound.
But this is only the background to today’s story.
Learning about the world from books and television helps but it is not nearly enough. But nothing beats travelling and observing or experiencing how others live. You can only begin to understand the world better by travelling and spending time in other societies. In Britain, young people go to great lengths to travel and see the world. I first learnt about a phenomenon called “Gap Year” during my early years in Britain. Students take a year off after finishing school and before starting university to travel. Of course, not everyone can afford it and it would be a luxury in poor African countries where school fees are hard to come by. One is expected to finish college and start looking after the younger siblings.
But looking back, I wish I had taken time to travel a bit more because the opportunities were there. Like many others of my generation, we were comfortable in our little Zimbabwe. Hence my first trip outside Zimbabwe was to Europe to go and study! And even then, I had not ventured much into my country beyond the big cities. It is hardly surprising that many of us know very little about our own country. The migration into the Diaspora did much to open many Zimbabweans to new worlds outside our own and I imagine the experience has also been an enriching one in various ways. It would be great if countries in the region could do exchange programmes so that their young citizens would have opportunities to learn how others live in their respective countries.
My favourite story of all time is The Alchemist, Paolo Coehlo’s best-selling novel. The main character is a boy called Santiago, who starts off as a shepherd before he decides to embark on a long trip to the pyramids in Egypt where he set out to find treasure that had been revealed to him in a dream. Santiago’s father would have wanted him to lead a more stable and traditional life in his home, but Santiago decided to become a shepherd because he wanted to travel and see the world. His life as a shepherd was good. He travelled and learnt a lot of things. He could have been content with that life: he knew his sheep and his sheep knew him. But he decided to follow his dream and it took him on a long adventure to the pyramids. That journey taught him a lot of things that he would never have known as a shepherd.
I like Santiago’s story a lot because in some ways I can identify with some of his experiences. In fact, like Santiago, I also dream of going to see the pyramids one day. And although Santiago reached the pyramids, he discovered that his treasure was back home, where he had left many years before. But the key was the knowledge and experience that he got during his journey. Like Santiago, I also believe my treasure is back home but that the knowledge and experience I have gained in my journey is invaluable. There are many who are reading this, whom I suspect might identify a little Santiago in their lives, too.
Nothing new under the sun
I have been fortunate to travel to a number of places around the world as a tourist and because of work engagements. At the moment, I’m in one of the great political capitals, Washington D.C. in the United States. I have been here before on short holiday adventures, but this is a different experience. I find myself learning every day. I like to think that by the end of time, every person would have earned a PhD in life because life is the greatest of all teachers. This is just part of my continuous learning process, right from the time back in the village when I thought the world ended where the earth met the sky. One day, when I have completed my stint here I will share my experiences - the lessons that I would have learned.
I have met many people from around the world and we have shared our experiences. One of the most striking lessons, which is what prompted me to write this article, is that politically, there is so much in common between us, wherever we are in the world. There is not much that is unique about us and our political circumstances. When I listen to colleagues from other countries when they talk about their politics, it is almost as if they are talking about Zimbabwe. You could almost substitute the names and places and the stories would be the same. Indeed, as they say, there is nothing new under the sun.
In fact, each community could learn from other communities elsewhere in the world. What has happened in Zimbabwe over the past 37 years has probably happened in many other countries. When I told a colleague from Pakistan that former leader, Robert Mugabe was making a return after he was popularly deposed from power last November, he laughed and told me how former Pakistan leader, General Musharraf had fled to Dubai after he was removed from power in a popular revolt in 2007 and that he makes regular broadcasts from there, still promising to return one day and lead the people!
So we had a “popular coup”? It’s not unique to us in the slightest bit. A number of countries have had a similar experience in the past. So some people think a military government might be good after all? Not unique too. Some people think democracy is a Western concept that has no place in Zimbabwe? Similar sentiments are held by some people in other non-Western countries. So some are exasperated by politicians whom they think are thieves and dishonest? Go to Pakistan, Kenya, Egypt, Kazakhstan and it’s the same. So we think having military men in government is a problem? Even here in one of the oldest democracies, similar questions are being asked. We think elections are rigged? Well, check Russia, they are having an “election” where it’s a formality for current President, Vladimir Putin. Egypt is also looking forward to an “election” of a similar type. No one knows if the DRC will have an election. We think our democracy is in a crisis? In the UK there are concerns for democracy after the Brexit referendum. Go to Latin America and you will find there is a lot that we share in common politically than you could ever imagine. In short, there is much that can be learned from other countries, at least in order to avoid the mistakes they have made.
Breaking the walls
The problem is that many of us are not exposed to these narratives and we end up thinking our problems are unique and have no precedence or solution. And what we think are solutions have already been proven not to be solutions elsewhere. Even in social media, we tend to stick to our little communities defined by physical geography. There is not nearly enough cross-country communication. We are just like we were in our childhood when our little world ended where the earth met the sky. We hardly see what lies beyond that line. We talk to the same people and lament our predicament. Even in our own country there are very little conversations between races and classes. We live in different worlds. We have erected and maintained barriers and are comfortable in our little enclaves. The conversations are without our political communities and where those communities meet the exchanges are harsh and violent. We don’t like to hear the other side, to understand why they differ with us. Common ground is viewed with suspicion. It's like an echo chamber and we are comfortable in that space.
We must break these walls within our communities. Walls defined by race, class, gender, religion, geography, etc. We must break walls of geography and whenever we can, travel and see the world and how others live. Some countries help with exchange programmes, where students and young professionals spend time in their countries, learning their ways. It helps to see the world and your country from outside. There are many documentaries which also help - watch them. Read books and newspapers beyond our own. It is fascinating reading a Kenyan, Malawian, Indian or Australian newspaper and seeing how stories mirror each other and our own. You will be amazed at how much we share in common and how much potential there is in shared solutions.
The struggle against colonialism would have been more difficult and longer had the colonised peoples not recognised the commonality of their situation and that solidarity was the way to go. Labour unions have done much to improve and defend the rights of workers because they long established that their problems were not country specific but were a result of a system and ideology that places capital ahead of labour. For example, they crafted solidarity mechanisms so that stronger and better-placed unions were able to help their counterparts around the world.
Some of my colleagues I have met in my journey continue to warn me of the dangers of falling for a military-backed government because they have been there before. The script in Zimbabwe right now is not unique to us. Military men have always sold themselves as reformists and democrats who are not interested in power for themselves but merely want to help the people. But more often than not, it never ends well. They stay on for much longer, well beyond their welcome. When you have experienced one coup, expect another one, colleagues have said because they have been there before. But there are people who think they must be given a chance, I say. My colleagues laugh and say it’s normal for some part of the population to think that way but that eventually, they realise that they were fooled.
I do hope military historians and political scientists, who are more qualified for this task than most of us, are critically studying the coup and its implications. It is tempting to fall for the popular “We have moved on” cliché and while it might serve a political purpose, it also obfuscates the complexities of the coup and the nuances that have emerged from its aftermath. Actually, I would venture to hypothesise that the coup is by no means a closed chapter but that it is a present and on-going phenomenon which will be felt during and after the coming elections. In other words, it is too early to describe the coup in the past tense. We learn from nature that an earthquake is usually followed by after-shocks well after it has happened. We must remain wary of the possibility of after-shocks following last November.
A long way from home
It’s a long way since the days in the village when our world was very small. I have been fortunate to travel and I have seen some of the world. I have seen that an aircraft can fly through clouds and above them, albeit with some turbulence. I finally visited Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s home and began to make sense of the stuff I read in his books. I have to Versailles and all those history lessons began to make more sense. The greatest gift has been to meet and talk to people from other places, learning that there is nothing new that we are experiencing in Zimbabwe. Most of it has happened in varying degrees in other countries. Politicians throughout the world are like a tribe with shared values and shared techniques.
We Zimbabweans need to understand that and have a greater sense of our place in the world. We must be talking to our brothers and sisters in The Gambia, to understand how they got rid of Yahya Jammeh, a military man who came to power through a coup and made grand promises but stayed on for more than 20 years. We must talk to the Senegalese to understand how they managed to get rid of a long-running dictatorship all those years ago. We must talk to our friends in Nigeria and Pakistan to understand how in the past they have coped under military government and how they were able to shed it off. We can’t all travel, but we can read. Let us read more and understand the world.