Surviving Zimbabwe, Speaking out: One man’s story

Media coverage pouring out of Zimbabwe lately concentrates on high level sanctions, the soaring inflation rate, ongoing negotiations between the government and opposition –- and also political violence. It has become evident to the world since the March general election that those who voice their opposition to the ruling party put their lives in jeopardy. In a closed society like Zimbabwe, it is nearly impossible to educate people of the truth. But one man has found ways to speak out, even confronting Zimbabwe's highest-level representative in the U.S. last month in Washington, D.C.

Rejoice3_2 While on a visit to the United States' capital last month sponsored in part by the Cato Institute, Rejoice Nwenga met with policymakers, think tanks and media to discuss how he uses free market ideology to challenge the Zimbabwean government's policies. Nwenga runs a policy dialogue think tank called the Coalition for Market & Liberal Solutions, where he does consulting work for NGOs, business associations and chambers of commerce.

"It is a very safe market, because it is ideological," Nwenga told the Pulitzer Center. "Even Mugabe doesn't take it seriously. He says, 'well, very small boys like Rejoice, they discuss free market economy, price controls; it's not politics as such.' ... I maintain a very professional intellectual talk, which is very difficult to politicize. Maybe that is why I can still live to laugh about it."

One of the main challenges Nwenga said he faces working in Zimbabwe is the Public Order and Security Act. It states that any public meeting with more than five people needs to be authorized by the police. Having navigated this sort of political labyrinth since he was 19 years old, Nwenga finds ways to get around the law. When using the public media, he places ads in an inconspicuous way he calls "artistic journalism." When organizing meetings, he'll either have the "legitimate entities" such as business associations do the organizing, or he'll conduct them himself –- over beers at a local jazz club.

But getting to work is a challenge in itself in a country plagued with the highest inflation rate the world has ever seen (some say 2.5 million percent). Just to have an egg or two with his family in the morning, Nwenga has to wait in line several hours at the bank to withdraw the maximum amount allowed per day – just $100 billion Zimbabwean dollars (~USD $0.50). To bathe before a meeting, he has to gather firewood during the night to make a fire to heat the water –- also gathered during the night at a communal well –- because electricity has become too unreliable. Read Nwenga's related article on daily life in Zimbabwe. (Just this past week, Nwenga announced he is taking on the state monopoly that controls the country's plentiful water supply, leaving many in urban areas to survive off archaic boreholes and wells.)

"It's amazing to me how Mugabe has found ways to create –- and recreate –- poverty," Nwenga said.

In large part due to the political and economic crisis, nearly one third of Zimbabwe's population has fled the country in recent years. Today, with ninety percent of Zimbabweans living well below the poverty line, the life expectancy has decreased from 62 years in 1980 to an average of 35 years. But Zimbabwe wasn't always this way, having once been the breadbasket of Africa with its bountiful exports of tobacco and corn. Read more on the current crisis.

While in Washington, Nwenga had the opportunity to directly challenge the Zimbabwean government's top representative in the United States. Zimbabwean Ambassador Machivenyika Mapuranga was speaking at the World Affairs Council's Ambassador Series. Nwenga was in the audience, and he took the ambassador on, challenging Mapuranga on the recent elections and human rights violations just after another audience member had finished praising Mapuranga for "telling the story the West doesn't hear." Nwenga had the next question.

"Thank you, ambassador, for your very articulate and totally misinformed version of events," Nwenga said. If this were truly a constitutional democracy, he asked, then how do you explain what has gone wrong in Zimbabwe with more than 25,000 people having died under Mugabe since 1980?

Mapuranga replied by saying that the government does not agree with the numbers, and that the elections were free and fair. Mapuranga said that opposition leader Tsvangirai pulled out of the election run-off five days before the polls. But the Zimbabwe constitution says that candidates must pull out 30 or more days prior to the election. So Tsvangirai remained on the ballot, and Mugabe won a free and fair election. Mapuranga said he is confused as to why Zimbabwe has been covered so much by the Western media, insisting in recent interviews that everything in Zimbabwe is "back to normal."

Nwenga is not convinced.

In one of his columns for, Cato's online Africa-focused prgram, he wrote:

"As I think how my day-to-day life in Harare has depleted into stone-age survival, I wonder how I have tolerated Mugabe this long. I ask myself what right he has to steal my right to good life, and how he can possibly keep insulting the West where almost one million of his citizens are etching a living to sustain his wretched economy."

Read Nwenga's August 17 interview with

Listen to Nwenga's July 29 interview with VOA.