‘I had a good life in Zimbabwe,’ immigrant student says

Oct 24th, 2009 | By | Category: Student Work

By Luc Ihaddadene

BERKELEY – Wearing a UC Berkeley sweatshirt and talking like any young American woman, Tendekai, 25, looks like one of the few African-American students in the campus. She is actually part of an even smaller group. An African student, she comes from Zimbabwe.

Over the last few years, her country has been described in the world’s media as a disaster area, a land of dreadful human rights violations, widespread poverty, riots and cholera outbreaks. Yet she did not mention any of those tragic facts at first. Instead, Tendekai told me about her family and her peaceful youth in Harare, known as the Sunshine City.

“I guess it is called like this because it is a modern and clean city, always sunny, with wide roads and nice buildings,” she said.

Only one decade ago, the capital of Zimbabwe was considered one of the most prosperous cities in the south of Africa. The country could rely on a powerful agricultural system and lucrative mineral reserves. Its economic growth reached about 4.5 percent each year during the 1980s and 1990s.

TendekaiTendekai–her first name has been changed because she did not want her real name to appear in the media–was born in 1983 and lived there until 2004. Her parents are teachers. As a child, she went to the primary school where her mother worked, a 15-minute walk from home, and then attended a private Christian school. Her middle-class family also includes one older brother and one older sister. “I had a good life growing up in Zimbabwe,” she said.

When she turned 18, “things became more difficult. There have been shortages of food, petrol and basic commodities,” she remembered. In the early 2000s, the economy of the country seriously deteriorated, notably as a consequence of the land reform initiated by President Robert Mugabe. The government confiscated lands from white farmers who owned most of the country’s arable land in order to redistribute it to the black people of Zimbabwe.

“That was why we had independence: equality. But the way it was done was chaotic,” Tendekai recalled.

According to her, if the operation really meant to give land to indigent people of the black majority, it should have been done with more care and preparation.  “Those people also needed equipment, fertilizers, irrigation systems and training. And, you know, it is almost like it just happened overnight, just before the elections! It was a political operation.”

Destabilized, the agriculture of the country suddenly slumped, partly because the new owners of the land did not have appropriate skills to manage the farms. Once a breadbasket in Africa, Zimbabwe could not produce enough food for its own population anymore and had to import it.

“In 2002, there was a drought, the first of my life,” Tendekai said. The shortages got worse. “I remember my parents staying overnight in a queue to get some petrol and coming back the next day without anything.” The whole economy was affected by the collapse of agriculture and crumbled. Factories shut down, unemployment went up. The inflation rate rose at a very fast pace: about 50% in 2000, 100% in 2001, 200% in 2002, and 600 % in 2003.

“You had to take a backpack to go to the bank,” Tendekai said, taking out a green bank note from her billfold: a Zimbabwean 10 trillion dollar (ZWD) bill from 2008. Indeed, hyperinflation eventually peaked at incalculable rates – more than 10 million percent in August 2008 – until the government decided to temporary suspend the national currency in April 2009.

Back in 2002, Tendekai was able to vote for the first time. “Everybody was so excited. There was such a big hope for change and leadership. I waited in line for 10 hours at the polling station. But when the results came out, people got really discouraged,” she said.

Robert Mugabe was declared “re-elected” in spite of strong assumptions of fraud. At the University, she recalled, students rioted. “But I would stay at home, trying to get away from that. Many people were scared because of the ‘green bombers,’ a kind of militia aiming at ‘restoring order’ within the University. The atmosphere was not conducive for working,” she said. The University of Zimbabwe – one of the best in Africa – was declining. In 2004, Tendekai decided to leave the country. Leaving her family behind, she flew to the U.S. where a relative could welcome and support her.

Tendekai follows closely what has been happening in her country ever since she left. In 2005, she read about the “Operation Drive Out Trash.” Officially aiming at clearing the cities’ slums in order to tackle crime, illicit trades and disease outbreaks, it was actually a violent governmental campaign targeting poor people, supporters of the political opposition. According to the United Nations, this “disastrous venture” left 700 000 people homeless or jobless. Tendekai also worried about the 2008 cholera outbreak and the general degradation of the conditions of living. This year, Harare was even pronounced the world’s “toughest” city to live in by an Economist Intelligence Unit’s livability poll, regarding health-care, stability, culture and environment, education and infrastructure.

Nevertheless, Tendekai does not always agree with the way the media reports on Zimbabwe. “Sometimes, I feel it is a little distorted or exaggerated. For example, beatings in Harare last year have been described as though violence happened throughout the city, whereas it only happened in certain areas on the outskirts of town. From an outsider point of view, it sounds like there is a big war going on. But there are more violent cities in the world,” she said.

“Now life is getting better, basic commodities are available again,” she added. But in the same time, she does not believe that just because President Mugabe is now officially sharing the power with Morgan Tsvangirai, the main figure of the opposition, all problems are about to be solved.

“I have not heard much in the media about how the opposition have had the power within the government of unity, and it is hard to tell whether the opposition have just been swallowed up into the main party. Those changes take time,” she said.

Although Tendekai plans to stay at least five more years in the U.S. to get a master’s degree or even a Ph. D, “I still identify myself as Zimbabwean; that’s always my home,” she said.

An undergraduate in biology, she hopes to go back to her country as a physician or as an epidemiologist studying diseases and viruses such as HIV.

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