Four Easy Pieces

Mutare is a charming town in the east of Zimbabwe, a six hours’ bus ride from my former home in a remote rural area. It was April 1992 and I was strolling along the High Street for the very last time, a long goodbye to the music venues, some (rather dodgy) hotels, the shops, department stores, restaurants and market stalls. And of course: numerous friends.

My contract with this nation’s Ministry of Education had come to an end. I had worked as an English teacher in two very different schools. One was a well-established Roman Catholic mission school, the other so fresh that on my first visit it still smelled of bricks and mortar, like Zimbabwe’s Independence itself. These were rollercoaster years. Triumph and optimism played ball with disappointment; there was comedy and tragedy in spades and there were, for a lot of us, the traces, never fully erased, left behind by a single road tragedy in August 1991.

Zimbabwe was a “donor darling”, in reception of huge amounts of aid, no questions asked, certainly not about the murderous military campaign president Mugabe’s army had just finished in the South and the West. With the aid came hordes of development workers and volunteers. People like me: adventurous, reasonably professional, not armed with sufficient knowledge of the country to understand what was really going on there…but crucially, with impeccable left-wing political credentials. In short, not particularly suited to deal with a country freshly out of its war for independence and inhabited by people with street cred well beyond their age.

Still, now the contract is over and I am making my last Mutare round. Inevitably, I meet other volunteers. Small talk.

‘So you’re leaving?’ followed by ‘And what’s next?’

Well, I quite like this work to put it mildly. So my reply runs like this: ‘Well, I’m going back home but I hope to be back soon, in some other posting, I’m sure something will come up. So yes, I’m looking forward to more development work.’

‘You can’t,’ one of my alleged colleagues states, matter-of-fact.

Slightly taken aback and definitely not taking the hint, I venture: ‘I can’t…why not?’

‘Because you’re white – and you’re male.’

We say our goodbyes, me gobsmacked, she in excellent spirits, on her way to her next assignment.

Fast forward 20 years and I am working in Dakar as an independent correspondent. My reflections on what had been bothering me about the movement that calls itself “progressive” had brought me back to that Zimbabwean street and I realise that this was the very first time I had come across a phenomenon that has strangled to near-death that part of the political spectrum that thinks itself “of the Left”. Part two, tomorrow.

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