In April 2008, Senzile Tshuma—a schoolteacher in Maketo Village—was arrested in Zimbabwe. I had met Senzile’s brother Romeo at an international AIDS conference in Trinadad in 2001. We stayed in touch by email, and a year later I helped him come to America where he was granted asylum. We were roommates for close to five years. On Friday, April 25th we went out to dinner and discussed recent news from home. I also asked him to talk about his childhood and the situation that caused him to leave his country.
Some background: Formerly the British colony of Rhodesia, Zimbabwe became a majority-controlled independent state in 1980. Since that time, Robert Mugabe has been leader of the country and his political party, ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Political Front). The opposition party MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) is led by Morgan Tsvangirai.
The Capital of Zimbabwe, Harare, is located in the Shona region of the country. The second largest city in Zimbabwe is Bulwayo, located in the western province of Matabeleland, home to the Ndebele people.
Partly in response to GALZ (gays and lesbians of Zimbabwe) presence at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (which had a human rights theme), Zimbabwe criminalized homosexuality. Mugabe called it “a white man’s disease,” and homosexuals “worse than dogs and pigs.” In the presidential election of 2000, Mugabe made his position on homosexuality one of his campaign themes. In 2002 Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations, partly due to human rights abuses and election tampering. The results of April’s election took a month to be released; there have been reports of crackdowns and intimidation since the election.
A combi is a small, privately owned van that follows a regular route and is used for inexpensive public transportation.
Michael: The last time we talked you said your sister was arrested. Have you talked to anybody since then?
Romeo: Yes. I talked to my mum, I talked to my brother, and I talked to my sister-in-law. Almost everybody I could get hold of. She’s still in jail; there’s not much help. The crackdown goes on and on. Even the teachers that are not in trouble are scared to go back to school. School opens in two weeks—the union for the teachers told them not to go back to school because it’s very dangerous. If the situation doesn’t change, they want the teachers to stay home because of how dangerous it is. We’ll see when the schools open.
My uncle is a colonel in the army and he’s not helping anybody. That’s the sad part. He’s in the regime that’s killing people—that’s done all these bad things to people—but he’s not doing anything to help us.
Michael: What about your brother?
Romeo: He’s just a businessman; they can’t do anything. It’s getting worse and worse every day. They just raided the office of the opposition party. The people in the rural areas were running to hide in Harare and there were no places for them to go. They were staying in their offices. The opposition vice president Thokozani Khupe managed to get them some food from a non-governmental organization, but they don’t have a place for them to stay. So now they raided those offices. They’ve nowhere to go. It’s back to square one.
Michael: Why did your sister get arrested?
Romeo: Because she was involved with the elections. The teachers work for the government, so when they have elections it’s the teachers doing the election process. Now they’re accusing the teachers of manipulating the election results for the opposition. She’s one of the people who have been picked up for that.
Michael: How did she get picked up? Do you know?
Romeo: I don’t know; I didn’t get all the details. I don’t know how she got picked up. They followed her…
Michael: Because school wasn’t in session when she got picked up…
Romeo: No. I think it started from the village. My sister moved close to my mom. So the school that we went to, that’s where my sister teaches.
Michael: Where you went as a child.
Romeo: Yes. That’s where everything started. That’s where the violence is, in the rural area. The information came from the rural area. Whoever or whatever they said, they followed her to find out where she lives.
Michael: Did she get arrested in your village?
Romeo: No, in the city.
Michael: In Bulawayo?
Michael: Did she get picked up in the street or in her house?
Romeo: She got picked up in her house. They just knocked on the door and took her away. So then my brother called me and told me what happened.
Michael: She’s married?
Romeo: She just got married a year ago.
Michael: Do they live together?
Romeo: Yes, but my sister teaches in the rural area…
Michael: He’s in the army. He was in another part of the country for a while. He’s in Bulawayo now?
Romeo: Yes, he’s doing some coursework for the government—an apprentice or something. But my sister has moved away from him, even further away. My sister gone to my mom, where we come from is far away from Bulawayo.
Michael: She stays with him on the weekends…
Romeo: He comes once in a while to the village too, but it’s expensive for them to be traveling. My sister was happy; she’s close to my mom. Even if they don’t get paid that much… Whatever they eat, they share, or they kill a goat and they give something to her, to take to school. It’s very convenient for her.
Michael: How’s your mom doing?
Romeo: She…she’s lost it. She can’t believe it. It’s the end of everything for my mum. After all she’s done… I feel more sorry for my mom than for my sister. Now she has two kids to take care of. How’s she going to do that?
Michael: She’s taking care of your sister’s kids?
Romeo: Yes, and nobody’s helping.
Michael: How old are they?
Romeo: The older one’s six or seven…
Michael: And she has a baby too.
Romeo: Yes, a small baby. It’s my mum’s problem now, plus taking care of seven other kids my brother left when he and his wife died of AIDS…and now this? She says, “When am I going to rest?” It’s a big tragedy. She’s really having a hard time.
* * *
Michael: So the village where you grew up, that’s where your sister teaches now?
Michael: What’s the name of the village?
Romeo: Yes, we come from Maketo. The villages are named after the chief. It’s like a royal thing, it goes from whoever started it, so it’s Maketo Village. We’re all related. It’s like one big family.
Before it used to be one big village, now the village is expanding. There are more homes now. When you grow up you get your own land and build. Before we were born, you can see where they were living. When my mother was growing up there, it was one home. They all lived in the same round place. Everybody lived together.
Michael: So your mom has her own place now?
Romeo: My mom has her own place, yes. My mom used to live with my grandfather. My mom used to be married, but when she came back she lived with her mum and her dad. She was having problems with her marriage, and her mum was getting sick, so she came back to take care of her.
Michael: I want you to talk a little more about the village. You said that everybody has their own place now?
Romeo: My grandmother and my grandfather had three sons. When those three sons grew up, they built their own huts, away from the main home.
Michael: Who built the hut that your mother lives in?
Romeo: My brother and my uncle. My mother, she not married…
Michael: So they built a hut for her?
Romeo: Yes, they built a hut, and everybody helped. They put money together to help her build her own… It’s a few meters away from where we used to live. When my grandmother died, they destroyed the hut my grandmother lived in when she was alive.
Michael: Where was your grandmother buried?
Romeo: There in the village. Right there in front of the kitchen. Everybody’s buried there.
Michael: It’s like the original kitchen.
Romeo: Yes, the original hut where we cook and everything. That’s the most important hut, where everybody comes together and they talk about everything. That’s the kitchen where everything happens, so the graves would be outside.
Some people leave for years, and the people there protect the graves. Every year we go back to those graves. They mean a lot to us. Every year we brew African beer and people say whatever they want to say—their problems, the good and bad things that happened to them throughout the year.
Michael: You also told me that you see them.
Romeo: Yes. Some people might not believe it, but if you live there, it’s there, whether or not you believe it. When my grandmother died—you know—like a ghost? We see a big flame of fire that sits there when it gets dark. It’s when the moon is not out. It never happens when the moon is there.
Michael: When it’s really dark.
Romeo: When it’s really dark, that’s the only time it happens. That time when it happens people move around with matches. When you light a match, it disappears. The funny thing with my grandmamma is that she never became a fire, like a big smoke with fire, no. You see an image, like a shadow.
Michael: So you saw her?
Romeo: She’ll pass. You’ll walk in the village…it’s so thick! There are so many trees; it’s really thick. So you walk the path and you walk and you walk, and you see something whsh!, (makes sound) it passes in front of you. Then your walk, whsh!, it passes again, passes again in front of you. You see an image; you never see the face or anything but you see that it’s built like her. That’s all you’ll see. She’ll pass this way and pass this way (moves hands). It’s really weird; it doesn’t happen that much.
Most ghosts that people see, it’s a big flame of fire that goes, whuuu (makes sound) like the wind is blowing something. You don’t see how the fire starts. It’s not from the ground!
Michael: Like fire in the air?
Romeo: Like fire in the air. And it moves around, back and forth, like a wind, whaaa (makes sound) chtktktk (makes sound). Then you see the charcoal falling down. But then there’s nothing on the ground.
Romeo: Everybody sees that. We’ve seen it since we were young. People die; we see that. There are some stories that were taught when we’re growing up. When a ghost says something to you, tell it, “I didn’t do anything to you. Leave me alone. I didn’t kill you; I didn’t do anything. I’m innocent; just let me go.” Then maybe it will disappear or something.
There are stories of when some mothers died, you leave at night after you clean the kitchen then you find that everything’s changed in the morning. That’s really common. Everything’s rearranged how they did it when they were alive.
People will go to traditional healers to try to make it go away, or do something so that it doesn’t come back. It bothers people a lot.
Michael: Tell me more about the regular village life. Where you get your water and food, stuff like that.
Romeo: In the village there’s no running water, even today.
Michael: From you mother’s house, how far do you go to get water?
Romeo: A kilometer, one and a half kilometers.
Michael: Is it a river or a well?
Romeo: It’s a well. The non-governmental organizations come there and they put this thing where you pump it and the water comes out, but that’s a little bit further down. But there’s these streams, people dig and get water there.
Michael: What kind of food do they grow?
Romeo: The staple food in Zimbabwe is maize. The call it mealie meal; it’s corn. We grow it, dry it, and you can grind it in the village. There are tools in the village, old tools that they use, made from trees…
Michael: To do it by hand.
Romeo: Now there’s grinding mills. We call them growth points. There’s a bank, a store, and they built a grinding mill with a long line.
Michael: Is it free to use, but you just have to wait?
Romeo: You have to pay for it too! People take a day and they go early in the morning. It’s far away from where my mother lives. They put it on the back of a donkey, getting up when it’s dark.
Michael: What else do they grow?
Romeo: They grow sorghum, beans; they dry the leaves of the beans with salt. When it’s not raining, they boil it again and eat it with corn meal.
Michael: You also eat meat? What animals?
Romeo: Mostly goat, that’s the easiest one. Once in a while they kill a cow.
Michael: Do you milk the goats?
Romeo: It’s a very good milk for tea; very nice for tea.
Michael: You also told me about the caterpillars. Is that a certain time of the year?
Romeo: In April, when the harvest starts, there are caterpillars everywhere! There’s a certain tree, called the Mopane tree. The caterpillars are only found in those kinds of trees. When it’s time for the caterpillars we get people from very far away, coming to get caterpillars. There’s a lot! You have to close the houses; you have to close the huts every day because they’ll be crawling everywhere.
Michael: Do they turn into butterflies? What do they look like?
Romeo: They’re very pretty, a brownish color and there very big.
Michael: How do you prepare them?
Romeo: You have to wait until they’re really big.
Michael: They’re as big around as your thumb.
Romeo: Yes, and about four inches long. And you shake the tree and they all fall down. Then you take them one by one and you squeeze the dirty from inside.
Romeo: Everything that comes from the stomach. You hold the head and squeeze it like this (like toothpaste) for everything to come out, everything that they eat.
Michael: And the shit comes out.
Romeo: Then you go to the river, and you dig a hole. You bury it inside, and you make a fire on top.
Michael: So that cooks it?
Romeo: Yes, then you dig it up and dry it. It takes weeks for it to dry properly.
Michael: So the stuff that I saw you eat here was the dried stuff. It must not last a long time ‘cause they looked really fragile.
Romeo: No, they last until the other season. The amazing part of it, when it becomes another time for the caterpillars again, the dried ones turn to powder.
Michael: So they’ll last for a year. When they’re dry, how do you reconstitute it?
Romeo: You boil it in water, and throw away the water as many times as you can. Because they burry it in the sand, you shake that sand off, and the water becomes dirty, so you throw it away until it’s clean. Then you can put cooking oil and fry it. It’s good! It really tastes good.
Michael: I remember them being furry and caked in dirt.
Romeo: Yes, and people damage their hands because they have like…
Romeo: Yes, spikes on them. You should see my mother’s hands; she’ll be scratching her hands with a stone to get them out. And her hands will look like the bottom of her feet.
Michael: There are also wild animals there. Do you eat any of the wild animals?
Romeo: Oh yes—antelope, impalas, kudus.
Michael: Why don’t you eat giraffes and zebras, and…
Romeo: No, they’re like donkeys! A zebras is like a wild donkey.
Michael: It tastes bad?
Romeo: (incredulously) Nobody ever tried it. You don’t eat that. You don’t eat lions, you don’t eat zebras, and you don’t eat giraffes!
Michael: But they eat you!
Romeo: Yes (laughing). Not the giraffes, but the lions and the cheetahs, yes they eat… Because of what is happening with the political system, it’s worse now.
Michael: With the lions?
Romeo: With everything. There’s no system that protects people from the wild animals.
Michael: There was a system before?
Romeo: There was a very good system before.
They erect these fences, and everything; they had rangers with guns, everything to protect people from wild animals. It’s not there any more; there’s so much corruption. People take the fence, they cut it down, you find the lions moving in the village, with people running away and closing their houses. It never used to be like that, but it’s getting worse and worse.
Michael: How often does somebody get killed?
Romeo: It never used to happen that much. Even the crocodiles in the river—women washing clothes in the river—they get eaten, their kids get eaten by crocodiles. It never used to be like that; there used to be a very good system, but now everything’s falling apart. It’s really dangerous.
There are rules for people, how they should behave around wild animals. People have lived with wild animals all these years; they know how to be around wild animals; what to do and what not to do, things like that. So that protects people. I’ve heard of tourists getting eaten; they’ll erect a tent in the bush, and make a fire and everything.
Michael: And they’ll get eaten?
Michael: But you don’t get many tourists where you grew up.
Romeo: No, they don’t go there. But they’re missing out, because that’s the real life there. They’re missing out a lot!
Michael: How old were you when you saw your first white person?
Romeo: Maybe when I moved to the city? I don’t remember. I never saw a white person growing up.
Michael: When you go to the city, you take the bus. How close does the bus come to your village?
Romeo: You have to walk to the bus, maybe two, three kilometers to the bus. You have to get up at two in the morning and start walking. There’s only one bus, you miss the bus; you miss it for the day.
Michael: From your village to Bulawayo, how long does it take?
Romeo: Maybe five, six hours.
* * *
Michael: The last thing I wanted you to talk about was after we met. You were working for GALZ, and you were having all the problems with the government. I don’t want you to talk about the book fair, but were you working for GALZ when that happened?
Romeo: When the book fair happened we were all volunteers; 1995. We were all volunteers at that time.
Michael: Then you got a paid job with them later on.
Michael: Then Mugabe did that thing with the gay people, and you became a spokesperson.
Romeo: Since the 1995 book fair I was already speaking out as someone from the region where I came from. They tried to identify people from the regions where they come from. We were trying to say that being gay is not a white man’s disease. We’re everywhere. In all the cultures, in all the districts there are gay people. So I represented the other part, the Matabele people. I’m Ndebele and I’m gay; and this guy’s Shona and he’s gay too! I come from the bush, I grew up there, I never had seen any white man, but I’m still gay.
Michael: Whom were you talking to?
Romeo: The press—before they closed all the newspapers that were not government newspapers—they used to allow us to say our views about what we think and everything…
Michael: So the people from the newspapers would come and talk to you?
Romeo: Yes. Even the papers from outside the country would come and talk to us. The papers from South Africa would come and talk to us because it was really a big thing. There was so much abuse that people wanted to talk to us. It was a big problem that commanded attention, so people wanted to talk to us. That’s the only way we got funding: by talking and speaking up and saying what was happening to us.
Michael: When they ran the articles, they also had pictures too.
Romeo: That made it worse. It made it worse for everybody involved. They knew exactly who we were. They’ll pick you up on the street. One day they picked me up while I was buying food at the market. This guy in plain clothes said, “Come with me to the police station.” They lock you up…
Michael: When they took you to the police station, what did they say?
Romeo: “It’s against the law to be homosexual. You can’t be gay. White people are using you. It’s not an African thing; it’s a white man’s disease. It doesn’t exist in our culture.”
The president openly said that if you see those people who are gay in the townships—which is mostly where we lived, in the townships—if you see them, hit them! We don’t need them; white people are using them. It’s not in our culture; it never existed.
Even the police, they’ll beat you up. There’s nowhere you can go.
Michael: When they took you to jail, how long did the hold you?
Romeo: They’d hold me for two days and then let me go. Then they see you again and take you—on and off, on and off. They abuse you; they beat you up, even people in the street. Not only the police, the people in the street will start hitting you, and start shouting at you on the streets.
Michael: How would they know?
Romeo: I was well known. There were a few of us that were really well known.
You know the bus terminus where you take the bus home to the township? It’s a big place. Imagine everybody yelling at you, “He’s gay! He’s gay!” I remember one of my friends; they took a trashcan and threw it over him. And there’s no protection.
Michael: That happened to you once on a combi.
Romeo: Oh yes, it happened to me when I was going home one time. It was terrible. You’d be so scared sometimes. Almost every day you’d be going to work on the bus and someone would say something, “You’re disgusting,” or something. It was hard to live with. People at GALZ were committing suicide or running away. Another big thing is that our families were not supporting us. Some people got thrown out of their homes.
Michael: During that time we were in contact through email. When was the point that you thought it had become too dangerous?
Romeo: After the 2000 elections—that’s when things got really bad. It had become political and not only gay people were disappearing. The thing that made it so dangerous was that the non-governmental organizations were funding things not supported by the government. GALZ got money from the Dutch government, so gay people were seen as not supporting the government. With all the talking we were doing, we were seen as being anti-government. For the first time in Zimbabwe the opposition was a strong opposition. And the government tried to eliminate anybody associated with the opposition. The government thought the opposition would sympathize with the gay issues, and they didn’t want that. It really became dangerous.
You would see people following you. It would be the same person. You would be going home, and that person would be on the combi. You would get off and they would get off and go around the corner. You don’t know. There were people I didn’t know and I would see them all day. You walk around and he’s coming from that side; he’s behind you—things like that. And many people were disappearing from the opposition.
That’s when I began to think that it would be better if I left there. Mugabe was forcefully using the gay issue while the economy was beginning to go down. Instead of talking about the economy, he’d talk about gay issues every day. Like what he’s doing now, talking about George Bush and Gordon Brown and nothing else. Back then he’d talk about gay issues. He’d go to a funeral—or wherever he’s invited—and talk about homosexuals: the British are using them. It made gay peoples’ lives really dangerous. They raided our office and followed people to their homes. And I was one of the people targeted.
Police officers came up to us and said, “You guys are targeted. You people have your own files at the police station; you should know that. You people should stop what you’re doing. One day you guys are not going to be here.” And that could’ve happened very easily.
Many people disappeared, and nobody did anything about it. Even if the police had done something, even if I was killed, nothing was going to happen. All the arrests and all the beatings that we went through, nothing—no docket was opened, nothing was done.
Like what’s happening now. You know the killing that happened? They let those people go. Yesterday they shot a lady, they killed somebody, and those people who killed her, people know them, but they still walk around freely in the village. What’s happening now is what happened with gay people.
Epilogue: The following week Romeo’s sister Senzile was released from jail. While she was in police custody, more than ten different men repeatedly raped her. She is currently hospitalized in Bulwayo.
The results of the 2008 election were released over a month after the voting. They show Morgan Tsvangirai as the winner, but without an absolute majority of the votes. Though independent journalism is outlawed in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwean Association of Doctors for Human Rights estimate that nearly one thousand people have been tortured as part of the government’s campaign to intimidate members of the opposition.
The 1995 Zimbabwean International Book Fair:
Gay Rights in Zimbabwe:
Kai Wright’s multi-part article on Zimbabwe and GALZ:
2008 Presidential Election in Zimbabwe: