Zimbabwean Elections: 'We watch, we listen, keep our mouths shut and wait'

Cathy Buckle, who was forced off her farm by President Mugabe, has been sending a series of weekly e-mails around the globe. As Zimbabwe votes today, she tells of the daily battle for survival in a country facing economic ruin
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Billion dollar birthday party

Billion dollar birthday party

Saturday 26 February 2005

Dear Family and Friends

All roads are leading to Marondera today because President Mugabe's 81st birthday party is being held in the town. An enormous white tent has been erected on the local football field and all week the town has been filling up with government dignitaries, entertainers, scores of police, security officials, youth brigade members and men in dark glasses and big hats.

The birthday celebrations are being broadcast live on television. Many thousands of people are in the tent: children in school uniform holding little flags, ministers and government dignitaries wearing red sashes and the usual large number of people who find it appropriate to wear clothes with President Mugabe's face printed on the fabric. Lines of teenage girls in youth brigade uniforms started the day off with displays of karate kicks and punches and were followed by speaker after speaker who came forward to praise the President and condemn anyone and everyone who is seen as an enemy. As a Marondera resident I couldn't help but smile as I watched all the VIPs and even local Marondera officials, drinking bottled water. I guess they must have heard that our water issmelly and foul tasting.

After four hours, the birthday cake emerged. Slices were cut and handed out to members of the family and then the television commentator made the most amazing statement. She said: "As you can see, Robert junior is actually eating the cake now while I am still hungry, but it looks very delicious." The words would undoubtedly have been echoed by many of the thousands of people in the tent.

According to the government media, donations to the value of Z$1bn (£87,000) were raised for the Marondera birthday party. I needed a dictionary to check how many zeros there are in a billion dollars and then my 12-year-old son to show me how to use the calculator in my computer as a normal calculator cannot accommodate all those zeros. We worked out that the money spent on the party could have bought 285,000 loaves of bread which would have been enough to give six slices of bread to every man, woman and child in Marondera. Oh well, I guess we'll just have to dream of delicious birthday cake.

Until next week, love Cathy

Everyone is sket

Saturday 5 March 2005

Dear Family and Friends,

"Everyone here is sket, coz last time they chaya'd us all." This little sentence said to me by a local shop worker, says it all for the atmosphere in Marondera just 26 days before parliamentary elections. Everyone in the town is scared because we are all waiting for the beatings, stonings and burnings that have characterised every single election here in the past five years. Our town is full to bursting with strangers, luxury cars, vehicles with no number plates and people with pockets full of money. The atmosphere in the town is extremely tense. Most days I have to go past the house which was petrol bombed in the last elections; the house that I watched burn for hours through the night but which the fire brigade said they could not come and attend to. Every week I see friends, both black and white, men and women, who have been beaten and tortured in the past five years, lost their homes, possessions and jobs and had to literally run for their lives.

Memories in Marondera are still very real, not only of burnings, beatings and even human branding carved into men's backs at the last election, but of a litany of abuse and decay that has become everyday life. Less than a year ago our schools were closed down and the headteachers arrested. As I write, our government hospitals and clinics do not even have phenobarb to control epilepsy, patients have to take their own food and outpatients queue outside in the open, sitting on the ground, for up to four hours before they are seen. In a two-kilometre stretch of road leading to my home only two street lights still work, none of the storm drains have been cleared for over a year and grass is growing in the middle of tarred roads. I don't know anyone in the town who doesn't boil their drinking water; more often than not it has a brown or green colour, almost always it has specks floating in it and always it smells bad. So, having to tolerate all these things every day, we are all smiling at the mad flurry of activity in the past few days, and we are all, equally, not being fooled.

This week, suddenly, our town is being cleaned up. Just 26 days before elections, local officials have appeared out of the woodwork. Suburban roads which have not had pot holes filled or edges repaired for the entire rainy season, are being graded. Across the road from the main Marondera hospital this week all the fruit and vegetable vendors' home-made shacks have been pulled down and replaced with treated timber structures. In 2000 I used to stop there and buy a banana for $4. Now, the bananas are $1,000 each and on the lamp-post there, next to the women who sell bananas, is an election poster... It is five years later, everything else has changed, but that face on the election poster is still the same. There are no opposition posters on trees or lamp-posts in Marondera yet. There are no people wearing opposition hats or T-shirts and the reason is because "here everyone is sket because last time we all got chaya'd."

Until next week, with love, Cathy.

Worried about food

Saturday 12 March 2005

Dear Family and Friends,

This week two little things happened which paint the most vivid picture of life in Zimbabwe at the moment. After having tolerated foul and filthy water in Marondera for at least two years, the local authorities switched off the supply altogether to clean the reservoirs. When we still didn't have water after 24 hours, people were getting desperate and there was quite a crowd filling up buckets from a seasonal stream that runs in the vlei [wetlands] near my house. A group of women who had just walked a kilometre to get drinking water from a friend's borehole and had then carried the heavy bottles all the way back, stopped to chat on the road. They asked me if I had any water and I said no but that I thought it would be back soon as the higher parts of town had water and it would take time for all the pipes to fill. "May I give you one of my bottles," one of the women graciously offered. THIS is the real Zimbabwe I thought, these few words gave me hope.

Also this week I had the chance to spend half an hour with a friend who has no access to e-mail or anything other than state propaganda. She is a single mum of three, can't afford newspapers, doesn't have her own phone or transport and survives on a government stipulated minimum wage of less than $3,000 a day, which isn't even enough to buy a single loaf of bread. My friend asked me if I thought we would have any chance at all of being able to vote and it didn't take me long to realise that she had no idea of how the coming election was going to work because there has been almost no voter education. Everyone knows that voting has been cut down to one day but thinks that instead of queuing for half a day, like we did last time, this time we'll queue all day and not get to the front in time.

My friend knew that we would be having see-through ballot boxes this time but didn't know why. She didn't understand that ballot boxes would not be moved to counting centres but that votes would be tallied where they were cast. My friend was not at all convinced that this was a good idea. She thought it might stop box stuffing but it would increase retribution afterwards. People are scared, rumours are rife and threats and innuendos are widespread. For the past three weeks there wasn't any sugar or maize meal on the shelves and now suddenly there is and that is what ordinary people are worried about - food. It's as simple as that. Everyone is borrowing money to buy food because the rumours are that as soon as the elections are over the prices will soar.

Of wolves and sheepskin coats

Saturday 19 March 2005

Dear Family and Friends

There are just 12 days left before parliamentary elections. The atmosphere is quiet but tense and everyone seems to be waiting for something to happen. I suppose the most accurate description of people's feelings this week is suspicious. Nothing is ever as it seems in Zimbabwe and we are all looking for wolves in sheep's clothing, keeping our mouths firmly shut and just watching. The talk in the suburbs is that there are at least four dozen young men openly walking around in public places at night wearing opposition T-shirts - and nothing is happening to them. This is something we just haven't seen in the past five years because wearing an MDC shirt has been almost guaranteed to cause a beating so now that it is happening openly, everyone thinks it's a trap. Maybe it is, who knows anymore!

We are all very suspicious of the sudden change in the ZBC radio programmes too. After five years of hateful racist rhetoric and unashamed attacks on the MDC, this week the announcers suddenly changed their tune. Blatantly coinciding with the jamming of independent broadcasts from Short Wave Radio Africa and the arrival of election observers, our radio news bulletins have suddenly started reporting on both Zanu-PF and MDC speeches. The incessant Zanu-PF propaganda suddenly changed into messages about the environment, music by people other than members of Zanu-PF and little talks on Zimbabwe's tourist destinations. No one is fooled though, like everything else we all know it's just another wolf in sheep's clothing, designed to make outsiders think that everything is OK but ignoring the fact that it's not the outsiders that do the voting, but the sheep.

A leopard doesn't change its spots

Saturday 26 March 2005

Dear Family and Friends,

As I write this letter on Easter Saturday morning, there are just five days left before our elections. The atmosphere in Marondera in this pre-election week has been peculiar to say the least. I suppose the words that most accurately describe the feeling are tension, suspicion, distrust and expectation. The town is absolutely full to bursting with people, many of whom are strangers. The electioneering and rhetoric has moved into top gear and everywhere you look there are posters, T-shirts, wrap-around skirts, head scarves and hats all advertising the ruling party. There are still a couple of dozen MDC posters in the town but mostly they are high up and out of reach. No one in the town can believe that there still haven't been any reports of violence and we are all going through the motions of our normal business but with eyes in the back of our heads just waiting for something to happen. Reading through some of the letters I wrote at the time of elections in 2000 and 2002, it is almost impossible to believe what we as a town and Zimbabwe as a country have lived through as the ruling Zanu-PF party has fought to stay in power.

My descriptions of the last two elections told of war veterans breaking down doors, burning huts and force-marching villagers to rallies and all-night re-education sessions. They told of arson, of petrol bombs being thrown through windows, of women being raped and men being beaten with electric cables, sticks and batons. The things that were done to the people of Zimbabwe in the last two elections were so widespread that there was hardly a suburb or even a street where there was not a victim, a relation or an eye witness. We saw the blood, broken bones, burns and bruises with our own eyes; we heard the screams, groans and cries with our own ears. From February 2000 to March 2005 we have waited for the perpetrators of those deeds to be apprehended, tried and convicted for their crimes but we have waited in vain. There has been no accountability and so now we watch, we listen, we keep our mouths shut and we wait. The old saying that a leopard does not change its spots is very much in our minds just a few days before elections.

It does not matter how polite Zanu-PF are in this election campaign, how bright and white their T-shirts are or how they crow incessantly on the radio that Zimbabwe is now a mature democracy, the fact of the matter is we are tired and absolutely fed up with living like this. When we vote on Thursday it will be for food, clean water, affordable schools for our children, hospitals which have drugs and leaders who will respect us and our universal rights of speech, movement and association. I have a picture in my head of a man on a horse trailing a yellow banner in the middle of this week's revolution in Kyrgyzstan. That image from the other side of the world in a country whose name I cannot even pronounce, gives me hope.

With love, Cathy

Cathy Buckle's books on the Zimbabwean crisis, "African Tears" and "Beyond Tears", are available in Europe and the UK from: orders@africabookcentre.com; www.africabookcentre.com and www.amazon.co.uk