As elections loom and the state tightens its grip on the media in Zimbabwe, Dudziro 'Chibairo' Nhengu takes a lesson from her 12-year-old son on the urgency of every vote.
"Independence came and gave my son free international television channels with the right hand, and with the left it slowly dispossessed him."
7 am. Talkcity cyber cafe, Joina City mall, Harare. A long, winding queue forms from the Jullius Nyerere entrance, past the Edgars shop, across Jason Moyo, stopping right at the corner of the main post office in Nelson Mandela street. It’s mostly young people and middle aged women. They await the opening of the MultiChoice shop, where one can subscribe to Digital Satellite Television (DSTV).
As soon as my cell phone regained connectivity after a five day cross-border trip, the first message I saw on the WhatsApp text message service was from my 12-year-old son.
“Mummy, when are you coming? You have to subscribe for DSTV.” When I saw my son, the anxiety written on his face was disturbing. No time for hugs and greetings, straight to the point!
“Mummy, how can you help me register to vote?”
“Son, people of your age do not vote in national elections.”
“I know mummy but isn’t there a way I can cast my vote? It will count.”
“How will your vote count?” I ask, wanting to laugh. When I take a second look at him, I realize the seriousness. He is almost in tears, and my motherly instincts quickly hold me accountable. I need time with him, to talk about our beloved country.
I extend a hand to hug his tiny body and slowly bring him closer to me. Vus is slim and handsome, and according to his WhatsApp status he is “The sicker version of Kobe Bryant,” the American basketball star.
“Why do you want your vote to count Vus?”
“Things must change mummy. We can’t get the cheaper channels on Wiztech, and I know you cannot afford DSTV. I want to watch TV.”
South Africa’s broadcasting signal distributor Sentech recently scrambled Wiztech decoder satellite channels in accordance with a court order. The South African channels are popular among Zimbabweans, who have used decoders like Wiztech to gain free access. The majority of Zimbabweans cannot afford to subscribe to the expensive DSTV, meaning they now have no choice but to resort to Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.
I feel sorry for the sicker version of Kobe Bryant, but I fight hard to hide my emotions.
“But what does this have to do with voting now?” I teasingly ask.
“We need to be connected to other countries mummy. We even get electricity and fuel from other countries. ZTV is all about a certain political party. I need good information. I want to shine in the quiz club mummy, and I can’t miss world sports and football. ZTV is bor….!!!!!!!!!!!!”
I stand looking at him, stupefied. I want to affirm what he is saying. I want to shout back, “And full of B.S… lies too!”
But I cannot do that. Not at this moment.
I want to scream and tell him DSTV is not all that we need, but my son has helped me see the light. The scrambling of the South African Broadcasting Corporation’s three TV channels ahead of elections will deprive the majority of voters of alternative sources of information. In a repressive and partisan state, the state-controlled media is the major foot soldier of patriarchy and militarism.
At the MultiChoice shop, I stand there stupefied, not knowing whether to join the queue or not. My son has boycotted dinner for three days now; he wants to watch alternative channels. And this morning, before I dropped him off for school, he touched me on a raw spot.
“Mummy, Tinashe’s dad has subscribed for DSTV. I told Tinashe my mum will too. I know you will mummy.”
I hear the words loud and clear, deliberately emphasized. This is enough for my feminist pride. The verdict is passed. I have been blackmailed and I find myself in the queue for DSTV. Dads are good but moms are better oh!
At my son’s age I never wished to vote. When I was 12, my country was slowly evolving out of colonialism, and I remember the queues as our parents, brothers, and sisters put pen to paper to overthrow the Smith regime. I was content with my parents voting—I trusted their vote. Our politics were common and shared. The white rulers had to go; we wanted our sovereignty back. I was tired of the bloody war, of seeing my elderly sisters giving birth to fatherless children every nine months back in the village. No one understood it as rape; they were war stories.
The babies were given names that marked them as children of war: Gift, Chipo, Talent, Hondo, Bazooka, Rusununguko, Nyikayedu.
We had been politicized enough. We were all hopeful, and shared a common vision. I was hopeful as a young girl to witness my family move from Njube township to occupy one of the aristocratic houses in Morningside. I was contented with my parents’ voting, and trusted their vote would bring change home. Were things better then than now? Obviously no, things were bad bad bad then as they are now.
I had so much hope in what Independence would bring, but did not realize that the freedom train would be too small to accommodate all of us, especially women—because “their places are with the kids in the kitchens and with the fowls in the fowl runs.” Independence came and gave my son free international television channels on Wiztech with the right hand, and with the left it slowly dispossessed him. Independence has allowed my son to transcend border barriers and identify with basketball stars like Kobe Bryant, but it has also snatched that privilege away from him overnight. As a result my son can’t trust the elders’ votes anymore, but fathoms a world where the young should be allowed to peacefully cast their vote and make ‘things change.’
I rarely discuss politics with my younger children at home because the politics of my country has for long bordered on betrayal and neglect of its populace, and as a result I have lost faith in current political leaders. Yet my son’s politics are very clear—he knows the truth from lies. No one can teach anyone consciousness.
When the women in Sembene Ousmane’s novel God's Bits of Wood took to the railway line and staged a demonstration that changed the politics of the whole country overnight, their husbands had not given them any lectures on capitalism and their material conditions; what they were suffering day-to-day determined their transformative politics.
Tahrir Square! No one taught people to revolt; their being determined their consciousness, and rightly so. When Zimbabwean women reach the lowest point but continue to remain silent, they are not silent and stupid; they are peacefully engaging in different modes of survival for their families. Their silences can be deafening in certain spaces.Yes, let the mind sing and let the pen dance Let the mind sing and the pen dance Black ink against white paper Let the mind sing and the pen dance Sing and dance of hopeful sons and of resilient mothers Of hopeful sons and of resilient mothers, resilient mothers, resilient mothers!
While I am waiting in line at the MultiChoice shop, my citizen journalist demons get hold of me and before I know it, I am interviewing the women there, pen and journal in hand.
The story is the same: “Our children cannot watch ZTV oh! We want alternative voices, we want soap operas, we want world sports, we are tired of jingles and lies. We want so many things that we cannot get, but alternative voices we will get oh! We will send our money to South Africa because we don't care, as long as we get alternative information!”
Zimbabwe’s women are using their silences and peaceful engagement to navigate a political system that can overnight turn violent against them; grandmother, mother, and daughter—three generations of women raped in a single minute, and on the same floor. Quietly, women are occupying the queue to get birth certificates for themselves and for their children; some are completing affidavits for the relatives, silently in the long and slow queues. These people were born here, but their documents were burnt during elections. Their parents were killed, and their records got lost when they were forcibly removed from the farms in which they grew up. This year they must vote, and the women will help them register.
When I asked Mbuya Diedricks (not her real name) why she looked so determined standing in the long line at a district office last week, she sadly and slowly formed words in her mouth, “We have learnt from our past mistakes my dear. We must definitely vote in numbers this year and put an end to this. Can you imagine an old woman my age getting raped by six young men at once? It’s hard to be a woman. I was pained, and I am still in pain. I wish we could all vote and put an end to all this.”