Sunday, July 6, 2008


I AM ALWAYS GRIPPED by the ways in which political forces affect the life of a single individual. Even when printed headlines expand to a few minutes of real time video capturing the mother, man, child or dog against backgrounds of raging fires, rampages or collapsed houses, I want to know more. I want to get as interior as I can. How does one man, this Donald Fraser, feel as his country crumbles around him, his cat is lost, his laptop battery has run out of juice and his passport is stolen? What did he manage to forage for lunch? Can he count on his neighbors?

I met Donald (he asked us not to use his real name) in Tanzania where he was a safari guide. He was born in what was then Northern Rhodesia and is now Zambia, went to school in what is now Zimbabwe and lives in Harare, its capital. He is a white man, approaching 60, an artist and writer and one of the millions of Zimbabwe’s citizens struggling to exist in increasingly apocalyptic times. Remembering his idyllic life as a child and young man on very same land he lives on now lends a special poignancy to his story. How did it come to this, I ask him. What makes a country crumble?

When we spoke, courtesy of Skype, it was two or three weeks before the last ‘real’ election, March 29, 2008, that is one where there was still an opposition candidate. Since then, Zimbabwe has occupied headlines every day and become a target for international sanctions, rebuke, analysis; none of this has, so far, lessened the terror experienced by its citizens, black and white.It’s the 21st century, it’s the year 2008 and arguably we’ve become somewhat immune to stories of collapsing countries, failed states, genocide and suffering populations. They’re on every continent, especially in Africa. When Zimbabwe is mentioned in the media, many of us shrug it off as just another one of those countries, distinguished perhaps by stratospheric inflation rates. Just like Nazi Germany. Oh, and the fuel shortages? Just like Gaza. And the corrupt dictators? Just like so many places in the Middle East, Africa, South America. We shake our heads and let our attention continue its wandering.

How do countries collapse with such speed and drama? What does it take to transform a nation from an effective, self-sustaining, creative, thriving place for all of its citizens to one where the vast majority of its people have to forage for food and water, narrowly concentrated on survival, vigilant to enemies and living from moment to desperate moment? Countries are huge entities yet they are also delicately-balanced systems, each with its own irrevocable, irreversible tipping point. We watch with alarm as our own country, the proud and powerful United States, confronts the fall of towering institutions and respected leaders. How did Zimbabwe go from good to bad?Can Zimbabwe be put together again? Is Donald waiting for its reconstruction and reconciliation? Why doesn’t he run away? I think I would!

He’s hoping, he says, for a return to law order, for the economy to return to profitability, for people with skills to return to the country to make the place work again, for the violence to stop:

“My family have lived in Africa since 1820 …I feel Africa is where I belong...people, traditions, history, how everything works…So for me to feel as if there isn’t a future in Africa is turning my back on a hundred years of continuous existence on this continent…a serious statement. It’s easy to say I’ve had enough but I’ve lived here a long time and for me to say I’ve had enough is a significant thing. In the last couple of months I’ve said what is there to live for… when your body starts to crack up and you need medical supplies…it’s more and more difficult to find that over here.”

Since we spoke in March, these hopes have the appearance of delusion. Violence and chaos have multiplied, inflation has soared beyond calculation and Donald has left for a short work spell in Zambia where he is beyond the reach of email and telephone.

Like Yusuf, a Palestinian man demographically quite dissimlar from him, Donald is trapped in a country where everything that once gave him life has turned to poison. Like Yusuf, there is no other country reaching out to extend him permanent shelter.

That’s what happens when a country crumbles.

You can hear Donald describe the dénouement of Zimbabwe and the accompanying unraveling of his life by listening to him talk on this Tidings from Hazel Kahan program.