Visiting Zimbabwe can be a heart-wrenching experience. It is a beautiful land of warm and soft-spoken people. But hovering over the landscape at all times is the specter of extreme poverty and political oppression. The poverty is merely tragic. But the oppression can make your blood boil. I met so many beautiful people who went quiet with fear on the subject of Robert Mugabe. Everyone is afraid that the stranger that are speaking to may be a government agent. Mugabe has brought a reign of terror to this nation and has disgraced the name of Zimbabwe by making it synonymous with mass murder, political intimidation, brutalization of opposition elements, and illegal land grabs. The country now has next to nothing. The stores are half empty, and last year they were completely empty. The ATMs often have no cash. Many of the gas stations have run out for the day. There are barely any tourists.
We stayed at a Safari lodge that was once a jewel of Africa. Queen Elizabeth stayed there in 1992 with Prince Phillip. There were four people there, including me and my daughter. I walked into the kitchen to see, being kosher, what we could eat. It was tragic to see the kitchen almost completely empty except for a few eggs and vegetables. The four men who lived there and ran the place were dependent on our tourism to feed their families. They smiled at me for leaving what passed for a generous tip. We laughed and joked together, until we began asking them about the Gukurahundi massacres, perpetrated by Mugabe's fifth brigade, that claimed about 20,000 lives in the early 1980s. It was near their tribal dwellings and they had witnessed it. But they went silent and barely spoke to me after that. Why would I be asking? Do I work for Mugabe?
In Harare you don't feel the oppression very blatantly. It is a beautiful city, albeit threadbare from so many years of political terror and complete government corruption. It is not always easy to find basic items such as milk. The farm reclamations, in which the government has brutalized and robbed white farmers who had made Zimbabwe into the bread basket of Africa, means that farm production is down significantly. Donor agencies estimate that more than 5 million Zimbabweans, who represent almost half the population of the country, currently rely on food handouts. Cell phone service works one day but the very next day your phone will read 'Network Busy' for the entire day.
There are many beautiful neighborhoods and enormous houses. A white population of approximately 4000, down from about 250,000, still remains. They seem to love Zimbabwe, consider it their home, and insist on staying. We experienced these sentiments first hand when we stayed with a white Christian family who do extensive service work with black orphanages.
The black population is welcoming, extremely polite and exhibit the nobility of spirit of people who have suffered so much but complain little. They are very hopeful about the new unity government which has brought Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara into power. The country is definitely more free as a result of the unity government. But farm confiscations continue and Mugabe's thugs continue to terrorize political dissidents. But there is definitely so much more light, truth, and openness in the country now and perhaps the miracle of Mugabe being slowly marginalized will take place. The problem is that Mugabe and his cronies are so concerned about human rights tribunals, after their three-decade reign of terror, that they have no choice but to hold on to power to avoid being prosecuted. That's why some are wondering whether a South Africa-style 'Truth and Reconciliation Commission' which would spare Mugabe prosecution, is the solution to him leaving. But make no mistake, for all the political progress Mugabe still runs the police and military and is the dominant power in Zimbabwe.
I don't do well with tyranny, have undisguised contempt for tyrants, and knowing that I was staying just a few miles from Mugabe's house spooked me throughout my stay in Harare. As you drive by his home you are told that you are not allowed to look for fear of attracting suspicion and being arrested. A few highly-educated locals told me there is a law that says that you cannot stare at his motorcade as it passes, and that his guards have been known to fire on those who do. They were not being at all facetious.
We met many people with horror stories, like Ben Freeth, who campaigns against farm confiscations and who had his skull cracked and beaten, bringing him within inches of his life. We met the son of a prominent journalist who publishes 'The Zimbabwean,' and who was forced into exile after they burned down his presses and attempted to kill him. Yet the fact that the newspaper, which is trucked in daily from South Africa and chronicles Mugabe's extensive crimes, is sold on the streets of Harare is a tremendously positive sign of a potentially new era of political openness.
Obviously, hearing all this horror made me love America that much more, a country where I can, should I so choose, go into any public square and denounce my government without any kind of fear. These promising signs show that Zimbabwe may be headed for that kind of openness, G-d willing. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Arthur Mutambara, the country's Deputy Prime Minister, at his office. He is a former Rhodes scholar from Oxford, and he and I knew each other from the time that I served as Rabbi there. A man of about 40, he is the next generation of Zimbabwean leadership, a bold man who is tremendously eloquent and highly educated, with a keen strategic vision for his country. You can read my interview with him in its entirety on my website.
Most moving all, of course, was the work we did with my dear friend Glen Megill and ROCK of Africa. The bags of corn seed we distributed in the poorest villages. The mosquito nets we gave out. The AIDS victims we hugged and prayed for. The large meals and feasts we provided for people who live in mud huts and rarely have a hearty meal. Most of all, I remember the children. The orphans in Harare with whom we colored pictures and to whom we distributed toys. The children in Mondy Village to whom we served hot meals. I remember them all, children with the most beautiful spirits imaginable. Well-behaved, quiet, innocent, and bereft of parents because of the continent-wide ravages of AIDS.
I can see why so many who could have left Zimbabwe continue to live there and love it. As Regina Jones, an American who has lived there four years doing relief work told me, "It is extremely moving to see a people who are on the one hand so utterly imprisoned continue to be so utterly free." I will remember you Zimbabwe and hope to have the honor of visiting you again real soon. G-d bless you and may He grant you the blessing that is every human being's birthright, freedom.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach was on a relief mission to Zambia and Zimbabwe with Rock of Africa, a Christian relief organization run by Glen Megill. For a comprehensive view of the visit, please go to www.shmuley.com.