ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Thirty-seven years ago, Robert Mugabe helped found a new independent country – Zimbabwe. It was a victory that came after a long struggle between black nationalists and white Rhodesians and years of British colonial rule.
WADZANAI MHUTE: When independence happened in 1980, people were euphoric. They were on the streets dancing.
SHAPIRO: That’s Zimbabwean Wadzanai Mhute.
MHUTE: People were so excited because finally, we could own houses, we could attend schools that were – in the past that were limited to just white people. So my parents hoped that their children would inherit a Zimbabwe where they could achieve anything they wanted to achieve.
SHAPIRO: Mhute says the new country’s early days lived up to those euphoric hopes.
MHUTE: I grew up in a middle-class home, and it was really a fun time because our education system was growing. We had running water and electricity. We had milk delivered to our door every morning. We had fresh bread. And I would call it an idyllic childhood.
SHAPIRO: But the good times didn’t last. The economy crumbled. People lost jobs. Many of the country’s best minds left, including Mhute. She left in the late 1990s when she was 21. She’s now a journalist in New York.
Through it all, Robert Mugabe maintained his grip on power until this week. At age 93, he agreed to step down. I asked Wadzanai Mhute if she thought she would ever see this day.
MHUTE: I never expected to see it because all my life I’ve known President Mugabe as the leader of Zimbabwe. So the fact that it happened is just a very strange situation for me and the rest of my countrymen. I think people are still trying to come to terms with it and exactly what it means for us individually and for our families.
SHAPIRO: It sounds like I can hear you smiling.
MHUTE: (Laughter) Yes, I am. It’s something that I’m excited about, but I’m also cautiously optimistic because we don’t know what the future holds. But change has happened. What that change will entail, we don’t know.
SHAPIRO: Well, what are your friends talking about? I mean, what’s the speculation? What’s the hope? Are you optimistic?
MHUTE: Well, some of my friends are talking about returning to Zimbabwe.
MHUTE: Yes, because we all – we’re living in a foreign land, like, I have friends who are living in England, South Africa. I live here in America. And we’re away from home. And there’s just something about being home amongst your family and being in the land that you grew up. It just – it’s a different feeling altogether. And when I go home, I just feel that this is where I should be.
SHAPIRO: Do you think Zimbabwe could once again become the prosperous country that you knew in your childhood?
MHUTE: Yes, definitely. We still have a strong infrastructure, even though it deteriorated in the past few years, but we still have that. And we also have educated people who live in the country and out of the country. There’s a big (unintelligible) for a community who are itching to return, who are itching to invest in the country.
So if we have all those things in place – and I hear that investors are also thinking of coming back to Zimbabwe because of the change in leadership. So if that happens, I don’t think it will take that long to go back to what we were.
SHAPIRO: Are you thinking about going back to Zimbabwe after all these years in the U.S.?
MHUTE: Yes, I am. Most of my family is in Zimbabwe. And I want to be part of the rebuilding of Zimbabwe because this is where I was – I grew up. And the reason I’m the person I am today is because I was raised in Zimbabwe. I was raised by my parents in my country. And so I owe a debt to my country. You know, I just want to give back. I definitely do want to go back.
SHAPIRO: What do you think Robert Mugabe’s legacy will be?
MHUTE: I think there are two legacies that he has. One is fighting in the liberation struggle. I mean, we got our independence in 1980, and no one can forget the impact that he had on that struggle. And the second one is just overseeing an economic downturn in the country and just unrest in the country.
SHAPIRO: You quoted a Zimbabwean who you follow on Twitter, saying about the recent events, there are decades when nothing happens, and then there are weeks when decades happen. It has been quite a week.
MHUTE: It has. It’s very strange because it does feel like decades have happened in weeks because this is something that Zimbabweans have been wanting for decades. And so when this happened, it felt like the dam finally broke and everything just fell out.
And change didn’t just occur within the country. It occurred within us because we realized that things can change. You know, as much as people fought and died over the years, there was a reason for it. And finally, finally there’s a change. And we’re hopeful.
SHAPIRO: Wadzanai Mhute wrote an essay for The New York Times with the headline, “The Zimbabwe Of My Youth Is No More.” Thank you so much for speaking with us today.
MHUTE: Thank you so much, Ari. I appreciate you having me.
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