Hope springs anew with Zimbabwean newborns

Many citizens of Zimbabwe are hoping that President Mugabe's fall from power heralds a new beginning for their country. None more so than the parents of babies born the day Mr. Mugabe resigned.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Joseph and Moreblessing Mutsakani cradle their daughter Meryl, who was born Nov. 21, the day Robert Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe after 37 years in power. 'She came a week early,' her mother says. 'Like there was something she didn’t want to miss.'

Progress Garakara felt a jolt of pain run through her, and she knew.

It was time.

In her modest home on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital, she waddled across the bedroom to where she kept the small bag she’d packed weeks before.

Then she called to a tenant who lived in the next room. “The baby is coming,” she told her. As dawn rose over the city in a smear of wood-smoke, dust, and car exhaust, the two women, along with Progress’ husband, Alfred, set off on foot for the Edith Opperman maternity hospital, a mile away.   

Fifteen miles to the South, in the scrappy dormitory town of Chitungwiza, Moreblessing Mutsakani had already arrived at the labor ward of the town’s hospital.

On a long narrow bed in a long narrow room, she lay still, watching the nurses shuffle past in their immaculately clean white uniforms, their conversation floating over her in a gauzy haze. Parliament…special session…impeachment. Then the nurses’ words slipped out of reach: another contraction had seized her. Moreblessing breathed sharply and quickly and waited for it to pass.

In Mbare, Alfred left his wife at the hospital gate and returned home to wait.

Across town in the suburb of Epworth, Moreblessing’s husband, Joseph, waited too.

In the maternity wards at Chitungwiza and Edith Opperman, the nurses and midwives were waiting as well, though for more than babies. That afternoon, Zimbabwe’s parliament was scheduled to begin a process that only days earlier would have seemed as unlikely as an alien landing.

Parliament was going to impeach Robert Mugabe, the ancient autocrat who had ruled the country for longer than most of the hospital staff had been alive.

At Edith Opperman, a small, crackly radio blared hourly news briefings. “Just don’t name her Grace – she’ll come out spoiled!” the nurses joked with their patients. Grace Mugabe, the president’s high-spending wife, was one of the most unpopular – and powerful – figures in the country. A week earlier such a joke would have been unthinkable.

Around 8 a.m. that morning, Nov. 21, 2017, Moreblessing gave birth to Meryl Mutsakani, tiny and wailing and perfect. “She came a week early,” her mother says. “Like there was something she didn’t want to miss.”

Three hours later, Aleeya Nokutenda Garakara was born at Edith Opperman.

And then, at 5:41 p.m. on the evening of the two baby girls’ first day of life, the news came from parliament. It spread across Chitungwiza in a flurry of text messages and buzzing cell phones. Outside Edith Opperman, there were whoops of joy and jubilant car horns.

After 37 years, seven months, and three days as the leader of Zimbabwe, Robert Gabriel Mugabe had resigned.

A prayer for the future

“Welcome to all the Zimbabwean children born on this day,” wrote the Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo on her Facebook page that evening. “You’re our most precious, most untarnished promise, may you never see what we've seen, may you know, finally, a Great Zimbabwe.”

May you never see what we’ve seen.

For the Mutsakanis, this was their prayer too.

Meryl, may you never watch your mother die of a minor infection when the local public hospital ran out of a simple medicine to treat it, as your father did. (“Ever since then, I hated my country,” Joseph says.)  

May you never have to give up a dream of becoming a secretary, like your mother did (“Those days that was the best job,” Moreblessing says, “a good white collar job,”) because there just isn’t the money for you to study for that long.

May you go to the kind of school your parents went to – the kind you get when your new country’s leader and his wife are both revolutionaries and former school teachers – not the kind your five older siblings go to now, tattered and expensive and neglected, the kind you get when your revolutionary president has outlived the revolution and refuses to go away.

 May you know, finally, a Great Zimbabwe.

A corner turned?

If he could give his daughter Aleeya any life, Alfred says, it would be the one he knew in his youth, before Zimbabwe’s collapse into economic ruin.

 “We took our tea with liver and sausage and bologna,” he remembers. The family lived in a three-bedroom house in Mbare – the same house he and Progress brought Aleeya home to last week. And on paydays his father, a mechanic for John Deere, took them into town and let them pick out a new piece of clothing.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Alfred's and Progress Garakara's daughter Aleeya Nokutenda Garakara (held by her grandmother), was born on Nov. 21, the day Robert Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe after 37 years in power. "Nokutenda" means faith in the local Shona language. “Her name is for faith in a new beginning,” Progress says.

When Alfred was eight, in April 1980, the country’s grinding guerilla war came to an end at last, and Robert Mugabe, a leader of the liberation struggle, became the country’s first prime minister.

“We were very optimistic,” Alfred says. And it stayed that way for years. But then “things started changing bit by bit, slowly, so that people couldn’t see the direction things were going until it had already happened.”

“It” was ethnic cleansing, a brutal military campaign by Mugabe’s forces against Zimbabwe’s minority Ndebele ethnic group in the mid-1980s said to have killed as many as 20,000 people. “It” was his program of “fast-track land reform” in the early 2000s, in which government supporters violently forced thousands of white farmers off their land without compensation, sending the country’s economy spiraling. “It” was hyperinflation, which hit 79.6 billion percent in late 2008.

As all these things changed, so did the shape of what Alfred felt he could hope for – for himself and his family.

He became a security guard. Progress worked as a trader – buying cheap Chinese clothes across the border in South Africa and selling them in Zimbabwe. But Alfred eventually lost his job, and they ran out of money to keep her business going. By the time Progress gave birth to their first daughter, Aisha, in 2006, the couple couldn’t afford the $25 the hospital charged for delivery. They still haven’t managed to pay that bill.

A decade later, when Progress found out she was pregnant again, the couple fretted. Their only income now came from a small hair salon they ran from a shack outside their house. And even the little money they had was hard to get at.

By then, Zimbabwe had all but run out of hard currency. Alfred would queue for hours at the bank to take out $30 – the maximum allowed. Sometimes they gave it to him in 10 cent coins. Sometimes by the time he got to the front of the line there wasn’t any money left in the bank at all.

“Things were really tough for us,” Alfred says.

Then, a week before Progress gave birth, the couple were home when they heard a bizarre news report. Tanks were idling on the outskirts of the capital.

The next morning, Alfred switched on ZBC – the state broadcaster – to find not a news bulletin, but a tape loop of liberation songs.

He woke his sleeping wife. “Something is happening,” he said. “I think Mugabe is going.”

“If my time was further away, I would have been out in the streets right then,” Progress says.

Instead, she and Alfred followed events from their living room, glued to the TV, as Mr. Mugabe’s rule crumbled over the next few days. And then they stopped watching the news. They had something – or rather, someone – else more important to attend to.

The day after they brought their daughter home, as Zimbabweans flooded the streets in a kind of spontaneous, country-wide block party, the couple chose her a name.

They would call her Aleeya. And as a middle name, they picked Nokutenda – the Shona word for “faith.”

It wasn’t as though they were naïve, Progress says. They knew the new president would be a member of Mugabe’s old guard. They knew that nothing would change overnight. Still, they wanted to choose a name that, each time they spoke it, would be a kind of prayer for Zimbabwe’s future.  

“Her name is for faith in a new beginning,” Progress says. “It’s total faith that this is our beginning.”

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