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Turning 40 in Zimbabwe today

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Philip Mukarati

‘Life begins at 40,’ so the maxim goes. And that is one statement that has been put through a rigorous test in the past couple of years for a lot of people across the board. Turning 40 this year has been painful. Turning 40 and conscious in Zimbabwe and as a Zimbabwean in the recent past means you are almost always in a rage. Turning 40 represents a lot of uncertainty and a huge sense of betrayal and dashed hopes.

Please do not wish us Happy Birthday just yet, maybe we might turn 40 again in another life, some of us believe in re-incarnation, because quite frankly, turning 40 we did and we are, and will, but there certainly isn’t anything ‘Happy’ about it, at least from a socio-economic point of view.

Happy birthday has been reserved for a select few. Yes, there are some who have created wealth well before they reached that age, and they continue to, we take our hats off to them, we are one generation after all, they soldiered on in the face of insurmountable odds to scale the heights and that takes guys, sheer will power and a thick skin to navigate the literally crocodile infested waters that our economy and the political playing field has become. Hats off to the few who make things happen when the odds are so heavily tipped against them. We salute you. Hats off too, to those who have a predatory instinct and seize opportunities whenever, wherever, however and from whoever they present themselves.

When my father turned 40, he was well set up with very little personal effort. Things seemed to flow organically. He had been fortunate to go to school, trained as a teacher and by the late 80s he was a District Education Officer. By the time my father turned 40, he already had a wife whom he also inspired to achieve a good measure of success in the civil service and education department, he had a sizeable herd of cattle, an urban home, a car, a beautiful rural home and children who were attending some of the best boarding schools in the country.

He is one man who would not hesitate to help his siblings, nieces and nephews, relatives, and certainly put his energy into the upliftment of his community and country through whichever means he could, most notably through education and construction of schools. He is one man who, if asked today, God rest his great soul, would truly say he had a Happy 40th, not only birthday, but also birth year.

He is one man who really lived 40 years not merely existed. My father turned 40 just as the country was achieving independence. Therefore, he stood at the threshold of a new beginning, an advent of greatness, spearheaded by a black luminary. His life was ‘beginning’ with the new Dawn, the fog of colonialism lifting with the early rays of the new sun. We lived comfortable lives on my parents’ salaries and never wanted. None of his children can stand in front of any person alive or dead and claim that we lacked the basic luxuries of the day and more. None!

It is an entirely different story today for those who were born when Zimbabwe was born. Most of us, despite a good education, are living in abject poverty. Poverty as not only defined by the IMF and the World Bank or other indices, bit poverty of the worst kind – the poverty you feel. Yes definitions may vary and some may even argue that as long as I am alive, poverty is a choice…, but try as we might, every person knows in their heart of hearts where they are on their own scale and on that score there is no delusion.

Most of us attained the minimum qualification required for employment in Zimbabwe, O’ Level, some went on to Advanced Level of high school education. Bragging about A’ level now is almost lunacy. Most are qualified in various other fields of study and professional Enterprise, but what became of all that?

It was prestigious to be qualified in almost any field in Zimbabwe when we were in our 20s. Back then there was the University of Zimbabwe and NUST was constructed soon after. Colleges, nurse training hospitals, and apprenticeship programmes which were churning out graduates assured of jobs, life was blissful.

Parents would brag about their children in colleges, or working in mines, in industry, vibrant companies, parastatals and the civil service. Holiday time was something to look forward to where families would get together and celebrate life and touch base with each other and encourage each other on their respective journeys to success. Parents received gifts from their working children, and festivities were the order of the day.

Nowadays at 40, with a wife and kids at home, I am a Zimbabwean scared out of his wits to go home at the end of the day to face my own family. I struggle to feed them, to clothe them, and I am still renting a house. I am sapped of energy and have to mechanically go through the motions of life. I am a man whose wife left him because he could not support his family and walk shamefacedly amongst people, most of who are also too preoccupied by their own wretchedness to care about my misery, and some who whisper about my ‘unmanliness’ as soon as I turn my back.

I am a 40 year old still living in his parents’ house because I cannot afford to build my own house. I am a Zimbabwean who has to scrounge around for some wares to sell during the day to feed myself and the family, forget about savings, it’s a hand to mouth living. The soles of my feet ache because I have to walk miles daily to work and back, work being anywhere I can get a devalued or sometimes over valued Zim dollar. Work is the school where I teach and have to bear the brunt of ridicule by the community and by extension, students, due to my meagre salary. A salary that cannot see me through to the third week of the month, let alone pay school fees for my few children.

I had forgotten my 40th birthday. Thanks to social media a few friends who had data bundles saw the birthday reminder and phoned to wish me BIRTHDAY. I could tell most of my classmates struggled through the happy wishes as they know, from their own experience too, that there is little joy and happiness in turning 40 in Zimbabwe and as a Zimbabweans today.

Yes I am alive, and my religion and culture tells me, indeed, forces me to be grateful for life and the simple everyday blessings, for my family and children and for the sun and the moon and the snakes and the crocodiles, and indeed I am grateful for the participation in the cosmos on the continuum, but, how do I explain that to my ECD B daughter who wants a laptop for cartoons and games? How do I explain gratitude for life to my daughter who is going to Form 1 without a new pair of shoes and half paid school fees, yet I am alive, a father who is supposed to be a provider? How do I explain the gratitude for the gift of life to my elderly mother who now can’t live a week on her pitable pittance of a government salary, when I also can barely make it through a fortnight with much more energy?

I feel sad looking at her today, after spending her life and energy in the civil service and now receiving a pension that can’t buy 6 chickens and mealie meal. I sincerely want to help but even the diet my children feed on is terrible, meat is now a luxury, and I find it hard calling her to live with me in such squalor.

At 40 I can turn around and look at how party politics has shaped, and or deformed the political landscape of my country. I can see Mugabe holding on to power when my consciousness was awakened to things political, I can look back and wonder what happened to the promise that Zimbabwe held. I can look back and feel betrayed by both my own country’s leaders who have pillaged and stripped the country bare, as well as the neocolonisers who continue to sap my Homeland parched.

The stark reality of Chinese, European and American greed stares at me and I can’t hold it’s gaze for too long because of the rage that stirs deep within. The reality of the effects of sanctions on our livelihoods is always before me. A reality that I can’t explain to my 6 year old girl, that when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers, when the only elephant she knows is the one in her coloring book.

That there once was an old man who told another man from Britain to stop talking to him when there could have been a mutually beneficial synergy. That there are some gangsters who seem to revel in war rather than peace, in chaos rather than tranquility, they seem to enjoy mudslinging instead of using the mortar to build.

Turning 40 has traditionally, in modern society at least, been celebrated as a milestone, the mark of an era, a new beginning, and with family and friends. I spent mine in a foreign country. Alone. and the reason why I am in a foreign country vexes me. It leaves me more desolate than consoled, a desolate destitute.

I will have to explain one day to my daughters why I wasn’t with them in their formative years…..and why, I am sending a small amount each day. The only thing I can hope for is that they will understand the sacrifices I made for them. That I had to give up so many privileges and rights just so that they could have salt and ketchup on the dinner table. That I also missed my wife’s warm embrace and passion in a faraway land? Or that I had to take the menial job in a restaurant, the cancer hospice, and the cleaning service, that char job, had to be a maid in a white lady’s house with my Education Diploma under my mattress so that I could get them to school.

That they have to endure the pain of a literally broken family because turning 40 in Zimbabwe and as a Zimbabweans has become an unpleasant event? That we are enduring racism and racial slurs, monkey calls, and the worst jobs imaginable in the diaspora just so they can have clothes on their backs. That those of us lucky enough to work in our fields of specialisation are paid much less for more work than the locals?

So turning 40 as a Zimbabwean is tough, home and away…..and I pine for the wide open spaces of my rural Chirumanzu, the smell of freshness and cow dung in the air, and seeing my girls grow up, but coming back to what? To a 40 year old Zimbabwe that is in a serious economic fix? To a country where corruption has become the norm rather than the exception? To an opposition party that has been in a shambles ever since who knows when? A ruling party that is more concerned about winning elections more than it is about the welfare of the people they vowed to serve? To a 40 year old Zimbabwe, that, as contradictions will have it, is supposed to be ‘beginning’ a new mature era, and yet is sinking into a quagmire of everything unholy and unsavory. Every political stakeholder who can direct the country has properly disappointed the Generation of 40 year olds by clearly showing us how not to run a country.

Turning 40 in Zimbabwe and as a Zimbabwean has shown me how to rely solely on my inner resources. It has been a tiring journey of 40 steps. I certainly do not feel renewed after this period of 40, not renewed by a hope based on the actions of the powers that be in the past – I feel renewed in the resolve that I certainly do not want my daughters and sons to grow up in this amount of toxicity. So, once again, there is a fight that needs to be lent support, the fight for, and the certain victory of good over evil.

Philip Mukarati is a Zimbabwean freelance journalist currently based in South Africa.

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