Greetings in Shona usually go something like this; “Makadii?” (How are you?) The answer usually goes; “Tiripo, kana makadiiwo?” (We are well, if you are also well). Infused in this greeting is this society’s ethos. The recognition that our destinies are intertwined. That no person is an island. That we belong to the human family. That each person has responsibilities not just to themselves, but to the community to which they belong. That you are what you are because of others. Hunhu, ubuntu.
Last night l was in my office on Selous Ave working late when something happened that is symptomatic not just of the serious decay in this country, but perhaps also of the reason why as Zimbabweans we have not risen up and done something about our mess. It was about 8:45pm and all was quiet in this area of the Avenues, when a sudden scream rang out. It was a woman screaming for help. There was terror in her voice. Although such screams are common place in the area around Selous Avenue/ Livingstone Avenue/ Third Street going towards Fourth Street, as people fall prey to the thieves and robbers who haunt the area, they are still shocking and frightening when they happen. We all ran out of the office to look out. What normally happens (and l use the word normally advisedly) is that because it is so dark, (on account of there being no street lighting), you hear the agonised screams of a person as they succumb to the thieves, long before you see them running for dear life. You peer into the dark but you cannot see the victims until they come to a lit up area near one of the offices. And so it was that last night we heard the screams of the woman long before we saw her. She was screaming for help and it appeared to us that the thieves were still in pursuit, shouting as they went after her. So loud were her screams that she drew the attention of a number of people who were in nearby offices. People were calling out to her to run towards the light. Hearts were pounding as we waited for her to emerge from the night. We were gratified to see an armed police officer who had been checking the nearby Beverley Bank ATMs for cash, emerge and run towards the screams. And then he stopped short. The woman emerged into the lit up area, as did her accosters. They were about three police officers who were roughing her up. She was screaming that they were hitting her as she came up to the armed police officer who was her would-be rescuer. She kept asking “why are you hitting me? Why are you hurting me? What have l done?” She was clutching her handbag to her chest and there was real terror in her voice.
As they came to the lit up area where people had gathered, the police officers pulled back a little but continued roughing the woman up, pulling and shouting at her. All this without arresting her. The would-be rescuer was at a loss as to what to do l guess, given that these were his fellow police officers. He did not ask what was going on and he just started trailing after them as the three went off, still assaulting the woman. The three of us who had been watching this tragedy just stood impotently, consumed with a mixture of guilt, fear, helplessness and despair.
The security guards went back to their posts, muttering that she was probably a prostitute. The implication being therefore that she deserved whatever abuse the police officers were subjecting her to. Other people went off, muttering and wondering what she had done. Again the implication was that she must have done something to deserve the abuse, otherwise why would the police be doing that?
No one problematised the role of the police. No one said that even if she had broken the law, the police should have arrested her and taken her into custody, not assaulted her like criminals. There were three of them; they could have done that easily. Even if she was a commercial sex worker, that still did not give the police the right to rough her up as they were doing.
Now, l do not know the facts of the story. I do not know what she had or had not done. I do know however that the police take an oath of office in which they swear to uphold the laws of the country. If someone is suspected of committing an offence, he or she should be arrested and taken into custody. As far as l could tell, the woman was not resisting arrest. One is therefore left wondering why the police were behaving as they were. I have my theories as to why, but will not go into them.
The guilt we felt at not having intervened kept pulling at us long after her screams had fallen silent, we kept wondering how she was, what had happened. We questioned whether they were real police officers or they had been thieves dressed as police officers. We wondered perhaps if they had tried to proposition her and she had rejected their advances and therefore the assault and harassment was retaliation. We wondered if perhaps they had tried to steal from the woman and were roughing her up to facilitate this. (One certainly hears enough stories in which police officers are implicated in criminal activities) They were certainly not behaving like officers of the law as they assaulted the woman.
Our guilt arose from the fact that we had kept silent when we should have spoken out. We had stood back when we should have stepped up and stepped in. We were relieved that it was not us and we were safe. We felt sorry for the woman but that was not enough to compel us to act. We were afraid that the lawless louts would turn on us. We were afraid perhaps of the inconvenience, so we sacrificed the woman to her doubtful fate. We were after all working late because we had to. Getting ourselves involved would have meant that we would lose valuable time getting embroiled in a messy and dangerous argument with the apparently lawless police, or so we told ourselves. The irony is that the incident so disturbed us that we could not continue working.
Our response l think is part of the problem we have in Zimbabwe. We all know what’s wrong and what’s right but no one is willing to do what it takes for the common good. The shelves are empty, but as long as l am managing to put food on my family’s table, who cares that my neighbour’s children are going to bed hungry? As long as l can access cash through various means, who cares that someone has been spending days and nights outside the bank waiting to withdraw their paltry money. We look at them, we feel sorry, we despair but we are relieved that it is not us standing in the baking sun as we go about our business. We do not intervene. We do not speak out when we should. As long as l is managing, it is enough. Hatisisina hunhu. We have lost our ubuntu. That which makes us members of the human family.
I hope as the Prime Minister and his two deputy prime ministers are inspecting their swanky new offices in Munhumutapa Building, they are thinking of ways of healing our community and restoring our values.