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Michealene Cristini Risley Headshot

Is Zimbabwe Heading Toward Great Change or a Colossal Fall?

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I have been eaten with anxiety as Zimbabwe's national election loomed closer this March 29th. My mind is torn between the agonizing wait and the fear of the day's arrival. Some of us are terrified at the endless possibilities of violence and death that civil disobedience will bring. I fear the inevitable; I hope to be wrong. Yet, I am also roused by a still beating heart from the people who are caught in this drama; a people so dogged in their determination to survive such prolonged oppression. A people so determined to have a voice. Zimbabwe is a place one cannot help but love. It is a rich land of olive-colored rolling hills and exotic animals; a spirited populace that continues to be courageous and resilient. Zimbabweans inspire me. A group of individuals that collectively have survived more wreckage than our consumption addicted country could ever know.

It is a tiny spot on the planet infested with poverty, disease and corruption at the hands of an 84 year-old syphilitic man that has hoarded power beyond the expiration date. Even when the people of this country say NO to another term of Robert Mugabe, he refuses to allow a fair and free election.

President "Bob" is running for his 6th consecutive term in office. He controls the media, the army, the Central Intelligence and the police force. He oversees the bank system, the food supply and the distribution channels. There is nothing that this man has not tobacco stained with his endless greed and corruption. I have seen it with my own eyes. His reign of terror is so wide and so powerful, that it followed me into South Africa after my deportation from Zimbabwe.

Mugabe continues to stay in power through his maniacal use of fear -- thought erasing, palm sweating, heart thumping fear. As the election draws ever closer, bribery, battery and bruises are every Zimbabweans one meal-a-day. The prevalence of fear has caused many families to leave the country until after the election. Some have had their lives threatened, others have decided on self-imposed exile, and the rest have given up and permanently moved to neighboring countries.

Like the Grinch on Christmas Eve, Mugabe flings presents at the very people he has hurled into poverty; people with so many stories, so few heard. Money drops from the sky to erase the tears from land gone barren and shriveled up crops. The Grinch's laugh echoes through the night as his cronies hoard the cash.

I am confused by Mugabe's last ditch efforts. Did he have a flicker of fear as he thought, "Could I lose this election"? Did he not print out enough phony ballets? Why is he wasting money when the results of the election are pre-determined? Will his tweaking of the constitution to station police at the polling stations hurt him?

The starvation I witnessed last august was on the brink of catastrophic with empty stores and an ever decreasing food supply. Seven months later, dog food has become a staple food. Last week a butcher got caught selling human meat at his store, under the guise of pig meat. Apparently the butcher had been killing Albino men and women and selling their meat. After hearing this story over the phone, I truly found it hard to believe. I cannot begin to understand that level of desperation or the barbaric action, so I am mute. I feel a colossal empathy and sadness for this beautiful country and the people who are driven to their knees. And I wonder, in this election, if someone hands you a bag of maize, would you choose another meal of rage?

There are real heroes among the people still living in Zimbabwe. The current opposition candidates are at the top of that heroic list: Simba Makoni, Langton Towungana and Morgan Tsvangirai. These men have put their personal lives at risk to create a different country. They know very well the danger that they welcome by listing their names on the ballot, by shaking someone's hand and saying "Vote for me".

There are other everyday heroes that the world will never know; human beings that will never make it to the front pages of a major newspaper even though they will have lost their lives standing up for what matters: The mother with six children who fights to be heard over screams of outrage at a systematic eradication of femininity though rape and abuse. She remembers somewhere in the recesses of her mind, that women can still create change. Another hero is the father, who once witnessed the president as a savior and watched his steady decline into corruption. He refuses to continue to give such a man his vote. Or the idealist youth, excited about their future and volunteers to put a candidate's poster up on the streets. Their belief continues to be that change is possible even when they are beaten and thrown in prison. Their only sustenance is the tattered remains of the posters. These everyday champions risk arrest and physical abuse, and are often forced into submission, but hope still sputters.

I'm scared for our country too. We have many critical issue to deal with in the United States right now; Issues that need a good plan and solid execution to American's to feel we are back on track. We have limited resources, and we need to choose carefully where we focus our time and energy and money. We cannot afford to be the Global Problem Solver. Yet, if we are to continue to be a nation that shows global leadership, we must help less fortunate countries. Zimbabwe is one of those countries. Yet, the United States is clearly absent as this drama continues to unfold. I have to question our criteria in assisting other countries. Is our decision of assistance dependent on intersecting needs or are monetary gains are involved? Where are human rights issues in that evaluation process? Are human rights on American's list at all?

I can't stand the fact that the only countries in Zimbabwe to help create a fair and free election this weekend are Russia and China. Where are all the other African leaders? How can they hide as they bear the brunt of a mass exodus from Zimbabwe? Do they not understand how it taxes their own countries and creates more crime and poverty? Are their pockets lined so deeply that they cannot get up from their plush leather chairs to see the line of beggars on the sidewalk below?

I am done. The truth is, even writing doesn't comfort me now, or reduce my anxiety. I am mostly resigned to the outcome of Saturday's election and can't bear to read a newspaper this weekend.

I wish someone would accuse me of spreading enormous exaggerations about this rogue inhabited country. It might give me someone else o focus on; to yell and scream at during this agonizing wait. The problem with that scenario is that anyone calling me on gross exaggerations would be wrong. They would learn that my words only scratch the surface of the atrocities unfolding in Zimbabwe. The helplessness I feel is shallow compared to Zimbabweans who are trapped in a world not of their own making. American's absence in this unfolding tragedy is criminal.