Soldiers stand beside military vehicles just outside Harare, Zimbabwe November 14,2017.
They used to agitate for their neighbours to intervene against abuses they were suffering at home. Those members of the family who had fled the abusive home went near and far calling for help. Look, they insisted, see the abuse going on there in that orange house, next door, four houses over, on the next street. Help us to stop it. Speak up, speak out.
They shamed those neighbours who hushed them. Such cowardice, they muttered among themselves, nursing their wounds, going from house to house with their demands and their litany of injuries. In some homes they were given food and water, and sometimes, temporary shelter. Because this neighbourhood had been ravaged by gangsters who had raided it for years, few homes were wealthy.
But some people shared, and did so generously. They let the refugees fleeing the orange house sleep in their children’s beds, sometimes gave them their milk, their apples, and occasionally gave them puppies from the litter. They would need guard dogs where they were going, the neighbours knew, because there were not always receptive homes. They would have to sleep rough, on many nights. It was not an easy life for those chased from and fleeing the violence in the orange house.
But history is neither kind nor unkind, and sometimes it repeats, like heartburn, unbidden. The fates are wilful, and the violence in the orange house could not be sustained. Eventually the neighbours, particularly the distant ones, had had enough. It was no longer in their interest for the violence and violations at the orange house to continue. They had profited from it before, in ways both crude and subtle, but had found new ways to benefit, so abuse was no longer necessary. In fact, it had become counter-productive, even costly, those distant neighbours found.
But the orange house would need more than a paint job to make up for the suffering of those of its children, now grown up, returning. The yard could only be expanded a little, so that the little allotments where the gardener and the other servants had been sent could once more be incorporated into the property. Healing, they said, would come with time. And the new house rules were focused on dignity and humanity, for all, they said.
Of course, very quickly, others flung from and fleeing the homes of the neighbourhood were seeking refuge in the formerly orange house. It had been repainted in cheerier colours, its gardens flowered in spring, but things were far from perfect around the yard. Not everyone got into the house; and not everyone got water and food, but many got more than they had before.
When children fleeing violence and violation in other homes in the neighbourhood wailed their distress, many were given refuge in the brightly coloured, reformed home. They were grateful for the reciprocal generosity, despite the bullying which they were occasionally subjected to, and also objected to. They were happy with the food and water, with the shelter, but they also, these new refugees, wanted the occupants of the formerly orange now brightly coloured home to speak up and out for them.
Help us, they said, help our kinfolk back home. Our uncle is abusive, and violent: help us to stop him. But the occupants of the brightly coloured home reminded their guests that that was not possible. They were happy to whisper at those uncles that their deeds were wrong. They would try to persuade them to change their ways, quietly, gently. It was best, the former refugees from violence and violation claimed. After all, those were personal matters, internal to the homes of those uncles, and while the wounds they were being told about were awful, everyone knew you don’t interfere in other people’s private business.
Some of the young people in the brightly coloured house were stunned by their elders’ response to the plea for help. Weren’t those elders, just a short while ago, asking for the same things from the neighbours? Some of those elders, decried as traitors, reiterated the young people’s queries. What kind of people are we, they asked, if we deny others the very thing we demanded for ourselves? Have our wounds sutured over so completely? Have we forgotten our recent pain so thoroughly?
Shame, they told one another, clashes with the bright colours they have painted the formerly orange house, but it matches the blinds hanging in front of the windows perfectly. Quiet whispers for reform in unquiet times: who would have thought they would come to this so soon, here, in this place? The shame of it.