Hope Despite Hopelessness: A Zimbabwean in South Africa

I am a Zimbabwean living and working in South Africa, having recently become a legal immigrant after years of dodging police and living in constant fear of deportation.
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A strong desire to break free from the oppressing clutches of poverty keeps pushing me, even when, at times, I feel like quitting. To be sitting here in one piece must surely count as an accomplishment in itself. Quite often, I wake up in the morning and feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment with the way things have turned out in my life. I awake to the grim reality that I am about to go through another tiring and boring day in my job as a handy man for a rich homeowner; there is nothing more discouraging than doing work that does not utilize your actual talents. Nothing is more frustrating than knowing you have the capacity to be more than what you are, but unfortunate events, many of them man-made, have conspired to make the road towards the realization of your dreams difficult to navigate. Despite these circumstances, I remain hopeful. Why?

I am a Zimbabwean living and working in South Africa, having recently become a legal immigrant after years of dodging police and living in constant fear of deportation. Until late 2005, I never thought about coming here. But events out of my control forced my hand. For someone who held lofty dreams of making it in the information technology sector, the reality of my current situation is hard to grapple with. But the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy changed the course of my life dramatically and swallowed my humble dreams, like those of so many of my fellow countrymen. I now find myself wandering on an unfriendly foreign soil far away from family and friends, in a desperate bid to put together pieces of my life and attempt to reconstruct some kind of brighter future.

Growing up in Zimbabwe, I never imagined that I would be forced to flee my own country. I had hoped that things would get better, that common sense would prevail, that President Robert Mugabe and our leaders would admit they failed and allow others to take over and alleviate our suffering. I had hoped that I would eventually have a chance to do all the things I have always wanted to do with my life. But by the time I finished high school it became apparent that Zimbabwe was fast descending into a crisis, and that the regime's only concern was holding onto power. My dreams were slowly smothered by the actions of a regime that had effectively declared war on its own people.

Born to a housekeeper mother in Harare, I was raised by my grandmother in the poorest and most remote area of the Zimbabwean countryside, Chikwaka. My mother was the sole breadwinner and worked as a housekeeper in the capital city of Harare. At the end of every month, she visited us with bags of food parcels to complement our harvest. I have no energy to dwell on my father; he was never a part of my life.

Before the crisis, rural Zimbabwe was largely underdeveloped, but moving in the right direction. We had a simple lifestyle: our life was not complicated by the desire for materialistic needs. I grew up in a hut with no running water or electricity, and no radio, let alone a TV set. My grandmother was as strict as they come, and not one to take misdemeanor lightly. Any hint of petulant behavior was immediately curbed with a thorough whipping.

She taught me to be responsible at an early age, and by 8 years old, I was fetching water, firewood, washing dishes and even carrying a 20-kilo bag of maize to the grinding mill. I learned that everything has to be worked hard for, that nothing comes easy. Work defined the better part of my upbringing, and it turned out to have been the ideal preparation for the life I lead now.

When I was 17 years old, a group of American donors introduced me to the computer. It made quite an impression on me, and my career choice was set. But soon after, a new chapter of my life began.

In 2001, as I finished my high school studies, my grandma sadly passed away. In early 2002, as the dreaded elections fast approached, I left my childhood home and moved to Harare, fleeing Mugabe's constant campaign of fear and destruction of rural villages. I did start attending college, but by this time, making ends meet was extremely difficult. As Mugabe's regime rigged the elections and held onto power, they were starting to cripple every facet of the economy.

Sending me to college was a huge sacrifice by my mother; she wanted my life to be different than hers. But after 3 years, I could not continue, as the costs became too much for my mother's limited budget. The college fees had skyrocketed, as the Zimbabwean dollar plunged deep into extinction. At this point, unemployment was rampant throughout the country. Despite my college experience, it took me months to get a job. But, it was only part-time, and at a factory.

Soon after I started, hyperinflation caused my daily bus-fare to surpass my daily salary. It reached a point were I went to work just so to occupy myself, not because there was any economic benefit. Eventually, I was forced to quit. My hopes of fulfilling my dreams and breaking the vicious cycle of poverty within my family were slipping away. With a regime only concerned with keeping itself in power, the lives of many young men and women were ruined: our dreams turned into nightmares. As many companies closed, dejected young people left the country in droves into neighboring countries. Zimbabwe was ruined.

At a certain point, I could not bear the oppressing feeling of despair any more. Compounding my desperation to get out of the country was the feeling that I did not want my mother to see me wasting my life away: I wanted to be something she was proud of. Leaving Zimbabwe and working on foreign soil was never part of the script, but I had no choice. After my mother found the funds, I packed my bag, and fled for neighboring South Africa.

South Africa was a completely different world in comparison to my hunger and disease ravaged homeland. But despite the prosperity, it took me more than a month to find my first job. That same day, I was arrested for being an illegal immigrant: my one-month visitors visa had expired.

The week that I spent at a repatriation center was the most dreadful experience I have ever gone through. What I went through from the day that I was arrested to the day I was deported could have torn my life apart. Somehow, it gave me the determination to carry on.

Upon returning forcibly to Zimbabwe, I still knew I had to leave. Despite my horrible experience, my home country remained the worst place one could be. I had seen enough encouraging signs in South Africa that I was not deterred by the fear of being deported again. I was soon back, hoping for a major breakthrough that would change everything.

But as soon as I got settled and finally found a job, and just after I turned 24, I lost my mother in a tragic car accident in Harare. In an instant, it felt like the end. I grieved. I lost interest in everything. I was an emotional wreck. I was so devastated that nothing mattered anymore. Her death drove me to an incredibly dark place. Finally, after a year, I began to feel better, with a renewed determination to make my life better. For her.

Life away from home is challenging. It is made even more difficult with unpleasant living conditions, a menial job, and the constant fear of being attacked by xenophobic locals who accuse Zimbabweans of taking their jobs. It is not a place for the fainthearted.

But, in spite of all these challenges, I feel that I still have time to change the course of my life. I have survived the emotional upheaval of losing a mother at an important stage of my life, when I needed her strength. Now, in difficult times, I draw a great deal of inspiration from her life. Her wisdom and courage made her achieve beyond her limited means. If I can be half as intelligent and determined as her, I will be okay. It is in her memory that I fight on.

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