ETHIOPIAN Airlines is the only major airline still regularly flying passengers into Zimbabwe. On Monday this week, I was minding my own business in these treacherous times when my cell phone suddenly beeped.
A message flashed across the screen: An Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner had entered Zimbabwean airspace via our north-eastern corridor with Mozambique. From that moment on, I patiently tracked flight ET-873 until the big bird touched down at Robert Mugabe International Airport in Harare after mid-day.
What followed was a fascinating adventure. Many of you may already know that yours truly is an avid member of the restless twitterati (@BrezhMalaba). My journalistic instincts went into overdrive. During a prolonged lockdown, it is not every day that a 300-seater Boeing 787-8 jetliner makes a grand entry into the azure sky above Harare.
My curiosity was piqued by two considerations: the passenger manifest showed that there were many travellers from the United Kingdom on that plane. The UK is one of the global epicentres of Covid-19 and you do not have to be a professor of clinical epidemiology to comprehend the implications of what was unfolding on this cloudless April afternoon.
Unless you have a retinue of body doubles like the feared dictator of the hermit kingdom, you cannot conceivably be in more than one place at the same time. I was far from the airport.
What to do? Well, there is a vast and endless resource known as the citizen journalist. Of course, we the trained professionals have allowed laypersons of every shape and size to use the title of “journalist” because it makes everyone feel important and therefore co-operative. But I digress.
I swiftly dispatched a tweet: “Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner flight ET-873 from Addis has touched down at Robert Mugabe International Airport in Harare. If there are any citizen journalists in the vicinity, kindly check for us whether passengers from Covid-affected countries are being sent to quarantine.”
That tweet was read by 20 067 people. Direct messages flooded my inbox. I now had an army of vigilant citizens closely monitoring the situation. This is not for the fainthearted. It is not easy to verify the glut of information you are bombarded with, but through the techniques of multi-sourcing and triangulation you can pretty much separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff.
What happened next was the stuff of dreams. A story was taking shape. It then transpired that the 65 passengers from the UK were being sent to quarantine. Soon enough, they were taken to the quarantine centre at Belvedere Teachers’ College.
By now, I was receiving a blow-by-blow “live feed” of the goings-on. When the travellers reached Belvedere College, all hell broke loose. They quickly discovered that there was no clean running water from the taps. What is worse, they were told to share bathrooms and fetch water from a communal tap outside in the courtyard. The returning Zimbabweans were not amused. They demanded to be treated with respect.
At that point, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information, Ndavaningi Mangwana, dispatched a tweet claiming that these travellers were rejecting Belvedere College and demanding to be housed in a hotel. I knew straight away he was peddling a falsehood.
While there was indeed a standoff, it was blatantly untrue that the returning residents were demanding luxuries. I posted tweets spelling out the concerns of the returning residents. These fellow citizens simply wanted to be treated humanely and in line with World Health Organisation recommendations, although the relentless wave of unmitigated bile directed at these fellow citizens by some members of the public was utterly disappointing. In the end, though, the power of guerrilla journalism — which is what citizen journalism really out to be — was brought to bear on a rickety spectacle of hollow propaganda.