Friday, February 26, 2010

Staying Grey..

One of the key skills needed to live in Zimbabwe these days, is the ability to stay grey, ie to conduct one’s life in an entirely unremarkable manner, so as to not attract attention by politicians.

Don’t misunderstand me, we are not trying to dodge the law. The law in Zimbabwe – such as it is- is not upheld when it comes to all things political in any case. No. We go to great lengths to pay our taxes (see my post on Taxing Matters). We have car tax discs, licenses for our dogs, TVs, radios, bicycles (!) and comply with all manner of other legal requirements. We even pay our utility bills for things we haven’t actually received for years. Municipal water? Oh yes, I think we did manage to fill a bucket from the mains, back in 2002…

Staying grey here means not being seen to engage in anything political or related to media or communication activities – this is especially sensible given that yours truly holds a passport from a Politically Undesirable Nation. Hence the anonymity of this blog.

The delicious irony is that in many countries it is the other way around, politicians try to live in an unremarkable manner so as not to get caught by the general public, or worse, a tabloid journalist or paparazzi photographer, while engaging in illegal, immoral or generally scandalous activities.

In Zimbabwe politicians can do those as publically as they like, although some of the more lewd activities are discouraged (but not corruption, murder, extortion, looting of course – what’s the point of being a politician if you don’t follow your leaders?).

But a member of Joe Public voicing concern or dismay about anything vaguely political – from implying that people might be adversely affected by a drought for instance, or wondering if the Unity Government might be permitted to actually function, or the like – now that’s asking for a spell in the prison or a mysterious fatal traffic accident. If you are foreign, and lucky, you could just get away with a bit of torture, death threats to you and your family and being thrown out of the country.

All sorts of ingenious strategies for quiet communication and information sharing have been employed in the general effort to stay grey. People regularly look over their shoulder and lower their voice before discussing anything political, even at home.

There are euphemisms for all manner of things. In the old days – and I’m only talking about last year – an innocent SMS invitation to “Please come for hotdogs” would have been a coded message for “I’d like to buy some US dollars”. Similarly there were huge orders placed for paper products (cash), when there was a national shortage of the stuff.

The best covert communication strategy (now no longer practiced as it was discovered) was that people would send each other emails in HTML format about everyday boring topics, adding a secret message in white font. To decipher it, the receiver would merely change the font colour to black, and a seemingly ordinary short email would suddenly have all sorts of useful intel. Simple but effective.


Sharon W. said...

Thanks for the comment! Glad you found my blog and vice-versa. Looking forward to future posts!

Fambai Zvakanaka said...

Thanks Sharon!

Mandy and Rob said...

Greetings from Cyprus, found the blog very interesting, Regards

ÁLVARO said...

Good morning: I've followed with great interest publications. I believe that nations can only achieve stability if there is really determined to educate people. I am an educator in Santa Marta, Colombia and I am dedicated to trying to implement strategies that can bring culture to all corners of the world. If you want to visit my blog dedicated to literature and philosophy, the address is: