US ambassador's encounter with Manicaland protestors

HARARE - The following is Ambassador Bruce Wharton’s account of the protests he and American Embassy staff encountered in Manicaland when they toured Rusape (January 15) and Mutare (January 17).

NEAR Rusape on January 15 —  I arrived at about 3:15pm at a US-supported project to improve livelihoods of smallholder dairy farmers.

Greeted dairy association officials, programme participants, partners, ZRP, community leaders — all good people. Local pastor offered thoughtful prayer, we made introductions all around, and the chairman began to explain the history and successes of the project.

At about 3:30pm, we heard singing, quite loud. At first, I thought it was a welcoming committee, but then understood it was a protest.

At about 3:45pm I was told that we should leave “for security reasons.”

I asked that we remain until the chairperson finished the briefing, and that I have an opportunity to congratulate and thank the programme leaders and participants.

We did that, said goodbye to all, and I gave a short interview to a reporter from a local newspaper.

As I was going to the car, I smiled and waved at the protestors, who were just outside the gate to the dairy association.

A couple of them smiled and waved back. The protestors, about 20, were mostly middle-aged rural women and had very nice, neon-coloured placards, with clear, strong messages. The protestors stepped aside to let us drive out, and we left at about 4:10pm.

We decided not to visit the farm of one of the participants because we did not want to bring undue attention to her.

I never felt threatened, and was pleased to see that this group of citizens enjoyed the right to demonstrate peacefully. That is a right I strongly support, and one that should be available to all Zimbabweans.

In Mutare on January 16 — I arrived at the Turner Memorial Library at about 3:20pm, a few minutes early for a scheduled talk and conversation with the citizens of Manicaland.

I greeted the people who were already in the auditorium, and met the library director. At about 3:25pm, as we were beginning a tour of the library, I became aware of a group of young people with a banner and placards (remarkably similar to those we saw near Rusape!) entering the auditorium, singing and chanting in protest.

I continued with the tour of the library, and the young people followed us into another part of the library, a smaller room. I decided to try to speak with them, and spent about ten minutes saying “thank you for sharing your opinion, I understand your concerns, could we have a conversation about these issues?”

The young people were aggressive, but not violent. There was a lot of shouting, chanting, jumping, pounding on tables, many angry voices, and at least one person began to disrobe.

Alcohol may have been a factor in their comportment. Someone tore the head off of a life-sized photograph of president Obama, and others began dancing on the US flag.

The library director, some of his staff, and my colleagues from the embassy stood with me during this unfortunate failure to communicate. I am grateful to them.

As loud, close, and aggressive as these young people were, It became apparent that they were not interested in a meaningful conversation so I decided to leave.

There was some bumping and jostling as I walked out of the building, but no blows.

At the car, the crowd briefly prevented me from entering, but one of my colleagues opened the door and helped me get into the car. The young people then sought to prevent us from leaving by covering the windscreen with the banner and placards, began jumping on the roof and bonnet, and began to rock the car.

With extreme caution to avoid running over anyone, the driver skillfully drove out of the crowd.

Again, I will defend everyone’s right to peaceful protest, but am also committed to the idea that respectful dialogue is needed for progress.

This group of young people did not share that latter value on January 16.

Frankly, the young people involved in that protest were victims. I know that they were organised, transported and paid to disrupt what was meant to be an opportunity for Americans and Zimbabweans to have a productive dialogue.

This event does not diminish my respect for the people of Zimbabwe, the vast majority of whom I know to be smart, thoughtful, and constructive.

Nor does it deter my determination to work respectfully with the people of Zimbabwe to resolve disagreements and build a mutually beneficial relationship between our two nations.

I look forward to continuing to travel and to meet and learn from the people of Zimbabwe. And, I am especially eager to return soon to Mutare and Manicaland.

Famba zvakanaka!

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