Hopewell Chin’ono: The sandpit diaspora versus locals debate reflects ignorance of our economy

By Hopewell Chin’ono

I have lost many “friends” for spelling out realities that are unpalatable to them, yet these realities are self-evident in our country’s everyday living.

One such reality is that a 21st modernizing and world class aspirational Zimbabwe cannot get there without its diaspora contributing through their acquired experiences and skills.

I do not even understand how someone can argue with that reality unless they are being protective of their space for fear of someone in the diaspora exposing their weaknesses or lack of global best practices.

It should actually be about complimenting each other’s skills and experiences and building our country from the ashes where it lies today to a better place that is less embarrassing than where we are today.

Each time I talk about the need to harness the diasporan market both professionally and business wise, I am asked why we can’t get the talent from within Zimbabwe.

I always respond by asking whether Zimbabweans in the diaspora are not Zimbabwean enough and whether they are not entitled to have an opportunity to take part in the decision-making and rebuilding of their country.

The Zimbabwean diaspora invariably kept Zimbabwe afloat for 18 years of our political madness, from day one of this economic and political crisis up to this very day, these folks were and are still putting dinner on the family tables.

That sustenance didn’t hinge on the jobs that these folks held which kept kids in schools, men, women and children going to bed with a full stomach and hospital bills being paid to save lives.

I have been on both ends of this debate. I lived in Britain for 10 years and I also lived in the US for a year whilst studying in Massachusetts.

I too did for my family what all those in the diaspora were doing for their kith and kin, and together we kept the national economy ticking regardless of the type of jobs that we held at the time.

My first job in England was working as a cleaner at Planet Hollywood in London’s Piccadilly Circus.

Regardless of my academic qualifications, you either had to be a nurse or you did menial jobs raising money to study at University and eventually taking the career path of your choice.

White folks do that and they call it a gap year, they pull pints whilst traveling the world; it is only Zimbabweans who laugh at that because they look at “the today” and not “the tomorrow” and the desired outcomes.

I became one of Africa’s CNN Journalist of the year from that very foundation set by the income I got from clearing bottles at Planet Hollywood in London in 1994.

Today my whole family has now become high flying because of that 1994 sacrifice that I made doing that menial job whilst helping them back home and paying for my university school fees at City University.

Without that cleaning job, I wouldn’t have ended up on a British Government scholarship studying film at Brunel University, I wouldn’t have ended up at University of Oxford’s Said Business School on an African Leadership Institute program.

I wouldn’t have ended up as a Harvard University Nieman Fellow, the highest fellowship accolade in world journalism.

I wouldn’t have been who I am today, but more importantly, I look at those who stayed at home and how that sad prevailing reality beat them down to pulp because of the economic crisis induced by bad politics.

So if I were to make a choice once more between cleaning after diners at Planet Hollywood whilst studying at University or staying at home in Zimbabwe and working as a reporter, I would do it the same way all over again.

That is my life in the diaspora on a personal level, there is also a Hopewell Chin’ono on a global level.

I wouldn’t have been able to know and understand the world the way I do today if I had not walked the diasporan journey.

It crafted me into being the professional I am today without which I would have been just a statistic of Robert Mugabe’s disastrous rule.

I am wiser for that, there is a reason why white folks take gap years and travel the world, it does open your mind to a world of many possibilities and grand opportunities.

It is meant to give one a worldview, does it make you any better than those who stayed at home?

I do not know but I can speak for myself, it made me much wiser than I could ever have been if I had stayed at home.

Now let us come to the real crux of the matter, why do I keep refereeing to the Zimbabwean diasporan talent and the need to engage them in my articles?

It is because it exists and that is a reality that we can’t wish away, but more importantly, Zimbabwe can’t pull through without them.

Zimbabwe has a huge skills deficit and this has been certified by World Bank research available for any naysayers to go through.

Again, I do not understand why we even argue about this empirical reality, where would the skilled Zimboz be in an economy that can only employ five percent of its eligible working folk?

Let us look at the world of television and broadcasting that I belong to, where are the world-class television journalists and broadcasters in Zimbabwe?

We have graduates that have never been employed before holding media degrees, they however lack the experience to run a television station.

Every television station in South Africa has ex-ZBC personnel from the technical departments, newsreaders to reporters.

Those are the folk that we need back home if we are to run world-class television stations. They are experienced.

Let us look at medicine, Zimbabwe only has 14 consultant-psychiatrists in a population of 15 million people.
That is one psychiatrist supposed to cover just over one million people.

There are Zimbabwean psychiatrists scattered around the globe whose skills would help tame the current mental health disaster, where only 10 percent of our people requiring mental health services actually get them.

The other 90 percent is suffering without any respite because of this skills deficit.
How many Zimbabwean mental health nurses are in the UK?

So when I talk about the Zimbabwean diasporan talent, skills and experience needed to come back home, these are the folks that I am talking about.

Some started off as cleaners like myself and some were care assistants but today they are world-class professionals in their chosen careers.

Today Zimbabwe only has two consultant pathologists performing post-mortems in government hospitals.

I know someone who has been waiting for results of her sister’s postmortem forensic results since August.

There are Zimbabweans like Dr Praise Matemavi, a transplant surgeon in Michigan in the US whose dream of coming back home to Zimbabwe has been delayed because Zimbabwe has no transplant surgery units.

She represents Zimbabweans who dared to dream big but had their dreams of working back home deferred by limited thinking within our health delivery system management and civil service.

Dr Praise Matemavi started off as a nurse and in between doing the so-called menial jobs, she worked hard to become the transplant surgeon she is today.

She did not want to do the menial jobs, but they provided a steady income to pay for her school fees at the medical school because she wasn’t a US Citizen at the time and therefore didn’t have access to any financial aid.

She completed a two-year nursing program and began working as a nurse whilst chasing her dream of being a surgeon.

Zimbabwe has no single transplant surgeon and yet we have Praise with her skills parked in Michigan, these are the talents that should come back home

So what do we mean when we argue that we have enough talent inside the country when we conveniently ignore such glaring statistics?

Life is about making sacrifices and if I am to carry the burden of having worked in a menial job to be who I am today, why not?

Defining ourselves on that basis seems to be a waste of time in my view, we need to look at the reality that I will try and define below.

Nobody wants to leave their country of birth unless they have NO choice.

Zimbabweans who left the country did so because of the broken political leadership that failed to deliver on basic things that any half decent government should deliver on, job security, health care and food security.

General Constantino Chiwenga said the same thing on the eve of his military action against Robert Mugabe.

President Mnangagwa repeated the same thing again saying that Zimbabwe is 18 years behind where it should have been.

Projections done in 2013 by a World Bank Group assisted study led by Dr Norbert Mugwagwa showed that Zimbabwe had lost 50 percent of its professional capital to the diaspora.

Those who stayed behind did so because they either had no means of leaving the country, inhibited by visa restrictions or they felt comfortable with their circumstances to some point.

Invariably, the crisis became so acute that those who could leave did so and most of the professionals who left ended up in professional jobs in South Africa and around the world.

There are those who were stunted in Zimbabwe regardless because they were not highly qualified, they too left and ended up in lower-end jobs in South Africa and beyond.

Most of those who ended up out of Africa in places like the UK, US, Canada and Australia have managed to build a future for themselves back home beyond their wildest dreams, building homes in the cities and rehabilitating their villages.

They have sent their family members to schools and universities and have started businesses that today are part of the economy.

Now if that person managed to do so because of a menial job or two, it is irrelevant because back home they wouldn’t have been able to get the very menial job or if they did, they would be beaten down by poverty and the struggling economy ending up having to live from hand to mouth.

Zimbabwe is struggling with foreign exchange shortages and the capacity to raise foreign direct investment.

If we look at the 1980 figures of diasporan returnees after the war, they spent more than locals because they brought cash capital with them that was injected into the new Zimbabwean economy.

They bought houses and cars and they invested in businesses that leveraged on their acquired skills whilst they were away in the diaspora.

The same will happen to Zimbabwe today, if 10,000 Zimbabweans in the diaspora came back home to settle and spend US$50,000 each, buying homes and services, that will be an injection of US$500 Million into our economy before they have even started contributing professionally.

A good and well-known example of people coming back home is none other than the billionaire businessman Strive Masiyiwa.

If he had not come back home and joined the old Post and Telecommunications Corporation (PTC), there probably wouldn’t have been a company called Econet.

Lastly, when I talk about diasporan intervention, we should remember that most of those with the required skills don’t even have to come back home.

They can contribute from wherever they are as they have always done in the past.

It is important to acknowledge them, acknowledge the work they have done to help their kith and kin, acknowledge the fact that they helped us stay afloat at a critical time through their remittances and more importantly, acknowledge that they are NO different to those who are back home.

They are Zimbabwean, we are all Zimbabwean and we all have the same privilege to our birth right regardless of our current postcodes.
Just in case you didn’t know, the first and biggest Third World super star, Bob Marley, worked as a forklift driver in Delaware.

Marley held jobs at DuPont as a laboratory assistant and as an assembly line worker at the Chrysler car plant in Newark, Delaware.

Marley’s 1976 song, Night Shift, is a reference to his time at that plant as a forklift driver.
We are all products of our circumstances, some privileged, some not so privileged.

It is where we end up in life that matters, not the fact that we were victims of a system that failed to honour its responsibility as a government.

Bob Marley’s Night Shift

Hopewell Chin’ono is an award winning Zimbabwean international Journalist and Documentary Filmmaker. He is a Harvard University Nieman Fellow and a CNN African Journalist of the year.

He is also a Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Africa leadership Institute. 
Hopewell has a new documentary film looking at mental illness in Zimbabwe called State of Mind, which was launched to critical acclaim.

State of Mind has been nominated for a top award in Kenya. You can watch the documentary trailer below. Hopewell can be contacted at hopewell2@post.harvard.edu or on Twitter @daddyhope


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