Usually when I get an sms (text message) from a young journalist needing to see me, it's about career advice. But when I get one from a young journalist from Zimbabwe, I know it's because that young journalist needs bread—and not of the cash kind.
Robert Mugabe's government has clamped down on the independent media with draconian media laws and, after bombing its presses, shut down in 2003 the Daily News, the leading independent daily in Zimbabwe. Dozens of Zimbabwe journalists have fled the country, making them the world's largest group of journalists in exile.
Some stayed, like the one who recently sent me that cry for help. And they have been struggling to survive along with tens of thousands of other Zimbabweans who have seen their country go from the region's breadbasket to its basket case.
I first met this young journalist in 2005 outside of the courthouse where the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvengirai, was about to learn whether a charge of treason against him would be dismissed or if he would face it and the possibility of death.
This young man stood out in the crush of journalists waiting for the gates to open—not least because he was wearing a business suit, shirt and tie, unlike the rest of casually dressed scribes and camera operators in their traditional attire of blue jeans and T-shirts. And when the doors opened and the hordes charged forward hoping for a front-row seat, he was standing in front of me, but stood aside for me to pass.
"Aren't you coming?" I asked. "No," he responded, "No credentials." After the case was dismissed, I went looking for the well-dressed young man. I persuaded him to show me what he was seeing on a daily basis, rather than what journalists like myself, who were only given permission to enter the country on rare occasions, get to see.
Over the next few hours, what I saw gave the lie to the regime's claim that the seizure of white farms was meant to return the land to the black people to whom it historically belonged.
That day he showed me farms now owned by Mugabe's cronies and supporters; he showed me burnt-out shacks that had belonged to poor black farmers who were removed shortly thereafter to make way for more of the same – cronies and supporters. (Most of the white farmers have left the country and set up shop elsewhere—some as far as Nigeria. But the over 200,000 black farm laborers had no cushions and no options. They stayed and suffered.)
My young friend was in his late twenties and well on his way to being a fine reporter when the Mugabe hammer struck down his paper. He struggled for a while to document the weight of the sorrow of the average Zimbabwean; he risked his own freedom to sneak into Internet cafes in the middle of the night, when the omnipresent state security details might be asleep or otherwise occupied, to download stories onto the Internet. But while that got out some truth, it didn't put bread, let alone meat, on the table.
So when the young reporter sends me an sms saying that, as soon as he can get a seat on the bus from Harare to Johannesburg, he will come and see me, I wait with anxious anticipation. The buses are so crowded with desperate Zimbabweans coming to Johannesburg to shop or to stay; it takes him two days to get a seat.
Finally, he calls. He tells me has had to hurry his shopping because he will need to return as soon as possible. His two daughters—ages one and five—have not had milk for two weeks, and his wife, who is earning a little money by making clothes to sell, needs a part for her sewing machine.
Not long after that, I organize a ride for him to come to my house. He arrives with two large boxes filled with soap, washing powder, toilet paper, salt and other basics — all things that he says have disappeared from the shelves of Zimbabwe's shops. At the store where he shopped in South Africa, he couldn't find powdered milk, so he bought Cremora. I tell him that won't do for his babies and promise we will find powdered milk before he has to board the bus back.
After I fix him a sandwich and pour a glass of juice, we sit at my kitchen table and he tells me that things have gone from worst to near impossible. Inflation is at an official rate of more than 100,000 percent (compared with some 8 percent in South Africa in December) and he says a loaf of bread costs 2.5 million Zim dollars. (The rate is about 30,000 Zim dollars to the greenback, even more on the parallel market, but that's far too complicated to go into here. Not to mention the black market machinations).
The young journalist says he is living in an increasingly desperate community of some 250,000 "all very poor, most unemployed." Some get by "mostly on remittances from their children in the diaspora" he tells me, "and many get by "mostly on informal trading," travelling long distances to get tomatoes, bananas and similar items to sell.
"If you go to the shops," he tells me, "you don't get basics like salt, milk, and margarine and so on. So even shops where you could get some food items is beyond the reach of the majority." He says he and his family eat rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner, sometimes adding peanut butter if they can afford nuts to grind. When she can get flour, his wife bakes cakes. "She sells some and we eat some," he tells me. Although he cannot work as an independent journalist, the young man tells me he still keeps his hand in, by writing letters to the editor on such topics as the role of citizens in a democracy and how their rights are being trampled in Zimbabwe.
Some newspapers from South Africa are now circulating in Zimbabwe, including the Mail and Guardian, owned by Zimbabwean Trevor Ncube, who lives mostly in South Africa after his paper in Zimbabwe was closed and there is also the Zimbabwean, a new weekly produced and run out of the UK).
After we have talked for a while, I decide to ride with my young friend to the bus station. There, hours before departure time, Zimbabweans are lined up, their wares stuffed into boxes like my young friend's or huge plaid plastic bags being sold outside by other enterprising Zimbabweans. Most of the travelers are women bent over their containers, constantly arranging and re-arranging their goods that also include large cans of cooking oil, bags of flour and sugar, baking powder, a few blankets and hair grease.
As he has done for me in the past in Zimbabwe, the journalist approaches the travelers, first politely greeting them, and then explaining my peering eyes. He puts them mostly at ease, but I can see that they are a bit uncomfortable having a passing stranger look not only into their bags but into their lives. I don't stay long, but I do ask a few questions, like: how often they make this trip? They tell me at least once a month. I then work up to asking them how they feel about Mugabe and whether he will win yet another term and how what they think about the prospects of the latest (and many believe the most serious) challenger, Simba Makoni.
The 57-year-old Makoni was once Mugabe's finance minister. He was fired when he disagreed with Mugabe over economic policy. Makoni has acknowledged his own role in the economic debacle that sent the country into this unending downward spiral and remains in a top position in the party as a member of its politburo.
But he has been hailed as a lion, which is what his first name, Simba, means in Swahili, and for his strength, which is what the same name means in the Zimbabwean Shona language. But it is his courage in going against Mugabe and his powerful political machine that has drawn the most attention to Makoni.
With the implosion of the opposition MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), whose divided organization is fielding two candidates, Makoni's candidacy seems to affirm the position, long-held by mediator and South African President Thabo Mbeki, that the real challenge to Mugabe would come from within the ruling party.
A major problem for "the Lion" is the short span of time he has to win over voters. Mugabe in late January called the election for March 29th, which his foes called "an act of madness." But among Africa's politicos, Mugabe, who has ruled the country since independence in 1980, has few equals when it comes to political wiles. (When I asked him at his last campaign rally of the 2002 election if he would seek rapprochement with the U.S. government, which had called Zimbabwe "an outpost of tyranny," he told me: "If this were an outpost of tyranny, I would have cut your head off by now!)
And when I walk into that minefield of asking the women in the Joburg bus station what they think of the current political candidates, the only response I get is heads turning back to he bags, a sigh or two and nervous giggles. As I am leaving, the journalist tells me that the travelers on this bus all have passports and that they will have no trouble on their journey. But, he says, nearby there's another bus packed with people without credentials.
They may or may not be stopped along the way by South African immigration police. If they are and cannot produce documents, they may be sent to the overcrowded, disease-ridden holding center for undocumented illegals, where they might languish for months before being put on a train back to Zimbabwe.
But I took that 19-hour train ride once—from Pretoria to the Beit Bridge, the last stop at the edge of the South Africa-Zimbabwe border, and by the time the train pulled in, more than half of those being deported had jumped off during the night, making their way back to South Africa, and bread and salt.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a regular contributor to The Root.