Magazine | July 10, 2017, Issue

Zimbabwe’s Freedom Pastor

Evan Mawarire, the anti-Mugabe

One day last year, Evan Mawarire was feeling very low. He had just turned 39 — and he considered himself a failure. He had a wife and two children, which was great. And there was a third child on the way — also great. But Mawarire could barely make ends meet.

The family was living hand to mouth. Mawarire could not afford school fees for the children. He owned no home of his own. Prospects seemed negligible.

“I was dejected and frustrated,” Mawarire says, “but also, for the first time in a long time, I was angry.”

That was April 19. The 18th had been Zimbabwe’s independence day. And on the 19th, Mawarire sat down and made a four-minute video, with the Zimbabwean flag wrapped around his neck.

That flag is a colorful one. And all the colors have meanings. For example, red is supposed to stand for the blood that patriots shed in the liberation effort. But what would those patriots say about Zimbabwe now? What had they died for? That’s the kind of thing Mawarire asked in his video.

At the end of it, he asked Zimbabweans to stand up: for themselves, for their flag, and for their country.

He hesitated to post this video, naturally: He lives in a dictatorship. He knew the video could get him into big trouble. But post it he did, around midnight. After a hard, emotional day, he went to bed.

The next morning, he received a call from a friend, who had unexpected news: The video was going viral. It had struck a nerve among Zimbabweans. And it would lead to a democracy movement that travels under a hashtag, #ThisFlag.

Evan Mawarire does not see himself as a political leader. “I’m someone who has been able to express the views, the frustrations, and the hopes of an oppressed population.” But others see him as a political leader, including the regime. “I didn’t find it,” says Mawarire, of politics. “It found me.”

A word about pronunciation. That name is pronounced “Mah-wah-REER-ay.” And his first name, interestingly enough, is pronounced “Ee-VAHN” (though he also answers to the familiar “EH-vin”).

He was born in 1977, during the final days of Rhodesia. He spent his early childhood in a ghetto of Salisbury, the capital city (now Harare). In 1980, when independence came, Robert Mugabe took power. He still has it, 37 years later.

At 93, he is one of the oldest men ever to rule a country. Next year, there will be another of those sham elections that dictators sometimes feel the need of holding. Mugabe will run. If he dies, his wife has said, the ruling party will run his corpse.

Mawarire was brought up in a Christian home. His parents were civil servants. Evan worked in business for a while. But he also worked at church, teaching Sunday school and the like. And he found this much more fulfilling. “So I decided I would give my life to pastoring,” he says. He quit his job, went to Bible school, and indeed became a pastor. That was 15 years ago.

When he made his “flag” video, he did not stop there: He made 25 more videos, one a day from May 1 to May 25, which is Africa Day on the continent. Mawarire wanted Zimbabweans to think, “What kind of African nation do we wish to be?” In those videos, he discussed the various problems of Zimbabwe.

And he continued to strike nerves. The democracy movement grew. Mawarire’s repeated message was, It’s up to us to save ourselves. No one’s going to swoop in and help us. We have to claim our own country.

He tells me that, year after year, he watched rigged elections. “And I always yearned for someone to come to our rescue: regional powers, or the African Union, or the United Nations. But there is so much happening across the world, there is no one to listen to your own troubles. We have to rescue ourselves.”

Mawarire and his movement have a slogan: “If we cannot cause the politician to change, then we must inspire the citizen to be bold.”

Zimbabwe is in desperate shape — it is desperately poor. Unemployment is something like 95 percent. And more than half the population is under the age of 25. Silvanos Mudzvova has something funny to say, regarding this mass joblessness.

He is a Zimbabwean actor, playwright, and activist. He is also a guest of the Oslo Freedom Forum, as is Pastor Mawarire. (It is in Oslo that I talk with Mawarire.) In Zimbabwe, Mudzvova used theater as a form of protest. In a country where nobody’s working, he quips, “you are assured of an audience within minutes.”

They arrested him many, many times — so many times, he lost count. Finally, they tortured him almost to death, leaving him paralyzed on one side. Mudzvova now lives in exile, in Britain.

Last July 6, there was a mass protest in Zimbabwe. And, six days later, Evan Mawarire was arrested. The charge was incitement to violence. What happened next, as people have noted, is straight out of a movie.

The courthouse for Mawarire’s hearing was packed to the rafters. People were singing: worship songs, church songs. Outside, there were thousands of people, also singing. Mawarire could hear it from his prison cell. The young guards were amazed: They had never seen anything like it, and neither had anyone else.

According to the Mugabe regime, Mawarire summoned this crowd by means of a secret phone in his cell. They accuse him of trying to overthrow the government, Arab Spring–style. This is nonsense, says the accused. The thousands came of their own accord. “They realized that an injustice to one was an injustice to all.”

Then, in the courtroom, something very strange happened: Some 150 lawyers stood up, waving their credentials, prepared to defend Mawarire.

While in the dock, Mawarire got a rude, frightening surprise: The charge against him had been changed to what amounted to treason. He looked at his wife and mouthed, “I’m sorry.” This could be more serious than he ever imagined.

There was a break in the hearing. Night had fallen. Outside the courthouse, the people were lighting candles, and singing. They were also buying food for one another. Again, the guards marveled, telling the prisoner in his cell about the scene.

Back in the courtroom, the magistrate had good news: The prisoner was to be released, on a technicality. He had been arrested on one charge and was now facing another. That violated his rights. So he had to be let go. The courtroom erupted in cheers.

The government’s plan was to rearrest him immediately. But the young guards, with the help of some of those 150 lawyers, led him outside by an unexpected route. Mawarire fell into the arms of the waiting, weeping crowd. “Zimbabwean flags were everywhere,” he says.

From his wife, he learned some grim news: While he was in prison, thugs had tried to rape her. (She was seven months pregnant, incidentally.) They had also tried to kidnap the two kids. Whether these thugs were state agents or ruling-party goons is hard to say. They often amount to the same thing.

The family fled, without delay — to South Africa.

They were there a month. Mawarire met with university students from Zimbabwe — thousands of them — and they talked about democracy. Getting wind of this, South African authorities were not pleased. Worse, Mugabe, back in Zimbabwe, made threatening noises: threatening noises against Mawarire.

Do you know what it’s like to be threatened, publicly, by Robert Mugabe? “It was a turning point,” says Mawarire. “I have to be honest in saying I was enveloped in a cocoon of fear that I never thought possible. Everything that I had ever heard about Robert Mugabe came flooding back in”: the murders, the abductions, etc.

Mawarire got himself and his family to the United States as soon as possible.

“Green-card traitor”: That’s what the Mugabe regime called Mawarire. They said he was a pawn of the West, and his paymasters had taken him under their protection. Some of the democracy activists felt bruised, too: because Mawarire had done so much to kick up this fuss — this democratic fuss — and now he was gone, safe in the U.S.

In the U.S., Mawarire’s third child was born. “I just wanted to see her,” he says. And “I love her to bits.” After the birth of this child, his wife gave him permission: permission to return to Zimbabwe, and the cause. Which he did, on February 1, 2017.

Once he arrived at the airport — even before they stamped his passport — they arrested him. They interrogated him hour after hour. They kept him in a maximum-security prison. They again charged him with treason. They also charged him with disrespecting the flag.

Disrespecting the flag! It was respect for the flag that launched Mawarire on this project in the first place (#ThisFlag).

After twelve days, he was released on bail. In May, he was able to leave for the Oslo Freedom Forum because his parents put up the title deeds to their house as a guarantee of his return to Zimbabwe. He is deeply grateful to them for this — “my old parents,” he says.

As of this writing, he is back in Zimbabwe, coping with the charges against him, speaking out to the extent possible. He has not seen his family since January. When will he see them again? What is his obligation, primarily? To his family or to his countrymen and their fate? That is the kind of question a man such as Mawarire faces.

Zimbabwe is no place for an opposition politician, as he makes clear to me — and as Mugabe makes very clear. In public remarks, he has warned Mawarire to stick to religion, not meddling in politics, which is his realm — the dictator’s realm — alone.

Mawarire is a dictator’s nightmare. He is talented, articulate, and personable — and honest, inspiring, and brave. Some people want him to run for president next year, if such a thing is possible in Mugabe’s land. Mawarire had a brush with politics almost 25 years ago.

All across the continent, June 16 is the Day of the African Child. This marks a terrible event that occurred on June 16, 1976, in Soweto, South Africa. Thousands of students protested the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction. Some number — estimates vary — were shot and killed by government forces.

In Zimbabwe, the Day of the African Child is celebrated with a child parliament, a mock parliament. In 1993, at age 16, Evan Mawarire was elected to this parliament. He was also elected president of the Republic of Zimbabwe — child president.

His mother likes to read things into the affairs of men (and children). She sees the hand of Providence. Over the years, she has told Evan, “I’ve always known that God would use you to influence the politics of our nation, perhaps even as president.” Recent events have done nothing to dampen her view, to put it mildly.

Mawarire is well aware of the role of pastors in the American civil-rights movement. He is also well aware that the foremost of those pastors, Martin Luther King, was martyred. I tell him what my profound desire is: that he both lead and live. He tells me that, pinned on his Twitter page, is a verse from the 27th Psalm: “I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”

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