Hours behind those walls

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No one ever hopes the day will come when they’re in the firing line, guns pointed. Being an activist, I know the risks that are associated with the job especially a harsh environment like Zimbabwe.

I dislike the month of March; I always go through it numb. I try not to think about it but when the day arrives, am like a moth to a flame. I miss her so much and this year’s events only seemed to affirm why I shouldn’t like it. I guess I could say March is not my lucky month. The horoscopes never said it was anyway. My mother died on the 11th of March 1999. It now seems like a long time ago but every year on that day, it always seems like it was just yesterday.

I wasn’t even a teenager, just 12 years old and my first term at secondary school. The holidays were so close and I was looking forward to them because April was her birth month. I was saving up to take her out. We were lovers like that; she didn’t believe that I had know love from other people. She was afraid it would make me vulnerable to making bad decisions so I had to be accustomed to it. Every year she was my valentine, even when she had a boyfriend, she never forgot. We were in a way best friends; there was nothing that we didn’t talk to me about or consult each other over. She said I had to learn to think for myself and be independent; that’s why she treated me like an equal. Well, some times of course! My life has never been the same since she passed.

The day seemed to go by quickly enough; I was grateful for being busy and vowed not to think about it. Shouldn’t I be over it by now? It felt like a ritual that I did every year on the 11th of March. I would be sad and withdrawn even when I tried to be the opposite. During lunch time at the hotel, our members had overheard the waiters talking to about them. They were asking who seemed more feminine and deliberated if that meant they were the girl in a relationship. I stayed behind to try and address the situation as we had a good relationship with the hotel and didn’t want a repeat of the same situation. It was after all the first time that it had happened. To my surprise the waiter who had initiated the conversation had miraculously disappeared and the manager urged me to discuss the matter the following day. I left feeling angry and defeated; they had to be protecting each other!

I thanked the heavens that the rest of the day had passed without adding more pressure to the emotions that I felt.

I rolled around in bed, debating if it was worth going to work that fateful day. I guess the previous day that I had fought so hard to ignore had finally caught up with me. I really didn’t want to go anywhere, just to sleep. I trust my instincts and it felt as if I shouldn’t go either; so I waited until the very last minute to will myself to get up and be a productive member of society. I was out of the door early enough to pass by the bank first and I thought to myself being a little late won’t hurt anybody; of course I knew there was a stand-in.

So the day began, the 12th of March 2014; 15 years later. I went to the bank first. 09:15, I was only 15 minutes late to the workshop, at least I made it. I hate being late. Sooner did I regret my decision to get there so quickly, you really should loosen up Tash and be extremely late if you feel like it?! The conference room next to ours was occupied by the National Parks and Wildlife. Normally we meet other participants during tea but we never met them and in some strange way I was pleased about that. Parks and wildlife events usually have elderly people who tend to look at one as if they were an artifact. The way I was dressed that day definitely would have warranted such looks. It wasn’t deliberate but I later realized I was looking very butch.

We were short of adapters, as this was a digital security training; members had to be connected and their phones fully charged. I went down to the hotel reception and upon my return I noticed two men standing by the door to the conference room we were using. They seemed odd to me but I thought maybe they were from the other conference room; they did look like game rangers after all. As I was about to open the door, one of them pushed me aside and went in ahead of me.

With a harsh tone, he asked who was in charge. Tapinda (the facilitator) answered saying he was. He asked the facilitator to step outside and have a talk with him. My mind went on over drive! I realized they were police officers and shit was getting real! I was in that moment shaking with fear, I had to decide what was the most important and I wasn’t thinking straight. I started deleting files and pictures on my laptop, I didn’t want to be found wanting. These guys use anything and everything against you. Tapinda came back with the man right behind him. His smile was gone and he looked quite humble I thought. I wondered if it was fear or he had been intimidated?! He asked him who was second in charge of the workshop and since he knew me more than everyone else in the room he nominated me.

My heart sank into my stomach but I didn’t want to look like a wimp in front of the members so I pulled my pants up and stepped out as the officers requested. The less intimidating man introduced himself; he was Sergeant Totonga, a Central Intelligence Officer (CIO, we call them C10). He just wanted to ask me questions he said. I asked if I could refer him to people better suited to that task as I didn’t have much information. He said they were just the basics and there was no need to be worried, I told him it didn’t look basic as I have never seen it happening in any other space I have been and insisted I was not the right person to talk to. Sgt Totonga asked for my ID, it was in my bag so I asked for permission to go and get it. Thinking ahead, I gave Musa (workmate) my house keys and urged him to tell the office to clear the house of all books and material relating to GALZ (Gays And Lesbians of Zimbabwe) and/or homosexuality. I also gave him my wallet and asked him to give them to my partner, Malachi. The intimidating man came to where we were standing and asked his colleague if he had progressed. From Totonga’s reply he felt I was mocking them and was refusing to cooperate.

I argued that I had given them all the information that I have and especially all the information relating to me and offered to call the office so they could communicate with the right authorities. I felt like I was pleading and I didn’t like it. I cursed myself mentally for not reading the entire bill of rights; I had gotten it a week ago. The intimidating man (who was later revealed to be Sergeant Mazire) felt that would not have as much impact as arresting me, thus our leaders would be compelled to follow to the station and their agenda would have been achieved. I asked if I could pack my stuff first and they obliged me. On my way to my place sitting, I debated if reading it would have helped me right this moment? It didn’t seem like they were doing things by the book; they hadn’t even told me what exactly they were arresting me for. Musa was already working on the lawyer; hopefully he would be here soon. While I was packing they were taking down the details of the members that had attended the workshop and occasionally they would ask questions to some of them. Am guessing they were hoping one of them would say something incriminating. Delete, delete, delete. I was rid of anything and everything that could potentially put me behind bars.

Ooh gosh, Malachi. I only managed to tell her to call Chester because I was getting arrested. She seemed to be panicking.

As we were about to leave, we met the Lawyer; Bhotasa at the top of the stairs. My hero! I thought to myself. A wave of relief passed through me. The intimidating man insisted the lawyer follow to the station as he was not willing to release us here before questioning. Oops; too soon? My heart was pounding. I couldn’t think straight. I had heard enough stories about what happens behind those walls. What if I ended up a statistic?

Ooh Malachi! I wondered what she was going through and how she was feeling. I imagined being in her position wasn’t easy. I wanted to contact her but I was afraid of putting her at risk. I had reset my phone because I just didn’t want the risk of leaving out anything so I had no applications and that meant communication wouldn’t be easy. I imagined if it was me. I would be in frenzy, if not hysterically emotional. Basically, I would break down! Mostly because I love her and I had just found her; just when I when I didn’t believe good people existed any more. I wouldn’t want her to go through anything like what i was going through especially not because of one’s sexuality.

We got to the station; like all other parastatals, the building was deteriorating. It just wasn’t clean! It looked like there were no cleaners and even if there were, it looked like all they did was put floor polish on top of floor polish without mopping. Eventually it looked like a thick spread of floor polish. The atmosphere was moist, as if air didn’t circulate enough. The walls were all brick with a few sections painted in what used to be beige. I wouldn’t rest on them even if my life depended on it. Malachi would laugh at me if she saw me in here, she and my best friend claim I have excessive OCD.

I couldn’t bring myself to communicate with her. I didn’t know what to say, I might only have made her feel worse. While they were looking for space to start questioning us, they put us in one of the occupied offices in that corridor. It was very small but somehow two desks fit into it. There was a file cabinet that crammed the space even more. There was a notorious midget was being questioned over harassment. I didn’t know midgets were capable of such behavior. We sat just behind the door. We were six in the small office. There wasn’t enough air to breathe and the windows were closed. I dared not ask.

Nonetheless I took the opportunity to track the lawyers’ whereabouts and progress from people at the office. Thank God Diana (workmate) thought it wise to send me credit, my phone was on silent. He would soon be on his way. Thank God! I hoped I still didn’t have to answer any questions and this little mess will be cleared up in minutes. Boy didn’t I realize that was daydreaming! I probably shouldn’t watch the Mentalist so much; the law doesn’t work that way in Zimbabwe.

Sgt Mazire called us into the office they had found. There was only one other officer who was writing a report in the office. He was struggling to type and save his work. From the way he pressed the keypad; finger after finger, I concluded he had never done computers at school or anywhere else for that matter. He didn’t give us a thought or even look up, he was eager to finish his typing. We could hear what seemed to be beatings from a room next to ours, hushed harsh voices mumbling. Tapinda and I looked at each other. I guess we wondered if that would end up happening to us.

They started to question Tapinda. I mind registered silent screams, suddenly I needed to urinate. Tapinda seemed to be pinning me on the wall, not that it’s not expected in such situations. I felt cold, hot and everything all at once. I thought of the worst possible scenarios, the sounds in the next room didn’t help at all. Tapinda would leave and that might just potentially be me. The lawyer, Bhotasa then arrived and asked to sit in while they were questioning us. Sgt Mazire refused and said the questions they were asking were just basic therefore he was not required to be present. They asked to see his credentials. Bhotasa asked when they realized they didn’t know him anymore as he had dealt with them on several occasions. He produced his card anyway and left the office after informing us he was going to return files to his office.

The sergeants proceeded to question Tapinda about the workshop and how he became involved with such an organisation. His wife had become a valued colleague to me and I had a lot to learn from her, hoping she wouldn’t be dragged into the story but it was unavoidable. Sgt Mazire realizing questioning him while I was in the room would probably not work in his best interest, asked me to be placed in another room. The only good thing was that it turned out that they didn’t care much about him. It was me they were after and ultimately the organisation as a whole.

I was in the next room, sitting only with my thoughts. There was activity around me, women who were talking about sex work and an officer who seemed to want to intimidate everyone. He had a lot of anger in his voice. I hoped he wouldn’t talk to me and thank goodness he didn’t; he only looked me over. I imagined if he had been the one handling the case; I would probably be singing a different song.

I couldn’t help but think of Malachi. OK yes, normally people in these positions think of other stuff right? I don’t know what those other things are but I didn’t once think of them. For once in my life I had just met someone equal, someone who I didn’t have to second guess and then this? OFGS! Just the other weekend I had spent some time with her sister and she seemed to have warmed up from the first time she saw me. I wondered if this was to end up in the papers with my picture would she be as comfortable. I hoped however way the situation ended it wouldn’t put her in a compromising position with her family. What if she was ordered not to talk to me anymore? That didn’t help me at all, it now felt as if my heart wanted to jump out and I wanted to cry at the thought.

We can choose to go against our families but sometimes the repercussions are far more damaging than we realize. I didn’t want her to go through that. Realizing I was getting depressed I contacted Diana again and asked if the lawyer had left. Yes, he was on his way.

Bhotasa arrived as it was my turn to be questioned. I handed him my phone and laptop. “What was the workshop about?” the intimidating man asked. I couldn’t breathe. What if I end up in jail? Is this worth it? Ooh hell, you’re here already Tash, deal with it! I looked at him and began to open my mouth. For a second there it all seemed to be going in slow motion. The process continued. It seemed everyone in the station knew what was going on. There would be occasional pop-ins from different officers asking for progress. I asked to go to the toilet in between questions and Sgt Totonga went about looking for the keys to the women’s toilet. He was informed by a woman (who was passing off as cleaner but I later realized she was an undercover officer) that the toilet wasn’t working and that they don’t go to the toilet. I was shocked to say the least. She was clearly condescending. Was it patriarchy or did she generally treat people badly or it had more to do with how I was dressed? And we wonder why black men fail to respect their black women? Why there are so many young black girls being married off to older men to alleviate poverty? Sgt Totonga then offered to stand by the door for me while I used the men’s toilet in case someone was to barge in. How ironic?! We did want to be men after all, that’s why we date women to begin with. Somehow the thought made me smile at myself. Considering the situation, I felt that was the kindest thing ever. Maybe it was just his job and he really wasn’t as mean as he appeared.

My answers fortunately were consistent and tallying with Tapinda’s. He wanted me to give him personal mobile numbers of workmates; I figured he could get them if he really wanted them so I gave them the office number. He also asked for the office address, I knew he knew it but I didn’t want to seem as if am always there so I pretended to act dumb and only told them where it’s located and not the number.  Another officer came in and asked after Chester and a few other people. I told him Chester was still there but I did not know all the other people. He then asked if our offices were still at the same venue and he stated the address! Ooh well, my plan went down the drain. Sgt Mazire seized the opportunity immediately, “Tete mati where are your offices?” I wanted to be sarcastic but couldn’t afford to be. I replied.

Sgt Mazire would ask me over and over the same questions he had been asking in a different manner; hoping I would say something different. I was getting impatient. I wanted to know what was going to happen to me. They kept telling me how much of a high profile this case was. Museveni! He had set the ball rolling in Africa, what a pity how some people seize to be human beings just because of sex! Sgt Mazire would constantly be on the phone about the case and Sgt Totonga would engage me in conversation. Mostly because he was looking for information but at times as if he was trying to make me relax. Sgt Mazire returned from a phone call and they had to go for a briefing on the next course of action to take against me. WOW.

The lawyer came in after they had left and we briefed him. He advised us to wait but not to panic as there wasn’t much they could do at this point. He offered to get us some lunch. I couldn’t eat. My stomach was doing cartwheels, water is all that I could stomach. Earlier i had given him my phone and asked him to eventually give it to Malachi if things ever did go the wrong way. I asked if there had been any communication from anyone, he said no. I started panicking. Maybe she had decided it was more than she could handle. I comforted myself that she wasn’t that type of a person.

The officer who was writing a report on a fraudulent company was still there; another officer came in and was conversing with him. He looked at me, “ko sister ma pin pin ayo ndeei?” he was asking about my piercings. His look was condescending. I looked at him straight-faced and said they were mine. He wanted to continue with his questions but I looked away. 30 minutes later, the officers returned. They informed that ‘THEY’ would prefer to lay a charge against me. I could just about cry! I fought so hard to control myself. I’m guessing I looked like a deer in headlights. I asked if they couldn’t charge the organisation instead and they said maybe when it goes to court. They created a docket and had to take my fingerprints. Because I had spent time in other countries, they had to take four sets instead of the ordinary two. My period was due in four to five days; I wondered what the conditions of the prisons were and how particular I am during those days. Would I survive? What if I was generally bullied? I had experienced a lot of bullying throughout my school years.

To save myself from the self-torture, I asked if that meant I was going to jail. The less intimidating man laughed and said no, we are just checking if you have never committed crimes in other places. The process from then was a lot of waiting. Bhotasa was now sitting with us. We talked about the sounds we had heard earlier and asked him what’s the worst that could happen? They had to write a report about the incident to send to their superiors and write what is a called a Warned and Cautioned statement. This is where they state the intended charge and what might happen from then on. Bhotasa said he would respond to it and I didn’t have to say a word. My response to the charge as the lawyer had written gave me hope. At the back of my mind I couldn’t help thinking that ignorance was not recognized by the law. Bhotasa later explained after I had asked him why part of the response said ‘I did not know’, that it wasn’t ignorance because as a private voluntary organisation we were not mandated to notify the police of the meeting and the meeting was certainly not public. They told the lawyer they were putting me in their custody and would follow up when they had finished investigations. An hour later we were allowed to leave. Bhotasa dropped us where Tapinda’s car had been parked. His wife had moved it from the hotel after the arrest.

After such a day all I wanted was to see Malachi and go home. Musa had my bag but he had left town and left it at his home. I asked if they could bring it to me as they were mobile but eventually they couldn’t, traffic they said. I wondered how they would have felt if they had been the one in that position… As no arrangements had been made for my transport, Tapinda offered to take me wherever I had to go…

We got to Malachi’s work place and she came down to the parking lot. I have never been so happy to see a human being before! We embraced and I didn’t want to let go. A wave of emotion rushed through me and I felt my tears welling up. I pushed her away for fear I would actually cry. She hesitated to let me go. “Hey Jailbird!” always the joker she started making me laugh about the experience. We picked her up and went on to meet Musa and another workmate. On the way she told me how afraid she had been. When she saw me she was so happy she wanted to cry. We arrived at the meeting place. My workmates related how they felt as the arrest happened. They were all in panic mode and scared if it would end up a witch hunt. Chester and the manager, Simeon soon arrived at the rendezvous. It was nice seeing them really and was grateful Chester had been in communication with Malachi throughout the day. I learnt Simeon had had an early drink just to calm him. He was worried about how I was handling it since I was new to the situation. Chester related how the members had stayed behind waiting for the police to return because they felt I was fearless. They had told him how they could take on anything because I had shown courage with a spring in my step. “aah Tash angaachito bhamba zvake!”  If only they knew…

Malachi had left her car at home that day; she wanted to take me home and wasn’t settling for any other option. She got her friend to drop us off at her house and she took me home. She didn’t talk about the day’s proceedings and I was grateful for that. The last thing I wanted was a recap though I knew it would come up sooner or later. Unpacking emotions has always been something I dread. She had heard most of the events when we were talking with the team. I think she understood and there were not many words that day. We cuddled. I often had to stop myself from crying. It’s the little things that really do mean everything. I was grateful for the intimacy. I couldn’t help thinking I might not have been experiencing this. Reluctantly, she had to leave but I was OK with that, I think I needed the time alone as well.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I wanted to write about it so I logged onto Facebook. I wished I hadn’t instantly! An old classmate had caught wind of the story and posted it on the school group. It was such a big debate. Most comments being against homosexuality though the one who had posted was of notion everyone is allowed to be whom they are. I wondered why she had posted it in the first place. I was angry at her, angry at the people commenting as well. They didn’t have adequate information for them to comment moreover pass judgement over things they clearly didn’t understand. It was all narrowed down to sex! I was greatly disappointed; Zimbabwe is an educated nation. One comment that hurt the most, not because it was surprising but rather because of its stupidity; “Iwe Taffy do you think I will be able to hug Tash in greeting the same way I would hug you? I would rather be a prostitute or a thief than support or believe homosexuality is OK”

I am on a group on whatsapp and to my surprise I was removed from the group without notice. From the conversation prior to my removal, I realized it was one each man for himself. The culprit hadn’t even asked if I was OK or wished to be removed. She stated they had to be careful and protective of themselves. I was outraged! Hadn’t I taught them unity? These were the very youth that I am responsible for. Only Beren; a close friend who was also a group member contacted me and said I should ignore the others. I hadn’t brought up my outrage during our conversation but I guess she felt it wasn’t right. I didn’t want to ever leave the house…

Before the night was over my family had also heard about the story. My aunt who has been my strongest supporter became a stranger. She was so against me, telling me to let go of this bad behavior and return to Christ. I expressed my disappointment and told her I never imagined she would ever say that to me. All my other relatives pushed for the devil in me to be exorcised. I couldn’t possibly be a lesbian. I was grateful I was alone, I didn’t feel like talking about it yet it was all I wanted to talk about. What if everyone else around me decided it was each man for himself? All the people I was counting on were starting to fall away. From then I didn’t trust anyone. I felt as if anyone checking on me was doing it for some reason or another except genuine concern. “Could I not be gay maybe?” “How hard could being straight be?” “I can’t do it!” I said out loud and covered my head with the blankets. I cried…

Even till this day we don’t have conversations with some of my relatives and friends. Hi, how are you is as far as we go. My other aunt who is out of the country either greets me or sends me repentance forwards on Whatsapp.

The situation has long since quieted down but I have become more paranoid. I wonder if my staying behind to address the waitress was partly the cause for the ‘raid’?! If so then maybe I should be more careful how I handle things, was that carelessness?! If I had let things be; we probably wouldn’t have been in that predicament. My heart beats rapidly when I hear someone knocking at the gate, I wonder if it’s the police. Am afraid of leaving the house at times, what if they had always been watching and are still watching? What would happen if they descended on me unaware, worse when am with Malachi, what would become of her?

I can’t say I’ll ever be comfortable. Sometimes events like these make one wonder about what we fight for and if we are fighting the same battle with our fellow soldiers. It’s always easy when you’re a spectator. I never imagined I would spend hours behind those walls.

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