Zimbabwean journalist Wilf Mbanga was given the opportunity to write and work without political restrictions for a year. He grabbed the chance. At the invitation of the Tilburg Vrijstad foundation, Mbanga arrived in the Netherlands in November 2003.
Mbanga is the founder of the Daily News, the newspaper that President Mugabe prohibited in the past year. Despite a number of court decisions in favour of the newspaper, it is still not published. The government has continued to frustrate relevant efforts. Mbanga and a number of the newspaper's other editors have already been arrested and detained.
Mbanga is a quiet speaker, even when he is talking about horrible things. 'The Daily News is not the only one having problems. You can regularly read about how the newspaper is being mangled on the Index on Censorship website. And now the government has effectuated a new law requiring all media to register with the Media and Information Commission (MIC), a government organisation. If you do not register before publishing, you can be sentenced to imprisonment.'
Mbanga keeps abreast of the ever-worsening situation in Zimbabwe by means of daily e-mails from family and friends. He need not worry about this registration, which can best be compared to the Kultuurkamer that the Germans established when they occupied the Netherlands, while he is here.
Mbanga is working on a book with his wife Trish, who was the former director of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair. T he book is about the famous mixed marriage between Botswana tribal chief Seretse Khama and the Englishwoman Ruth Williams. Mbanga: 'The British made the marriage impossible in the 1940s. They could feel the breath of the oncoming apartheid regiment in South Africa in their necks. The story of the lives of Khama and Williams is both a horror story and a modern-day fairy tale, embroidered by the political priorities of the era in that region.' It must be very special for Wilf and Trish to be working on this book. They, too, have a mixed marriage. Today they are not being frustrated by the British, but by the president of Zimbabwe.
Each week Wilf Mbanga writes witty as well as heart wrenching columns for the Brabants Dagblad. The column about his introduction to the Dutch carnival was witty; his comparison of medical care in the Netherlands and Zimbabwe was heart wrenching. He described his visit to a general practitioner to have his blood pressure measured, where he was pleasantly surprised by the warm atmosphere, modern equipment and efficiency at the doctor's practice. On the day of this visit, he read that doctors in Zimbabwe are tearing apart the curtains in the hospital to use them for dressing wounds.
Mbanga: 'It is an incredulous experience to notice so directly how far Zimbabwe has already sunken. Not only has daily life become many times more complicated and limited: just think of the problem of getting groceries for dinner. The political situation has also become unrecognisable. Here the prime minister is criticised for controversial comments; in Zimbabwe you can't say anything anymore. When a newspaper printed an article saying that empty crates were being loaded onto the aeroplane with which Mrs. Mugabe was going shopping elsewhere, the editor in chief and journalist were immediately arrested.'
Wilf Mbanga has a head full of writing ideas for this year. He also regularly lectures law students at the University of Tilburg. 'I demonstrate to them how the law can also be used for unjust, undemocratic matters. Judges are currently fleeing from Zimbabwe. Decisions that are not to Mugabe's liking have dire consequences.' The last lecture he held was greeted by a standing ovation.
The Tilburg Vrijstad foundation is an initiative of Tilburg mayor Johan Stekelenburg, who recently died, lawyer and poet Afshi Ellian, and Paul Seters, director of the Globus institute at the University of Tilburg.
Geerte Wachter works for the Prince Claus Fund