When I really focus, tune out every distraction, I can smell Zimbabwe. I can smell the diesel from the broken down omnibuses whose corroded engines fill the skies with grey smog and my lungs with a loud cough. I can smell Maputi (popcorn) sold by the street vendors dodging Peugots and Mazdas at stop lights. I can smell the freshly mowed grass mixed with manure, dampened by the sprinklers, and stretching for meters across the school plot, a reminder that the cross-country season had begun and soon my bare feet would be pounding the tarmac and splashing into mud holes.
I can also see my home. An unassuming, conventional white house with a red veranda stretching towards the left side, hidden behind a mass of tall bamboo, planted right in the middle of the yard. My siblings and I spent countless hours playing amongst this tall grass, risking cuts and insect bites just so we could better hide from each other. One Mother’s Day we used the bamboo in a scavenger hunt we created for our mother, hiding the final clue at the entrance to the tall grass. I can still hear her surprise and joy as she opened the clues; different coloured pieces of paper which, when put together, described our never-ending love for her.
My mother still lives in Zimbabwe. The second I start to envision her face, I force myself out of my reverie and return to being newly Canadian. A citizen, as of five years ago, adopted by Toronto and now a part of this aggressively PR driven, “immigrant friendly,” multi-cultural mosaic. I return—alongside my father, who is with me here in Canada—to being one of millions of diasporic faces in the West longing for home.
I left Zimbabwe in late 2010. President Robert Mugabe had been in power my whole life. Still, it was not an easy decision—borne out of a desperate need to escape the parasitic corruption that had become so entrenched in every facet of the country’s day to day machinations. The West’s imposed economic sanctions didn’t help, but it was the internal conflict that truly made me feel I had to leave. It took away opportunity and only seemed to offer survival through a destructive adaptability. You had to break yourself to find just enough space to manouevre, hoping not to be suffocated by the weight of others. Even as a teenager I knew my bones were never going to be that malleable.
That absence of opportunity created panic which bred revolt and anger. Zimbabwe is the first country in the 21st century to hyperinflate. In February 2007, its inflation rate topped fifty percent per month, the minimum rate required to qualify as a hyperinflation, and it continued to rise. The peak month of inflation is said to have been in mid-November of 2008 when the rate reached 79.6 billion percent. Our currency became virtually useless; in 2009, printing of the Zimbabwean dollar was stopped and we were forced to utilize other currencies as an attempt at stabilization. In mid-2015, the country officially adopted the US Dollar. Zimbabwe is considered a low-income, food-deficit country, ranked 156 out of 187 developing countries on the Global Hunger Index, which measures progress and failure in the global fight against hunger. It has highly volatile food prices, which can increase by more than thirty percent in a season. This price instability, particularly prevalent during the lean season, largely compromises peoples’ ability to access adequate food throughout the year. The last few elections have seen an increase in violence as people have become more and more dissatisfied with the ruling party; protests and riots, many felt, were the only feasible language of communication. It’s difficult to find numbers that tally the amount of people who have been victimized by the state as a result of critiquing the national government, but it’s safe to say that such censure can only mean the numbers are high. Zimbabwe is also a country mistrusting of all Western interventions involving policies affecting the people. Who can blame us? The last time we trusted the “pioneers” from across the Atlantic, they spent over eighty years trying to claim the country as their own, convincing the natives we were mediocre. We’ve viewed them suspiciously ever since.
The country gained its independence in 1980 after the Second Chimurenga (Rhodesian Bush War). What followed was a period of restructuring and reform during which, after years of living under the rule of those who claimed ownership to the land they murdered their way into, the Indigenous government put precedent on giving large tracts of land to war heroes and Indigenous Zimbabweans. An inability to properly till the land and a liberal and delinquent use of the natural resources ensured that the noble actions of this move were not successful and the land reform program proved to be a failure. Fast forward about forty years and the country formerly known as the “bread basket” of Southern Africa is now struggling to feed its own population—it’s estimated that about forty-five percent of the country is malnourished. All this leaves me panicked.
When I call my mother she always says that she is perfectly alright. But I never tell her how fractured my life has felt since I left, so I doubt she would tell me how fractured the country has become in the years that I’ve been absent.
What makes me worry most for my family is what keeps me from returning. It’s not safe for me to go back, and it’s not safe for them to stay; it’s not just vast bodies of water keeping us apart, but bureaucratic red tape and unending surveillance. The separation of my family is a symptom of the ways political agendas intimately affect people. Sanctions, travel restrictions based on country of origin and thinly veiled xenophobia have turned my family into a glaring red light, whose movements are viewed with suspicion. Canadian officials point them out, detain them, and ultimately send them home if their reasons for travel are not up to par. A visit to watch a child’s graduation? Not good enough. Family wedding? Not good enough. If your occupation in your home country is not seen as a viable-enough source of income to ensure your return, you will be denied entry.
Going home is impossible because of the dual citizenship I possess, which is illegal in my country and grounds for arrest. I’m a journalist, and it is difficult to be a reporter in Zimbabwe. Journalists face intimidation from the government for writing anything deemed “treasonous” or capable of inciting public unrest. A journalist who critiques national affairs in Zimbabwe is like a matador taunting an angry bull. Many Zimbabwean journalists have fled and now report from neighbouring countries. I am building my career in Canada.
As my dad and I jump through the many hoops required in order to ensure my family’s eventual exodus from Zimbabwe, I keep my jaunts down memory lane short. Much of my life is spent scouring newspapers, the web, and books, for information. The curiosity that has fast become my closest ally in my chosen career is quickly erased when it comes to consuming stories about Southern Africa and specifically any news regarding the day to day lives of the Zimbabwean people. To avoid paralyzing homesickness and all-consuming worry, I’ve held my country at arms length; enclosed it in a time capsule. Part of this stems from my need to not have to face the ways it has changed and deteriorated; and the negative stereotypes it has continued to cultivate in Western media. A more personal reason is that it’s easier to not miss my mother if I do not think about the land that calls her its own, which is as much a part of her as she is a part of me. I miss them both. I miss her more. Calling cards are the most efficient and affordable way I can communicate with her but those monthly telephone calls don’t quite fill the void. I remember her as she was and she is trying to keep up with the woman I’m becoming, someone she shaped but wasn’t able to usher into the terrible twenties. Someone people always said looked like her but whose face she hasn’t been able to see reflected in her eyes for far too long.
At my most vulnerable moments, when all I have for company are YouTube videos of family reunions I can’t stop myself from watching, I realize that the seventeen-year-old who left Zimbabwe was closer to home than I will ever be. At twenty-two, I’ve begun to forget street names—it’s as if they are covered in a fog. It’s started taking me longer to remember certain words in my native Shona tongue. I’m moving farther and farther away from my identity, from my people and myself. The self who was born and bred in the House of Stone (a literal translation to English of Zimbabwe), raised on a diet of black magic and ancestral bonds, remixed with yes Jehovah! and swing low melodies.
I have been losing touch with home but in no way getting closer to becoming the perfect model minority. The one who embraces all that this “tolerant” Canadian culture can offer in terms of visible acceptance of a non-white, dark, female body. In university there were about six girls in my program of 150 students who looked like me. The mainstream media is filled with white bodies, and the career I have chosen echoes with the insights of obnoxious white men who see themselves as experts on every relevant social issue. I only see myself through the lens of a voyeuristic aid worker, on subway billboards featuring somber, tearful, young black faces above writing seeking donations. My dark female body seems to be visibly accepted only as a cautionary tale of the hell “Africa” is believed to be.
Because of this I remain fluent in an integration inspired by survival, and yet allergic to myths of post-racial bliss. Zimbabwe gave me my voice and identity, prefaced with centuries of ancestral resistance and power. This great white North has put me in positions where I’ve had to raise my voice, use that power, and challenge the preconceived notions people have placed on me.
I have tried to not assimilate and instead gone out of my way to be as “other” as possible, to make sure people always know I’m different, not from here. Speaking “The Queen’s English” with a fluency that makes it easy for me to blend into this fallacy of integration is a sign of assimilation well played, but it’s also a sign of carefully crafted resistance—the only way I will be able speak of my pain to those that impose it is to embrace the tongue that tried to swallow my own. And the only way to uplift my native tongue is to throw it into every English sentence with careless intention and reckless abandon, kusvikira pasina munhu anofunga kuti I belong to this country. So they never confuse me for a local. Because the second I start acting like I belong, the minute someone looks at me and thinks I know my way around the hidden alleys of the GTA, I’ll know I’ve lost my home. And losing home means losing my mother.
I’m trying to remain a foreigner, so my home, though far, never becomes foreign.