On election day, the 'new Zimbabwe' looks closer – but still stubbornly far away

Why We Wrote This

When the Monitor first met these families, Robert Mugabe had just resigned – the same day, in fact, that their daughters were born. Eight months later, amid elections, we wanted to know if the new Zimbabwe they dreamed of for their children had arrived.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Moreblessing Mutsakani holds her daughter Meryl, who was born near the capital, Harare, on the day that Robert Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe: Nov. 21, 2017. Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo called the Zimbabwean babies born that day the country’s “most precious, most untarnished promise.”

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Progress and Alfred Garakara’s daughter, Aleeya, was born Nov. 21, 2017. It’s a day they’ll always remember, of course, but so will all Zimbabweans: the day strongman Robert Mugabe finally resigned, after 37 years in power. “She is living in a new Zimbabwe, to me,” Alfred says. In Aleeya’s Zimbabwe, people gossip freely about their president in shops and on public minibuses. They don’t go to political rallies when they don’t feel like it (unlike before, when young men in ruling party T-shirts made certain they would be there). But today, as Zimbabweans vote in the first post-Mugabe election, many say that the new Zimbabwe they felt promised last year has been slow to come. Mr. Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, vowed to jump-start the country’s economy, which was leveled by years of sanctions and corruptions. But today, there is another currency shortage, with practically no cash to speak of. “It’s not enough to have freedom of expression on an empty belly,” Alfred says. “My daughter can’t take freedom of expression to school in her lunchbox.”

It’s strange now to think of that day, the one where Moreblessing Mutsakani’s life cleaved in half. The day that broke the world in two.

But that’s how it will always be: before Nov. 21, 2017, and after.

Before was Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Mr. Mugabe was Zimbabwe, and Zimbabwe was Mugabe. You just didn’t have one without the other. After a while, it had become almost impossible to imagine you ever could.

Until that day, when he was just gone, and the country’s strange new after could finally begin.

But for Ms. Mutsakani, that day represented another before, and another after. Before Nov. 21, 2017, there was also no Meryl, her baby girl. But since that day, she’s rarely apart from this giggling, roly-poly of a child, who grasps at everything, as if she’s hungry to know what every bit of the world feels like. There was life before Meryl – but somehow, her mother thinks when she holds her, that almost doesn’t feel possible.

The Monitor first met Mutsakani and her family in November last year, a week after Meryl was born, seemingly on the cusp of history.

“Welcome to all the Zimbabwean children born on this day,” Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo had written on Facebook, hours after Mugabe resigned. “You’re our most precious, most untarnished promise, may you never see what we've seen, may you know, finally, a Great Zimbabwe.”

Today, eight months later, their country is at the polls, electing the first politicians of the post-Mugabe era. But in a two room tin-roofed house at the end of a rutted dirt road in the Harare suburb of Epworth, Mutsakani and her husband, Joseph, say they are still waiting for Meryl’s new Zimbabwe to appear.

Ryan Lenora Brown/The Christian Science Monitor
Progress Garakara holds her daughter Aleeya, who was born the day that Robert Mugabe resigned as president.

They wait for it in many places, but none so obviously as the bank queue. Over the last two years, Zimbabwe has been gripped by a currency shortage so dire that there is no almost no cash to speak of here. Out-of-order ATMs dot the capital city like relics, a reminder of a long-gone time when machines could spit out your money at will. Now, instead, once or twice a month, Joseph braces himself against the dry pre-dawn winter chill to arrive at the bank by 4 a.m. so that he can withdraw $30 US in government-printed “bond notes” – the maximum many banks now allow.

When he arrives, he is often number 600 or 700 in the line. And when his turn at the teller comes 10 hours later, he’s often handed his allotted money in a bag of 10-cent coins. Sorry, the bank employees tell him if he balks at this, it’s all we have now.

This wasn’t supposed to be what Meryl’s Zimbabwe looked like, her father says. When Mugabe’s former deputy Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa – popularly called by his initials, “E.D.” – became president, he had promised to woo back foreign investors and create new jobs to jump-start an economy leveled by years of sanctions and corruption. “Zimbabwe is open for business,” he announced again and again. “A man of action,” promised the giant campaign billboards that sprung up as the July 30 elections approached.

So why, Joseph wondered, did it sometimes feel like things were still going backward?

Meanwhile, in another part of town, Progress and Alfred Garakara were taking stock too.

Their daughter Aleeya was born the same day as Meryl, in a tidy government maternity hospital in the neighborhood of Mbare, a dense jumble of houses, shacks, and rundown apartment blocks on the southern edge of the capital.

“She is living in a new Zimbabwe, to me,” Alfred says. In Aleeya’s Zimbabwe, he says, people gossip freely about their president in shops and on public mini-buses. They don’t go to political rallies when they don’t feel like it (unlike before, when young men in ruling party T-shirts came by their house to make certain they would be there).

“In the 2008 election, the violence got so bad that we wouldn’t open up the door at night, even to family,” Progress says. “This way we are talking critically of the president, we never ever would have done that now.”

“But it’s not enough to have freedom of expression on an empty belly,” Alfred adds. “My daughter can’t take freedom of expression to school in her lunch box.”

Around them, these past few months, has echoed a quintessentially patient Zimbabwean mantra. Let’s wait and see. Will the new government create new jobs? Let’s wait and see. Will Mr. Mnangagwa step down if he loses the election? Let’s wait and see.

But even as they were waiting, life carried on. Aleeya grew a round belly and gleeful laugh, and four razor-sharp front teeth, which she mostly used to eviscerate gummy bears. Progress started selling odds and ends – clothespins, sewing kits, reading glasses – on the floor of Harare’s tobacco auction warehouses. A new Pepsi factory opened nearby, and so many people stormed the gates trying to apply for jobs that police broke up the crowd with tear gas. The price of cooking oil and maize meal and formula went up, and then it went up again.

“At times, I wondered to myself, why did we think E.D. would change anything?” Progress says. “At the end of the day, he comes from the same team as Mugabe. It’s the same game.”

And so, as their cash dwindled, Progress took a hard look around the house to see what they could part with. Already, in the last two years, the family had sold their fridge and two sofas. Now, she realized with a sharp pang, her beloved wardrobe set would have to go too. So one day in early December, she and Alfred dragged it out onto the dusty road in front of their house.

Soon, someone came by with an offer. $200. And just like that, it was gone.

“I won’t mince my words – we did this thing to survive,” she says. “I have a responsibility to make sure my family is fed, however I can.”

Behind her, the state broadcaster blasted grainy footage of a presidential campaign rally, which had been on most of the day. The president, who was wearing a tailored yellow shirt with his own face on it, pushed his arms back and forth in a jerky dance.

Occasionally, Progress or Alfred glanced over at the set, but they weren’t really paying attention. Things might be changing, they thought, but politics still didn’t belong them.

“At the end, Mugabe was tired, he was ready to go,” Progress says, watching E.D.’s on-stage shuffle. “But these guys, you can see they are here to stay.”

Tatenda Kanengoni contributed reporting to this story.

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