Promise King, executive director of the Oregon League of Minority Voters, visited family in his home country of Nigeria in November and December. He was there to talk with legislators and his cousin, who is a governor.
Due to the snowy and icy conditions in Portland, Promise King was unable to catch his original flight back. The airline gave him the choice: be diverted to Dubai to wait out the weather or wait it out in Zimbabwe. King decided to revisit a country he hasn't visited in nearly 20 years. When he last saw Zimbabwe, it was the symbol of a successful Africa. It was the breadbasket of the region. Today, it has been brought to its knees because of policies by President Robert Mugabe and its people are living in near starvation, 80 to 90 percent unemployment and fear of political and racial violence.
How have things in Zimbabwe changed since you were there in 1986?
There are very few words that can capture the dehumanization, the inhumanity, very few words can really adequately address some of the tragedy the human tragedy.
What did you do for the 2 days you were there?
I toured with a friend and colleague, a former journalist, who is now old, now running an organization called Human Dignity. We went around and talked to people around health, business, social culture, racial relations issues – all the issues that form the pedigree for a civilized society. It's taken a dive. Zimbabwe is a state of chaos and crisis.
How are people able to make a living or find employment? Some stories I read talk about 80 percent unemployment.
That is a very generous number. I think its more or less like 90 percent, you have only a remnant of the old bureaucratic setup, tourism is literally dead. Industry is dead. Farming used to be the cornerstone of Zimbabwe. It has been viciously denigrated by Mugabe's agents. You have literally the most of the chamber of commerce in shambles, infrastructure decayed, there is no capacity for new growth or development. Development which used to be there has been torn down. People eat out of garbage. You have the infection of HIV, propelled by poverty in some sense.
Can you tell by looking at people that they're hungry? Is it easy to get food? Can you walk up to a food vendor and order something?
It's in the face of the individuals who have been manhandled by the situation. It's in the face of the schools, it's in the face of ordinary Zimbabweans who are struggling to even get one square meal a day. So you'll find that the failed leadership has taken Zimbabwe into the 15th century. Restaurants are just for the elites now, they cater to those who have money. Zimbabwe money is worthless, so you have to have a bundle, a pile to buy one meal.
How do people go about their daily lives?
Foreign currency, that's what people accept now. It is a story that I normally don't want to be an agent of doom, but this situation is beyond something you can placate just to whip up some sense of African pride. It doesn't represent the pride of Africa, it represents the dark side of African hope and aspiration. The rest of Africa – those people are moving forward. I still see hope in Zimbabwe, because the Zimbabweans know better now, but the grip of Mugabe is so strong, hopefully, when tomorrow comes, Zimbabweans will get their country back. Mugabe has successfully used racial innuendos to stay in power. Every time people criticize them, he refers to racism —- but those who mainly suffer from his policies are Black Africans.
Do you see Whites on the streets?
It was moving toward integration, but there is a great division between Whites and Blacks now. It use to be that even though most Whites had power, but now, it's sad, because I was hoping that Zimbabwe would lead southern Africa into racial integration. Racially it is worse off than 20 years ago. My best friend who took me around is White. I told him that one thing we're doing at the Oregon League of Minority Voters is to get more White people to talk more about racial issues in America. I found myself saying, I need more Black Zimbabweans reaching out to White people talking about racial inclusion in the future. So it's an irony.
Did this trip help get you some ideas about how to move OLMV forward? Or at least some ideas about how not to do it?
I have an idea of how to fight for racial inclusion, how we can — it gave me a new perspective, we need more progressive White people to be a part of the dialogue about how to hold racial policies that cause racial inclusion. You can't sit on your ass because people come together once in a while, that is a continuous exercise. Racial inclusion cannot be just a flash in the pan. We cannot rest. As a nation, we have one destiny, our passivity won't stop it, our indifference will stop it, that destiny is moving toward multiculturalism, towards equal opportunity, to a mixed racial society. That is our fate. Now that you have Obama, I feel Obama will be more aggressive getting more people involved.
Is it possible to compare Nigeria and Zimbabwe?
Nigeria is highly classified. Most have lived in Nigeria and London, they've lived in White society, they understand the implication of integration, having differences. That's why most of the White farmers who were once in Zimbabwe, they were given free land in Nigeria. They were given refuge in Nigeria, because they understand the future includes everybody. That's a realization that Nigeria is looking for White investors. The Obama phenomenon changed Nigeria. It used to be that Whites in Nigeria were beyond the moral pale, that is that you could lie to them, you can cheat them, because you don't think they have any moral standing. But the election of Obama, White people are actually nice. That means we have to treat them with respect. This is one of my observations.
What were your goals during your six weeks in Nigeria?
My cousin is a governor, I was watching him frame his legislative agenda. Seeing how much they need education and information for democracy to actually take hold. This is our second attempt at elections. Aside from relaxing from OLMV duties, I was speaking to legislators, setting orientations, teaching people how to campaign, going to Nigeria with a group here to continue that orientation.