Mugabe’s sad legacy: ruined schools, desperate teachers. But one teacher fought back – singing.

15 September 2019 By Paul Martin

He croons: “When will we see you? When will we hear you? When will we touch you?  Freedom now!”

His own freedom, under the repressive regimes of Robert Mugabe and his recent successor, has often been endangered.

His confrontations go back a long way. He was torured in a prison cell when detained for eleven days in 2002. And only last month he was snatched by police, along with his two sons, but managed to tweet from police detention – and was set free again.

It was probably because he advocated a teachers strike earlier this year, having tweeted then:

“Teachers have been reduced to mere beggars. Gvt [Government] should listen. These Heroes of this sector can’t wallow in poverty for ever.”

Not much has changed in Zimbabwe – despite the exit from decades of power enforced on Robert Mugabe, who has now died two years later aged 95.

Yet with disarming naïveté Raymond, 48, believes in the effectiveness of protests and the power of song.

“The AK-47 can be matched bullet-for-bullet by what we sing in protest music,” he insists. “Dictatorships – rugged ruthless regimes – can be held to account.”

Though he has cut eleven albums, most have been recorded when he’s been on trips outside the country.  During the latter years of Mugabe’s rule he was turned away by recording studios in Harare where he once put together his albums.  Not even the independently minded music café in Harare was willing to take the risk of being associated with the protest singer. Zimbabwe’s national broadcasters did not touch his work.

When I met him clandestinely a few years ago, Majongwe was inserting a rhythm tape for backing into his black SUV’s tape-deck. Dressed in a T-shirt featuring the faces of two men he admires, Barak Obama and Nelson Mandela.

Raymond was belting out his words of defiance – to a coterie of office personnel gathered in the union’s car-park.  There was a smattering of applause from his staff. 

A newfound optimism emerged in Raymond’s impromptu compositions.

“Now is the time – to forget the anger and hatred of the past, to bury the hatchet, and to bury the AK-47s and come together,” he chanted to his musical backing, then burst into song for the punch-line: “Now is the time – tooooo unite.”

It is a message he became even keener to reinforce once Mugabe was toppled from power.

“It’s time for change, time to look to the future,” Raymond told me.

“Of course Mugabe’s successors and his ZANU-PF are not finished yet,” he remarked.  “But I’m going to start recording again.  First I’m going to tour the country to meet up with teachers who’ve been the victims of Mugabe’s terror  – and if they’re dead, then their families.”

Raymond and his wife Loice spent most of their adult lives as schoolteachers. They have seen colleagues arrested, abused – and killed. 

Ever since he became a teachers’ union chief, not just Raymond but also his family have been subjected to a range of intimidation from the authorities. 

“They even cut the house’s electricity for 33 consecutive days, while the houses next door all had power,” Raymond recalled, in between frantic phone conversations to harassed teachers union members. “It’s obvious why.”

It was early morning and I had just slept at the Majongwes’ bungalow home in a middle-class tree-lined previously-white suburb of Harare.  Raymond had collected me from Harare airport the night before, at one point veering down a side-road to avoid a suspect tailing vehicle. 

Unable to resist an ill-advised quip, I had nearly got no further than passport control. The immigration officer was examining the British passport of a traveller ahead of me in line. He stamped it. 

“Oh, so you do let British people in here,” I remarked, unwisely.  The officer snarled: “See what lies they spread about us and people like you believe them,” he snapped.  “I don’t know why I should let a person like you in!”

But he did. I was masquerading as a South African trade union official, with an old and seldom-used South African passport.  The small video camera would be explained away as an amateur device aimed at showing our trade union colleagues to the south the continued work of the teachers of Zimbabwe.  If found, I would hope simply to be expelled from the country – rather than being unveiled as a journalist, detained and beaten up.

The Majongwe household was abuzz.  The four dogs had been hauled out of their cardboard-box communal kennel to wag and play with the family’s three children. 

They were going to school on a non-uniform day. In the kitchen their 19-year-old servant Otillia was cooking vegetables … wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with Mugabe’s face. ZANU-PF thugs had recently paid her a visit and told her to wear the shirt – or else – and she’s too afraid to take it off. “It was a test: if I had objected to her wearing it I’d be in jail now,” said Raymond.

He took some hot water off the cooker, poured it into a bucket and, towel over his shoulder, headed to the maid’s quarters for a wash: the boiler had broken down during the electrical cut-off and these days Harare has no spare parts for boilers.  There are chickens in the yard, and vegetables have replaced the suburban flower-beds.

Raymond hauled some frozen meat out of a freezer – “it’s for a lunch barbecue for the office staff,” he explained. “No-one can afford to buy their own meat these days.”

Inflation was so ludicrous that the central bank had recently slashed ten noughts off the national currency, so that a 50 billion dollars note magically became 5 Zimbabwean new dollar coin.  It still bought next to nothing. 

Teachers got 200 new Zimbabwe dollars a month – “it’s pathetic,” said Loice Majongwe – enough for 20 loaves of bread, if you can find that commodity: I saw women furtively selling it at night on street corners. 

The big hotel restaurant where I ate later that day didn’t have any bread: I had curried vegetables.  The streets we had driven through were eerily empty of cars, and the dusty street-sides full of pedestrians – unable to afford bus fare, even for the few buses that still run.

Raymond’s wife Loice worked at one of the very few good-quality state schools left in Zimbabwe: a relic of the days when Zimbabwe’s education system was regarded as the best in Africa, for all races.   Sprinklers swished across the smooth green hockey and soccer lawns.  Next door, the neighbouring school’s stagnant half-empty swimming pool and overgrown weed-ridden fields bore testimony to better times.

It was hardly a surprise that schools are decaying.  So was much of the country.  Teachers were in the frontline, specifically singled out by Mugabe as “enemies of the State”.   Mugabe, a former teacher himself, was correct, according to Raymond: teachers do pose dangers to dictatorships. “They know we open children’s minds, and give them courage; and those are two things the authorities fear most,” Raymond asserted.

“Some of our teachers, especially in rural areas, have been spied on and betrayed by other teachers,” said Raymond. “Our teachers have even been betrayed by children telling their ZANU-PF parents what teachers have said in class.”

Raymond had taken outside Harare to a graveyard.  A head teacher lies buried here, alongside around eighty people who had been killed in this year’s waves of violence.

“He was shot through the head in June a day after being abducted, with a single bullet,” said Raymond as he put flowers on the grave, a mound of mud. “First though he was severely tortured, and badly burned.”  The union knows of four more of its members killed in what they say was cold blood.

Later, Raymond drove me – through an empty industrial zone – towards a secondary school.  Half a mile off, he stopped his car.  “Too dangerous for me to go in – the guards at the school gate are ZANU-PF and they all know who I am.  I’ll be arrested and so will you,” he explained.

Instead his less-easily recognisable trade union officials went in. Then, behind a tree, they opened up the boot and started dishing out vital commodities to the teaching staff.  Bags of maize, flower, tea-leaves, to tooth-paste – all items that were in short supply and unaffordable. 

At another school we were invited into the prefects’ room where several of them, plus the head boy, were enthusiastic about talking to a foreign journalist.  Then a teacher burst in, and demanded we leave.  “He’s the only ZANU-PF teacher here, he’s been promoted,” said one of the union officials.  We left, wondering whether he would call in the police.

At the nearby Mutasa Primary School, the head was absent – in fact more than half the staff have gone AWOL or have disappeared …some from political pressures but the rest because of demoralisation and very low pay. 

“We have replacements who often don’t even have any A-levels,” said teacher Charles Mubwandarikwa.  “Many of them sell cool-drinks and ice-creams and oranges in the playground – to supplement their income, you see.”

The fabric of the school was deteriorating, but the neatly-uniformed children showed the manners of – in Britain at least – a bygone age.  As I walked in they stood up and chanted: “Good Mor-ning, Sir.” 

The children, all aged nine, displayed considerable knowledge about the scourge of the country – the AIDS epidemic. “It comes from sharing blades and needles,” they told me.  One child had lost an auntie, and another boy said his sister had AIDS, but was still alive.

Charles, their class teacher, still bore scars from a beating at ZANU-PF headquarters, but the English lesson he teaches is tinged with political correctness – about a child who helps warn the black ‘freedom fighters’ when soldiers from the former white regime are about to pass, so that the guerrillas can set off land-mines.

“They beat us with iron bars and clubs – but when we later went to lay a complaint with the police, the cops turned round and accused us of starting the violence,” Charles recalled.  He said over seven thousand Zimbabwean teachers out of a work force of around 80 thousand are considered “displaced people”, unable to return to their jobs or homes.

Raymond’s union campaigned against HIV among teachers and schoolchildren, and also against abuse of girls by adults – posters on both subjects adorned the walls of schools and the union offices.  There was also a selection of wall-posters that decried the Mugabe leadership.

An Opposition-composed printed photo album of injured people, pictured in gruesome close-up, was propped up on a table.  “That’s me,” said an office staff member, pointing to a photo displaying a jaw with mainly missing teeth.

Is all this brutality a thing of the past?  Raymond was astonishingly optimistic.  “I see a great future for Zimbabwe.  What makes me proud is how little violence there has been on the streets.  Despite all we have gone through, Harare is still the safest city in Africa.”

His teachers union was part of the unofficial civil society opposition to Mugabe. Covering his paper-strewn desk was a wildlife poster that carried its own strong political message.  It was a photo that appeared to show a leopard being chased by an antelope.  “This photo means: we cannot be the prey any more,” explains Raymond.  “From now on we are going to be the hunters.”

He would like to “let bygones be bygones”, he said, though he did want to see “those who committed crimes face the wrath of justice” – a dilemma about how far, if there is a new era, to take vengeance against, or bring to trial, those responsible for Zimbabwe’s violence.

Raymond is still hoping for really significant change in what still looks like a bleak picture in his beloved country.

“Perhaps I’ll wait a couple of weeks before I believe it,” says Raymond.  “After all, we’ve learned the hard way in Zimbabwe that things don’t always go they way we want them to.”

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