This is a tale from the recently concluded Africa Blogging 2018 workshop held in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Landing in Harare, Zimbabwe´s capital was supposed to be a short 45 minutes flight. But in their usual fashion, Kenya Airways was again delayed.
“We are sorry to announce that we will be shutting down the engines because one of our computers has malfunctioned. We need to reboot them,” said the flight captain as we anxiously sat in our seats in an Embraer 190 jet at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka.
Shortly afterwards, all lights went off, the aircon too was switched off. Then it downed on me that the plane was really shut down. Ten minutes later, the plane was switched on and in no time, we took off from Lusaka, headed to Zimbabwe.
In the next 50 minutes, a lot of scenarios came in my mind. Won’t I be arrested upon arrival at the airport? Zimbabwe is not known for being warm to journalists. On a normal journalistic assignment, foreign reporters are required to register with the Journalism Council of Zimbabwe, which I didn’t do.
To make matters worse, my passport has journalism as my occupation. Like Bemba saying Fili Oko Tuleya meaning we will see what happens ahead, I tried to forget about what would happen with Immigration officers at the airport. As we started our descent on the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, thoughts of either being turned away or being arrested again hit me.
Again the Fyalaisova (We will sort it out) mentality gripped me. With fear in my body, I walked down the plane after we landed and boarded the shuttle to the arrivals terminal. As we entered the terminal, we were greeted by a huge banner written “ZIMBABWE IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS” with a smiling face of Zimbabwe’s new President Emmerson Mnangagwa staring at us.
Upon seeing the President’s image, I remembered his nephew Jackson Mnangagwa who was my peer at Mumbwa High School from 2000 to 2002. Interestingly, President Mnangagwa was also a pupil at the same school decades earlier when he lived in Lutondo Village, which is just 15 kilometers away from my home village Lubanze in Mumbwa District, Zambia.
Actually, we the people of Mumbwa lay claim that the Zimbabwean President, he is one of us. As a coward, I made sure that my friend Bruce Chooma, who is also a journalist, stood ahead of me on the queue as we waited to be cleared by the Immigration officers who were all females.
Bruce, who is also a blogger, stepped forward and presented his passport and the invitation letter from the KAS Media Africa office, the organisers of #AfricaBlogging Workshop we were attending. The gentleman was questioned for over 10 minutes, which scared me even more. I was later ushered to another officer and I presented my papers.
“Neimwi uyu journalist shamwari” (there is another journalist my friend,) said the immigration officer as she informed her colleague who was attending to Bruce. After a few questions, the officer asked me to sign a form which only gave me five days to stay in Zimbabwe without the possibility of an extension.
“Keep that paper safe, you should hand it over to the Immigration officer the day you will leave the country. If you lose it, you will be charged $100,” she warned me. At this point, I got more scared, but she allowed me to proceed to the luggage bay and finally I exited the airport. As we jumped on a taxi, I breathed a sigh of relief. My Senegalese friend and a fellow blogger, Fanta Diallo Bruce and I boarded a taxi and we were driven to a hotel in Msasa area of Harare,
Hopeful New Zimbabwe
In the new Zimbabwean era, we were freely allowed to move around Harare without minders trailing us. This was not common a few years ago when foreign journalists were not welcome in the country. But since the Zimbabwean Army overthrew Robert Mugabe and installed his deputy Mnangagwa as the country’s third President, the country has seen a number of changes.
On our way to the hotel we tried to engage the taxi driver in conversations of politics and current affairs but the man must have still been living in the Mugabe era where people were engulfed in a climate of fear. Upon arrival at Cresta Lodge, we were greeted by a smiling lady whose name tag had a Banda surname.
Immediately I greeted her in the Lusaka version of Nyanja but surprisingly, she answered me in Tonga and we started talking. We spent some 10 minutes chatting and Bruce, who is Tonga himself, was at home. At the hotel restaurant where we had our dinner that even, we found a number of Zimbabweans drinking beer and loudly discussing how “ZIMBABWE IS NOW OPEN TO BUSINESS”.
While sipping the locally prized Zambezi lager, the Zimbos kept talking how the business environment had changed and how they wished the General elections could quickly pass so that investors can pump in the much needed foreign exchange. These are the kinds of discussions Zimbabweans I met over the next four days had.
It struck me that Zimbabweans were now hopeful of the future, they no longer lived under fear of what tomorrow may bring, Mugabe was now relegated to his house without any role in the country.
The following day was the first day of the #AfricaBlogging workshop, an annual gathering of bloggers from Sub-Sahara Africa discussing trends on the continent and learn more about the field of information sharing. In the 37 years when Mugabe was at the helm of the former British colony’s government, such a conference would not have been held. Even in an unlikely event that it was held; state agents would still have kept a close eye on it.
“If it was in the Mugabe time, we were going to see people who are not employees at this hotel, suddenly start repairing these windows while listening to proceedings. They would take more time than necessary to assess what’s going on,” said KAS Zimbabwe resident representative David Mbae.
KASMedia Africa ‘s Christoph Plate was very delighted that the team could make the trip to Harare.
“We chose Zimbabwe for this year’s #AfricaBlogging conference because of the political transition we witnessed late last year. And the fact that we have been freely welcomed and held this workshop in Harare is testimony to the new freedoms that have come to Zimbabwe,”
Plate, himself a long serving Africa correspondent for several German publications in the 1990s, noticed despite the failure by a handful of West African bloggers to get visas to attend the conference, the atmosphere in Zimbabwe in the post-Mugabe era was promising. Prominent Zimbabwean bloggers and political analysts, Blessing Vava and Takura Zhangazha shared their perspectives on the new era.
“This year’s election is the first where we don’t have Mugabe on the ballot. It is also the first election where Mugabe’s archrival (Morgan) Tsvangirai is also not on the ballot. In previous elections, you would not see Zimbabweans express themselves on social media, but today, we even have hashtag movements,” said Blessings.
Blessing a Zimbabwean and AfricaBlogging author, went on to explain that after Mugabe’s overthrow by the military in November last year, social media has opened up and it has become a big source of information for the masses. He also said due to the influence of social media, President Mnangagwa had also been forced to open Facebook and Twitter accounts to canvass for votes and interact with voters.
Takura, also an AfricaBlogging author however said very little has changed in Zimbabwe after the November coup. He said cyber security is still a challenge in the country just as it is in the Southern Africa region. “We have a bill on cyber security which is still being held on. We are likely to see it pass after the elections in July,” said Takura.
On the day the #AfricaBlogging conference opened, Nelson Chamisa, the firebrand presidential candidate for late Tsvangirai’s MDC party led a march across the streets of Harare to press for electoral reforms ahead of the July polls. The peaceful march, which Police officers sanctioned, would have been unheard of if Mugabe was still President.
Changing Media Landscape and Freedom of Expression
But in the new dispensation, the opposition painted Harare as they made their voice heard. That afternoon, we visited 263 Chat, a social media company which delivers daily news to over 20,000 of its online subscribers. The company, which is housed in Batanai House in the Central Business District of Harare, uses social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn to deliver its news to ordinary Zimbabweans at home and abroad for free.
263 Chat was founded by Nigel Mugamu, a qualified accountant with passion for writing and an advocate of Africans telling their own stories from a pan-African perspective.
“I got fed up with the way the likes of BBC and CNN used to report about Zimbabwe. They were only reporting on Mugabe, Joyce Mujuru and Tsvangirai. So I came back home [from UK where he was studying] and came up with an idea of starting up conversations and tell the story through social media,” said Nigel.
Today, the company employs 16 people, mostly youth who document news using their mobile phones, professional cameras and other gadgets and then use social media to disseminate the news.
“After the Coup? No Coup? people are now free to dicsuss issues they were afraid of talking about. Today you can hear people discuss Gukurahundi and other forbidden topics. Even us, we no longer get visits by state agents, we are now free to do our work. Stories we were scared of writing, we now write them. Business wise, we are even getting more clients calling us to deliver invoices. The change is there,” said Nigel in response to a question from this blogger.
Gukurahundi, which Nigel mentioned, is a term used to describe the massacres of about 20,000 Ndebele speaking people in Matebeleland and the Midlands region by the Zimbabwean Army in the early 1980s. The massacres were a hot topic, which Zimbabweans were forbidden to discuss for fear of being arrested but with the fall of Mugabe, citizens are now discussing it.
Some point the finger on Mugabe while others accuse President Mnangagwa of being part of the people who planned and executed the killings. But the open discussion on it has come with the departure of President Mugabe. From the close to two hours chat with Nigel, it was clear that the people of Zimbabwe had been freed from the fears they had in the Mugabe era.
People are now freely expressing without any fear of arrest or any state sanctioned reprisals. A stroll through the streets of Harare revealed that the usually heavy Police presence was gone. The only Police officers present were those deployed at major intersections to control traffic during the morning and evening rush hour. Countrywide, it is reported that the 16 checkpoints, which were usually mounted between Harare and the city of Masvingo have all been scrapped off and motorists now drive freely without the fear of being pulled over by traffic Police.
All these signs of relative change have given hope to the country. Zimbabweans are now looking towards the post July elections era to see if the promise of change President Mnangagwa has brought will continue irrespective of who wins the poll.
Forward with Zimbabwe
As I left the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport, after handing over that paper which the Immigration officer had given me earlier, I said a short prayer, asking God to help Zimbabweans to manage this newly found freedom.
I asked God to ensure that the July elections go on without violence and the people’s candidate win the elections so that Zimbabweans can live in peace and rebuild their shuttered economy. My prayer involved asking God to help them bring back money to the empty ATMs banks, which are currently unused and to help them bring back the Zimbabwean dollar as opposed to the current use of the South African Rand and the US dollar as the country’s legal tender.
After the prayer, I shouted in excitement Pamberi Ne Zimbabwe (Forward with Zimbabwe) as the Kenya Airways plane took off for Lusaka.