by Sandra Nyaira
- UK -
On a chilly Saturday afternoon as rain drizzles continually from the grey London skies, Trafalgar Square slowly fills with women from all walks of life, braving the winds and cold. Exiled Zimbabwean men and women now living in the United Kingdom descend on the Square from all directions to support the fight for democracy in Zimbabwe, to restore dignity to its long-suffering women and to highlight their vital role in the country’s struggle for freedom.
They have deserted the care homes and the hospitals where they work to attend. They are fervent about supporting their compatriots back in Zimbabwe who, on a daily basis, go without basics like three meals a day, sanitary wear, medication and other necessities.
Some of the speakers suffered torture at the hands of Robert Mugabe’s handlers, among them the deputy leader of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and aspiring Member of Parliament representing the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Lucia Matibenga. Student activist Maureen Kademaunga and Takavarasha Zhou, the president of the Zimbabwe Progressive Teachers Association, also attended.
A Zimbabwean band belts away on tunes, attracting even casual passers-by. A huge television screen lights up the historical Square with images of struggling Zimbabwean women serving as the backdrop for speakers like Maureen and her colleagues.
Twenty-two year old Maureen Kademaunga speaks first. She was tortured by the Zanu PF government for openly advocating for change within institutions of higher learning in Zimbabwe. She was suspended from the University of Zimbabwe three times and had to go to the High Court to force the authorities to allow her to sit her examinations and eventually graduate. Maureen is now the Gender and Human Rights Officer for the Zimbabwe National Students' Union, and intends to return to the UK sometime later this year to complete her Masters.
“The socio-economic hardships in Zimbabwe have eroded our dignity as women so much. Instead of agitating for deeper involvement in political processes and policy formulation, we are actually fundraising for things that are supposed to be basic commodities that we [should] not need to fight for.”Maureen says the situation is so bad in the country that ordinary women have no choice but to use newspapers and rags during their monthly periods. As a result many have acquired diseases which eventually lead to divorce or even abuse from partners and spouses. “It is painful and difficult to say that instead of us coming here to England and actually joining hands with our sisters and fighting for meaningful involvement in political processes, we stand here today in shame looking for something that should be an inalienable basic human right – something like sanitary wear.”
“[It also] pains me that the young women of Zimbabwe are being left without education, which has become a privilege for the elite and not a basic human right,” she continues. Maureen says that many college students resort to prostitution to help pay their way through school and to help their struggling families, thus spreading HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted illnesses,
In parting, young Maureen says to her compatriots and other Londoners, “What we hope and pray for is that one day we will stand with our sisters from all over the world and be proud to be Zimbabwean.” She and her colleagues will soon go on to Brussels to lobby authorities there on the situation in Zimbabwe.
Twenty-nine year old Chipo Matanga, an ordinary Zimbabwean woman who works as a caregiver in London, is at the rally.
“I stand in shame here today because of the things that I have heard are going on in my country. Britain and many other countries, including some in Africa, are counting their achievements where women are concerned and their success in furthering the girl child, but we have gone back to the [stone] age.”
A mother of one who used to work in a bank back home, Matanga says it’s tough for her and many other Zimbabweans living in the Diaspora.
“We work so hard day and night, not to supplement what is in Harare, but to buy basic goods to send home and luxuries like cell phones, clothes, etc, so that people can survive.”
Then short, dark and unassuming Lucia Matibenga, the aspiring Member of Parliament for the opposition party speaks to the crowd. Her two grown children live in the United Kingdom; her son is on hand to support her as she takes the stage. She says life for the ordinary woman in Zimbabwe gets worse by the day as prices continue to rise.
“Today women all over the world are busy plotting their future strategies, but we are where we were 28 years ago, if not worse. We are busy talking about basic commodities such as food for our children. We are at a standstill. Instead of waging women’s struggle for decision-making positions and general progression in life – we are fighting for survival.”Cameras from many UK newsrooms flash as the atmosphere begins to turn into a carnival. Anti-Mugabe songs and slogans ring out urging those fighting against his iron-fisted rule to continue their resistance. News crews from the BBC, Channel 4, Reuters, AFP, ITN and other networks conduct interviews both with Zimbabweans living in the UK and the speakers who flew in all the way from Harare.
Events like this bring the Zimbabwean community in the UK together, the majority of whom live and work underground, due to the British government’s refusal to grant them legal status. Less than 1,000 are said to have been given political asylum by the British government, a position criticized by many as hypocritical since the British government seizes every opportunity to attack the Zimbabwe government for abusing and starving its own people. Failed asylum seekers and those in the UK illegally are not allowed to work. Therefore many squat on friends’ floors, working underground in order to send money back home to support their families.
Such events also give these Zimbabweans a chance to talk about the way their host country is treating them, to speak of the people back home, to share their hopes and anxieties and fears. Most importantly, they exchange telephone numbers, not only their own, but those of the people and services they use to send money, groceries and fuel coupons back home.
Loveness Piki came to the rally with two friends from Cambridge -- all of them failed asylum seekers still here in the UK. She says meetings like the rally help her keep in touch with events in Zimbabwe, her beloved country thousands of miles away.
Thirty-nine year old Piki, a mother of four children who all live back in Harare with their father, works day and night at three jobs to pay the bills both here and at home. She also manages to pay the school fees for her children – three of whom are in a private boarding school in Chegutu in Zimbabwe; her eldest attends university in South Africa.
Piki often sends money and groceries home to her parents, to her husband, to her three siblings and even her extended family. She also helps pay school fees for three nieces and a nephew orphaned by HIV/AIDS, the scourge that continues to hound so many families in Zimbabwe. Piki is a classic example of the thousands of Zimbabwean women who work hard in the UK in low-paying jobs, living in squalid conditions just to cut costs and pay bills back home.
Piki says, "I attend these meetings because I get to share my frustrations about the British system and its hypocrisy with my countrymen and women. But most importantly, it gives me the opportunity to campaign against human rights abuses. As Zimbabwean women we are going backwards instead of progressing along with the rest of the world. We work here day and night to feed people back home, to send them groceries from such far places as England and the United States. But in the process, we are helping keep Mugabe in power because we are feeding people who would be rioting against him if they were continually hungry.”There are also hundreds of professional Zimbabweans at the rally: nurses, doctors, social workers, pharmacists, engineers and journeymen. This Zimbabwean community has a good relationship with the British authorities who keep in touch with them through their professional organizations. But there are also other professionals, especially bankers and journalists, who have failed, despite years of trying, to break into British society as professionals. These people resort to working low-paying odd jobs wherever they can find them.
Alois Bunu, a middle-aged Zimbabwean man who came all the way from Birmingham to attend the rally says he too believes that Zimbabweans in the Diaspora have inadvertently helped Mugabe and his Zanu PF party maintain a stranglehold on power.
"It is a catch 22 situation – like a cigarette burning on one end and on the other, the smoker is biting the butt. You suffer from both ends. We are here to protest and call for the restoration of our dignity as Zimbabweans but in an indirect way we are propping up the autocratic government we want to remove from office. We have to send the money, medicine, food and basics to help keep our families and friends alive!”
Barbara Nguwani, a 40-year old single Zimbabwean nurse working in Surrey is afraid to be interviewed or photographed for fear the picture may land her in trouble back home. She makes a different point about the situation in Zimbabwe.
“We need to start thinking about what we will do if the [upcoming] elections once again are not free and fair. I am tired of living in this country, but I cannot go back because it means if I go, the many people I support will die. I have no boyfriend, no husband, nothing, not because I do not want to, but because I am away from home because of Robert Mugabe’s policies.
Think of the many broken families -- mothers leaving home to come and work here or fathers doing the same because of the crisis and failing in the end to reunite with their families in their chosen countries. It is sad.”
Hope, she says, is all that Zimbabweans can cling to at the moment, especially those suffering in foreign lands to feed their families back home. Many cannot wait for a stable environment to prevail so they can finally get back to their beloved homeland.
After the rally, most of the Zimbabweans rush to catch trains back to their work shifts. They all live hectic non-stop lives with very little time left for the social interaction that builds the healthy, vibrant community they so need and wish they had. Life in the Diaspora is hard and more often than not, lonely.
About the Author
Sandra Nyaira is a Zimbabwean journalist currently based in the United Kingdom. A former Political Editor with the banned Daily News in Zimbabwe, in 2002 Sandra was one of the three winners of the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) Courage in Journalism Award for her work in Zimbabwe. Sandra holds an MA in International Journalism from the City University in London and has written for newspapers in several countries, including the Sunday Times, The Guardian, the British Journalism Review, The Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Africawoman and many others. She enjoys both reading and researching.