Zimbabwe – Taking a Step without Feet

A couple of days after the military placed Robert Mugabe and his family under house arrest, and it appeared that he would likely have to step down as Zimbabwe’s president, I received the following message from a nutritional therapist with whom I am working in South Africa: “Hi Annabel … are you quite stressed? Your adrenals are reacting highly. There is muscle tension, emotions, unstable sugar … ” The therapist uses a SCIO bio feedback machine to monitor the state of my mental, physical and emotional state, and tests me at random. When I confirmed how the news in Zimbabwe had induced in me a heightened state of excitement, she wrote: “It’s amazing how these things surface just when we think we’ve done our work and clearing. And it always goes to the gut. The stress and emotions have all affected your digestive system.” Until last week, my body, for the first time since leaving the United States in late 2012, had started to balance itself. I was losing weight, had loads of energy, and little desire to drink excessively. Zimbabwe, the country I called home until I was banned in 2002; the country in which so many people lost their hope, their dignity, their earnings, their health, and sometimes their lives, has again upended all that.

Victoria Falls which divides Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Cellular memory provides a jaw-clenching jolt when it chooses to surface without warning in a sensitive, middle-aged body. One minute you’re fully present in a busy, uncomplicated life, the next you’re being stalked by camera rolls of destruction and sacrifice, anguished testimonies of violence and death, the heartbreak of betrayal by people you really, really trusted. And it takes no notice of time: it doesn’t consider that these events happened over ten years ago. It doesn’t consider that I traded the demands of a high-profile prodemocracy activist for a simple life focused on writing and food and the natural world. It doesn’t consider that today I’m loved, and safe, and the happiest I’ve ever been. Cellular memory lurks within all of us, waiting for that moment it can reignite the wretchedness that induced self-destructing patterns and habits, which manifest in our bodies as inflammation, muscle spasms, digestive problems, hormone disruptions, and heart palpitations. That manifests as cancer, a disease that killed two members of my immediate family after the crisis of leadership and the rule of law was upended in Zimbabwe at the end of the last century.

Why did this momentous event, filled with pictures of euphoric Zimbabweans peacefully celebrating the end of Robert Mugabe’s tyrannical rule, not invite positive reactions in my adrenal glands and brain? I felt deeply the intense joy and relief displayed by my fellow countrymen. Why is it that the first thing I wanted was to reach for the nearest bottle of alcohol to dull a familiar unease, just at a time when I was in little need of stimulants; when I was feeling so balanced and healthy and strong?

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, American philanthropist, George Soros, and me in Decatur House, Washington D.C.

It’s been years since I’ve referred to my vast archive of stories, correspondence and pictures from my prodemocracy days in London and Washington, D.C. I’ve written a book about it, which is shelved alongside the archive. Yet egged on by red wine and a growing neurosis, I’m digging through those difficult times, and the more I dig, the more I want to drink.

It’s what I did in those days to cope with the relentless pressure. It’s what I did in those days to cope with the anxiety of taking Zimbabwean activists, most of them traumatized, into the rarified air of the U.S. State Department and White House. On to Capitol Hill and into the tearoom in the House of Lords. Up the stairs of King Charles Street and to the 39th floor of the United Nations building, increasingly aware of the slim chance we had of creating actual change on the ground. It’s what I did in those days to cope when nothing changed at all; it’s what I did when things fell apart. And it’s what I did when I fell apart after close friends to whom I’d given jobs — overcome by their own ambition and greed — set about to destroy me and other fellow activists in their attempt to take over the organizations which we led.

Human rights lawyer, Gabriel Shumba and me, in the Ronald Reagan building where I worked in Washington, D.C.

For a short time my husband, Chris, was also involved in pushing for nonviolent democratic change in Zimbabwe, a catchphrase that with hindsight sounds oxymoronic. Nonviolence was never an option back then, and democracy, regardless of political parties, didn’t exist. And yet, last week, I watched the most inspiring, nonviolent, multiracial carnival of force in the history of our country, when tens of thousands of Zimbabweans took to the streets to demand a change in leadership that was led by a commander-in-chief who once boasted that he “had degrees in violence.”

In the days before Robert Mugabe resigned, I kept thinking of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, so strange was the unfolding drama: “I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’  … It’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.” 

I bet every Zimbabwean is a different person now. Yet I cannot forget those who made far larger contributions than I ever did, or those brave activists who made the ultimate sacrifice fighting for change in that anomalous country. I knew many of them. All Zimbabweans, in some way, have paid a price. I hope now, with this new dispensation, unsure as it is, that a national catharsis can slowly release the trauma and pain of the last twenty years. I hope now that Chris and I, living just across the Zambezi River, will feel its healing effects, too. It’s time for atonement, it’s time to move on.

A cartoon published in a Zimbabwean newspaper after I assisted journalists, (the late) Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto, when they traveled to London for treatment having been tortured for publishing a story about army unrest in the Congo’s civil war.

As the writer, Arundhati Roy, once wrote about her country, India, another former British colony: Normality in our part of the world is a bit like a boiled egg: its humdrum surface conceals at its heart a yolk of egregious violence. It is our constant anxiety about that violence, our memory of its past labours and our dread of its future manifestations, that lays down the rules for how a people as complex and as diverse as we continue to coexist – continue to live together, tolerate each other and, from time to time, murder one another. As long as the centre holds, as long as the yolk doesn’t run, we’ll be fine. In moments of crisis it helps to take the long view.” 

I think it’s a bit like that in our part of the world, too, but as Roy also wrote, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.”

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.


  • Beautiful, Annabel. It’s difficult to comprehend such a mixed and unknown blessing when our primeval gut and heart brains are shouting warnings and praises at the same time x

    • Thank you so much, Steven … funny you should write this. I’m reading The Science of Happiness right now, and it talks about how the negative and the positive in our brains fire simultaneously! Gosh. What a week. xo

  • Thank you so much for this, for your blog, and for sharing your remarkable life!

    • So lovely to hear from you, Mary Jane! And thank you for your super-kind note. Sending you love over the Thanksgiving holiday, and remembering the one we spent together at Jen’s. xo

  • Annabel, you’ve been on my mind through this huge transition in your Zimbabwe. After so much anguish and loss you and your countrymen have endured am hopeful that the healing can now begin. Wishing you and Chris a wonderful day!

    • Thank you so much, Sandi. And wishing you one, too … a day after your Thanksgiving. 🙂 There is so much to be thankful for … xo

  • It is a strange, unsettling feeling … I wonder if this is similar to what people must have felt at the end of the Second World War: anguish in remembrance of loss; hope – unreasonable and excited; and the numbing knowledge of what still has to be done.

    • As always, such a thoughtful, measured comment. Thank you, Georgie. I am sure it was similar. I know how committed you are to positive change in Zimbabwe. Let’s hope that some good will come out of the events of last week. xo

      • Lets’ hope! Thinking of everyone out there. Thanks for your piece – I don’t think I can really find the words. xxx

        • Thank YOU for your interest, Georgie … and yes, let’s hope! xo

  • Wow Annabel, once again you have written the most amazing, thought provoking blog. I have thought of you a lot this week and wondered how you would feel about this. All of our emotions have been sky high and yet there is a deep inner voice that keeps saying, so what next? I have spoken to a few friends and family and the feelings this has brought to the surface have been so interesting, and clearly we all need some clearing now too! We live in hope that there will be change and that those, like you, who sacrificed so much will see an end to the madness! XX

    • Bless you, Sue, and thank you for this wonderful comment. Who knows what is coming? Regardless, I will never, ever forget those scenes we witnessed on the streets of Harare and Bulawayo last week. It was miraculous. xo

  • Resonates on so many levels Annabel. I, too, was overcome by huge waves of sadness on the day of the “resignation”, while watching such deserved scenes of jubilation, sadness for those who were not granted the time to see that day and sadness for so many wasted decades, wasted lives.

    • Thank you, as always, for your interest, Katherine. It’s so complicated, for each and every one of us. I really, really hope there will be some positive change now.

  • Goodness your words are so true, so desperate to celebrate and hope it’s all over. At least it’s a new chapter for Zimbabwe and I hope one day we can stop looking over our shoulders and keep looking forward to each new sunrise. Xx

    • I hope so, too, Jan. Thank you very much for your kind note. Big hugs to you … xo

  • A week in Wonderland with Alice! And what a week – beautifully written as always and great images of your youth! Well done my friend! xxxxx

    • Down the Robbit Hole, ha! 🙂 Much gratitude, Lou … what a week it’s been indeed. Lots of love to you. xo

  • Annabel this is a wonderful account. Thank you sincerely for it and for everything else. Thank goodness you are still here to tell this tale.
    We happen to be in New Zealand on a months holiday, we left mid way through the coo ?! It is ok not being there, I think my adrenaline level would finally have done me in.
    Much love and keep looking after your goodselves


    PS I like Arundhati Roy’s spirit very much

    • Lucky you being in New Zealand, Carrie … enjoy and relax! Thank you so much for your really wonderful note. It is, as always, so good to hear from you. Lots of love, Annabel xo

  • Thank you, thank you for sharing Annabel. I have not been able to understand why I have sobbed and sobbed while watching the Zimbabwe news footage on TV. I wasn’t crying with happiness watching the joy of the people in the streets of Harare. Why ever not? Your explanation of how you feel and what is surfacing has helped me so much. I put my grief down to all those Rhodesian and Zimbabwean files being opened up in my brain storage area but you have written your account so beautifully and it just makes me feel a whole lot more normal. Your hard work for a better Zimbabwe and helping to open doors for people who didn’t know where to find them is amazing. Continue to love yourself…you deserve to. Hello xxx

    • Thank you so, so much, Hellie. There’s been such a lot of destruction wrought in our country, for so long, that watching the footage this past week was surreal. Seeing ordinary citizens rejoicing alongside the military without incident was amazing and confusing. We can only hope for better now. Lots of love to you … xo

  • I meant Hellie xxx. ..spell check said Hello.

  • A week indeed of countless highs and almost-lows, unease yes, what nows – plenty. On the day of jubilation I tweeted “Annabel and many others can come back” ! Possibly premature. But what struck me most was the collective release of fear; something went up and our bodies (or something) feel lighter. Unable to articulate as it continues to be complicated, we are enjoying this moment.
    The conflicting thoughts and feelings resonate deeply – thank you as always for sharing yours xx

    • I so love hearing from you! Thank you, thank you, Margie. I cannot imagine what it must have been like on the ground last Saturday. It was mind-blowing watching the demonstration from afar. And much gratitude for your wonderful tweet, ha! 🙂 Soon that day will come. Lots of love to you. xo

  • Dear Annabel, Thank you so very much for your glorious writing! I live in Sydney Australia and enjoy you & , Georgie”s beautifully told memoirs! You both have opened my eyes to Zimbabwe and its beauty. I have always been sad about Robert Mugabe and now have so much knowledge due to your sharing… xx

    • Thank you very much, Maddy. It’s always great to hear from you! All the best, Annabel

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