you're reading...
A Poet's Progress, Randy Roark

A Poet’s Progress: A Native Shona Tells His Country’s History Since Mugabe

The Author Gives Lisa a Massage

First, a Note about the Photos

There is a sanctuary in Zimbabwe where orphaned animals who would die in the wild are protected. Up until the age of 2.5 to 3, a lion is not a threat to humans. The lions are trained with wooden sticks, like the one you can see me holding in the photo above. I asked a guide how they decide that a lion is no longer safe around humans. “One day I’ll lift the stick and tell her to lie down. And she will look at me and think, ‘Maybe he should lie down.’ That’s the day we’ll put her in a different part of the sanctuary, away from humans.”

Lisa was the eldest of three siblings, along with Princess and Lord. I had taken an animal massage class many years ago for my cats, and I gave her a massage. When I got up to visit her siblings, she followed me and threw herself against my shins, and sat on my feet, demanding that I continue.

In this photo I am standing where you should not stand around a lioness—I am in her “red zone”—this is the area of her body where she is most sensitive and reactive. I am also not standing properly. If she were to move quickly, I would tumble down. If I fell backwards and landed on her hindquarters, as I probably would have, no one knows what would have happened next.

The second series of photos below is of a lioness that has left her two newborn cubs in search of food (James could tell the number of cubs by the number of nipples that were distended). We followed this lioness over a period of days as she ranged farther and farther afield. The farther away she traveled from her cubs, the more desperate she was. These photos were taken on day three. She is more than a mile away from her cubs and heading even farther away from them, and her ribs are showing. On the fourth day we found her under a bush, chewing on a wildebeest. James said, “A lioness will only take on a wildebeest when it is a matter of life or death, because that is a fight that she will probably not survive.”

Lord and Princess, Sleepy in the Afternoon Heat

A Native Shona Tells Us His Country’s History Since Mugabe

“The most significant fact in the life of most Zimbabweans is that in 1980, Rhodesia was 10-12% white, but Zimbabwe in 2010 is 1% white. Anyone thirty years old or older has witnessed a revolution, and today we live in a country that is very different from the one in which I was born.

The country is no longer under British rule, but for most Zimbabweans life has only gotten worse. Families who were poor but self-sufficient are now homeless and destitute, and about 30% of the population live in shanty towns outside the larger cities. Anyone between forty and fifty years old remembers the liberation war. Anyone younger than forty years old has only known life under Mugabe. Only those over fifty years old remember the pre-revolutionary world, and they describe it to their children and grandchildren as a Golden Age. No one starved. There was exploitation and brutality, but most Zimbabweans today would work again under those conditions in exchange for having a job, any job at all.

Rhodesia was a gross exporter of foodstuffs to countries like Angola and Somalia, but Zimbabwe is a gross importer of even their main crops, like maize (corn). The whites in Zimbabwe have mostly fled to farms in neighboring Botswana or been slaughtered for their farms.


It’s impossible for a Zimbabwean to leave the country. Everyone knows that if you let a Zimbabwean into your country, they are never going to leave. There is no reason to return to Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe used to send their best students overseas to become doctors and scientists, as Botswana and Zambia do today, countries that not long ago were much poorer and less modernized than Zimbabwe.

Even if a country would allow you to enter, the Zimbabwean government doesn’t want Zimbabweans leaving the country. The government owns all of the Zimbabwean TV stations and newspapers, and they restrict almost all contact with the outside world. CNN, BBC News, and Sky News have all been thrown out of the country.

Zimbabwe is primarily Shona. I am a Shona and everyone who works at this camp is Shona. The main language of Zimbabwe is Shona. Zimbabwe reports the highest literacy rate of any country in Africa, at 80 per cent. Even though these are government figures, it is probably very close to the truth, but for that you can credit the British. They may have considered us less than human, but they used formal education of the savages a means of maintaining their control of the country.

My Reflection in Lisa’s Eyes

In 1890, John Ross ventured from Britain into what is now Zimbabwe. Diamonds had been discovered in what is now South Africa, and there were stories of gold and diamonds in the lands north of the Zulus as well.

The British didn’t find diamonds or gold, so they took over the land for farming. But they didn’t understand the land, and when their crops failed, they passed a Land Act that prevented natives from owning land, who became low-paid seasonal workers on British farms. Or if they could afford it, natives would rent their family homestead from the British farmers whose names appeared on deeds issued by the newly formed territorial commission. Some natives were not farmers but made a living practicing trades instead of farming, so the colonial government passed a Labor Act that made it illegal for natives to practice any crafts. This meant that natives could only do untrained work, such as farming a white plantation owner’s fields. The British also passed laws against natives drinking alcohol, and then laws prohibiting natives from traveling on the British-created tarmac roads.

The Pads on Lisa’s Paws

Robert Mugabe led an uprising in 1975, and he quickly became David to Rhodesia’s Goliath. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, the rebels relied on tactics Mugabe had learned from watching wild dogs. The smaller, faster, hungrier dogs would eventually wear down the larger and stronger foe if the chase went on long enough. So his soldiers avoided direct confrontation with military targets and specialized in surprise attacks and quick retreats, which today would be described as acts of terrorism. They blew up bridges and power plants, they tore up train tracks, and in 1978 they used a surface-to-air missile to shoot down a commercial 707 aircraft filled with European tourists returning home for Christmas. And this unpaid, unfunded, countryless (based primarily in Mozambique) revolutionary militia took on an agent of the British Empire—supplied with the latest helicopters and military weaponry—and eventually won.

But by 1997, almost twenty years after the liberation of Zimbabwe, the mood had turned against Mugabe. There were elections coming up that Mugabe was not going to win. The country had stuck by him in difficult times. He had won their independence in combat, and defeated a country as powerful as Britain with an army of unpaid rebels. He had to be honored for that. But he’d stayed too long. He was a good general, but a bad president. Plus with every year the corruption became deeper and broader and more obvious and expensive to the average Zimbabwean. And Mugabe had some real opposition this election—Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, known as Morgan.

Mugabe knew he was going to lose the election, and his only hope was to stir up a nationalistic fever and distract the voters from their deepening poverty and the worsening corruption. So, for the first time since the war, he returned to the subject that had fueled the revolutionary struggle—the Land Reform Acts. On his weekly radio program, Mugabe suggested that the “white devils” had stolen their land and that was why the country was poor. He encouraged natives to take over the farms of any whites who were left in the country.

Princess and Lord on the Move

When the patriotic rabble-rousing seemed to be working a little in his favor but not enough, Mugabe escalated the message. He reminded his black listeners that they had fought to take back their country, but the whites still owned the best land. The unspoken message was that if you were a native you were well within your rights to take any land on which a white family currently lived because any whites in Zimbabwe were thieves squatting on native lands.

And it’s true that after nearly twenty years of black rule, 70% of the land belonged to 2-to-3% of the population. And, worse, this 2-to-3% were mostly white cellphone farmers who ran as many as twelve farms at a time. And most of these owners didn’t work the farms they owned—most of them had never farmed at all. They did no work at all, as far as the natives could tell. They lived off the labor of black Zimbabweans.

But it wasn’t until the election that it became obvious to everyone that their impatience for Mugabe to leave was shared by the majority in Zimbabwe. Even though the government controlled every news outlet and sent their goons to intimidate the voters at every polling place, Morgan did in fact collect more votes. When the election results were announced the next day on Zimbabwean TV, people filled the streets. Maybe things would change for the better. Maybe things would get back to the way they were before the War.

Princess and Lord, Afternoon Naptime

But although Mugabe lost the election, he wouldn’t relinquish his position or his power. He told the world, “I won this country with a gun, not a pen”—meaning he’d fought for the right to be the president of Zimbabwe at the risk of his own life, and if someone wanted it, they would have to take it the same way. When the world threatened to take action, Mugabe agreed to share power with Morgan. But shortly after Morgan was brought into the government, his car was hit head-on by another car and his wife was killed instantly and he was admitted in serious condition to a government hospital. When he left, he was a changed man, more willing to compromise with Mugabe than ever.

Since the election the situation has only gotten worse in Zimbabwe. Today if anyone voices any unhappiness about life in Zimbabwe or criticizes Mugabe’s rule, specially trained assassins in government uniforms will arrive and brutally execute the malcontent in a very public way.

Even before Mugabe’s refusal to step down after the election, diplomatic relations with Zimbabwe were shunned by almost every non-African country, as well as nearly the entire continent of Africa. After the election, Mugabe and Zimbabwe became more isolated than ever. This allowed China and Cuba—every garbage pile’s rats—to make inroads into the country’s economy, mostly for the graft. They were lenders of the last resort, and dictators around the world knew it.

Lord and Princess at Play

As the economy worsened, natives began taking over the white farmers’ fields. These groups were often orchestrated by members of the government, acting in the name of the squatters, but whose name alone would appear on the deed. The workers did not have the knowledge or equipment to farm the land on their own so most of the farmland went fallow. There were either no seeds to plant or no plows to plant them or no gasoline to run the machinery, so what little harvest there was rotted in the fields.

Some of the white farmers stayed. Many of them had nowhere left to go. Their farms were all they owned, and they usually owed most of them to the banks. Farming in Zimbabwe was not easy even in the best of times, and with no money coming into the country, inflation went crazy and prices rose by the hour. If you bought milk in the afternoon it was much more expensive than it had been in the morning, and much less than it would be the following morning. The inflation rate in 2008 eventually reached an annual rate of 27,000%–or hyper-inflation. Finally the banking system collapsed and Zimbabwean money became worthless and the entire economy collapsed. Today U.S. dollars and South African rand are the only currencies accepted in Zimbabwe.

With 80% of a population of 13 million out of work, today their unemployment rate may be the highest in the world, as well as the highest inflation rate in the non-war world. This means that foodstuffs are now out of reach of 80% of the population. Most of the country depends on their extended families or charity or corruption or crime in order to survive.


The Chinese arrived in Baobob Camp last year to build the bridge that we cross every afternoon as we leave camp to look for wild life. It’s hard to imagine a less professionally built bridge, especially one less than twelve months old. A lot of people ask what it is and I have to tell them that it’s a bridge. When we drive out of camp in the morning look at how it’s beginning to separate from the banks. Soon it will be unsafe to cross and it is the only means to get to the northern side of the park during rainy season. The Chinese construction company used Chinese laborers (not out-of-work but skilled Zimbabweans) and Chinese materials to build the bridge, and in return they earned mineral rights from the local officials. The government official who authorized the contract retired last winter and moved his family into a gated community in Harare.

Mugabe is 86 years old. If the opposition’s democratic movement is elected after his death—which seems likely—that would be bad news for the military and those currently in power and their hit squads, so the army is pushing Mugabe to choose a successor from the military while he is still alive. But Mugabe is afraid to name a successor because he believes that if he were to determine a successor, his end would arrive quickly. He is willing to destroy Zimbabwe if it means preserving his safety until his death. Let his family, the military and the senate fight over the spoils.

As a result of the country having no clear-cut front-runner for his successor, they have too many. The door seems wide open and some of the more powerful senators and generals see this as their best shot, and they are trying to create political parties that have broad enough appeal to win an open election. But quietly. You don’t want the president-for-life to get the idea that he is more valuable to you dead than alive.

A Hungry Lioness on the Hunt

The other African nations are afraid there will be a civil war if Mugabe refuses to leave power. They are also afraid there will be a civil war worse than Rwanda when Mugabe dies unless his successor is decided while he is still alive. Morgan has campaigned to be officially acknowledged as a transitional figure, being groomed to take over after Mugabe’s death. He has made it known that if he becomes Zimbabwe’s leader, he will not to seek to prosecute Mugabe or the government for any criminal or unconstitutional activity, nor the natives who have perhaps committed crimes in the dislocation of white farmers.

But the country is continuing to unravel. Already there are wars between the Dbeli and the Shona, and 30,000 people have been killed. And the few whites remaining have nowhere to go. They have dug in, like dogs that have been backed into a corner with nothing left to lose. But those staring into their windows have nothing and have never had anything and have no hope of ever having anything unless they take whatever they can before someone else does.

Being Stared at by a Hungry Lioness


I wake up in complete darkness. It’s a moonless night, several miles from the nearest paved road, and there’s little difference between having my eyes open or shut. Something just woke me up, something I can almost recall, but not quite. I lie still, every sense tingling. Then I hear it—suddenly, very loud … LARGE wings, over near the window. Flap … flap. Then silence. What was that? Is it inside or outside my window? Then again: Slap … slap. Whatever it is, it’s in my cabin, slightly above my head and a yard or so away from my bed. A huge bat? My flashlight is on my bedroom table, outside the netting. There’s also an electric lamp on the same table, but I don’t want to reach out of the netting until I know what it is. Slap … slap. It sounds like huge wings, slowly flapping. Sometimes they’re loud and quick, sometimes they’re languid and slow. Slap … slap. If it was interested in me, it would probably have made its move already. It’s probably more scared than I am. It’s probably trapped. Nothing that size with wings wants to be in a room this small without a clean exit. How can I help it out, without scaring it? Maybe I can wait it out until sunrise. But then it’s suddenly louder and closer, only a foot or two from my bed. Slap. Slap. I’m going to have to do something. I slide along the bed—keeping as low as possible—and reach through the mosquito netting and search for the lamp switch. With my hand outside the net, I get nervous when I hear the wings flap again. Has it seen me? Smelled me moving? Will it attack me if I make a move before I can get the light on? But if I could see it, that would be better. I don’t want to be attacked by something in the dark.

My fingers find the switch and the room fills with light, and I search in the direction of the flapping … but I can’t see anything. I wait. The flapping has stopped. Then there’s a movement behind the windowshade … is it behind the windowshade? Then the wooden slat at the bottom of the shade drags across the windowsill and slips off the edge, swinging out on the breeze. Flap. And when the wind fails, the shade falls back, sucked back across the windowsill, slapping into the screen. Flap.

A Hungry Lioness Expresses Displeasure at Our Presence

Week #16: Southern Africa #1: Music from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Madagascar, Cape Verde, and South Africa

Bread and Roses: Fatso

No information on Fatso other than that he is a native Zimbabwean.

Andinzwi: Oliver Mtukudzi

Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi is a Zimbabwean musician of the KoreKore tribe born on September 22, 1952. He began performing in 1977 in the Wagon Wheels, along with Thomas Mapfumo, and also appeared in the band Mahube. He sings in the Shona language, as well as Ndebele and English.

Vadzimu: Peace of Ebony

Chiwoniso Maraire of Peace of Ebony was born and raised in Olympia, Washington, where her father Dumisani Maraire taught traditional Shona music between 1972 and 1990. She was playing the mbira at the age of four (a percussion instrument that includes versions as small as the thumb piano and as large as the xylophone), which at the time could not be played by a woman. Her first recording (with her parents) appeared when she was nine. She recorded with the marimba bands Dumi, Minanz and Mhuri ya Maraire before her family returned to Zimbabwe when she was fifteen in 1990. In 1991 she met two Zimbabwean hip-hop artists—Herbert Schwamborn and Tony Chihota—and formed and recorded as Zimbabwe’s first hip-hop band in 1992. In 1994, Peace of Ebony won the Best New Group out of Southern Africa award in the Radio France International Discovery contest. They composed “Vadzimu” specifically for the competition, including Shona, English, and French. Later she joined Zimbabwe’s most successful band, Andy Brown and The Storm, and with them toured Europe and Africa. In 1998, she recorded her first solo album, “Ancient Voices,” and since 2001 has been a member of Women’s Voice, and all-female collective, with members from Norway, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, the U.S., Israel, and Algeria. She has recorded with Kris Kristoffersen and Sinead O’Connor. In 2006, she won second place in the World Music category of the International Songwriting Competition.

The Warm Heart of Africa: The Very Best

Esau Mwamwaya is a singer from Lilongwe, Malawi. While a teenager, he began playing drums in various bands, including Masaka Band and Evison Matafale. In 1999, he moved to London where he ran a second-hand furniture shop in Clapton, East London. There he sold a bicycle to the producer of the DJ band Radioclit, whose studio was on the same street as Esau’s shop. In 2008, the three formed The Very Best, and their first release included collaborations with M.I.A., Vampire Weekend, Architecture in Helsinki, Santigold, and the Ruby Suns. The Very Best won the 9th Annual Independent Music Awards: World Beat song for “The Warm Heart of Africa,” featuring Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig.

Eka Lahy: Regis Gizavo

Regis Gizavo is an accordionist from Madagascar. He also appears as a member of the band Muvrini, and has appeared on albums by Cesaria Evora, Lura, Louis Mhlanga, and David Mirandon, as well as the Madagascar All Stars.

Tudo Pa Po: Suzanna Lubrano

Suzanna Lubrano is a Zouk singer born on November 10, 1975 in Cape Verde, who moved to Rotterdam with her parents when she was four. She was awarded the Kora All African Music Award for Best Female Artist of Africa in 2003. She first appeared professionally as a singer with the Cape Verdean band Rabelados, and then went on to record three solo CDs, including Fofo, which included the international hit “Tudo Pa Po” (“Everything for You”). In 2010, she released her first DVD, Live at Off-Corso, featuring saxophonist Candy Dulfer.

Avelo: Tarika

Tarika (“Group” in Malagasy) is a band whose members—led by two sisters Hanitra and Noro—are from Madagascar, which began as Tarika Sammy in the 1980s. In 1993, they became Tarik and relocated to London. In 2001, “Time” magazine included Tarika in their list of “The Ten Best Bands on Planet Earth.”

Jive Soweto: Sipho Mabuse

Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse was born in Johannesburg on November 2, 1951. He formed the soul group the Beaters (which later changed their name to Harari) in the mid-70s. He has produced Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Ray Phiri, and Sibongile Khumalo. “Jive Soweto” was a hit in the late 1980s. His daughter is the singer Mpho Skeef.

Kazet: Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens

This supergroup formed in 1964 included the late singer Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde (1937-1999, known as the Lion of Soweto), the session band Mahotella Queens (composed of five female singers and dancers), and the instrumental band Makgona Tsohle Band (led by the late Marks Mankwane and West Nkosi). The Mahotella Queens were featured on three tracks on the Art of Noise album Below the Waste. Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens disbanded in 1999, following the unrelated deaths of three of their members.

Limpopo: Tumi and the Volume

Tumi and the Volume are a collective from Johannesburg, South Africa, that combines jazz and hip-hop with political lyrics. It was created when the jazz band 340ml joined with poet and singer Tumi Molekane in 2002. They have opened for Blackalicious, The Roots, and Coldplay, and have performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

Written by Randy Roark

Newtopia staff writer RANDY ROARK worked with Allen Ginsberg for the last 17 years of his life, first as an apprentice, then as his teaching assistant, and finally transcribing and editing 28,000 pages of Ginsberg’s poetry lectures, currently available on-line through the Ginsberg trust. Following Ginsberg’s death, he worked with artist Stan Brakhage, producing art events featuring his films until his death. Since 1998 he has worked with Sounds True as a producer, where he has edited artists such as Alex Grey, writers including William Burroughs and Robert Anton Wilson, and a wide variety of spiritual teachers, including Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Jack Kornfield, Pema Chodron, and Lakota Elder Joseph Marshall.


No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: