I began reading Hope Deferred with little hope of my own, imagining that reading it would be an exercise in enduring a collage of stereotypes, historical omissions, and naturalistic poverty capped by plea for Western salvation. I was, however, delighted and surprised to find in Hope Deferred a largely successful project of reportage on migration, violence, human rights abuses and, more specifically, the swift and devastating destruction of Zimbabwean civil society at the turn of the millennium. Swathed in bright orange and brandishing a quote asserting defiance against annihilation and victimhood, Peter Orner and Annie Holmes’ book is a collection of oral interviews of Zimbabweans who have fled political violence, social unrest and the general trauma that has been the lot of most Zimbabweans since the late 1990s.
A state that few outside its region paid any attention to shot to notorious fame at the turn of the millennium after a flurry of violent occupations of white-owned farms ostensibly led by impoverished war veterans. The ensuing political crisis, in which president Mugabe and many in ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front, the dominant party in Zimbabwe) supported the invasions, was followed by increasing political violence, spiraling poverty caused by monetary and economic instability caused in part by these sociopolitical problems. Increasing poverty and decreasing currency value led to an outpouring of Zimbabweans migrating to survive. Since then, the Zimbabwean migrant is a fixture of South African, British, Canadian, and Botswanan life, and its President Robert Mugabe has ascended in the global imaginary to the ranks of infamy personified by former Ugandan president Idi Amin, Sudanese president and alleged genocidaire Omar al-Bashir and recently assassinated Libyan president Muammar Qaddafi.
The complexity of the Zimbabwe story is hard to take in given the media and advocacy framework in which it has occurred. Once the story grew and gained importance outside of the region, the global media began to take up the events in Zimbabwe using familiar colonial frames of Africa, characterizing Zimbabwe as moving from “breadbasket to basket-case”; referring to it as a “scar on the conscience of…southern Africa”; and bemoaning its fall from an example to other African states to the inevitable continental model of a strongman led autocracy. This perspective was in part a consequence of the crisis in Zimbabwe becoming widely known through the stories of white Zimbabwean expat farmers, often mediated through a sympathetic British press. The farm invasions were attributed less to the lack of a coherent of land reform strategy and economic decline precipitated by structural adjustment and drought than to the face-saving strategies of an African dictator. Thereafter, Zimbabwe’s slide toward state failure became visceral with the tales and images of Zimbabweans clutching wads of bills or carting dollars in buckets as super-inflation left the shelves bare and the citizens bankrupt; running away bleeding from police and party violence; and the poignant horrors of Operation Murambatsvina, with its cruelty, violence, planned homelessness, and property destruction justified by the state in language eerily reminiscent of ethnic cleansing that claimed to be restoring an idyllic rural past while “clearing out the trash.” Nonetheless, the undoubted suffering and indignities that have marked the lives of most Zimbabwean citizens are, as the narratives describe, more complicated than the story of an evil and ruthless dictator determined to consolidate power by destroying a once entirely peaceful and economically vibrant state is false.
The greatest achievement of the book is in its methodology. Part of a series by Voice of Witness (an organization devoted to collecting and publishing oral histories of targeted groups) the book is the result of interviews in Zimbabwe, South Africa, the US, and beyond. Interviewees include activists, police, youth, the elderly, educated and less educated citizens, women and men. The author’s address issues of identity in Zimbabwe by including white, Shona, and Ndebele respondents as well as those of mixed ethnic and national parentage many who were marginalized in Zimbabwe as a result of their minority status. Hope Deferred also breaks the trend of white expats memoirs as the primary form of non-fiction writing on Zimbabwe.
Hope Deferred’s narratives do not shy away from the complexities or paradoxes of life in Zimbabwe - either by choice of narrator, or in the stories they tell. Nokuthula’s statement that “back then”—before the 2000 election - “things were easy” echoes the repeated sense that a dramatic shift occurred at the turn of the millennium. Tortured former police officer Zenzele recalls his childhood was “ok” and that “we used to enjoy life.” Many narrators tell of suffering before 2000, or pre-migration, pre-politics; yet they wrap it in stories of idyllic childhood, or, as in Nokuthula’s case, socially and culturally based oppressions.
Zimbabwe’s story is one of dizzying change and frequent turmoil. In a country only thirty-two years old, Zimbabwe’s citizenry aged forty or above have lived through independence wars, the post-independence violence of Gukurahundi, famine, structural adjustment, farm settlements, and the current political and economic crises. They have seen freedom fighters and icons of black struggle arrive in Zimbabwe, as well as the large-scale departure of their peers for other lands. This short but whirlwind history of post-independence Zimbabwe, as well as that of the previous post-UDI white-run regime (1), one that has its own yet to be adequately documented migration history, make any attempt to historicize Zimbabwe difficult. Orner and Holmes are adamant in making no definitive claim to historical truth in their project—indeed, to their credit, they openly invite examination of the “silences and omissions” within narratives, and by implication, those of the project as a whole. Though Hope Deferred is packed with well-researched and useful notes and appendices, and the narrators stories are documented and fact-checked to the best of the authors abilities, as the book’s quote from Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests, truth will remain elusive as all recollections are necessarily incomplete in their singularity.
While oral history makes broad generalization difficult, it offers the equally important benefit of coaxing out new and important perspectives, including those that underscore the vital relationship between Zimbabwe and its neighbors; such as Samuel’s father’s kidnapping by RENAMO (Mozambican National Resistance) forces in Mozambican civil war, or Edmore’s journey to mine gold in the same state. These stories, as well as Aaron’s war-time experiences in Congo complicate the meaning of migration—a common retort to South African xenophobia toward Zimbabwean migrants is the reminder of the critical role Zimbabwe played in the that country’s “struggle” against apartheid.
The divisions of the book are interesting--neither entirely regional nor topical, the book is divided along conflict lines, or perhaps “difference” lines. These help in some way, especially by highlighting the ethno-regional divisions in Zimbabwe--particularly those between Ndebele and Shona citizens and those between urban and rural residents. The focus on border-crossing is interesting simply as a piece of work on the geographic and spatial challenges of migration, a topic of increasing interest. The book begins with a chapter entitled “Exile” and notes in the preface to the chapter the term “Harare North” - slang ironically referring to the number of Zimbabweans in London. Its first narrator well indicates how gender and tradition, family disintegration, politics, and poverty can be equal causes of migration, in this case leading to her leave a rural farming to migrate undocumented to South Africa at seventeen. Common to all the stories is the desire to return home, coupled with frustration rather than resignation, at the state’s lack of protection.
Indeed the betrayal felt by many of the narrators runs deep. Politically engaged speakers talk of their pride in Zimbabwe, and the deep connection to political promise they were raised with. Highlighting the democratic frameworks that do remain in Zimbabwean politics, these narrators speak with frustration about MDC (Movement for Democratic Change), the army, the police, ZANU-PF party members and the president. Lovemore’s story of reading political theory in Cuba for its application in Zimbabwe, Zenzele’s insistence on democratic rights as a police officer and his tales of overall disillusionment in the police forces: “They (the government intelligence agents) were right to fear, because people didn’t like the government anymore” and Aaron’s self-directed frustration that “we have failed to look after ourselves” show an unbroken sense of citizenship. Fiercely independent narrators who paid scant attention to politics suggest the wish to return—often to the rural areas—to farm in peace, and suggest they would be fine without interference of government action. George’s narrative eloquently displays the national pride of white Zimbabweans, pre-and post-independence. It is often forgotten that white Africans are indeed as African as their black peers, and George’s similar wistfulness for rural life “I needed to be myself again, in my shorts and t-shirt in the bush, the possibility of running into a python…growing something” shows the similarities of Zimbabweans despite racial divisions.
Where there is resignation, it is around emotion and current problems—perhaps in the fear of kufungisisa, or thinking too much, that Orner and Holmes describe. The horrors of torture, rape, sexual exploitation, physical and mental illness and death give most narrators pause. Some respond with righteous anger, some shame, many limit their revelations to safe, or responsible topics. This can be frustrating, but it is a testament to the lack of coercion by the editors.
The greatest weakness of the book is related to its unique feature, the personal narrative. In addition, it lacks a core of political criticism or an alternative policy framework for Zimbabwean politics or for international advocates, which means that despite its call to inform human rights work, it will be difficult to apply the lessons it teaches in practice. Second, the authors are opaque about their selection process; reasons certain interviews were omitted; how they selected participants and why; the reason some interviews are placed on the Voice of Witness website and others included in the book --in sum their choices within their methodology. This makes the over-representation of MDC supporters and lack of wealthy or stable Zimbabweans voices in the book seem suspect. One could not expect a book of this nature to lean politically in any other direction but without adding other voices or explaining their omission the book slides precipitously close to the type of Africa study it so ingeniously escapes in its form.
At the same time, the authors make a number of choices that show a great degree of care about casting out a project that makes interesting and critical reading on Africa and human rights without being entirely dependent on existing colonial or missionary frames of presentation. Returning to its cover, the choice of image that adorns the sleeve of the hardcover edition of the book is also a departure from common practice and a success. A man, dressed in western business casual attire, looks out to the reader from the aisle of a store—in which the shelves on either side of him are bare. With this image, the book both defies the need for a salacious or heart-rending picture of Africa, or Zimbabwean cultural exoticism while highlighting one of the more bizarre and desperate times of the last ten years the—lack of products on grocery store shelves due to spiraling inflation. The fact that the man is dressed and presents in a way that is incongruous with the economic desperation beside him parallels the experiences of educated and talented Zimbabweans trapped in fast-moving decline and helps define the book as a Zimbabwean-centered project rather than seductive and melodramatic human interest story built for foreign imaginations.
Hope Deferred’s contribution is perhaps best seen as a step forward from the troubling ways of writing about Africa that Binyaganda Wainana memorably skewered in the now ubiquitous “How to Write about Africa.” Its “hope” is perhaps less a paean to the eternal optimism of Zimbabweans, a claim straddling the border agency and defiance while echoing a troubling American literary trope of black suffering as holiness—but rather as a call for writers and advocates from the North to engage meaningfully with South narratives. The vast resources of the west and its eager talents may mean increasing South-based stories remains a challenge. However, as the impact of South media and authors increases, Hope Deferred leads as an example of engagement without fantasy or hyperbole. It also illustrates that human rights information gathering and presentation can not only be useful but yield, if not truth, then the closest one may ever get.
(1) UDI: Unilateral Declaration of Independence of Rhodesia from the United Kingdom signed in 1965