Through the story of one Zimbabwean family we tell the parallel tale of the decline and collapse of their country.
Newly liberated with productive farms and an education system that was the envy of its neighbours, Zimbabwe in the early 1980s was a land of plenty.
Within one person’s childhood all that changed.
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Filmmaker Tapiwa Chipfupa returns to the country of her birth to understand why the catastrophe happened.
Guided by a box of old family photographs and phone calls to her parents who are in exile in the UK, she traces the story of her family’s life across Zimbabwe and the parallel story of the decline and collapse of the country.
Told from the perspective of a middle-class African, this is a story of remembrance, of coming to terms with exile and change, and a reminder of the need to guard and protect hard-won freedoms.
By Tapiwa Chipfupa
I was born in 1977, just three years before Zimbabwe gained its freedom from the government of Rhodesia. My mother was a nurse and my father was one of the first qualified black farm managers.
For more than 20 years we moved from farm to farm, going wherever my dad was posted. As the country approached the turn of the century, the government tried to fast-track land reform and in that process my outspoken father was removed from his job.
In 2000, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe introduced an accelerated land reform programme – the Third Chimurenga or “third revolution” in the Shona language – after much tussling with our former colonial master Britain over land reparations and restitution.
The programme included the appropriation of land from white landowners and the breaking up of large government-owned farms into smaller plots to be handed out to new black farmers. However, even this land reform process did not happen quickly enough for many, particularly the war veterans who had for two decades been waiting for restitution. Frustrated, they began grabbing land by force in 2000.
The government supported these farm invasions and began to accelerate its own land appropriation process. Economic sanctions were soon imposed on Zimbabwe. My country, already troubled by several other issues that had been escalating as we approached the new century, could not withstand the strain. The economy buckled and the country slid into a monumental meltdown.
Opinions on the true long-term effects of the land reforms remain divided but the immediate economic effect was devastating in human terms. Millions of Zimbabweans left the country to seek a better life and security around the globe. Some left legally because they could, while others found a way to leave even if it meant swimming across crocodile-infested rivers.
Some stayed on because they were hopeful things would get better, while others had no choice but to stay. My mother left to find work in the UK and together with my father and four siblings we struggled to make ends meet in Zimbabwe. A few years later my father joined my mother with my siblings. I continued my studies, gave birth to my daughter and obtained a scholarship to the AFDA film school in Johannesburg, South Africa.
When I was finally able to visit my parents I tried to go to England but by then the British authorities had changed the immigration laws and they denied me a visitor’s visa. They have refused me many times since then, with the result that I have not seen my parents or siblings in 12 years. I wanted to make a film that showed what had happened to my family amid the tense political situation at the time.
My family’s gradual decline and disintegration mirrored that of our country. My family left not because they wanted to or just because they could, but because the circumstances gave them with no other choice. Now they live in limbo in Europe and Australia with visa restrictions on both our sides preventing a reunion.
As the years steadily pass by, the sadness in my heart continues to deepen as my younger siblings transform into grown men and women and my parents’ hair turns grey over countless photographs and Skype conversations.
My family have never met my nine-year-old daughter and she does not know the touch of a grandparent. I am overwhelmed by the pain of separation from my family and life in exile and so making this film and going back to Zimbabwe was a very tough experience, both emotionally and physically.
I had to make sense of what had become of my life, perhaps to try to understand what I am going through and to be able to accept the situation I find myself in. I cannot see my family but at least this film gave me the opportunity to go back home.
The film was very challenging for me because it was a deeply personal and emotional journey. It was difficult to accept that none of my family was there and to see what had happened to the places where I grew up, to see what has become of the country of my childhood. But it was very rewarding in the sense that, like so many others, I had reached a place of acceptance with what it is today and had somehow forged a way forward.
Filming in Zimbabwe is very complicated. Getting a filming permit was a difficult process. In some areas it was very dangerous to film and on a few occasions our lives were threatened by war veterans who were afraid that we were filming them or that we had some other agenda.
We had to film on two cameras, the larger camera that was obvious in the safer areas, and the smaller camera, that appeared to be a stills camera wherever filming was restricted. All the farms we filmed at were places I had once lived, and it would have been impossible to gain access to film there if the current occupants had not seen the photographs of the old days and, in some cases, recognised me and respected me as the daughter of Mr Chipfupa, the old farm manager.
I did not set out to provide statistics, to sum up the land reform process in Zimbabwe or to discuss the politics of my country. My film is not a diatribe against particular individuals or politicians. I set out to make a personal film that explores the universal themes of childhood, exile, family separation and loneliness.
Vicariously through that I wanted to present one of the many unheard and untold stories of an ordinary Zimbabwean by telling my own story of my connection to, and my separation from, the land.
The result is a film that is deeply personal and at the same time contains quite strong and genuine social and political content that is current and relevant to a fuller understanding of what is happening in Zimbabwe.
This film was first broadcast on Al Jazeera English in August 2013.