'A New Life': An Activist Comes Home To Zimbabwe, Hoping To Hold Leaders Accountable "I know for sure that if it was still Robert Mugabe, I would never dare to do it," says Savanna Madamombe. "The Mugabe era is gone, and it's something that can't ever be allowed to come back."
NPR logo

'A New Life': An Activist Comes Home To Zimbabwe, Hoping To Hold Leaders Accountable

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/623144872/623646599" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'A New Life': An Activist Comes Home To Zimbabwe, Hoping To Hold Leaders Accountable

'A New Life': An Activist Comes Home To Zimbabwe, Hoping To Hold Leaders Accountable

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/623144872/623646599" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For the first time in decades, people in Zimbabwe are speaking their minds without fear that security services will knock on the door and take them to prison. Robert Mugabe ruled the country for almost 40 years. Last November, the military forced him out. And now Zimbabwe has a feeling of openness that most of the population has never experienced before. Our co-host, Ari Shapiro, is there on a reporting trip ahead of elections next month, and he joins us from Harare with a preview of some of the stories we'll be hearing from him. Hey there, Ari.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I have to start, Ari, by saying I'm so glad you and the rest of our team there are safe. Y'all had a scare this past weekend.

SHAPIRO: Yes. We were at a presidential rally on Saturday, and about half an hour after we left the rally, there was an explosion that killed a number of people. But I have to tell you, compared to past elections in Zimbabwe, the run-up to this one has been really peaceful. And more broadly, when you talk about freedom of expression, Zimbabwe feels very open right now. It's my first visit here, but journalists who've been here before tell me about, under Robert Mugabe, having to work in secret, sneaking into the country on tourist visas, interviewing sources in the back of a car. And over the last week, we've been walking the streets of Harare with our microphones out, asking people questions in public. They're willing to speak to us on the record using their names, even criticizing the government.

KELLY: Wow. That is a huge change, even from a year ago. And I know, as you say, you've been talking to a bunch of people, hearing all their stories about how life has changed and keeps changing in Zimbabwe. You've got one of these stories you're going to share with us today.

SHAPIRO: Yes. It's about a woman named Savanna Madamombe. She's a Zimbabwean who holds a U.S. green card. And the story I want to tell you actually begins in the United States in Manhattan.

KELLY: All right. Let's hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Mugabe must do what?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Go.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Mugabe must do what?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Go.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Mugabe must do what?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Go.

SHAPIRO: Savanna's in her late 40s, but she doesn't look it. An enormous halo of curly, black hair frames her mischievous smile. She grew up in Harare, but the job market here is so bad that she moved to New York almost 20 years ago. And the sound that you're hearing now is video of a protest that she organized. When Robert Mugabe came to visit the United Nations in New York, Savanna got people together to march and demonstrate against his brutal, oppressive regime. She always streamed her activism live on Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SAVANNA MADAMOMBE: Get up. Speak before they knock your door, before it's your brother.

SHAPIRO: Her protests meant she could not return to Harare to visit her family. Under Mugabe, she could have been arrested and beaten like other activists in Zimbabwe. She didn't have much hope of going back anytime soon.

MADAMOMBE: We're already gearing up, like, thinking the next five years we'll still be going at the U.N., demonstrating or doing whatever we can.

SHAPIRO: And this is Savanna Madamombe at her family's house in Harare just a few days ago. When the military forced Mugabe out in November, she came back to see her family and decided to stick around, bringing her activism with her.

MADAMOMBE: I know for sure if it was still Robert Mugabe I would never dare to do it.

SHAPIRO: In Harare, she walks through the center of town live-streaming on Facebook, pointing out piles of trash and crumbling buildings. And she calls out city councilors by name, tags them in her posts. In the six months that she's been doing this, she hasn't been arrested or even questioned by police.

MADAMOMBE: A lot of people thought I was crazy, but a whole lot of people thought it was inspiring. The Mugabe era is gone, and it's something that can't be ever allowed to come back.

SHAPIRO: And is what you're trying to do here - making sure that that change stays permanent?

MADAMOMBE: Yes. We've been allowed to speak. It's up to us now to grab it and say, look; every day we are being told it's peaceful, so let's create the peace.

SHAPIRO: And she's having a real impact. Like, in one video, she pointed out a fountain in the middle of Harare that was overflowing with trash.

MADAMOMBE: When I went back because I wanted to see how long it would take for this to be - I found it cleaned out.

SHAPIRO: A city council member confirms that they cleaned up the fountain because of Savanna's video. On the day that we spent with her, she has a bigger plan. She's going to First Street.

MADAMOMBE: That essentially was the highlight of our city, Harare.

SHAPIRO: The grand boulevard, the center of town.

MADAMOMBE: Piccadilly Square.

SHAPIRO: In London, yeah.

MADAMOMBE: Yes. Times Square.

SHAPIRO: In New York, yeah.

MADAMOMBE: Exactly. So this is First Street.

SHAPIRO: In Harare.

MADAMOMBE: In Harare. And when I grew up, this where as a teenager I'd meet boys.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: That was more than 30 years ago. Today, First Street is run-down from decades of poverty and neglect. Big, concrete planters are full of trash and weeds. Savanna has a plan to clean them up and fill them with flowering plants. We pile into the back of her brother's flatbed truck.

MADAMOMBE: Hi, guys. I know I haven't done a live video in a little bit.

SHAPIRO: As we rumble along Harare's pothole-filled streets, she starts streaming a video.

MADAMOMBE: What can I say? This is Zimbabwe.

SHAPIRO: We pull up to the nursery, and Savanna tells the workers to load up the truck with flowering plants. She collected donations online to pay for them.

MADAMOMBE: Blooming flowers to me speak of a new life.

SHAPIRO: They load crates into the back - petunias, snapdragons, violets, marigolds. On the Facebook video, she asks her niece, Amanda Murombo, what she imagines First Street could look like.

AMANDA MUROMBO: I want it to be the biggest street in Harare. I want every street to want to look like First Street in Harare. That's what I want it to be like. Rent on First Street should be super expensive.

SHAPIRO: By the time we're ready to go, more than 450 flowering plants are in the back of the truck.

Well, should we go to First Street?

MADAMOMBE: Let's go to First Street.

SHAPIRO: The street is crowded with people, but there are bricks missing from the sidewalk. In the planters, there are empty bottles of cough syrup with codeine that people use to get high. Savanna and her friends get to work in matching T-shirts that say fix Zimbabwe or die trying on the front and we the people on the back. In most cities, this would not be revolutionary; in Harare, it's unheard of. So bystanders stop to ask what's going on.

KUDA NDANGA: No one ever think of doing this, which is cool.

SHAPIRO: Kuda Ndanga is a 25-year-old artist, and while he waits to meet a friend, he grabs a hoe and starts plunging it into the dirt.

NDANGA: It feels good (laughter) to be helping.

SHAPIRO: While they keep planting the flowers, we walk up the street to meet one of the city council members Savanna tags in her Facebook posts.

RUSTY MARKHAM: I'm Rusty Markham. I'm third or fourth generation Zimbabwean.

SHAPIRO: Is it pretty unusual in Zimbabwe for somebody to do the kinds of things that Savanna is doing?

MARKHAM: Yes, very unusual I think. It's activism in its truest form.

SHAPIRO: Is it something...

MARKHAM: And I like it.

SHAPIRO: Is it something that would have been dangerous with Mugabe still in power?

MARKHAM: Put it this way - in 2008, I don't think she could have done what she's done. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: More than half of the population of Zimbabwe has only ever lived under Mugabe, which was a regime that taught people that if they stuck their neck out and made noise, they put themselves in danger. So what do you think will be required to teach people that now they can take matters into their own hands and they can do the kinds of things that Savanna is doing?

MARKHAM: I think the urban population is pretty much well on that road. The problem is the more conservative, rural areas, the penetration into there is going to be very slow. But it's happening.

SHAPIRO: When we get back to First Street, the planters are transformed into a rainbow quilt of new life. The trash is gone. And more people have joined in. Samuel Nyawaranda is 44.

SAMUEL NYAWARANDA: You know, when everyone is expecting a change, even the environment itself needs to be changed.

SHAPIRO: Even the environment itself needs to be changed. Zimbabwe has huge national problems - cash shortages, corruption, a broken economy. So what can a few planters of flowers really accomplish? Savanna Madamombe says it's not about the flowers.

MADAMOMBE: Forget the flowers. It's a symbol, hoping that this will start a conversation.

SHAPIRO: A conversation between citizens and their government. A few days later, we went back to First Street to check on the planters. The flowers were still flourishing. A man who sells shoes on the street corner told us he's looking after them. He doesn't want the street to go back to the way it was.

KELLY: That's our co-host Ari Shapiro in Zimbabwe. Next month, we will hear all of his reporting from there as the country prepares for elections on July 30.

Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.