December 29, 2010


I’m reading another of the books my friend gave me from her class (Blog 12/27/2010). This one’s called “An Elegy for Easterly” by Petina Grappah. It recently won the London Guardian’s First Book Award. I didn’t choose it because it had won an award; I chose it because it was written by a Zimbabwean woman who describes life under the current regime. They are sad stories about poverty, high inflation and despair. The author writes in a crisp style, almost as a dispassionate observer. Perhaps she does so for a reason. Perhaps she’s afraid to allow herself to feel, afraid the pain might paralyze her thoughts. Despite her corseted emotions, the suffering comes through and sharper because of the restraint.

I confess I share her grief as it comes seeping through the pages of her book.  Nearly three years of my life were spent in Zimbabwe. In the early 1960s, the country was called Southern Rhodesia after Cecil John Rhodes, an English businessman who founded the DeBeers diamond mine, among other things. At the time, British society ruled, much to the consternation of the Afrikaners, Dutch immigrants also known as Boers. They had fled South Africa after their defeat during the Boer war and now they were chafing again under the British who were liberalizing the social conventions of the country. When I was there, people of mixed races were allowed to mingle in public places. Still, the boot of the white man’s’ rule couldn’t be denied. The land belonged to them — the farms, the gold mines and the large businesses.

Some benefits pertained to all, however. The life expectancy of the average African man had risen to 45, almost doubling that of previous statistics. Tribal wars had ended and prosperity was trickling down to everyone. The country was full of hope.

Before I left Southern Rhodesia, I met a Shona man who had recently been released from hospital, having recovered from a serious illness. As we talked, I remarked how lucky he was that modern medicine had saved his life. In the past, the illness would have killed him. But instead of agreeing with me, he shook his head, thinking, I suppose, that I’d meant to point out how he had profited under British rule. “No, he said.  “If there is no freedom, nothing else matters.” 

I admit, I was surprised by his response but knew I was in no position to judge.  Still, I thought peace and food on the table shouldn’t be discounted so easily.  

I returned home and over the years I’ve watched with growing despair as a nation I loved imploded — its hope and promise squandered. Petina Grappah’s stories fill me with dread for Zimbabwe’s future. As an American, I believe in freedom. But peace and a shared prosperity are important too. When I think of all the promises not kept to the people of that beautiful country, I want to weep.

Sometimes, I think of that Shona man I met years ago. I wonder what he would say to me now.