Its approximately 14 years since I met this woman, a European of Bulgarian origin working at the Zimbabwe embassy in Vienna. She had visited the European University Centre for Peace Studies in Stadtschlaining, close to the Hungarian border, where I was studying. By virtue of me being a Zimbabwean, she immediately came to me after I had introduced myself to the audience. She had been to Zimbabwe a couple of times and had fallen in love with the country and its people. We became good friends, exchanging messages from time to time and talking about almost anything as she reminisced on her Zim experiences.
I would return to Zimbabwe after every 3 months over the 12 month course. When I returned to Austria in Feb 2007 we met and enjoyed some drinks. She then told me she was leaving the Zimbabwe embassy anytime she gets a job somewhere. Puzzled, I asked why. She said ‘there is no project at the embassy’. I asked her to expand her statement and she said ‘I feel like I’m being paid for sitting in that office, absolutely doing nothing, and it’s making me feel redundant’.
She went on to explain how the embassy works. Many times, she said, the ambassador is invited to important meetings which she never attends and she has no diary. She comes to work late and leaves early. She doesn’t take anything seriously and her attitude has percolated down to every Zimbabwean in the embassy. Embassy staff are rude to Zimbabwean citizens seeking help. Calls and emails from desperate citizens go unanswered. (Whilst in Austria I also wrote several emails to the embassy inquiring about renewing my passport and never got a reply whilst calls never went through and I guess staff took turns to call their relatives and friends, hence the line was always engaged).
She also said there is some nauseating arrogance among the embassy staff, a feeling that we are the best people in the world, we know it all. They are always in a defensive mode, she observed. That attitude, according to her, was preventing the country from moving forward as the ruling elites had a sense of having arrived at their intended destination and yet the nation was sinking. It was also at the heart of inequality, worsening poverty and general poor governance as there was no motivation to perform.
This was good feedback, though depressing. I awakened from my slumber and was shocked about our image as a people. I was sad the embassy was about to lose a hard working employee simply because there was no work ethic in the institution. She thought there were plenty of business and cultural exchange opportunities between the two countries that were not explored. I wish she was given a platform to give her assessment of Zimbabwe to the government of the day.
Fast forward to 2018. I was in Mombasa Kenya, attending to the Africa Policy Circle and had a conversation with an official from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation concerning the role of African diplomatic missions in Europe. He said in Berlin he knows several African diplomats who are on a ‘permanent holiday’ in Europe. Being in Europe is a dream come true to them and they never stop counting their lucky stars for the ambassadorial appointments. They are inaccessible to their citizens in those countries.
Its been 13 years since I returned home and I cant agree more with my Bulgarian friend that, even here at home, ‘there is no project’. We are not going anywhere! Maybe the only project we have in Zimbabwe is of politics and looting / corruption. We eat, breath, drink, sleep and walk politics. The country has been in a permanent election mode for 2 decades. We have been in a cataclysmic political harakiri since 2000. Elections gallop billions of dollars and during election time even inaccessible and forgotten remote villages become accessible by helicopter to secure that much needed legitimacy to rule. Here is a poor country that spend billions of dollars on elections every five years and yet it can’t afford paracetamol for its citizens. Hundreds of Covid 19 mitigation funds were looted and yet health frontline workers have no PPE to use in their highly risky work.
Our hospitals have become death traps. Most rural areas in Zimbabwe are now inaccessible because roads have been washed away by rains. There is a very meagre investment in road infrastructure whilst not a single kilometer of railway was constructed for 40 years. NRZ is gasping for air, it can’t breathe. Our national career, Air Zimbabwe has died due to maladministration. We have excellent agricultural soils, comparatively better climate and yet we are fed by other nations. We continue to use the same farming techniques used by our ancestors. On the economic front leaders genuinely believe the country is theirs to loot and plunder. No time to invest government earnings on the Zimbabwean people. Minerals are looted with the aid and involvement of those who must protect and promote the national interest. Local councils collect revenues but there is no service delivery. No project!
Whilst everything else is glaringly failing the men and women at the top of government major in self-adulation, political rhetoric and grand corruption. There is no aspiration for doing something big for the good of the country. No vision. No targets. We just live because we are not dead. I always wonder, do the leaders have eyes to see? Are they so deaf not to hear the horrific screams of desperate citizens who are only asking for basics.
Meanwhile tens of thousands of citizens are risking their lives daily, crossing the croc-infested Limpopo whilst precariously holding on to dear life on anything that can help them float to the other side just because ‘there is no project’ at home. I also wonder, how many skilled Zimbabweans have fled the country because ‘there is no project’ at home – they feel there is simply no room for them to make a contribution. But with correct decisions, the country has almost everything it needs to afford its citizens a decent living.
And yet without a coming together of minds undergirded by a spirit of patriotism, I don’t see any means by which this country can start moving forward. Is it not time we create room for genuine national dialogue about the Zimbabwe we want and ensure we have a national project of reconstruction and healing?
Farai Maguwu is the founding Director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), and an activist to mention but a few