Petina Gappah's Zimbabwe: Like being a permanently disappointed sports fan


Award-winning writer Petina Gappah says her relationship with Zimbabwe is one of disappointment, tinged with the occasional moments of hope.

The author, who also has a law degree from Cambridge University, explains her complicated feelings.

For the first years of my life I went to school in Rhodesia. My memory of living in the townships is that they were actually really happy places.

Just like the townships today—there's no electricity, the roads are bad, there's a lot of poverty—but you never got a sense that people were just sitting around feeling sorry for themselves.

But it was a life of deprivation in many ways. I was one of about seven black students to integrate into a formerly all-white school.

The first thing I remember when I moved to a school in the suburbs was, 'My gosh, all these books!' The classroom and school had a library; I'd never seen so many books in my life!

It was something we didn't have in the township. But what we had, and what kids in the townships still have, is that sense that if you don't have books or toys, you make your own.

You might see pictures of little African kids playing with footballs made out of plastic bags. That's how we played soccer.

I look back at that life—even though it was a life in deprived Rhodesia—and I see it as being a happy childhood.

Zimbabwean independence, 1980

I was eight when independence happened. I remember my mum and dad getting dressed up to go to the independence concert to go listen to Bob Marley.

Independence was such a wonderful time; we had so many expectations of the kind of country we would become.

The vision of the government then was a wonderful vision. You look back 36 years later, and all those promises have been betrayed.

Life under Mugabe

I guess you could say I'm lucky, because I've known a Zimbabwe that didn't have Robert Mugabe leading it.

One of the saddest things about Zimbabwe is there are so many hidden casualties of the Mugabe government's misrule. They're not just casualties that you immediately see. They're casualties in the sense that their lives have been affected forever.

There are young kids, especially girls, who have never been able to go to school because their parents can't afford it.

There are many ways in which Zimbabwe has collapsed—not just economically.

Returning to Zimbabwe

I returned to Zimbabwe at the time of the unity government in 2011. For the first time, we had a government that was not purely a Mugabe government. Things changed so amazingly.

I was involved with the rebuilding of the Harare City Library. It was amazing to see how much we could get done in two short years.

We managed to completely refurbish this library that had been neglected for years. There was this sense of purpose and achievement.

It was such a hopeful and optimistic time for a lot of Zimbabweans.

We ditched our hyper-inflationary dollar, we adopted the US dollar and things seemed to be moving in a positive direction. Then Mugabe won the next election and everything is back to what it was.

It's like being a sports fanatic, watching your favourite team go through dips and lows; that's what being a Zimbabwean is like. It's a permanent state of being a disappointed sports fan.

Coming back now, it's like the colours have faded a bit. It feels like a familiar place, but you can never really go home.

Dimly lit hope

People have become incredibly religious to a degree they were not when I was growing up.

Pentecostal Christianity has become the strongest church in Zimbabwe. That's something that has surprised me.

Zimbabwe has had a vertiginously collapsing economy for years now, and so when people cannot look to their government to find some sort of hope, and they have no employment because unemployment is at 80 per cent, they look to the next life.

You turn for comfort to the possibility that you could have a better life than the one you do at the present.

So it really isn't surprising, when you look at it, that there has been this huge growth in Pentecostal Christianity.

It's the kind of Christianity that promises you prosperity. As long as you pray hard enough, you might escape your poverty and your terrible living conditions. It's kind of a gospel of hope.

Nothing lasts forever. Former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith said never in 1,000 years are black people going to be in charge of this country. That lasted 14 years.

I hope Zimbabwe's trajectory will be no different from any other African country.

It's the usual African story, that you have your growing pains as a democracy, and then down the line, you come to a new understanding of what democracy means.

That's been the story in Kenya, that's been the story in Nigeria.

I'm hoping it will be the story in Zimbabwe as well.


About Us

Denis Gwenzi
United Kingdom
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Twitter @ZimNewsNow

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