The University of Iowa

Zimbabwean Farmer Writes About Life Under Tyranny

March 29th, 2010

By Caroline Berg, The Daily Iowan.

With more than 50 counts of treason against him and five attempts on his life, Zimbabwean farmer Philemon Matibe began writing. What was first a journal of experiential record for the political refugee became a thick book of his life and trials.

“When you’re faced with death, you should have a [tape recorder] in front of you,” Texas resident Matibe said. “If you just speak as the images [of your past] flash before you, you’ll have a book for yourself right there.”

Matibe’s memoir, Madhinga Bucket Boy, recounts the Nazi-like hatred he faced as a schoolboy in colonial Rhodesia and the suffering he endured as a farmer under President Robert Mugabe’s despotic political regime in Zimbabwe. Now an exile, Matibe will read from his book and participate in a panel discussion with UI journalism and media-law Associate Professor Lyombe Eko at 7 p.m. today as a part of the Prairie InSight Series. The free forum is at Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St.

“You don’t find anyone who will speak against this tyranny,” Matibe said, whose life’s mission is to oust Mugabe from power so that Matibe can return to his homeland. “[My voice] is the first out of Zimbabwe to oppose the dictator. Everyone else who tried is dead.”

Mugabe’s policies have transformed what used to be a vibrant agricultural economy – and Matibe’s livelihood — into a state of ruin.

“During apartheid and up until the mid-90s, the best farmland came to be owned by white farmers,” said UI histroy Professor James Giblin. “There was definitely an issue of great resentment against white colonists for taking away [this] land … What Mugabe did was take this land back from the white farmers.”

Giblin said Mugabe divided the land among his political “cronies” instead of competent black farmers. As a result, the country has faced a massive food shortage. People have lost their jobs, inflation has skyrocketed, social upheaval has arisen, and major health problems have ravaged Zimbabwe.

In 1999, Matibe seized the opportunity to procure his own farm in Zimbabwe after 17 years working as a profit-sharing manager on white-owned farms. One year later, the government ordered him to leave his land and torched his estate.

“Some of these [atrocities] are so alien to Americans, it’s hard for them to fathom,” Matibe said. “That’s what you take for granted here [in the United States] is your right to stand up against and oppose the government … In Zimbabwe, if you’re lucky, you become a pariah like me. If you’re unlucky, you’re killed.”

Matibe moved to the United States because of its unbridled freedom of speech. Upon his arrival, the refugee organized a small protest before then-President George W. Bush’s house in Crawford, Texas, to petition the U.S. government to send fighter planes to bomb Mugabe’s house. However, he was told that the United States no longer practices the assassinations of dictators.

Matibe is a cofounder of Zimbabwe’s leading oppositional party, Movement for Democratic Change. The writer dreams of helping his home nation overcome its deep-rooted racism and hate through the means of democracy.

“Freedom of speech — I’ve tasted it, and I’m not giving it up,” he said. “I’m prepared to die for it.”

Contributed with permission from The Daily Iowan.