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'I once met a Zimbabwean…'

15 Nov 2011 at 11:45hrs | Views
Kenya's Maureen; Uganda's Rosebell and Delta Milayo Ndou at the Minneapolis Convention Center in a heated debate about the politics of hate (i.e tribal, ethnic) being a legacy of colonialism
Beyond the borders of Zimbabwe, no one cares what my name is, which clan I hail from, what tribe I belong to because the moment one sets foot on foreign soil you assume an identity greater than just being the daughter of so and so – you are quite simply a Zimbabwean.

So perhaps when I challenged some of the views about Zimbabwe that were expressed during the media tour that I took part in – I was in effect defending myself, defending my dignity and also affirming my worth as a global citizen.

I suspect that living in one of the most vilified nations in contemporary times has forced Zimbabweans to oscillate between two extremes – a fierce patriotism or a desperate desire to repudiate and disassociate themselves from all things Zimbabwean.

So when I attended the Washington Foreign Press Center (FPC) reporting tour on Blogging for Social and Political Change; I got accustomed to being referred to as 'Zimbabwe' because apparently my nationality was easier to remember than my name.

...telling it as I see it; as I've lived it and as I believe it - the "Zimbabwean Story"

I had to decide from the onset whether I would silently endure whatever remarks were made about Zimbabwe (which remarks would naturally reflect on me) or whether I would stand in defense of my country and consequently in defense of myself.

In being addressed in this manner, and in responding to that form address – my identity and that of my country became two inseparably identities and in besmirching one; the other got similarly besmirched.

Having spent the first days fielding questions about Zimbabwe; I later remarked to Ugandan blogger, Rosebell Kagumire, how annoying it was to constantly have to defend my country in the face of half-truths, gross misrepresentation of facts and the supercilious know-it-all attitudes displayed by some of the people I met.

Her reply to me was, "You do have to speak on behalf of your country. You have to tell your side of the story because everyone you meet will walk away with an impression of Zimbabwe that is based on their encounter with you. And in future conversations about Africa; they will prefix their statements by saying, 'I once met a Zimbabwean….'"

So although I had gone to the US in my capacity as a journalist/blogger , for the duration of my stay there; I assumed an ambassadorial role that I had not anticipated doing and this article is a narrative of my brief stint as the 'unofficial' blogging ambassador of Zimbabwe.

My stay in America presented me with numerous opportunities and platforms to correct a few misconceptions about Zimbabwe and it was gratifying to realize that my views found a receptive audience in the persons of senior, high-ranking US Government officials because the meetings had an exciting no-holds-barred atmosphere that allows for candid dialogue.

It was this atmosphere of candor that allowed me to quiz the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale on the great amount of blame that I felt America should take for the systematic demonizing and distortion of Zimbabwe and its image internationally that has prevailed in recent years.

My query had been prompted by the fact that she had informed us that, "US Diplomacy involves making efforts to reach out and strengthen relations between the US government, its citizens and people all over the globe. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton appreciate and understand the importance of engaging people and having conversations with them that will move us forward. They are both exemplary by going out and listening and learning and sharing ideas with people everywhere".

I had wondered whether either President Obama or Secretary Clinton having understood the "importance of engaging people and having conversations with them" had ever held such dialogues with President Mugabe prior to kicking off their administration's foreign policy by declaring that the US Government intended to extend sanctions in Zimbabwe.

I wondered whether they had afforded President Mugabe the simple courtesy of hearing him out before falling in with the stance assumed by the Bush administration and being aware of the fact that President Obama had given Prime Minister Tsvangirai an audience – I wondered why the same invitation was not extended to President Mugabe – if only to hear both sides of the story.

I wondered too, how President Obama or Secretary Clinton could then authoritatively comment on or form opinions about President Mugabe when they had never even met with him, spoken to him or engaged him in anyway.

I wondered all these things because it is my strong feeling that I will not give credit to the views or opinions anyone expresses about on the basis of hearsay when they have never once sat down to have a dialogue with me.

In my view they become unqualified to comment by virtue of their ignorance of the subject matter – in this case the subject matter would be me.

In response to my query on the sincerity of the US Government in demonstrating the "importance of engaging people and having conversations with them" when they seemed to be so selective in terms of who they engage, Under Secretary McHale responded by saying that she had been to Zimbabwe and personally considered it to be a beautiful country.

She added that her Government fully supported the efforts being made by President Zuma in finding amiable ways of resolving whatever issues prevailed stating, "I am sorry for all the trouble but we've been very specific about our position regarding Zimbabwe's situation. It is true that the views of the US may filter to other countries but we certainly would not direct reporters say from the UK or direct people on what to say about Zimbabwe. I would like to think that all we are doing is just casting a spotlight on cases of violations that come to our attention. So you will find Secretary Clinton will take a position regarding such issues. In our private discussions with the Government there, we continue to pressure them to do something about the situation there. Just like anywhere in the world we do speak up when we think there is a need to".

What I got from her response was that Zimbabwe was not being singled out for criticism but that the US routinely criticizes other nations as and when it feels that they are stepping out of line in terms of respecting human rights and being democratic.

This impression was further confirmed by Daniel Baer, the Deputy Assistant Secretary from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor who revealed that there were millions of US dollars being set aside to be channeled towards ensuring that more people including those in sub-Saharan Africa have access to the internet which has been declared a universal human right.

I wondered whether these resources could possibly penetrate beyond the sanction-induced paralysis that has largely hindered technological advancement in Zimbabwe.

While I itched to throw these and other questions at him, a Chinese blogger, Deng Zhixin beat me to it by quizzing Assistant Secretary Baer on how these funds would be accessed by countries that were under sanctions.

"Sanctions are about depriving the person you wish to punish without withholding aid to those you wish to support so we evaluate. The rights of those we wish to support and protect are a priority; unfortunately as surgical as the application of sanctions can be there are unintended consequences. We try to see what the unwanted consequences are so that we can review within our discretion to take into account the unintended negative impact our policies may have," said Secretary Baer who went on to point out that sometimes a foreign policy stance conflicted with other humanitarian pursuits that other arms of US government may be engaged in.

I argued that the interventions that can be made by any well-meaning nation in addressing the concerns of Zimbabweans would have to be made by people who had a clear understanding of the issues at the heart of the Zimbabwean 'problem'.

I pointed out that any attempt to understand Zimbabwe outside of the historical context of the land would be meaningless, superficial and ineffectual.

My sentiments met with strongly resistance from some Professors and academics during a meeting at the University of Minnesota Journalism School when one participant pointed out that the bad stories about Zimbabwe were coming from Zimbabweans themselves so whatever negative perception of Zimbabwe there was – it existed because of the real life testimonies given by Zimbabweans through the use of new media tools.

One blogger said that through Twitter, Facebook and other social networking platforms people could have managed to "come out" with their stories of struggle, torture, fear and persecution" in Zimbabwe.

I conceded that he had a point but then I reminded him that the internet was now the most easiest tool to manipulate and many opportunists had a seen a chance to gain asylum under false pretexts.

Meanwhile every year we were treated to shock treatment whenever we learn of awards for human rights defenders and courageous journalists being conferred on people we knew had done absolutely nothing back home and were totally undeserving of such lofty and high-sounding honors.

Pakistan's Sana Saleem... and Delta Milayo Ndou taking to the podium.

I even had the temerity to suggest that perhaps the world should not be gullible as to be taken in by all sorts of chancers as we had seen in our own civil society several bootlicking opportunists who would say anything to get donor's funding for non-existent projects as long as they knew the rhetoric.

When I was asked to give a keynote address at the Netroots Nations Blogging Conference held in Minneapolis two weeks ago; I took to the opportunity to explain how Zimbabwe has been the object of harsh international scrutiny and how through new media and blogging there was a chance for us to begin to tell the narratives of our own nations as they are, as we lived through them and as we experienced them.

For in enduring the distorted image of Zimbabwe, we've been needlessly pushed more and more into the margins of global discourses; becoming a pariah in the global village and the outcast of the international community.

For these remarks, I was rewarded with a standing ovation from a crowd of over 2500 delegates and the enthusiastic handshake of the Mayor of Minneapolis. I can only assume this 'unofficial' ambassadorial role was growing on me.

I later found irony in the fact that my views, though contrary to prevailing opinion, had nevertheless been accepted, because I know that there are some Zimbabweans who would have happily booed me off the stage for defending the country they have so long denigrated for personal gain. I concluded that Americans are more tolerant of divergent views than most.

I capped off my term in office as 'unofficial' ambassador of Zimbabwe by agreeing to sit on a panel that sought to tackle the discussion topic: "Changing of the Guard: Youth Leading Democracy" along with two other presenters – Moroccan blogger Zouhair Ait Benhamou and a Vietnamese born youth activist Trinh Nguyen.

One of the questions I was asked by young man in the audience who wanted to know, "Since countries such as yours haven't yet become democratic, will you be taking examples from America or will you form your own kind of democracy?"

I was taken aback.

I decided to immediately free this young fellow of such presumptions by pointing out to him that America was not really a model of democracy as far as I was concerned because they too often conduct themselves in an undemocratic manner.

I also informed the dear fellow that we would not be "aping" America's style of democracy because we had to have systems that were compatible to our own realities and relevant to the context of our history of colonialism, struggle, independence, neo-colonialism and the attempts to create a culture of viable role models in terms of leaders.

Having done my bit to stand up for my beloved country I hit the local pub with the other bloggers and while we sat at the Hell's Kitchen diner a conference attendee approached us to extend greetings.

He asked everyone their names and were they came from and when I told him my name and that I come from Zimbabwe, he looked at me with such a sympathy, paused and then said, "oh, how unfortunate."

Perhaps I did not do justice to my countrymen and countrywomen but I hope that wherever my fellow bloggers are – there is a possibility that one day when they hear someone speaking ill of Zimbabwe, they will think of me and say, "I once met a Zimbabwean…".

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