DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Zimbabwe, young people are emerging as outspoken activists for democracy. They're out on the streets. They're organizing pop-up and online anti-government protests. They are demanding the departure of veteran President Robert Mugabe. Some have been imprisoned for these actions but they say they are not going to give up. And NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton brings us the story of one activist.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Linda Tsungirirai Masarira is 35 and a widow with five children. The former professional train driver and labor-leader-turned-rights-campaigner has risen to prominence in Zimbabwe recently. She's calling for change in the southern African country where President Robert Mugabe has ruled since independence from Britain in 1980.
LINDA TSUNGIRIRAI MASARIRA: We all grew up with ambitions. But we realized when we'd grown up that the lock of the door had changed. And we cannot just sit back and watch our lives just go down the drain at the expense of just a few elitists who think they are demi-gods. We want to reclaim Zimbabwe.
QUIST-ARCTON: Masarira says she's been outspoken since childhood, standing up for the oppressed. After spearheading a campaign demanding the payment of salary arrears, she was fired last year from the National Railways of Zimbabwe.
MASARIRA: So I just decided to go into full-time activism because there are gross violations of human rights in Zimbabwe and I kind of realized that if I didn't speak, no one else was going to speak out.
QUIST-ARCTON: Speaking out has landed Masarira in trouble. In July, she went to prison for 84 days after participating in a nationwide strike and a series of anti-Mugabe street protests organized by Zimbabwean hashtag opposition movements like #Tajamuka, her group.
MASARIRA: I still remember the prosecutor saying, this woman is a state security threat. We cannot allow her to walk in the streets of Harare because she is trying to cause despondency and take over power from Mugabe.
QUIST-ARCTON: Masarira spent 18 days in solitary confinement at Chikurubi maximum prison - for men. That was after she was accused of inciting female prisoners at the separate women's jail to protest against poor living conditions, food, health and sanitation.
MASARIRA: Prison life in Zimbabwe is terrible. Prisons in Zimbabwe are just like a death trap, where you just go there to wait for your day to die.
QUIST-ARCTON: At Chikurubi Prison, the men were downstairs and Masarira held upstairs alone.
MASARIRA: I had to stay positive because I told myself that what doesn't kill me makes me stronger. And I got stronger.
QUIST-ARCTON: And she sang to keep herself company.
MASARIRA: My days in solitary confinement - I spent most of my time reading. And when I got tired of reading, I would sing. And after singing, I would just write.
QUIST-ARCTON: As Masarira later found out, the male inmates were listening.
MASARIRA: (Laughter, singing in foreign language) means, like, free Zimbabwe. I've got a passion to free Zimbabwe. And I used to sing that song a lot. All the male prisoners would - when they see me, they'll go like, ah, sunungura (ph) Zimbabwe because, like, there were echoes when I sang that.
QUIST-ARCTON: Then came freedom and then a reunion with her family of five children.
MASARIRA: I can't go home because there are always different cars parked outside my house inquiring where I am, why I haven't been home. One of the guys who got out of prison the day I got out of prison and went straight home was abducted that very same night and was beaten up and injected with some substance which we don't know.
QUIST-ARCTON: But we will not be cowed, says Linda Tsungirirai Masarira.
MASARIRA: We will not be silenced. And we will fight on as long as I'm still breathing. I am also fighting for my children's future, for my fellow Zimbabwean's future. Because as it stands right now, we've got no hope.
QUIST-ARCTON: Masarira says she's staying put in Zimbabwe to help rebuild and restore hope in her troubled nation. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare.
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