THE title of the first lesson was Patriotism. It began with raised-fist salutes and chanted slogans in praise of “Great Leader Robert Mugabe” and ended with denunciations of Britain’s prime minister.
“Tony Blair is a pig and we don’t want to associate with the pig and his gay playmates,” the class was told. Later they learnt how to strangle enemies of the state with their shoelaces.
Such classes, taught by uneducated war veterans from the ruling Zanu-PF and attended by teachers against their will, are Mugabe’s latest and most insidious weapon against his own people in the country where the England cricket team is scheduled to play in the World Cup this week. The players were meeting today to decide whether to boycott the match on moral and security grounds.
In the past few weeks hundreds of teachers in the central highveld and eastern highlands of Zimbabwe have been rounded up and sent to “reorientation” camps.
Having used his youth militia to beat opponents, rig elections, deny food aid to supporters of the rival Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and rape their wives and daughters, Mugabe is now trying to brainwash the population through a sinister re-education of teachers.
Myheart Muusha, 31, was so disgusted that he escaped from his camp. A gentle, soft-spoken man, his decision means a life on the run, leaving the woman he loved and the end of a teaching career which made his family so proud that his father cried at his graduation from teacher training college.
Trembling with fear, he met me secretly last week and gave the first account of life inside what he termed the “terror camps”. It seemed a world apart from the scene at the Harare Sports Club yesterday where gardeners were putting the final touches to the manicured emerald cricket pitch awaiting the England team.
Just two blocks away in court A of the old colonial High Court building, Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader, is on trial for his life on what he says are “trumped-up charges” of plotting to assassinate Mugabe.
Less than a mile up the road, behind Harare station, Aids orphans are trying to catch sparrows to cook. According to the World Food Programme, 7m of Zimbabwe’s 11m population are threatened with starvation and 2,500 are dying each week of Aids and hunger.
Travelling undercover, I met torture victims and teachers who emphasised that Muusha’s account of repression is the reality of life for millions of rural Zimbabweans.
“The ruling party wants a situation where everything is militarised and Zanu-ised,” said Takavafiria Zhou, president of the Progressive Teachers Union for Manicaland province, from where many of the teachers have been taken.
“They want us to sleep Zanu, breathe Zanu, live on Zanu food and tell our children that there is nothing on earth apart from Zanu. It’s pure propaganda.”
For Muusha, the nightmare began when he returned from his holidays on January 14 to his job as science teacher at Vumbunu secondary school in Mutasa to be told that he had been selected, along with 10 others, for an “in-service programme” to teach some new syllabus material.
“I knew it was something bad,” he said. “Mugabe is suspicious of teachers because many of us support the MDC and we carry a lot of weight in the community. For the past three years his thugs have come into our school and beaten us, making us chant slogans in front of the pupils.
“We were scared to punish any students in case they reported us to the local Zanu-PF.”
Muusha and his colleagues were piled on to an army truck and driven to Nyadzi with about 30 teachers from other schools. It was made clear that this was not an optional course.
“We knew what these people are capable of,” he said. “There was an American called Richard Gillman who had started helping our school, bringing in textbooks and raising money so we could have electricity, but the Zanu people kept telling us to keep away from the white man.”
Gillman was shot dead by police at a roadblock last November, supposedly because he did not have his papers.
When the teachers arrived at the camp they were ordered to remove their clothes and were given camouflage gear and army boots. They were told that these had belonged to the fallen heroes of Zimbabwe’s liberation. “They lined us up and told us, ‘You are misinforming the pupils,’ ” said Muusha.
“They said, ‘You are not teaching but cheating and now you must learn to be responsible citizens who place the flag and our fallen heroes at the forefront of our history.’ ”
Then they asked the teachers how many meals they wanted to eat a day. “We said three,” recounted Muusha. “They asked why people are eating only one, so we replied, ‘Because there’s no foreign currency, so no food.’ They said, ‘No, it’s because of Blair and Tsvangirai, these are the people who are vandalising the economy and must be stopped.’ ”
They were woken at 4am for 25-mile road runs with soldiers who beat them if they lagged behind. Lessons started at 8am when they were taught that Comrade Mugabe, Comrade Castro and Comrade Gadaffi were the true leaders and that Blair was spearheading a movement to destroy Zimbabwe.
“Between each class we were made to shout ‘Forward with Mugabe’ and ‘Down with MDC’ and ‘Down with Blair’. They kept asking us what the colours of the Zimbabwean flag represent and the names of the war heroes. If you don’t know they call you a traitor.”
One of the textbooks was a Book of Fallen Heroes which included Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi, the man behind the violent invasions of white farms that began in 2000, and Border Gezi, a top Mugabe lieutenant who set up training camps for the youth militia, known as the Green Bombers, responsible for some of the worst atrocities.
They were also shown videos of white South African police setting dogs on blacks. “It was all incredibly racist, anti-white,” said Muusha. “They said we should not talk about football or music but about the struggle and how the British have dispossessed us. They told us about Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden and said they are doing the right thing.”
For Muusha, the last straw came when “they showed us how to kill by striking someone on the back of the neck just behind the ear with a heavy object and to strangle them with shoelaces so you wouldn’t be detected.” He fled.
“Now my job is gone and if they capture me I’m dead,” he said. “We were told if you run away that’s equivalent to treason.” Although petrified, he insisted that his name be published. “I had been proud to be a teacher,” he added, sadly. “I wanted to educate children to be a source of enlightenment, but now it’s all spoilt. The whole education system is destroyed.”
Similar experiences were described by Memory, a primary school teacher I met late one night in the village home of a traditional healer; and by Barnabas, another teacher who had fled the camp and who talked to me in a safe house in Mutare.
They were picked up last month by police and members of Mugabe’s feared Central Intelligence Organisation, with lists of names. “There was no choice,” said Memory. “If you said no that means you don’t support the government.”
He was taken to Mushagashi Training Centre in Masvingo. “They called it nationalism but it was Zanu-isation,” he said. “It was complete indoctrination. They said many teachers have been inclined to the opposition so it was time we learnt the ‘truth’ about politics.”
The teachers were made to go on 3am runs, followed by history lectures presenting Mugabe as a great leader thwarted by the evil British.
“On the first day they showed us a shocking video of dead bodies during the liberation war and said, ‘This was the work of the British, they killed your brothers and sisters and now they are trying to do the same thing.’ ”
The course defended Mugabe’s land reform programme which has seen 3,800 of 4,300 white commercial farmers thrown off their property.
“They said it was to empower the blacks but the British came in to derail the process and used the MDC as their stooges,” recounted Memory. “We were told the British want to recolonise and it is the duty of every Zimbabwean to defend the sovereignty of the nation.”
At the end they received a Certificate of National Service and a copy of Mugabe’s Little Book extolling the president’s policies and achievements. They were instructed to go back to their community and spy on other teachers and pupils and to give a weekly report to the local Zanu-PF chairman.
“Teachers in rural areas are very influential because the population are uneducated and poor and so go to the teachers for advice,” explained Roy Bennett, an opposition MP from Chimanimani, one of the areas from which teachers have been forced to go on the courses.
“Teachers being independent spoil Mugabe’s communist thing of controlling everybody. But if they think they can take people for three weeks and steal their minds they must be real idiots.”
The courses are part of an attack on education that has seen European history scrapped from the syllabus to be replaced by “current history”, and war veterans sitting on interview boards to select teachers. Newspaper advertisements for teachers now state: “Preference will be given to National Service graduates.”
It is all part of life in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, a topsy-turvy world where people buy black market petrol from rose sellers in restaurants rather than queue for nine hours at filling stations; where the shelves of supermarkets are full of lavatory paper and empty of foodstuffs, but where taxi drivers sell bread and meat; and where personal banking officers in state banks will change money at 20 times the official rate.
The surrealism was illustrated last Thursday by a demonstration of people waving palm leaves and placards saying “No Cricket”.
Surprised to see demonstrators — they are banned — I asked who they were and why they were protesting. After a while one of them admitted they were plainclothes policemen holding a pretend demonstration to attract real protesters so they could lock them up. The true threat to Mugabe may come from within his own party. Rumours persist of Emerson Mnangagwa, his Zanu-PF protégé, and Lieutenant-General Vitalis Zvinavashe, the army chief, trying to broker a deal with the opposition that would see Mugabe exiled to Malaysia.
Another indication that all is not well in Mugabe’s world comes from the increasing number of people prepared to risk their lives to speak out.
“So many of our educated people have gone,” said Barnabas. “Some of us must stay and fight. Every story has a beginning and an end and the end must be Morgan Tsvangirai becoming president and me being a teacher again.”