Days to remember; days to dream

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me at victoria falls
tjolotjo
A historical image of the Rhodesian District Commissioner’s office in Tjolotjo

Good Friday has religious significance for Christians and this year the holiday coincides with the first Jewish Passover Sedar. This year also marks the 35th anniversary of my personal epiphany, certainly in a totally non-religious environment, which I’ve reported in earlier postings.

I have no photos of the event, and needed to dig deep into the archives for the news story I wrote after that fateful day.

Zimbabwe rebuilding structures and attitudes, dispelling fear

Mark Buckshon

TJOLOTJO, Zimbabwe — Anthony Brownlee-Walker sat in the yard of his official district commissioner’s residence and said: “Now we’ve got to start all over again.”

At the other side of this remote administrative settlement, Lameck Bulle sipped on a beer and described how he is working with the district commissioner to reopen schools for 200,000 black tribesmen.

me at victoria falls
I returned to Zimbabwe for a brief visit in 2012, more than three decades after my life-changing experiencing there. Victoria Falls is in the background.

A few months ago, Brownlee-Walker wanted to put Bulle behind bars. And Bulle, a general trader, was providing hidden support to hundreds of guerrillas bent on destroying Brownlee-Walker’s administration.

Now they talk in terms of peace, independence and the massive job of rebuilding in the area where, for years, fear ruled the lives of black and white alike. Memories die hard, however.

By the end of Zimbabwe’s seven-year guerrillas war, hundreds — possibly thousands — had died in this region, though exact casualty figures are unavailable and police say many simply “disappeared.”

Tjolotjo became a heavily fortified outpost, with security fencing around all the white houses and sandbags and high security walls in prominent places.

When the ceasefire was signed last December, guerrillas loyal to Joshua Nkomo (now minister of home affairs in the new government) virtually controlled the region, reached by a winding 100-kilometre road from Bulawayo, the commercial centre of western Zimbabwe.

Nkomo’s men were able to close all but one of 73 schools after they arrived in 1976 and 1977. Almost all other forms of rural civil administration collapsed.

The security fencing still remains in Tjolotjo; 200 guerrilla renegades are still in the nearby bush.

Several blacks in the community say they will never really be happy until a member of their Ndebele tribe is Zimbabwe’s prime minister. And others say change is coming too slowly in the economic, social and political system.

But the fear that once ruled Tjolotjo is disappearing.

The white in charge of the local police detachment — his new boss is Nkomo — says there will be little trouble rounding up the dissidents once army units with ex-guerrillas move in.

“I personally feel much easier about the whole situation,” said Brownlee-Walker, who is staying at his post for the time being despite the change in administration.

And blacks like Bulle, district secretary for Nkomo’s Patriotic Front Party, talk freely with a white visitor where a few months ago they would have shied away, fearful of police and guerrilla reprisals.

Rebuilding is taking time. Brownlee-Walker says rebel guerrillas are discouraging tribesmen in the bush from coming forward, though representatives of Nkomo’s party were to visit the area to tell the people to return to a normal life.

Bulle said he was “born” a supporter of Nkomo. But he is not interested in great social changes, despite the socialist policies of the new government. “We must work legally to get some property,” he said.

Marxism and “liberation struggle” are not in his vocabulary. “What we wanted was any type of black man to take over Rhodesia — to make it a black Rhodesia,” he said.

Brownlee-Walker, meanwhile, remembers joining the civil service 15 years ago, shortly after Ian Smith declared independence unilaterally, and promised that blacks wouldn’t rule the land for 1,000 years.

“I think everything we have ever done has been for the benefit of the tribesman although he might not have appreciated it at the time,” he said.

“Everything we have built… I suppose they (the blacks) saw it as being representative of the white man … and knocked it all down… and now we’ve got to start all over again.”

The story here did not have a happy ending. Dissidents in the area continued to oppose the government of Robert Mugabe, and ultimately the leader of the then-newly independent country decided to solve the problem by inviting the North Korean army to the area, with massive  roundups and the reported murder of about 20,000 tribesmen in an under-reported near-genocidal operation in the early 1980s.

All of the nasty stuff occurred after I had returned to Canada and a soul-sapping (but well-paying) job as a writer for the Canadian federal government’s civil service. It took several years, and some leaps of faith, for me to find satisfaction and my career as a publisher/business owner.

Nevertheless, looking back on that day in Tjolotjo as a 26-year-old — when I realized my dream and knew I had the capacity to succeed as a foreign correspondent — I realize that there is something worthy in achieving big, audacious goals, and I wish and hope others can challenge their limits and discover the shining light of adventure, hope and possibility.

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