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Flickering lights in Zimbabwe

COLUMN ONE

In a country where the government silences newspapers, bloggers use the Internet to keep dissent and hope alive.

September 10, 2008|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — The blogger calls himself a "fat white man" and jokes about the right way to approach a cordon of Zimbabwean riot police: Don't wear an opposition T-shirt, or ask for the results of the recent one-man presidential runoff. Instead, greet them with a breezy "Good morning! How are you, sirs?"

"I note that there are no officers in the line, which is good as it means there's nobody to order the cops to start hitting me," he writes. "But then again if they do start hitting me there's no one to tell them to stop."

The "fat white man" is not just some cheeky cyberdissident -- he's a British diplomat named Philip Barclay. His blog is found on the official British Foreign Office website.

Barclay's exhilaratingly undiplomatic https://blogs.fco.gov.uk/roller/harare, at https://blogs.fco.gov.uk/roller/harare/, veers from humor reminiscent of P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves books to bleak horror. Zimbabwe, he says, is a country where "good manners and repression go hand-in-hand."

With most of Zimbabwe's independent newspapers shut down by President Robert Mugabe's authoritarian regime, bloggers and cyberactivists fill the vacuum. It's a world peopled with intelligence agents from the old white-led Rhodesian government, pumping out news updates; fleeing journalists who have parachuted into the wide, blue freedom of the Internet; and emigres who left the country 10 or 15 years ago but can't get it out of their systems. But the most compelling blogs are from the people who have stayed home.

There are those who write everything in red, capitalized italics, calling for the violent removal of Mugabe. There are whimsical letters from the bush. There's poetry. And there's more than the occasional outbreak of whining.

In short, it's a world filled with as much paranoia, rumor, frustration, stoicism, humor, rage and wild hope as the country itself.

Bev Clark, who calls herself an "electronic activist" and helped found a website named kubatana.net, portrays Zimbabwe's bizarre contradictions and numbing frustrations with wry, cynical humor that sometimes bubbles into anger.

Comrade Fatso, a lanky, dreadlocked Zimbabwean poet whose real name is Samm Farai Monro, elegantly captures the atmosphere of a country that is waiting, trapped, afraid.

Cathy Buckle, a 51-year-old divorcee and author who lost her farm in Mugabe's land seizures, posts angry, poignant letters on cathybuckle.com about the bare supermarket shelves, the deprivations of Zimbabwe's "Fourth World" conditions, and the Msasa tree leaves pattering on her roof, promising a new season and hope.

Kubatana.net, founded by Clark and her partner, Brenda Burrell, organizes protests and sends out newsletters and text messages to reach people in a country where only a few use the Internet. Other sites clip and disseminate news from foreign media, adding their own commentaries in garish fonts.

What shines through it all are the small, colorful transactions of life, like bright postage stamps winking from a mountain of brown-paper parcels.

Barclay writes about meeting Marita, a teenage orphan who says she has HIV. It is just after the government has lopped 10 zeros off the currency because of galloping hyperinflation:

"Marita reminds me that she has not yet eaten and needs $200,000,000,000 to do so. I give her two shiny little new $10 coins and explain that they are worth the same as two hundred billion old dollars. She clearly does not believe me and gives me a filthy look -- the look one gives a man who cheats poor, sick girls -- and stalks off."

Some afternoons Clark and the other Kubatana activists turn up their music loud in their suburban Harare office. They play the Nigerian hip-hop artist Dr Alban -- " . . . freedom is our goal . . . " -- and sing their hearts out.

Clark cut her teeth as a white gay activist in the 1980s and '90s, at a time when Mugabe called homosexuality "sub- animal behavior" and said gays and lesbians had no rights and should be arrested.

In the 1980s, when she published a gay and lesbian newsletter, Clark's office was raided by about eight police officers searching for "pornographic materials," which turned out to mean a booklet listing gay, lesbian and bisexual support groups.

These days, when worn down by the business of agitating for change, Clark retreats into a bubble bath in her home in Harare, the capital. That is, when there are any bubbles left in her bottle. Or any water in her tap.

She writes: "In no particular order, I'm fed up with: a) vendors selling me overpriced trays of eggs whilst I'm crossing the road; b) dead of night tsotsis (criminals) stealing telephone cables rendering all phones kaput; c) my hunting dog waking me up at 4am, 3 nights in a row; d) civil society fear merchants who say Don't Do A Damned Thing, or we'll provoke a state of emergency in Zimbabwe; e) Mugabe; f) waiting."

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