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Take a picture, go to jail
Amy Jeffries, PBS.org
September 24, 2007
I snapped a
single frame of an empty butchery in Harare. For that I spent two
and a half days in the company of the Zimbabwean police. I'd gone
to the capital, Harare, to visit friends I had made seven years
ago, while studying there as an undergraduate.
My former host
mother, Amai,* and I were on our way from Queensdale, a sleepy suburb,
to a tea party honoring a young woman about to be married. We'd
stopped at the shopping center near Amai's house so that she could
get her hair done for the occasion. While Amai was stuck under the
dryer with her hair wrapped in bright plastic curlers, I ducked
out of the salon to buy a pack of gum. Saturday shoppers were buzzing
in and out of the supermarkets with their one-loaf rations of bread
or single package of milk.
Those who could
afford to supplement those hard-to-come-by staples also carried
purchases of spaghetti or canned beans. But the two butcheries were
completely idle. One was shuttered, while the door to the other
was open, though nobody appeared to be inside. Its shelves had been
I stepped inside
and pressed down the shutter of my camera. Someone must have heard
you doing?" said a young man in a black football jersey, who
appeared from the back. I started fumbling for excuses.
a picture, just taking a picture."
empty butchery? You can be arrested for that here. This is Zimbabwe."
This was not
the Zimbabwe I remembered. Seven years ago, my camera provoked curiosity
and conversation, not threats. But President Robert Mugabe's regime
has persistently blamed the West for the ongoing economic crisis
in the country. As a white American, I was now an object of suspicion
everywhere I went. Since 2002 new laws have been used to suppress
newspapers and journalists critical of the Mugabe regime and even
to detain some tourists for photographing seemingly innocuous subjects
like fruit carts and churches.
Up to that point
I had played it safe, mostly taking pictures within the 10-foot
walls around Amai's house. I'd taken a few shots of the dry stalks
of maize that the neighbors had planted along sidewalks and in previously
grassy medians as insurance against food shortages. For that, I
had gotten some funny looks, but that was all.
My heart was
already in my throat when the guy in the black jersey told me he
was going to turn me in. When he disappeared into the back, saying
he was going to call the authorities, I snuck away to the salon.
Amai was waiting for me, her hair all curled and fluffed. "Let
me just go to the loo," she said.
When she stepped
out of the bathroom, the guy from the butchery was waiting with
an entourage. An angry woman with drawn-on eyebrows stopped us as
we headed for the door.
we were in the back of a car bound for the nearest police station.
The woman flashed her ID at us from the front seat: She was Captain
Mary Muriza, a member of Zimbabwe's national army.
As we drove,
Muriza continued her tirade. She accused me of trying to tarnish
Zimbabwe's image abroad by photographing empty butcheries. She accused
Amai of accepting bribes from me in exchange for allowing me to
While we waited
inside the Braeside police station, I watched Amai's hands tremble,
as she quietly punched out a message on her cell phone to her friend.
We would be late for tea, but no worries, she wrote. Nearly an hour
passed before Chief Inspector Mthoko called us into his office.
He looked over
the report gathered from Muriza's statement. "Did you have
permission to take the photo?"
was no one in the butchery," I said. "There was no one
charge you under the Information
and Privacy Act," he said, referring to one of the laws
passed in 2002 that has largely been used to suppress reporting
critical of President Mugabe.
I was sure at
that moment we'd be escorted immediately to jail. Instead, Mthoko
sent us back out into the charge office, where we took a place on
the bench in front of the counter and waited.
Amai sent another
text message to her friend. This time, she wrote that we would not
make it to the party. I asked if I should call someone for help.
"It's not a very big problem," she said, trying to reassure
me, though her tone suggested otherwise.
From our seats on the charge office bench, we watched the sun set.
decide what to do with us," Amai told me, translating the banter
between the officers.
As night fell,
the officers ducked in and out, apparently coming and going from
raids in which they enforced the price reductions set by Mugabe's
regime in July. Many business owners were still refusing to slash
prices or restock empty shelves, contributing to widespread shortages.
As the officers
started drinking the looted beer, they became increasingly confrontational.
"Do you want to be locked up, or do you want to go home?"
asked one constable. Of course I wanted to go home. But he wasn't
really offering me a choice; he was attempting to solicit a bribe.
so I can hear you better," he said. I did as I was told.
you prepared to do for Africa?" he asked.
my wife has a problem. There's no mealie meal. There's no meat...."
We'd been in
the police station for more than six hours without being charged.
It's now common in Zimbabwe for the police to detain people like
this in order to harvest a payday.
But when it
became clear we were not about to pay a bribe, the cops at Braeside
handed back my camera without the roll of film and let us go with
a promise to return on Monday, when the Central Investigation Department,
or CID, would review our case.
we arrived at the CID, we were promptly turned away and sent back
to Braeside for more paperwork.
The next day,
we returned and were handed over to Detective Inspector Rangwani
in CID. An automatic handgun hung on the wall next to Rangwani's
desk. The windowsill behind him was decorated with a collection
of grenades and rockets. Without saying a word, the inspector examined
the case report, then flipped through the pages of a book of penal
a picture of a butchery, it's not a serious offense," he said
finally. "I'll charge you under miscellaneous offenses. Are
you prepared to pay the fine, or do you want to go to court?"
I told him I'd
pay the fine. He decided not to charge Amai. Rangwani sent me down
to a junior sergeant, who after an attempt to extract money from
me, read me my rights, took my guilty plea and fingerprinted me
in quadruplicate. In the end, I paid Z$40,000, about 20 cents at
black market exchange rates, to settle the charge of "disorderly
conduct in a public place."
I left Zimbabwe
on a Greyhound bus the next day, leaving a country where it's forbidden
to photograph an empty store shelf.
means "mother" in the Shona language. To protect her identity,
I have used this instead of her real name.
has reported from South Africa and Zimbabwe and has written about
Nigerian and Ethiopian immigrants in California. She is currently
pursuing concurrent master's degrees in journalism and African studies
at the University of California, Berkeley.
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