ZIMBABWE 25 YEARS LATER 
21 MARCH 2018
“Ihhhhh, Mr. Bijoorn!” the tiny lady exclaimed, and standing on her toes, she threw her arms around me and gave me a hug worthy of a bear. The two other women sitting in front of the newly painted building followed, and amid laughter and clapping of hands, one of the women asked me: “Mr. Bijoorn, how is Hanne?” A natural question, considering that Hanne (a development worker posted by Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke) had been part of their lives on a daily basis 25 years ago. I had just been the boss from Harare, passing by once in a while for a project visit or an occasion of special importance.
Such an occasion had taken place in February 1995, when the 10 year anniversary of the founding of the ZUWA Weaving Cooperative in Nyanga had been celebrated, in the building where I am now meeting with Rose (on the left – 62 years old), Cecilia (in the middle – 57 years old) and Sheila (on the right – 58 years old). Rose was the one who gave me a hug to start with, and she was the one who gave me an update on the state of affairs of the weaving cooperative today, 23 yeaot herears after we first met.
“We were 20 members back in 1995. Since then some have died, and some have left for different reasons. All of us meet here at the building that we own every Monday. As you can see, we rent many of the rooms in the buildings to other companies and the Council, and this gives a steady monthly income. The rest of the week we come in groups every other day. As you can see, we are not doing any weaving, because there are no customers. So we come to look after our bilding, and on the days we are home, we take care of our garden and produce oions, tomatoes and maize to eat and to sell. Life is difficult in Zimbabwe.”
I remember the women working the large Danish wooden looms, producing high quality carpets with wool from local sheep, in beautiful whitish and brownish colours and simple but elegant patters. Some would be sold to tourists visiting Nyanga; some would be bought by the many Danes we introduced to this craft; and there was also some export. Today, there are few tourists coming to Zimbabwe in general, and local people cannot afford to buy the products. Those Zimbabweans who can actually afford it, will probably not consider bying this particular. They would rather buy something imported.
At the anniversary in 1993, we had managed to bring Minister Didymus Mutasa from the ruling ZANU PF party along as the guest of honour. I have no memory of what he said in his speech on the occasion, nor do I remember what I said. But I am sure that both of us hightlighted the strength and determination of the 20 women, and I believe we would have emphasized the idea of the ‘cooperative’ as a way of bringing both solidarity, jobs and improved livelihoods to the people. The cooperative idea was very much part of the ideology of the new nation that had been formed in 1980, and the cooperative idea was also very much part of the history of Danish development.
How does this all of this compare with the reality 23 years later? Well, only one third of the cooperative members are left. When the seven women of ZUWA die or retire, there will most likely not be anything left of the cooperative! Were we wrong, ignorant or misinformed, when back in the 90s, we decided to help this group of women? Should we have been able to predict the actions and decisions of selfish politicians, who ran the economy of Zimbabwe into the ground and made it almost impossible for an organisation like ZUWA to survive? I don’t know, but I am certainly thinking about all of these legitimate and necessary questions and scenarios. Hopefully I will have some sensible answers in the book I am planning to publish in the summer of 2019.
Leaving the three women, Rose looked at me, as if she could see the thoughts running through my head: “Tell Hanne that we are still here. Without the project and the building that we own, we would not have been able to send our children to school. Together, the three of us have 13 children, and they all got an education. Unfortunately, Zimbabwe has not been able to offer all of them a job.”
20 MARCH 2018
Today we left the capital Harare, moving 275 kilometers towards the Eastern Highlands, where majestic mountains form the border towards Mozambique. In the early 90s, we visited this beautiful part of the country several times, on vacation with family and friends visiting, and for project visits to partners and development workers, as well as training seminars and annual meetings.
Midway on the four hour tour, we would stop at the ‘Halfway House’ in Headlands, to stretch our legs, buy soft drinks and tea and coffee, and rest in the shadow of the enormous tree, which fills almost the entire area of the courtyard. The tree is as impressive as ever, seemingly untouched by the tear and wear of the weather and the never ending social and economic crises of the country – a situation largely created through the mismanagement led by politicians more interested in taking care of their own bank accounts, rather than making an honest effort to provide jobs and security for the people.
But almost everything else at this place tells this sad story. The shop used to be full of local produce, vegetables as well as cheese and meat; today all you can buy is a few varieties of water and soft drinks, a few types of biscuits, and ‘Bounty’ chocolate. The huge selection of trees and flowers for the garden has disappeared. The thatched roofing shows signs of wearing down, and in the corners of the once beautiful colonial type buildings, you see stones falling to the ground. Surprisingly, in the midst of the decay, the small restaurant serving coffee, toasted sandwiches and chips continues to operate, with the two women making up the staff going at it as if nothing has changed – they made us cups of great coffee and served us with a smile.
There was one other couple in the courtyard, and it turned out, believe it or not, to be a Danish couple. Like Anne said to me: “Fortunately we did not say anything that could not be quoted!” We thought we could easily boast of a history with Zimbabwe much longer than they could. No! The lady told us that they had come to live i Zimbabwe in 1980 and had lived there ever since. They worked for ‘Humana. People to People’, which is the name for what in Denmark we used to know as the Tvind Organisation. HPP has a huge international headquarter in Shamva outside Harare. Which reminds me that when one day the history of Danish activity and influence in Zimbabwe is written, it will be difficult not to award a significant position for HPP, whether we like it or not.
19 MARCH 2018
We did not recruit Clara to help us in the house, and not least with our two children, Thea and Lasse. She was there when we came to Harare, taking over the job as Coordinator for Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke after Vagn, his wife Dorthe and their three children. We arrived in June 1992 (on the same day that Denmark won the European Soccer Championship) with Thea being two and a half years old, and with Lasse inside Anne – he was born on 15 November 1992 at Avenues Clinic in Harare.
Since the first day he was brought to the house, Clara took care of Lasse when she got the chance, looking after him when Anne was not around, playing with him on the floor. You could argue that Lasse had two ‘mothers’. Whenever I have met Clara over the years, her first question has always been: “How is Lasse?” Of course, she would also ask about Thea, but Thea was old enough to manage her own life, playing in the garden with Luca, and in the kindergarten she went to.
Looking at the photos we had brought for her, Clara had a hard time reconciling her memory of Lasse as he grew up during his first years, and the bearded engineering student of 25 standing next to his girlfriend in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, and also next to Bodil, Anne’s mother of 92 years, who visited us in Harare back in 1993.
Listening to Clara, it is evident that the years with the three Danish families she worked for in the 80s and 90s were good years. Not that she was paid extravagantly or much more than other household staffers were in Harare at the time. Her room in the shed behind the house was definitely not luxurious in any way – we often discussed if it was good enough! But she felt appreciated for the work she did, she was treated with respect, and she once told me that she felt that we trusted her. Which is true. Her English was not particularly good, and she would normally speak to the children in Shona, but once she had understood what we wanted her to do, we knew it would be done. And we always felt safe with her taking care of the children.
Now Clara has retired. Not because she wanted to, but because she has realized that no family is ready to employ a housemaid at the age of 70. Her last family told her! And after having served in the house of other families her entire life, she is now taking care of her daughter Rebecca and granddaughter Shalom. She has settled in an area – what some would call a slum area and others maybe a ‘growth point’ – around 20 kilometers from the City of Harare. Before she retired, she was smart enough to join a cooperative – Clara may not be well educated, but she is not at all ignorant or stupid. This membership provided her with a piece of land to build a house, and over the last ten years or so, she has slowly been able to pay for bricks and labour to get the structure built.
This is the house you see Clara and Anne posing in front of. Right now, she has one room she is using as a living room – and also preparing the food when it cannot be done outdoors. Another room is used for bedroom for the three of them – but it still needs to have a proper window frame put in. A third room she rents out – which brings in some necessary cash. The two rooms for toilet and kitchen are still not ready – she needs additional funds to finalize this part. Like other families in this area, and in other similar urban areas, she uses every inch of land not covered by buildings for agriculture, in this case mainly maize.
But one day she might just build on it. Clara may be old and she may be poor, but she is in her own low-key way very proud of what she has achieved. Living with a family like ours, she knows very well that there is a world of difference between our lives, Lasse’s and Thea’s lives, and her own life and that of Rebecca and Shalom. But you will never hear her complain. You will never hear her get angry. Maybe that is one of the things in life I still fail to fully understand. Why not?
18 MARCH 2018
Nando’s Restaurant in the Avondale Shopping Centre, not far from where we used to live, was the first stop down memory lane: to meet with the two families who helped us in the house (Clara) and in the garden (Batsirai). Back then, in the early 90s, it meant that five people lived in the two staff or servant rooms behind the house – Batsirai (born 1950) and his wife Maria (born 1950) plus the two boys, Wilson (born 1980) and Luca (born 1989). So the parents are Bjørn’s age, Wilson was 12 when we arrived in 1992, and Luca was almost a year older than Thea at two. Clara was on her own, her husband died years back, and her daughter Rebecca stayed with family down in Gutu.
Today we needed a much larger table for our lunch. Maria and Batsirai were there, together with Wilson, who is now 38 years old, and his wife Susan (they were married in 2006). Together they have three charming children: Melissa (born 2007), Masimba (born 2011), and Maria (born 2015). Clara (who has just turned 70) had taken her granddaughter Shalom (born 2009) along. So we were a total of 11 people around the table.
However, we could have been 15 around the table. Unfortunately Luca could not be with us. He married last year and now also has a son called Douglas. They have moved away from Harare and settled outside Mount Darwin, where he has taken over the farm originally owned by Maria’s parents. On Clara’s side, her daughter Rebecca could not be excused from her duties for the family she is serving.
What we talked about? What families who meet anywhere in the world talk about: How is Anne’s mother doing? How is Bjørn’s daughter in New York doing? How is Anne’s brother Per and Bjørn’s sister Sølvi doing? We were surprised that they could remember the names of literally all the people who visited us over the three years, family as well as friends.
And NO, we did not venture into a debate about how Zimbabwe is doing after the dramatic changes in November 2017, resulting in the fall of President Mugabe and the rise to power of President Mnangagwa. Still, from the adults we could feel a sense of relief, a bit of optimism, and a hope that the future could finally be better than they thought a few months ago.
16 MARCH 2018
Today, together with my wife Anne, I embark upon a tour down memory lane in our beloved Zimbabwe. We plan to visit people and places all around the country. We will start in the capital Harare, where we lived in the area called Strathaven, not far from the city centre. Then we will drive to Nyanga, and continue to Chimanimani, Buhera, Masvingo, Gwanda, Bulawayo, Nkayi, Binga, Gokwe and Nembudzia – weather permitting, in particular the rainy part of the weather, which can make some of the roads difficult to navigate (we will not be driving a big 4-wheel drive). All of those places are villages and towns where we visited regularly 25 years ago – because this is where Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke (MS) had development workers posted. Of course we will also spend time with the families that helped us in and around the house back then. In the photo you see Anne (who no longer smokes) and Thea (who is now 27 years old) in the rural home of our gardener and his wife, together with Luca (today also 27), the best playmate of Thea. Unfortunately they had to give up the house they built themselves years ago, because of ‘problems’ with the title deed, so today their home is on the outskirts of Harare, just like Clara does.