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Editor’s Note: Earlier this year, in response to the global turn toward authoritarianism, we began collecting oral narratives from people who have lived under autocratic governments. As part of this project, Naseemah Mohamed, a Rhodes scholar and doctoral student at Oxford University, shared her memories of growing up under Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe. Following Mugabe’s surprise toppling yesterday by military coup after thirty-seven years in power, we present Naseemah’s story—recorded before news of the ouster—about what ordinary life was like under his rule.
I was born in 1989, just nine years after Zimbabwe’s independence from Rhodesian rule. I come from a middle-class family: my mother was a bookkeeper, and my father a printer and car mechanic. When I think back to what it was like growing up under Mugabe’s dictatorship, four grouped experiences, come to mind.
Growing up in a dictatorship has made me wary of charismatic leaders who take power and begin to dissolve people’s lives.
The first is that, in the transition to a dictatorship—since Mugabe was democratically elected until the early 2000s, when he refused to step down—we (really) lost our financial freedom. Mugabe’s political ploy to redistribute white-owned land halted commercial farming, our foremost export, and partly resulted in the country's bankruptcy. The government then, to make up for lost foreign currency, printed money to pay off its debts, sending our economy into free fall. At the the height of the currency crisis, prices were doubling every seven and a half hours. I a have a one hundred trillion dollar note from that period. Ordinary Zimbabweans, my family included, (we) lost everything. (From the time we were born) When my siblings and I were born, by mother opened up a bank account for each of us and she'd deposit five to ten dollars every month. At the time the Zimbabwean dollar was on par with the British pound so this was a lot of money! Almost overnight, the money was worthless. My parents worked for over two decades. They lost their social security and their pensions. People who worked their whole lives lost everything they had saved up. If it wasn’t invested in real-estate, or converted to foreign currency and cached away in a vault somewhere, it was gone. Today, a decade later, a lot of people are still afraid of the banking system. In 2016, the government introduced a new currency that it pegged to be on par with the USD, but given people's mistrust of the government, the US dollar sells for a premium on the black market. People don’t keep money in the banks anymore, they hide it at home. A friend of mine has converted all of his savings to foreign currency and has literally taken a shovel and has buried the money under a tree in the bush, just in case the economy fails again.
I think the second way that living under a dictator really affected me and my family is that we have had to become much more censored. It is illegal to criticize the government. It is very well known that there are active CIOs, or central intelligence officers, among the population. People are generally afraid to talk about politics, or even their personal plans. When I Skype my father, he is very secretive about his travel plans and about the situation at home because he is worried about who might be listening in on our conversations. More recently, there was a message being forwarded among Zimbabweans on Whatsapp warning people not to share political posts because the government is able to intercept the messages. Of course, this is false given that Whatsapp has end-to-end encryption, but I think this really shows how afraid people are of the government's crackdown on political dissidents. It's easy for the state to make people "disappear."
I don’t know what the future holds for Zimbabwe.
The third way that it has affected the whole population is that, as a society, we no longer respect the rule of law. Our respect for the system has been transferred to figures of authority. It doesn’t matter, when I get stopped by a police office, whether I am on the right or the wrong side of the law. He’s going to shake me down for a few dollars, either way, to supplement his meager civil servant salary, and there is very little I can do about it. I remember my U.S. colleagues were in total shock the first time I made a flippant joke about disobeying the law. But in Zimbabwe, figures of authority matter, laws don’t. Laws can always be changed, they can be ignored, they can be bypassed. Legal dockets for court cases can easily be misplaced. Now figures of authority, can make your life very difficult. I know of quite a few people who have committed serious crimes but were able to get away with them because they knew who to pay in the court system. Corruption has trickled down from the government and has affected the society as a whole.
Ultimately, growing up in a dictatorship has made me much more skeptical about the strengths of systems of government, and has made me much more wary of charismatic leaders who take power and begin to dissolve people’s financial freedom, their freedom of expression and their ability to provide for their families. I don’t know what the future holds for Zimbabwe. I do hope that after Mugabe passes away, despite the difficult transition period, that we can move forward as a nation.
In the following note, Naseemah continues her reflections in light of the military takeover:
Having been asked to expand on my previous thoughts about what growing up under Mugabe's dictatorship was like, I would add a few more points. The first and somewhat positive aspect of a military dictatorship is that, owing to government control, there was almost no violent crime. While this might seem counterintuitive at first, it makes sense that a military dictator would heavily restrict firearm ownership. I would also add that despite the past two decades of turmoil, Zimbabwe is still one of the most peaceful and beautiful countries I have ever known. Our infrastructure, while outdated, is still good in comparison to that of many sub-Saharan African countries.
Despite the past two decades of turmoil, Zimbabwe is still one of the most peaceful and beautiful countries I have ever known.
That being said, I think that even if Mugabe steps down we still have a long way to go as a people. Our economic struggles have changed our society, right down to our family structures. Traditional extended family ties are frail; people can only afford to financially support their nuclear families, and transport has made it difficult to continue the large family gatherings I so fondly remember. Economically, one of the hurdles we will also have to overcome is re-inculcating a sense of work ethic in our youth. Zimbabwe has stayed afloat because of the remittances sent to family members by the almost quarter of the population that is now working outside of the country. The 85 percent plus unemployment rate has meant that youth now 18 and under cannot remember seeing their parents work a stable 8-5 job. They either expect to be sent money, or, in most cases, they make money by trading on the informal (black) market. This way of life has shaped their perceptions of how money can and should be made.
My greatest hope for the country is that, like my family, Zimbabweans in the diaspora are still excited about the prospect of returning home once the country is more stable. I do not think that it would an exaggeration to say that millions of well-educated professionals cannot wait to go back and help rebuild their home
Naseemah Mohamed is a Zimbabwean Harvard graduate and a Rhodes Scholar, currently pursuing a PhD at Oxford University in International Education Policy. Her research primarily focuses on education and conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2014 she served as a Fellowships tutor in Adams House at Harvard University, where she aided students applying for post-graduate fellowships, including the Rhodes, Marshall and Commonwealth scholarships. She also co-founded the Center for African Cultural Excellence and its flagship program, Writivism, which helps emerging African writers through a mentorship program with established writers, and hosts annual writing workshops for young writers across the continent.
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