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Zimbabwe: Take a picture, go to jail
Amy Jeffries,
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 wiped clean.

I stepped inside and pressed down the shutter of my camera. Someone must have heard it click.

"What are you doing?" said a young man in a black football jersey, who appeared from the back. I started fumbling for excuses.

"Taking a picture, just taking a picture."

"Of an 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.

Next thing, 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 take pictures.

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?"

"No. There was no one in the butchery," I said. "There was no one to ask."

"I can 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.

Hours passed. From our seats on the charge office bench, we watched the sun set.

"They can't 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.

"Come here, so I can hear you better," he said. I did as I was told.

"What are you prepared to do for Africa?" he asked.

"You see 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.

Later, when 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 code.

"Taking 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.

*"Amai" means "mother" in the Shona language. To protect her identity, I have used this instead of her real name.

Amy Jeffries 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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