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Colonial past no excuse for ruin

By Chido Makunike

IN the last three months I have been privileged to visit and experience several countries I had never been to before. It is a wonderful education.

na, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif”>Every time I have been in a new place I try to savour the experience as well as compare it to life in Zimbabwe.

A recurring thought throughout my travels is what a special place Zimbabwe is. Of course every place is special in its own way, and I do not make this statement about Zimbabwe at all in a jingoist way. I am also keenly aware of my homeland’s many problems and deficiencies.

I have marvelled at and enjoyed the efficiency and prosperity of some of the world’s most developed countries. I have just arrived in Senegal and look forward in the coming months to becoming acquainted with parts of Africa I have not experienced before.

Zimbabwe has (or had) a wonderful combination of modern world infrastructure and functionality that may have been very unfairly distributed, but that provided a strong base on which to build and expand for the majority of its people. Yet it did not have the coldness of many of the highly efficient developed countries I have visited. While enjoying these countries and respecting the systems they have been able to build for the benefit of their societies, there is not a single one that I would rather make my home than Zimbabwe. It made me even more keenly aware of the immorality and criminality of Zimbabwe’s sadly reduced status at the hands of its rulers.

In Zimbabwe, Mugabe and his cohorts encourage us to think of ourselves as permanent victims. Victims of seemingly everything and everybody, from the weather to the past, but especially of Europe and the West in general.

According to Mugabe, all our many and escalating problems can in some way be traced to colonialism and its aftermath. Not only that, but Mugabe effectively paints us as being utterly and helplessly at the mercy of that past.

We are expected to spend more time and energy in feeling sorry for ourselves over the past than on working to ensure a better future.

Whenever I could, I have tried to get a sense of the history of a place I am visiting by going to see museums or archeological sites. In this way facts that you may know from school or from reading history are presented to you much more graphically and indelibly.

On the south coast of Europe the history of conquests and wars over the millennia are obvious in just looking at the varied physical makeup of the population on the street or the beach. The stories of North African Moors raiding and for a time controlling what are now Spain and Portugal have more of a ring of truth when one looks at the features of the people in those countries, their cuisine, their whole way of life. I give this one example only because “the evidence” was so starkly clear to me.

But everywhere you go, there is hardly any people that do not have a “colonial history”. That history affects every aspect of life forever in one way or another, both negatively and positively. In some places that colonial history has receded far enough into the past that it is analysed neutrally, as something that happened but too far back in time for it to really arouse any strong emotions any longer. In other places one may find still lingering resentments, even if former conquerer and conquered are more alike than they are different, as in the case of Europe’s many tribal wars over the centuries.

I mention this in the context of Mugabe’s pitiful reliance on trying to stoke resentment over the past to try to explain and justify his anger at his failure to make present-day Zimbabwe work for its people and to leave a solid foundation of stability, hope and confidence for future generations of Zimbabweans.

The colonial experience and fighting to overcome it are not unique to Zimbabwe. Plunder, mistreatment, injustice and heroic fights against them are as old as the human experience on this planet. Look around all over the planet and you will see everywhere examples of people who went through horrendous ill-treatment but overcame it to not only become self-governing, but to build highly successful societies. There are nations that are political, post-colonial contemporaries of Zimbabwe’s that are surging forward inexorably even as Mugabe and his regime tirelessly work to pull Zimbabwe in the opposite direction.

All over the world people are generally cynical about politics and wary of politicians. This scepticism is healthy. But Zimbabwe’s politicians stand out for so astonishingly and completely denying responsibility for everything. They work harder at the denials than they do at dealing with realities. You can count on hearing more scapegoating, anger and recrimination from the mouth of Mugabe than you can expect to get cool analysis and a presentation of realistic problem-solving proposals.

The Mugabe regime may set the dominant pace of the tense, soul-destroying negative climate that plagues Zimbabwe, but it has now spread everywhere. I expected to be able to easily purchase a new cellphone prepaid line in developed Germany. But I was just as easily able to do the same in Zambia and in Senegal – new, legitimate SIM packs are available from tuckshop vendors with no hassles whatsoever, at prices that are reasonable even in local terms. But in comparatively more advanced Zimbabwe, our three cellphone networks have for years perpetuated the fiction that having a cellphone number is a complicated, expensive exercise “because we are upgrading our network.”

The government-like cynicism of Net One, Econet and Telecel are much more apparent to me now that I have been exposed to networks with sometimes less capacity but with a much better attitude to their whole reason for existence.

After many years of dealing with one bank in Harare, I had enough of a core of committed professionals in my particular branch I could count on for help of one kind or another when necessary. But at that bank as well as in most banks one has no choice but to deal with, the service is also often cynical, aloof, expensive and indifferent.

Imagine my shock at actually being greeted with a smile by a bank teller in Lusaka! Imagine my surprise at a senior bank official in Dakar who actually responds to your email!

The contrasts are not because of anything intrinsically different between us and the Senegalese or the Zambians.
Like we used to be some years ago, these are countries at peace with themselves. They have their problems but they are calmly working on them to the best of their abilities. There is no tension in the air. One does not automatically assume that a soldier or a police officer is an agent of oppression as in other countries, now unfortunately including the once great Zimbabwe.

The fight against how Mugabe and what he represents has reduced Zimbabwe to an object of international derision and pity is a noble and just one. The reflection forced on one by travel has reminded me that every nation has experienced its moments of decline and destruction at the hands of madmen at one time or another, whether they be foreigners or locals.

No matter how colossal and all-powerful they seemed at the height of their destructive powers, they were also constantly providing momentum to the forces that would eventually sweep them away. That is exactly what is happening in Zimbabwe today.

* Chido Makunike is a Zimbabwean based in Senegal.

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