Returning to tend to his garden after self isolation due to suspected Covid-19, Victor Mujakachi from These Walls Must Fall in Sheffield reflects on the pandemic, the government’s response, racism, the impact of the crisis on migrants, fake news, and the history of Zimbabwe, which eventually brought him to the UK.
This piece of writing is taken from the longer memoirs and writing that Victor is currently working on.
Eight Days of Isolation
I began feeling unwell on the morning of the 17th of March 2020. I had a headache, felt groggy, coughing, nauseous, weak, and a slightly raised temperature. I was wobbly and unsteady on my feet when I woke up early in the morning. I felt very shaky. I stayed in bed the whole day. Deidre – Monica and James’s daughter had arrived the previous evening from Birmingham where she lives with her family. She had brought with her some birthday presents for Monica whose birthday was on the 17th of March, St Patrick’s Day.
Due to the fact that the symptoms of my illness were flu like, I had to self isolate from everyone else in the house. Without hospital testing there was no way of telling whether I had the common cold or developed Covid-19. Deidre, who’s an NHS nurse, began to implement the isolation measures. This also meant that she could not travel back to her family the following day as she had intended. She phoned her work place to say that I was ill and as such, having been in the same house with me, James and Monica, she also had to observe the seven day isolation period to determine if I would be getting worse. It turned out that I started improving on the third day. There was no need then for me to phone the NHS 111 for testing as my condition was not deteriorating. On the fourth day, I got out of bed and began tidying up my room. It was a lot of work as there were a lot of things that needed to be rearranged and sorted after a long period of neglect. By the end of the day I was really pleased with my work but also tired after finishing tidying up my room. It was tea time and I was relieved when Deidre brought my meal to my room as I could not mix with other people, until after seven days had elapsed.
A Life Spent in the Garden
On the eighth day I came out of my room and went into the kitchen to make myself some breakfast. I could safely mingle with everyone as I was feeling better and stronger. I went out into the garden. I love gardening. It’s been a passion since I started living with James and Monica eleven years ago. James always mentions to me that I transformed their garden and that was true. I have always loved gardening since when I was young. My father died when I was aged twelve. I was about to finish primary school when he died and as there was no one to pay for my school fees at our local primary school and my mother had no income of her own, I left my nuclear family to live with my uncle and aunt in Mvurwi, another Zimbabwean town, away from my brother, four sisters and my mother.
Zimbabwe was called Rhodesia then. The town of Mvurwi was known by its Rhodesian name of Umvukwes. It was during my stay in Mvurwi whilst I was completing my primary schooling that my aunt introduced me to gardening. Aunt Caroline was a keen and brilliant gardener and she taught me a lot of good gardening skills that I still apply to this day.
I used the same gardening skills when I had my own home in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, where I was working before coming to Britain.
I started clearing the garden after breakfast. I had put a lot of work into the garden in the first year that I started living with James and Monica. Gardening is therapeutic. I love being with plants and to monitor their growth. I started emptying the earth in the plant pots and putting in manure which I then mixed with the earth to make the soil inside richer and more fertile. It took me a whole day to do this as we have over twenty plant pots in the garden where I plant strawberries, rhubarb, mint and tomatoes. I loved it when this task was completed after arranging the plant pots in a neat row along our side of the boundary brick wall. I also placed more plant pots lined up at the base of a flower trellis I had made for sweet peas.
As I got better from the flu-like symptoms, the only activity I now engage in is gardening and occasionally going to the local shops to buy some groceries. When I venture out to do shopping I take the necessary precautions of wearing a protective mask and vinyl gloves. It is absolutely essential that I do this in order to minimise the risk of infection and passing it onto James and Monica who are both in their eighties.
Impact of Covid-19 in Destitute Asylum Seekers
As I worked, my thoughts wandered off to the current situation about the coronavirus pandemic. We had closed the night shelter, run by an organisation in Sheffield that I volunteer for, ASSIST. The shelter provides overnight accommodation to refused asylum seekers. They become destitute and homeless when their asylum applications are refused by the immigration authorities and are then required to leave the country as they would not have any legal right to stay in The United Kingdom. In some instances, the immigration authorities forcibly remove them and deport them back to their countries of origin. There are situations however, where refused asylum seekers cannot be forcibly removed due to the fact that they may not have the correct travel documentation. This is the group that then uses the night shelter as overnight accommodation since they have nowhere to stay.
Refused asylum seekers are not allowed to live in publicly funded accommodation.
Unfortunately, this time around the night shelter had to be closed in line with social distancing and self isolation. ASSIST took measures to house the night shelter guests in safe houses however, not everyone was accommodated.
It was whilst I was working on my plant pots that I received a call from one night shelter resident, Kuleni, who told me that he had gone to the night shelter the previous night and found it shut resulting in him sleeping rough. I immediately alerted the ASSIST accommodation manager informing him that Kuleni had slept rough the previous night. The accommodation manager contacted the city council, who are required to provide homeless people safe abodes during periods of national emergencies under section 189 of The Housing Act.
I was delighted to learn afterwards that Kuleni was safely accommodated, initially in a hotel and subsequently moved to more suitable accommodation provided by the council.
He’s a lucky one, just like me. I’ve been fortunate enough to be staying with James and Monica.
What about those that are unaccounted for. Those that are struggling in refugee camps in Syria, Calais, Libya, Lebanon, Dadaab Camp in Kenya and those refugees, the Rohingyas, displaced by the Burmese Army and are now in Bangladeshi refugee camps?
What of the refused asylum seekers in the United Kingdom who also need the basics of life that everyone else takes for granted- having toilet and bathroom facilities, having somewhere to rest and to relax, having a home to self isolate or social distance. One cannot self isolate, social distance or social shield if they are homeless and rough sleeping or sofa surfing.
Kuleni’s incident made me reflect on my own personal situation and experience as a refused asylum seeker, fortunate now to live with James and Monica with a spare room of my own especially during the national crisis situation ravaged by Covid-19.
I could easily have been in the same situation as Kuleni. I’m no stranger to rough sleeping though, which I did for three days in 2010 when I was evicted from Home Office supported accommodation following the refusal of my initial asylum claim and had exhausted all my appeal rights. That resulted in the termination of the support I had been receiving whilst the asylum claim was active. After the claim was refused, the support, which included accommodation and £37 per week, was stopped and I was forcibly evicted from the accommodation that the Home Office had provided me with and had stayed in it for six months.
After sleeping rough for three days, I came to the night shelter and stayed at the shelter for three months before being accepted as a volunteer for the shelter itself.
I was then taken out of the night shelter into host accommodation so as not to have conflict of interest as an asylum seeker as well as a volunteer. I was taken to my hosts, James and Monica with whom I’ve been staying from that time up to this day eleven years down the line. It is the same place I’m staying during the Covid-19 pandemic, in lockdown.
When I slept rough in 2010, there was no killer virus on the rampage. The situation is vastly different now. This is a world wide crisis we are currently experiencing which has the potential to affect every human being irrespective of class, social background, wealth, race, colour or creed.
Boris Johnson, Racism, and Letterbox Looks
When I don the mask I reminisce to the time when the current prime minister was a member of parliament and a leadership contender of his political party. He sparked fury and outrage among Muslims by making reference to burqas and niqabs clad Muslim women as appearing like “bank robbers” or having “letterbox” looks. Many people in the country are now wearing masks due to the pandemic. Are they bank robbers? Do they have letter box looks?
Muslim women were right after all in putting on the burqas and niqabs. It has inadvertently turned out to be a necessary protection although not entirely foolproof against the spread of Covid-19.
Fast forward to now, the former leadership contender for the Conservative party won the leadership race and the subsequent general election to become prime minister of The United Kingdom. The coronavirus spread to the United Kingdom soon after the prime minister resoundingly won the election and has taken office. The prime minister became a casualty of the virus as well and became seriously ill and was taken into intensive care. Thankfully he survived against the backdrop of a frightening and saddening high death rate in the country. I haven’t seen him wearing a mask after his recovery. Why is that? Doesn’t he want to have the appearance of a bank robber or adopting the letterbox look?
Life Under Lockdown
Besides gardening I engage myself in online meetings with a number of organisations that I’m involved with. I do weekly meetings with the charity that runs the night shelter. I’m also involved with a drama group and a theatre group. I take part through Zoom. I attend church services on Sunday via Zoom as well.
I miss my family, my wife in Zimbabwe, a younger son in China and two sons who live here in Sheffield. I’m able to communicate with all the family members by phone. It’s become easier and cheaper now to communicate by mobile phone or Whatsapp messaging, compared to five years ago when there was no Facetime link up and charges were very high for a five minute international call.
Reflections on China
As the days go by, I receive reports about events in China where my younger son is living and studying. He has been staying in China for the past four years. I had been extremely worried at the time that the coronavirus was first reported at the end of December last year when my son fell ill with flu-like symptoms but it could not be confirmed if that had been Covid-19. He quickly recovered and was said to have tested negative. But the death toll began to rise in China and in January the city of Wuhan where my son lives and studies, went into lockdown.
My apprehension increased again. Little did I know then that the virus would spread from China to the rest of the world and be declared a pandemic by The World Health Organisation.
The virus has since spread to South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, Iran, Italy, Spain, the rest of Europe and Britain. As The United Kingdom extends its lockdown period, the Chinese government has now partially lifted its restrictions on movements on a gradual basis. I hear this from my son, but ugly reports are also coming out of China where Chinese nationals are engaging in xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals accusing them of spreading the virus. My son refuses to openly speak about this.
Astonishingly, the British press doesn’t appear to carry any stories about these reports. Social media and international media is awash with the Chinese anti-migrant attack stories which appear to be directed to African nationals. This worries me extremely as I’m concerned about the welfare of my son. Reports also appear online debunking the xenophobic attacks by Chinese nationals.
However, there is so much information appearing on the internet these days that one is never certain which stories are authentic. How can I know these reports are true when there is so much ‘fake news’ around?
There are two possibilities about the Chinese racist attacks. Perhaps, the stories are true and the Chinese authorities have realised that they have messed up big time by not exercising control over their nationals. They then embark on damage limitation control and attempt to debunk them. The other possibility is that there is some conspiracy against the Chinese and all the stories are manufactured to tarnish their name. Who is telling the truth? People the world over seem to have lost faith with government news. The Chinese statistics in terms of deaths and infections by the coronavirus are questionable. Unconfirmed sources suspect that death numbers are far higher than the world is made to believe.
The British press appears to focus on its own domestic stories relating to the coronavirus where the death toll is rising rapidly to become the second highest death rate in the world. The domestic press is also focusing on the seemingly unpreparedness of the government in handling the situation in terms of shortage of medical supplies and vital equipment. Again the public is provided with official figures that exclude deaths in residential and nursing homes and the community. How accurate is then the death toll if the figures are not tabulated? Why are they excluded? Who decides which figures to include and what figures to exclude and why?
No wonder the world is now awash with conspiracy theories. When no one trusts information from government officials, an information vacuum is created. Where there is a vacuum, air, when it gets the chance, rushes in to fill up the space. A dearth of information creates the perfect platform for conspiracies and fake news. Fake news similar to that relating to the installation of 5G network linking radiation to covid-19. How can radiation turn into a virus? If that assertion were true, why are countries without 5G network being affected by the coronavirus? At a superficial level conspiracy theories and stories provide humour and entertainment especially during this time of self isolation, social distancing and lockdown. However, danger emerges when people begin to take the stories seriously or unable to decipher fact from pure Hollywood style fantasy. This would be akin to believing that Dr Strange exists and that he possesses magical powers.
Because of all the ‘fake news’ online about the Coronavirus, These Walls Must Fall recommends getting your information from trusted sources, like the World Health Organisation, Doctors of the World, or the NHS, and suggest you don’t share ‘conspiracy theories’ on Whatsapp or social media.
As I follow these reports my thoughts go to fellow refused asylum seekers who are still struggling to get stable accommodation during this crisis. Whilst in the garden again, I received a telephone call from another fellow refused asylum seeker, Aziz, who last used the night shelter some three years ago. He has since moved to Edinburgh in Scotland. He phoned me to say that he’s now struggling to get accommodation as he had been sofa surfing with friends who are now no longer able to accommodate him due to the nationwide lockdown. I provide him with a number for Migrant Help, an organisation contracted by The Home Office to assist asylum seekers and refugees.
Aziz gets back to me two days later. Migrant help have promised to submit a section 4 application for him. Section 4(2) of The Immigration And Asylum Act 1999, (The IAA 1999) allows for the provision of support to refused asylum seekers. The Home Office provides support to refused asylum seekers who are destitute and meet a narrow set of criteria. The support consists of accommodation and £35.39 a week paid through a payment card.
I detect a high degree of apprehension and anxiety. Aziz is really worried that now he has provided his personal details to Migrant Help, he has now exposed himself to the possibility of detention by immigration authorities. I spend some time reassuring Aziz so as to allay his fears about being tracked by The Home Office.
No one, not even people without leave to remain in The United Kingdom are being removed because of the pandemic and the government’s directive that everyone should stay indoors. I even advise him to approach local authority offices or the police in Edinburgh for help and to demonstrate his desperation. Aziz sounds reassured and promises to call me back again to update me of developments.
Peace Has Come to Zimbabwe – Zimbabwean Independence, 1980
Saturday the 18th of April this year was Zimbabwe’s national day. The day Zimbabwe got its independence from Britain 40 years ago. I was twenty years old. What a time. I spent the day reflecting on it. The country was euphoric on that day, forty years ago. After 15 years of civil war waged against the Rhodesian government by black nationalists Robert Gabriel Mugabe and Joshua Mqubuko Nkomo, at last, black African Rhodesians were free from institutionalised racism set by the white Rhodesian government. The country, amid pomp and ceremony presided over by the last governor of Southern Rhodesia- Lord Christopher Soames, changed its name from Southern Rhodesia to Zimbabwe.
In a famous speech broadcast worldwide, Robert Mugabe who had won a landslide victory in elections conducted two months earlier in February 1980, spoke of reconciliation, hope and forgiveness and the need to move forward to build a better multiracial Zimbabwe. The country was ecstatic.
The speech captivated the world. Prince Charles was an invited dignitary representing the Queen among other heads of state and governments within the African continent and outside of it. The former guerrilla fighter Robert Mugabe, calling for peace and borrowing the famous words from the prophet Isaiah in the bible, said, “let’s turn our swords into ploughshares…” Isaiah 2:4.
How lucky I was to be witnessing this historic moment. I thought of my father who had died eight years before that and felt a pang of sorrow that he was not there to witness this moment. My father had died a very mysterious death during the Rhodesian war. A family friend last saw him boarding an army truck to come and visit me and my brother and sister as we had been staying with my grandmother. My parents had been living with my other younger siblings in another part of Zimbabwe where dad had got on to the army truck to come to visit us during the school holidays.
That was the last time he was ever seen alive. How sad that my father was not there to witness this momentous event, where a black prime minister Robert Mugabe was inaugurated. Nothing of that sort had ever happened in the 90 year history of Zimbabwe when the country was administered as a colony of the British Empire and then later on became a self governing colony in 1923 but still ruled by British people until April 17th 1980.
On the 18th of April 1980 I felt really proud to be a Zimbabwean. The whole world wanted to associate with Zimbabwe. We were an inspiration to countries like South Africa and Namibia, then known as Southwest Africa. These countries were not yet independent from white minority governments that entrenched racism in their constitutions just as Zimbabwe had been.
Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique had now got independence from their former European masters. The tide was turning. There were only two countries left on the African continent to remove the shackles of colonialism as we said it that time. These were South Africa and South West Africa.
Bob Marley penned a special song for Zimbabwe entitled “Zimbabwe” for the great day. Thousands of lives had been lost during the fifteen year old war for independence- the official figure is 250,000. The 18th of April seemed to be the day of atonement. Our heroes had not perished in vain. Robert Mugabe spoke of an egalitarian society. He spoke of reconciliation. He exposed the need to turn a new page in terms of racial harmony and equal opportunity for all. Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, had a sound economy and an advanced infrastructure which was the envy of other African countries. Zimbabwe was destined for many greater things.
What would possibly go wrong with a highly educated leader like Robert Mugabe? He was an intellectual in his own right with seven university degrees and later got bestowed fourteen honorary doctorates from various universities around the world due to his achievements and a statesman building his country and uniting it from racial and tribal division. Robert Mugabe had assembled a cabinet that was said to be the most educated in the world.
The majority of his cabinet ministers had doctorates obtained from universities abroad whilst those ministers were in exile during the war. Other ministers were medical doctors. Zimbabwe was indeed set on an upward trajectory!
Zimbabwe on the Rise
Indeed, for ten years Zimbabwe performed to expectations. Economic growth surged. Education among the black population rose to the level at which the country had a 90% literacy rate. A first in sub Saharan Africa.
Food production increased. I do not subscribe to the notion that Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Africa or Southern Africa as is ordinarily stated. This phrase was coined by political commentators when Robert Mugabe embarked on his disastrous land reform programme twenty years after independence. After independence, Zimbabwe had inherited a very strong agricultural base which was further buttressed by the appointment of agricultural minister Denis Norman from Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front party. Denis Norman built an effective agricultural system that combined small scale black Zimbabwean farmers with the experience of white commercial farmers. The former embarked on grain farming for domestic consumption and the latter increasingly turned to cash crops for export, earning Zimbabwe much needed foreign currency.
Zimbabwe had a quota allocated to it by the European Union to export beef into the European Union market. These two sectors complemented each other to create an agricultural industry that was very impressive and among the best in Africa. During that period the country was producing surplus food for export but not necessarily for the rest of Africa or the region. With such an accomplishment in the agricultural sector, it was no surprise when in 1988 Robert Mugabe received an award from The Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End Of Hunger now known as The Hunger Project. This was a recognition of the country’s agricultural success story.
But, things began to go wrong in Zimbabwe! The economy started deteriorating and eventually went into unprecedented melt down.
And…just as I was beginning to write about the detail of the reasons why Robert Mugabe steered Zimbabwe into an economic abyss from which Zimbabweans are now reeling, I received sad news from my son.
A Rude Awakening
A very close cousin of his wife was said to have passed away after a short illness in Rotherham. The cousin, Mulungisi, a forty four year old male was taken to hospital after developing breathing problems. When he arrived in hospital he was taken to ICU as his condition worsened and placed on a ventilator. Despite all efforts, the medical staff could not save him and he passed away the following day.
This sad news shocks and saddens me. It gives me a rude awakening about the coronavirus. It drives home the unusual times that we are in. It also brings with it a level of anxiety and uncertainty which I believe everyone is currently experiencing.
When the first deaths were recorded following the spread of the disease to the United Kingdom the government started giving daily briefings of the death toll every twenty four hours. The figures were saddening, but they were numbers, statistics remotely related to people whose faces were shown on television screens. The deaths related to health personnel, medical staff and occasionally prominent familiar people that I’ve only read about but not met.
Coronavirus and Zimbabweans in the UK
I also received a Whatsapp message from a friend with a video clip which played soulful music by popular Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mutukudzi called “Rufu Ndimadzonyongedze.” The video clip showed Zimbabweans who died of Covid-19 after contracting the virus whilst working for- the National Health Service in The United Kingdom.
Roughly translated “Rufu Ndimadzongonyedze” means death brings deep heartache and sorrow to surviving family members and friends especially if it comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Oliver Mutukudzi himself died in 2018.
As I watch this video clip my thoughts go to Mulungisi. It’s real. Mulungisi is gone. He’s dead. He may be a statistic in the national figures but he’s family. A loved one in the same way as all those people included in the numbers that the government scientific advisor, the chief medical officer for England and the minister churn out daily in their briefings.
You see them every day in the evening – a government minister, the chief scientific advisor and the health medical officer for England. The three of them behind three podiums. Each lectern emblazoned with the political messages with three straplines, ‘Stay Home – Protect The NHS -Save Lives’.
The minister is asked by the reporter why testing of 100,000 people per day hasn’t been achieved as promised. He lets out a laugh that betrays his discomfort.
He explains the government’s change in strategy whereby a large pool of contact-tracers have been hired in order to track the spread of the virus. No answer to the question by the minister until his time slot runs out. Very clever ruse used by politicians if they want to duck a question or avoid making commitments.
Very simple mathematical calculations would indicate that testing 100,000 people results in 500,000 being tested in five days and 1 million tested in ten days. It follows that within 60 days 60 million individuals would have been tested. The United Kingdom has a population close to 60 million. If the country had followed the World Health Organisation advice of testing and testing, everyone would have been tested within a period of two months.
We’ve been in lockdown for just under two months. Efforts were directed at building Nightingales. Some of the Nightingales should also be named Seacoles to reflect the contribution of blacks towards the nursing profession. Mary Seacole or “Mother Seacole” as she was affectionately known by soldiers during The Crimean War deserves this recognition as much as ethinic minorities are currently contributing to The NHS.
Some names in this article have been changed to protect their identities.