Zimbabwe youth survive jungle of doubt

Zimbabwe children walking to school - Flickr image by SokwaneleZimbabwean names often reflect the mood or reaction of a family to the arrival of the new member. At a rural mission school in Matabeleland I taught Blessing, Immaculate, Charity and Unique Faith. But Penniless Ngwenya was the best and brightest of my students, the one most likely to graduate from university and lead her family from the teeming townships of Bulawayo to the relative comforts of a middle-class suburb.

I once played the Billy Joel song, 'River of Dreams', to my senior students. It seemed to capture all of the hopes, doubts and anxiety of a generation determined to take advantage of their window of opportunity. After all, barely a decade ago, Zimbabwe was flying.

Sure, thanks in part to the IMF's Structural Adjustment Program, there was a mounting debt problem, and Robert Mugabe seemed welded to his presidential palace, even then. But, superficially at least, there were numerous positive signs.

The state-run press media had lost its monopoly, and independent newspapers, particularly the Daily Mail, were thriving. With tremendous natural assets like Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe had become a tourist mecca. It was safe and had infrastructure the envy of the rest of the continent.

Investment dollars were pouring in and a stock exchange had opened. Optimism that, in tandem with the newly liberated 'rainbow nation' to the south, Zimbabwe could drive development for southern Africa, seemed justified.

Penniless achieved a strong A-Level score and was offered a place in the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. It wasn't what she wanted, but a passport to a better life nevertheless. Penny wrote to me before going to university and included a poem she had composed in her second year of high school. The final verse:

Lonely, desperate, hungry,
Angry and in sorrow

Hoping for a better tomorrow
The poor man's daughter
She clutches her sack of books
Makes her way to the classroom
There, it all disappears
The loneliness, desperation, hunger and anger
The wise words are uttered
Her troubled mind is dismissed
With it all the poor man's daughter will be as good as any.

For me, the saddest aspect of Zimbabwe's disintegration is the shattered aspirations of Zimbabwe's youth, for whom the 'valley of fear' must seem endless, the 'jungle of doubt' impenetrable. There are few jobs waiting for them, even if they do graduate. In the age of hyperinflation many of those who have jobs find that the cost of getting to work exceeds their meagre salary.

Survival is the imperative for all but the well-connected. Given the recent anti-immigrant riots in South Africa, even an illegal and often dangerous border crossing (a route already taken by hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans) seems less of an option.

Zimbabwe's youth have been abandoned by the majority of their leaders, by their African brothers and sisters and the broader international community. They are more likely to be brutalised in one of Mugabe's notorious youth camps than find their way to university.

Western nations will not intervene — there is no pressing interest — and the ideals expressed in the Constitutive Act of the African Union are mere window dressing. It would be rank hypocrisy for most African leaders to press Mugabe to hold free and fair elections. Sadly, Mugabe is right. In Africa the gun is mightier than the pen.

We cannot comprehend the collapse of countries like Zimbabwe because too few of us in the first world remember a past that continues to reverberate in the present.

Too few of us understand the bilateral and multilateral (World Bank, IMF, WTO) forces that, far from reducing poverty in Africa, have quite often ensured that poverty would not be alleviated, that healthy civil societies and democracies would not flourish, that familiar power structures within countries and between African countries and the West would be preserved.

Similarly, too few of us remember that Mugabe has always been a thug. Perhaps because Zimbabwe was an important frontline state in the struggle against apartheid, we forgot the atrocities in Matabeleland in the mid 80s, and rarely did we explore the rumours that have always surrounded Mugabe's rise to power in ZANU.

All this forgetfulness contributed to the disproportionate media focus on the plight of white farmers when the first land invasions took place in 2000. This was always an alarming sideshow. The main game for Mugabe then, as now, was staying in power. The president's main enemy then, as now, was the growing number of Zimbabwean people willing to vote him out of office.

It became important to me to learn how Penny was coping in the current crisis. Internet search engines are amazing things. I discovered that Penny graduated from UZ with Honours and was recruited by the Cotton Company of Zimbabwe. She was promoted and her wedding was reported in the company newsletter.

Soon after she left the company and there the trail goes cold. I would like to think she moved on to better things, fully cognisant that few people in Zimbabwe have moved on to better things.

Peter HodgePeter Hodge works as a teacher and freelance journalist.

Topic tags: Peter Hodge, zimbabwe, youth, robert Mugabe, Penniless Ngwenya



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Existing comments

Peter, the feelings you express in your article sound very similar to mine. I too can not comprehend the collapse of countries like Zimbabwe and the lives it affects. What in your view are the few most harmfull interventions that forces like World Bank, IMF, WTO should avoid in the future?

Irma Birchall | 03 September 2008  

Hi Irma, thank you for your feedback. Zimbabwe is different to many African countries, in that it had such good infrastructure - it was a great country to live in and travel through. However, beneath the surface were so many unresolved problems festering - Zim never experienced the process of 'truth and reconcilliation' that provided tangible benefits to South Africa.

African countries do need a lot of assistance, but not the variety that gives meaning to the term 'neocolonialism'. The abysmal failure of the Doha 'development round' has stripped the WTO of any remaining shred of credibility it could lay claim to. The IMF, World Bank and the development community in general must rethink the way they provide aid and other forms of assistance. They must cease marching into countries as the font of all knowledge, imposing onerous conditionalities (usually designed to benefit the donor) as they go. The key is providing the sort of inputs that will have a direct impact on quality of life (health, education, water, sanitation, etc), giving recipients more power over their own lives. Agencies should be accountable and should not deal with corrupt governments. Markets work, but forced market reforms usually don't. Democracy works, but forced democratic reforms usually don't. Let people forge their own directions. I recommend The White Man's Burden, by William Easterly - a textbook on development and an excellent read!

Peter Hodge | 04 September 2008  

Penny was my best friend in A-level at St James. I googled her name because i also was looking for her to see how she is doing. It's a sad state in Zim Thank you for writing this article. We hope one day Zim will see better days. I remember you the then young Australian physics teacher

mildred zimunya nee zaranyika | 15 November 2008  

Peter, I found your article by 'googling' for my long lost friend Penny. Thank you for the article which captures the atmosphere in our beloved country so well. I wish your submissions were more widely circulated than the sensational often divisive stories by people with no understanding of our nation.

Wise Mlalazi | 22 May 2010  

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