8 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Lessons From the Year 2012


If it was possible for the year 2012 to return, I would say, please, I beg you, ndapota zvangu, keep the painful bad incidents of that year with you. Keep fraud, corruption and the betrayal of trust back there in 2012.

Do not let these serious negative traits of human nature anywhere near me, people I know and those I do not know, particularly those who live in the Diaspora.

At the beginning of 2012, I was swindled a lot of money. It happened so easily. I am talking about it now because I survived the trauma. Not only that, I discovered my own foolishness and Diaspora naivety. As the elders said, kukurukura hunge wapotswa.

A rough translation of this metaphor means a person can only speak of the spear that narrowly missed him when that spear has already passed. The spear almost got me in 2012. It was a narrow escape. I can speak about it now.

When I first came back from the Diaspora, I drove a really old car with missing side mirrors and windows that did not close. It was a borrowed car which could never pass a road test. I would not have wanted any of my old friends to see me in it. My cousin Piri always sat in the back and hid her face when we saw anyone we knew in the streets.

"So why did you come back from the Diaspora without a car?" she would mourn and winch from the back of the dodgy 1975 Toyota Corolla. This really upset me at times because I had contemplated buying a Hummer when I was in the United States, but my sister Charity said I should think of buying a house first because people do not live in Hummers. She was right.

After buying the house with the help of my sister Vongai through an agent, there was no money left to buy a Hummer. A good old friend offered an old Toyota to get by until I had enough money to buy a better one. Piri complained about the Toyota car all the time. I have never understood why Piri always wanted to enjoy the pleasure of sitting in my car when she never offers fuel or contributes to anything except to demand some beers if the distance is more than 20 kilometres.

One day Piri and I stopped at a garage. We met an old friend who offered to introduce me to his friend who could get me a better car at a good price. This friend was also very good at finding bargains and opportunities. We gave this friend of a friend money and he found a reasonably priced car for me. Piri was so happy. She liked the friend and she named him the Opportunities Man. This man knew where everything cheap around Harare could be found.

When my sister who lived in Australia came to visit, she also liked the Opportunities Man because in no time he gave us a Jeep Cherokee to go to the village. He was not just a car dealer, he could also help people buy houses and find jobs. At the time my sister was talking about getting a nice house in Harare with lots of space, with a much bigger garden than mine. It would become a family home, a bit like the village.

Here we could raise some chickens, grow pumpkins and enjoy Zimbabwe's nice weather which was so unlike the weather of the UK or Australia. In future we would gather all the relatives to roast meat, drink beer and wine around an open fire, just like we used to do in the village. Such an urban house would be a new village home similar to the old homestead back in Hwedza.

The Opportunities Man said the new Zimbabwe needed people with sharp eyes for opportunities and he was right there to help our naïve Diaspora eyes to identify them. Then it so happened that one of the Opportunities Man's best friends, a wealthy businessman, was selling a house at a very low price because he needed urgent cash. Since this house was just one among many of his houses, he was prepared to take under a hundred thousand, even though the house was really worth more than US$120 000 or more.

The Opportunities Man presented the house of his businessman friend to me and Piri.

Although the house was small, it had potential. It sat at the corner of a large plot of land with a ready-made braai area and a dog house where my sister could lock up some ferocious dogs during the day.

There were many fruit trees on the land, including mangos, guavas, oranges and some exotic ones like chestnuts and walnuts. My mother, who was quite unwell at the time, liked the idea of the house. She said finally we could grow maize in town, torimawo chibage mutawindi.

We took lots of pictures and sent them to my sister. She liked the house immediately. The Opportunities Man told us not to tell anyone about the house because in doing so, others might get the house before my sister did. Such a bargain had to be a secret.

The question now was the price. The Opportunities Man said the price could even come down to less that US$90 000 if we produced the money as soon as possible. My sister borrowed money from Australia since she had a good credit record over there. I handed over the money to the Opportunities Man so we could secure the house and order some chickens for Piri to look after.

We were going to keep the same gardener and his wife since they seemed to be very nice and were hard working. By Easter in 2012, which was only three months away, we planned to have lots of eggs and several free range chickens laying eggs. By the time we held the house warming party, there would be a whole garden full of rugare, mowa, tsunga, tomatoes and onions.

My sister came over from Australia because my mother had taken a turn for the worse. She went to the lawyer's office twice with the Opportunities Man in order to finalise the agreement of sale.

But on two occasions they did not see the lawyer because he had to attend to an urgent matter in court.

We could not meet the businessman selling the house because he was a very busy man. Most times he was somewhere near the border with South Africa. But he really wanted to meet us.

One time we waited for the businessman for hours at a coffee shop, but he did not turn up because he got stuck somewhere near Masvingo for three days.

His car refused to move. There was nothing mechanically wrong with the car, we were told. Bad spirits had something to do with his car refusing to move. Mweya yetsvina inomisa mota. When these spirits finally disappeared, the businessman arrived in town only to find that his wife had left him, taking the title deeds of the house on sale with her. They were not on talking terms with the wife. But by tomorrow, the businessman seller was going to break through to his wife's good senses and by late evening the title deeds were definitely going to be ready.

The Opportunities Man came home to apologise. He reassured us and wrote that if the house sale did not come through, he would pay all the money back with interest in 30 days. We all signed the handwritten note. Little did we know that it was going to be the key evidence for a case of fraud. Without that, we were finished.

Each day it was becoming increasingly clear that we had been duped. US$84 000 gone and there was no receipt other than a handwritten document to say money had transferred hands. That is how foolish I was. Call it Diaspora naivety or whatever you can, but this was blindness of the highest order. Kupusa chaiko. There was also an element of trust in the goodness of people, hunhu wevanhu.

My sister and I tried to keep the house opportunity that had gone wrong from family and friends in case. When it was all over the papers, the secret went global, on line and everywhere. People read it and one relative said to me. "Nhai iwe, hanzi wakabirwa mari yakawanda kudaro?"

I minimised the damage by saying yes, but really, everything was under control. It was just a diplomatic answer. I was like a duck in water, looking calm, but underneath kicking frantically. Nothing was under control.

If anything, the Opportunities Man's lawyer was very confident that he would push the matter to the Civil Court, away from the Rotten Row Magistrate's court where I wanted to make it a fraud case.

I gathered that the chances of getting the money back at the Civil Court was next to nothing because the Opportunities Man would admit to getting the money then offer to pay whatever little amount he can afford over many years. Basically, the money was gone. Indeed, people said kiss it good bye.

One time I approached a car park and overheard a conversation about the swindled money. A guy I did not know very well said I had drowned my sister's money. "Ndiyeka wekunyudza mari yasister wake."

This was followed by raucous laughter. What they were saying was true, but not funny. We have this habit of laughing at bad events to make them lighter and easier to carry. But, in some cases, we also laugh at the misfortune of others to make ourselves feel better. Sometimes people kick you for no reason at all, when you have already fallen. It happens.

In 2012, I spent a lot of time at the CID headquarters and also at Rotten Row Magistrate court.

It requires a lot of energy and patience to negotiate the Zimbabwe legal system. It was not easy to find information without a lawyer. In the end I got to know some of the most outstanding men in the legal system. They work under difficult situations to uphold the law.

It is not easy to fight corruption in Zimbabwe or anywhere else. At the Central Investigation Department or CID at Ahmed House I met Assistant Commissioner Mangoma a few times. His senior team helped me to follow due process. At Rotten Row Magistrate's Court, the director, Jacob Murombedzi and regional prosecutor Michael Reza, helped with advice.

A good magistrate, a former liberation war hero was likely to make judgment on the case. I had confidence that justice was going to be carried out. The men at Rotten Row Magistrate's Court (they were all men) were ready to do what they knew was right and to do it the right way, the way it ought to be done. We need more of them.

Piri said that I was lucky to get them because they did not want money to do their work. Without money to pay someone to do something for you, you will not win anything at Rotten Row, she said.

That might very well be the case, because on two occasions, we did not hear what the magistrate in the bail application court was saying.

Bail was extended to the Opportunities Man within seconds, before we even knew what was going on. Unless you have a good ear and you speak English well, your case may continue to be postponed until the file gets lost under some other files. I had to keep my eyes on the ball at all times. I gather also, bribery happens sometimes. Apart from the two chickens I bought for the CID officer, who just happened to have left his wallet at home, on the day I reported the case at the CID Headquarters, I paid nothing else.

Two days before the court case, I got my sister's money back in cash. Interest is still forthcoming. Piri drank and danced. She said, "Ah, Sis, when it comes to crooks in Harare, education is nothing.

Munotobirwa chete. Hazvina kungwara. Who would have thought with your education and experience, someone can convince you to hand over so much cash and you do it?" she laughed. It hurt because she was right.

Something in the legal system is broken and it is broken badly. But, this is not to say there is no room for trust left in Zimbabwe. There is. You must have a real receipt for everything including witnesses and signatures. It is best to deal with a reputable lawyer. It costs money but it is worth it.

My mother used to say, education does not always come from a book only. It comes mostly from human experience. As 2012 disappeared over the mountains, never to return, I look now to 2013 as a year where a bad painful experience brought new wisdom. Tsuro haipone rutsva kaviri. I learnt my lessons.

How else can we learn unless we speak of the spear that we allowed to get so close, kukurukura tapotswa. Thankfully, it missed.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic. She holds a PhD in International Relations and works as a development consultant.

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