Earlier this year, I saw a powerful play set in Zimbabwe in the 1890s (when it was called Rhodesia) that brought back some disturbing memories of my visit there about 15 years ago.
"The Convert," the first in a trilogy being written by Zimbabwean award-winning playwright Danai Gurira, ran from mid-February to March 10 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. The play centered on Jekesai, a young girl from a rural village, who moved in with an aunt who worked for a Zimbabwean Catholic priest. With the church as a backdrop, the young girl goes from speaking only her native tongue and wearing a leaf skirt to accepting Catholicism, changing her name to Ester and assimilating to the ways of white missionaries.
"You are not one of us," her uncle said.
"You are lost for forgetting the ways of your people," her cousin Tamba said.
The battles between the family members and priest over race, culture and religious differences were intense. In addition, the educated Zimbabweans in the play looked down on Jekesai and people from rural villages, who they called barbarians. They had the same disdain for those who worked in Zimbabwe's mineral-rich mines. And as the characters collided over social, political and class issues, there were the revolts Zimbabweans waged against their oppressive British colonists.
All of this brought back memories of similar conflicts that played out in Zimbabwe when I was there with friends to cover a conference in Harare, the capital. There was still some civil unrest and clashes over religious, cultural and social matters, in addition to ongoing disputes over land distribution.
As in the play's 1890s Zimbabwe, when I was there those in rural areas who did not overwhelmingly support the party of Zimbabwe's Prime Minister Robert Mugabe were often denied water and electricity. Our taxi driver took us to his village, along a rutted road, where they did not have running water. A friend traveling with us later sent the village's local leaders the funds needed to have a well and filtration system installed. The taxi driver advised him to not send the money to the government, because they would never see a penny of the donation that way.
Later, I met the wealthy son of a local politician, who had a large home with a 24-hour armed guard outside a secured gate. When I talked to him about the village's needs, he had no compassion for the cab driver and his large family. He said they were insignificant.
Back to the play: as the plot escalated to the point where killings and chaos prevailed in the streets and overflowed into the church, I recalled a similar, although not as murderous, moment during my visit.
Because the conference I attended was filled with major political and civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry and Rep. Jack Kemp, about 100 raggedly dressed protesters showed up outside the convention center. Missing limbs and carrying signs, they peacefully demanded the government benefits they were entitled to but had not received for their military service. A local newspaper article said government officials had used the funds for personal gains.
I was having lunch in the hotel's restaurant when large military tanks and heavily armed soldiers with big guns and lots of ammunition suddenly showed up. They locked every door, posted soldiers in the hotel lobby and promptly arrested the rag-tag group of protesters. For the duration of the conference, protests were declared illegal.
And like in the play, where the elite were waited on by the poorer Zimbabweans with drinks and tea, at a concert tuxedoed wait staff carrying silver trays filled the country's prime minister and entourage's drink and other requests. They didn't care if this blocked the views of others or came in the middle of artists' performances. It was decadence of the worst kind.
Those experiences angered me when they happened, and I still find them troubling. To be sure, Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with breathtaking landscapes and is home to Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But that beauty is overshadowed by the oppression of the past, which was eloquently brought out in the play and still haunts the country today.
Gurira is said to be writing the trilogy to show how Zimbabwe's history is repeating itself with different players, more than 30 years after its independence from Great Britain. I look forward to part two.