Resilience and a game to overcome adversity.


Part three of my experience at the hands of Mugabe’s police in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwean police beats fleeing protester


Sokwanele – Zimbabwe via Compfight

Before dawn, after a restless night spent trying to get comfortable on a cold, hard concrete floor with only a threadbare, thin blanket, I could no longer sleep. I remember sitting up with my back against the wall, knees bent because there was not enough space to stretch my legs out. Listening to the other men in the cell, coughing, fidgeting, some muttering to themselves, others clearly in the grip of terrifying nightmares. Worrying about contracting some obscure disease or becoming infested with bedbugs or lice from some of the decidedly unhealthy and dirty occupants.

Soon after dawn, a Police woman officer opened the inspection hatch in the door to check if any occupants had disappeared (impossible) or died (possible) during the night. I demanded that I be allowed out of the cell to brush my teeth, not for a moment expecting her compliance, surprised when it was agreed. I was escorted outside to a tap in the garden. Obviously I had no toothbrush or toothpaste, but I was able to wash my hands and face and rinse out my mouth with clean water.

I realised that I had scored a point, I had made a demand and been successful. That did my mind a power of good. I resolved that I would use every opportunity to score points and treat the experience as a game. It was the biggest single factor in remaining calm and positive throughout the experience. It also allowed me to channel my anger in a way that reduced the risk of me being beaten up or moved to a remote detention centre.

At about 8 am, the door was opened and we were told to assemble in the yard. The yard was bordered by the row of three cells at the back, a toilet and disgustingly dirty kitchen on one side, another building on the other and a 10′ diamond mesh fence topped with barbed wire at the front. A group of uniformed police officers and plain clothes security police stood outside the fence. As each prisoners name was called he was ordered to answer and state his “crime”. There was much shouting and the whole exercise was designed to further intimidate those inside the fence.

When my name was called, I looked straight at the senior officer and speaking English, stated that I was being held illegally, asked why I was denied access to my lawyer and demanded that I be released immediately. There was a gasp of surprise from the police and those prisoners who could understand English. I was so angry that I could not help myself, but I thought I might have overdone the point scoring game and set myself up for some unpleasant treatment. The senior officer, although irritated, replied that it was out of his hands – a response that was further proof that my detention was part of the continuing process to intimidate the few remaining white farmers to abandon our farms.

But I scored points and noticed more respect from the junior officers from then on. Afterwards, many of the other prisoners congratulated me for my stand but said they thought I would be taken away and “dealt with”. Such was the fear of the brutality of the Mugabe government in the minds of the ordinary African people.

We were permitted to stay in the yard, walk around, use the filthy outside toilet, drink water from a tap (no glasses or cups) for 30 minutes then locked back in the cell.

At around 10:00 am, we were let out for the morning meal. The staple food of indigenous people in Southern and much of Central Africa, is maize meal porridge, cooked to a stiff, fairly dry consistency known as sadza. A mouthful is scooped out of a communal pot with the fingertips, dipped in relish or gravy (if available) and then eaten. Another favourite food is kapenta, a small fresh water sardine type of fish that is salted and sun-dried and soaked in water before eating. The mid morning meal consisted of a large bowl of cold, very dry sadza and another smaller bowl with a few handfuls of kapenta floating in cold, grey water.

Sadza with everything. Must be Zimbabwe!

Dan Mason via Compfight

Sadza was also eaten by Europeans, as a creamier porridge mixed with milk for breakfast and in its traditional form at a braaivleis (barbecue) as a carbohydrate to complement grilled steak, boerewors (South African beef sausage), ribs, chicken or fish and salads. Hamburgers were rarely served at barbecues in Southern Africa.

I had eaten both dishes many times before, but not from communal dishes placed on a dirty floor and shared with people with no facilities to wash their hands, and with no individual plates or eating utensils. Besides which, I could see how hungry most of the others were, I let them have my share. A jug of drinking water was also placed on the floor with one battered tin mug to be used by every one.

Sue had learned from other farmers who had been subjected to the same intimidation, that the police were quite happy for white farmer’s families to bring food for those of us who had been arrested. On Saturday morning, accompanied by two of our sons, she brought me a meal, a thermos flask of tea and a supply of cigarettes. We were to experience yet another farce.

A few months previously, a prominent member of the opposition party – the MDC – had died in a prison in Harare under suspicious circumstances. In a ridiculous attempt to deflect accusations of torture and murder, the government claimed that he had been poisoned by a family member bringing food to him in the prison.

When Sue arrived with my food, she was made to taste each part of each meal in front of a police officer to prove that it was not poisoned. She also had to drink a mouthful of tea before passing it to me. The farce continued. The police refused to open the gate in the fence to allow Sue to pass a plate to me. I ate my meals one spoonful at a time passed through the diamond mesh fence. A sure-fire way to promote slow eating.

When it came time to drink my tea, there was no way to pass a mug through the fence and Sue had not brought drinking straws. I demanded that a gate be opened. Eventually, a hatch into the kitchen area was opened and I was able to get my mug of tea. More points scored. It is amazing how refreshing a cup of tea can be under such dire circumstances.

Sue had brought plenty of food, more than I felt like eating, as soon as I had enough, I got the others to bring the now empty communal bowls to the fence and we spooned all the remaining food through the fence for them to share. It almost created a riot they were so hungry. Such was the effect of hyper inflation on wage and salary earners, that even the police officers looked longingly at the food we were giving away, I thought they might intervene and confiscate it for themselves. I asked Sue to bring even more food and small snacks that could be passed through the fence at the following mealtimes.

Our sons had each brought packets of cigarettes, we knew that passing whole packets through the fence would result in their confiscation, so I hid as many as I could away in the pockets of my jacket and then told the others to go and get a few cigarettes each, which they all did. It was humbling to see the gratitude a few mouthfuls of food and a couple of cigarettes created.

After the 30 minutes or so of being out in the fresh air of the yard, we were herded back into the dark, dirty and stinking cell until the food experience was repeated as precisely as if it had been scripted at around 4 pm. The tedium of the day only broken by new arrivals and departures. Being a Saturday, there were more arrivals than departures until the numbers in our 12′ x 12′ cell reached 27.

I had told all the prisoners who smoked to get some cigarettes from our sons. We were not supposed to smoke in the cell, but we did and the officers knew it. As long as we hid the glowing ends of a cigarette when the inspection hatch or the door were opened, there was no comment despite the overwhelming smell of smoke. The more smoke in the cell, the less we noticed the stench from the open toilet pit in the corner. Every time I saw a cigarette being lit, I chalked up another point in my little game.


Another smoke, another point

One of the most heart-warming episodes of the whole experience came that night, it was quite late, the lights were out and it was almost completely dark in the cell when I felt a hand tapping my arm. One of the others was holding out a cigarette to me. I said that I still had some and that the cigarettes my son had given him were for him to smoke. His reply was that he had taken two, one for himself and one for me because I had been generous in sharing my food and cigarettes with the others. Although I thanked him and insisted that he keep the cigarette, the same kind gesture was repeated twice more that night by others.

Quite amazing to think that this kindness was from people who were rarely able to afford the basic necessities of life, never mind filter cigarettes.

Sunday passed in much the same way as Saturday, the two high points being meal times when I saw Sue and our boys, had food and tea, got a cigarette re-supply for the whole cell population. A few other friend visited, but it was an unwritten rule amongst farmers that we did not expect any one other than family or close friends to visit. Our individual survival depended on us staying below the radar as much as possible.

At the Sunday afternoon meal break, I noticed that there were three doors in the cell block. One was the cell I was in, one on the right was for female prisoners, we could hear women’s voices at times, but never saw them as they had different meal times. The door on the left appeared to lead to a smaller room of some sort. I asked one of the more decent officers (some were trying hard to remain professional) what was behind that door. He said that it was a small cell, only used when the larger one became over crowded, it was currently empty. I said that our cell was already dangerously overcrowded and that I should be moved to the smaller cell. He agreed to ask permission from a senior officer.

Around dusk that evening, the officer opened the cell door and told me that my request had been agreed and that I could move to the small cell but I could not be alone in the cell, (did they really think I was suicidal?) I must choose one other to accompany me. There was an older prisoner, better educated than most who was interesting to talk with, he was overjoyed to move to our new quarters with me. A 12′ x 8′ cell for just two of us, and we found extra blankets on the floor. More points scored, bonus points this round of the game.

A better night, the first time I had been able to stretch out to sleep, a doubled blanket underneath me to soften the cold, hard concrete floor, one to fold for a pillow, another to cover me, the floor almost clean and the smell less noticeable. 5 star accommodation compared to the previous nights. A lesson in how little we really need to make us happy.

Monday morning at around 8: 30 after my by now routine visit to the garden tap for my morning ablutions, we assembled for the morning roll call. Names of all those scheduled to appear in the magistrates court and a few who were being moved to remand prisons were read out. My name was in the first group. I was let out of the yard and moved to an office to meet my lawyer. He had been unable to obtain petrol (gasoline) for his car, fuel was in desperately short supply at the time, he had been forced to travel the 70km from the capital in a crowded mini bus taxi. He told me what I already knew, that there was no valid charge against me and that this was pure intimidation to force me off my farm and to increase the pressure on the few other white farmers holding onto their land.

He also told me that as much as he understood my anger and sympathised with me, that we were not going to win the battle to get back to my farm. He said I had a choice, my principles or my freedom. He also told me not to say anything but answer yes or no in court as although the magistrate was a political appointee and was looking for any excuse to punish a white farmer, he was a reasonable man. He told me that he would be in the courtroom when my case was called.

We were led out to an ancient truck and driven the short distance to the magistrates court. I was filthy from sleeping on the floor, barefoot, unshaven and dishevelled. We were made to sit on the floor in a corridor, guards with AK 47s at both exits. My case was called after about an hour, it was a prime example of a kangaroo court in operation. A list of charges was read out, conspiring to resist the government’s land reform, accumulating arms of war, insulting the president, and on and on. After a short exchange with my lawyer, I was told by the magistrate that I would be released on bail only if I agreed never to return to my farm. The security police officer who had been the chief tormentor during my interrogation argued that I should be sent to remand prison for 6 months.

The magistrate prevailed and said that my lawyer and I must meet with the security police to agree on bail terms. We adjourned to a waiting area, it was now near lunch time, I had not eaten anything since 4 pm the previous day and apart from my early morning water from the garden tap, had no liquid. There was no cafeteria in the court-house, no source of food or beverage at all, but I did get some water from a wash room.

My lawyer told me that the security police we would see would be very intimidating and try to provoke me into saying something that would justify them locking me up again, but if I kept my mouth shut, he would “sort it out”. He was correct, it was unpleasant, I did keep my mouth shut and eventually the official signed a form releasing me on bail of Z$9000 (which given the ridiculous exchange rate was pocket change) ordering me not to go within 5 km of my farm, provide details of my new address and requiring me to report to the police station twice a week. I did not have to surrender my passport.

Sue and our boys were waiting, paid the bail, took me back to the police station to retrieve my watch, shoes and other clothes and then to friend’s house in the village where I was able to have a long hot bath, a good lunch off a plate and relax for the first time in days.

From there we went to our new home, the small cottage on my brother’s few acres where my mother had lived before moving to England. The first sight that greeted me was our 6 dogs threading their way through the contents of a big four bedroomed farm-house and many storage sheds now strewn over a very small lawn. Sue had been given the weekend that I was in the police cells to move all our personal possessions, cattle, horses, pets and our remaining equipment that had not been stolen, off the farm. Friends and former neighbours arrived with an fleet of trucks to help as we had one many times before for them. One salvation was that we had not been burned out of our home like many others, losing their even their clothes and important documents in the process.

Freeth family home destroyed


Sokwanele – Zimbabwe via Compfight

That was the end of my stay in the police cells at Marondera, Zimbabwe as a victim of Mugabe’s campaign to destroy agriculture and drive most of the white population out of the country. The intimidation did not stop. The situation in Zimbabwe got worse, inflation increased and the outlook for the future became increasingly bleak. With the white population down to less than 20 000 from its height of close to 400 000 in Rhodesian days, we did not have the numbers or resources to fight back. The black opposition was being persecuted even more brutally than white farmers, they had effectively been neutralised.

Although some white people did stay including 300 farmers still on portions of their farms, we refused to pay bribes in some form or another to be allowed to retain a small portion of our farm. By staying in Zimbabwe if we found another way to generate an income, we would be paying taxes that would contribute to the ongoing persecution of the remaining farmers and ordinary Zimbabweans. Our consciences would not allow us to do that. We sold or gave away all our remaining possessions, paid off our bank overdraft and moved to Canada. Not an easy decision for us in our mid 50s at the time, to leave a country where Sue was born and I moved to as a five-year old.

What did I learn from the experience and how has it affected me? A lot but that will be the subject of another post.

Peter Wright




smoke image courtesy of foto76 /



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  3 comments for “Resilience and a game to overcome adversity.

  1. Roberta
    November 15, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Riveting! You should write a book. I could say and write so much, from your courage to your smarts. But my words would pale in comparison to your story.

    For me, [aside from the massive injustice] it was all summed up with this simple sentence: “A lesson in how little we really need to make us happy.”

  2. November 18, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Thank you Roberta, you are right, we do not need much to make us happy.

    All these posts about life in Africa are in their own category with the intention of editing them into a book in the future, I just checked, there are now 19 of them with a total of 23 000 words. There is no way that I would have written that much if I was trying to write a whole book as one project, but this way with a post for the book every couple of weeks, in another year or so I will have enough content to publish the book.

    I am sure you already have enough content for several recipe books.

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