WE hadn’t been together as a family in a long while.
I was nervous and excited about seeing my cousin — what did she look like now?
Would we get on?
Would she get my humour?
She was beautiful and I’d like to think we favour just a little bit (you see what I did there) and it’s yes and yes to the former questions.
We had last seen each other in 2005, we were both very young then and probably didn’t imagine it would be almost 12 years till we would meet again.
When they were leaving London heading back to Melbourne, Australia — I promised I’d visit and we started planning our next trip.
Where do we all convene next?
Someone suggested Dubai, because it’ll be almost halfway and a good compromise between Australia and the United Kingdom.
Dubai also seemed attractive because some of our family in Zimbabwe could possibly join as it would be less of a hassle compared to the red tape of trying to get a visa to visit the United Kingdom or Australia.
So Dubai it is!
I recently told a friend about our plans, he marvelled at how lovely it must be to have family all around the world.
Was it really?
Mine is not a unique set up.
Many Zimbabweans have close family members scattered across the globe, unfortunately it is often the case that this is not by choice.
Much has been written about the Zimbabwean political situation, the lack of freedom, rights, voter intimidation and the dire economic situation, but little has been articulated about the impact on the social fabric of the country.
The impact on the thread that holds society together — family.
Academics and respected commentators have skilfully taken time to point out just when the Zimbabwean situation became dire.
Some have pointed to the clumsy handling of the land redistribution programme and accompanying generous payments to war veterans, which left a huge gaping hole in the treasury.
Others go back further and attribute the adoption of Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) in the 1990s.
Esap was a measure introduced to tackle the budget deficit at the time along with addressing a bloated civil service and government.
Other analysts don’t fault the policy, but rather the ineffective implementation of it by the government, which was exacerbated by the droughts at the time.
Whatever the reason may be or wherever one may land on the merits and ideology, it cannot be denied that there was one unintended consequence that the government and power players hadn’t anticipated — the mass exodus from Zimbabwe by ordinary citizens, who were squeezed by the economic realities of the country.
The great exodus
The period from 1999 has been dubbed as “The Great Exodus”.
Precise data on the number of people that have left the country varies and is inconclusive, however, research done by Dominic Pasura in 2011 indicated that approximately three to four million Zimbabweans were living outside the country. The numbers have undoubtedly continued to rise.
Many of these people now call their host countries home — having developed careers and started families there.
In the United Kingdom alone, Zimbabweans make the second highest number of African immigrants working in the National Health Service (NHS).
Zimbabweans, with approximately 3 899 individuals employed by the NHS, are second to Nigerian immigrants with approximately 5 405 individuals.
A cursory glance would not reveal the true implications of this unless when put into context.
Nigeria has a population of approximately 186 million, whereas Zimbabwe’s population is approximately 16 million, the significance of this cannot be ignored.
Having strong family ties is the common thread that in most circumstances results in favourable outcomes for individuals in every way.
In Zimbabwe, like most African countries, in addition to the nuclear family — extended family such as grandparents, aunts, uncles play an important role and are generally a key feature that provides family, emotional, mental and spiritual support. The dispersing of individuals across continents has meant that a significant number of Zimbabweans have not had the benefit of relying on that strong family support when they need their family the most.
Last year, what started as a light hearted tweet about long distance relationships (which a lot of Zimbabweans find themselves in) turned into a thread about just this — broken, scattered families — the very abnormal and protracted reality of many Zimbabwean families.
This provoked an avalanche of raw emotion. People from different walks of life, in different parts of the world shared their stories — they had one thing in common, they were all Zimbabwean.
Western Union babies
From the many personal anecdotes that people shared, one theme was apparent — the alarming number of people who didn’t have the opportunity to develop a meaningful relationship with one or more of their parents due to distance.
It’s not uncommon to learn of children left in Zimbabwe while the mother and/or father go abroad to work.
While the economic situation of the children and extended family may improve — often times this is at the expense of strengthening that family thread, which is key for good social, mental and spiritual outcomes.
The term “Western Union babies” has been assigned to these children, who’ve generally grown up apart from one or more parents and a significant feature of that relationship is the mother and/or father regularly sending money via Western Union or other money transfer services.
Describing her experience, one person tweeted that “she didn’t know her mother” and after years of being a Western Union baby, when she and her mother reunited — they were strangers to each other and it took some time to rebuild their relationship and develop that bond.
But of course, how could they know each other?
Despite the technological advancements and ease of communication with text messaging services such as WhatsApp — this is not a replacement for physical interaction — the ability for a child to learn through observation of their parent.
The non-verbal cues, the hugs and the irreplaceable reality of being there.
Zimbabwean passport: barrier to travel
Having a Zimbabwean passport in itself can be a barrier to travelling around the world.
Obtaining a visa for travel can be costly and the requirements on applicants to provide supporting documentation and proof that they will return to Zimbabwe (if travelling for a visit) can be burdensome.
So the absence, in most cases, is not for lack of trying.
Key milestones such as births, birthdays, graduations and unfortunately funerals are missed for various reasons and for most people it leaves them very isolated and lonely, making the absence of key family members even more apparent.
This is especially tragic given that it is the extended family system that has made Zimbabweans families thrive in the past. Extended family systems bear one another’s burdens — funeral, medical emergencies, social disagreements etc. What of the many people facing old age in Zimbabwe?
They invested in their children, took them to the best schools.
They did their bit.
But when the economic situation became untenable, with pensions effectively wiped out, money in the account worthless — most opted to do whatever they could to help their children relocate for studies, work and better opportunities.