Zebra Press, 2006, $29.95
You may never have heard of Geoffrey Nyarota, but, a world away in Zimbabwe, many consider him a contemporary folk hero. In 1999, Nyarota founded the Daily News, a newspaper whose lifespan was brief but whose determination to tell the truth about President Robert Mugabe’s noxious government is now legendary—not to mention brave. Though Mugabe is not exactly tolerant of criticism, the upstart Daily News dragged his ruinous economic policies and human rights abuses out in the open for all to see. By the time the government banned the newspaper in 2003, Nyarota had been jailed six times and stalked by a would-be assassin, and the newspaper’s printing presses blown to kingdom come.
The reputation of the memoir isn’t riding high these days, but don’t let the subtitle of Nyarota’s book put you off. There’s not a speck of self-indulgence in Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Zimbabwean Newsman—no hyperbole, no sensationalism. Nyarota’s real subject is not himself, but Zimbabwe. “In little more than two decades,” he writes, “Mugabe reduced a prosperous nation, once the breadbasket of Southern Africa, to a basket case.”
That Nyarota can write with dispassion (and occasional amusement) about a country of extremes is a bit of a miracle: The average life expectancy in Zimbabwe—37 years for men, 34 for women—is the lowest in the world; its rate of inflation, upward of 1,700 percent, is the highest. Reading this book is probably the closest we’ll ever get to the style, restraint, and balance of the defunct Daily News.
Learning the outlines of Nyarota’s life is also a fine crash course in the history of Zimbabwe. He was born in 1951, when the country was the British colony Rhodesia, a place where the black majority suffered overt racial discrimination. As a boy, he was captivated by languages and literature. (He had a serious soft spot for Latin, which he credits for shaping his English vocabulary.) He dreamed of practicing journalism, but that was seen as a white man’s job. So he became a teacher, one of the few professions open to black university graduates. In the 1970s, Nyarota was teaching in a rural area when black resistance to white minority control turned into civil war. Mugabe, the leader of a major guerilla army, emerged as a national hero.
In 1980, when Prime Minister Ian Smith surrendered political power to the black majority, Rhodesia was reborn as Zimbabwe. Mugabe, elected prime minister, built schools and hospitals, vowed to mend the rift between blacks and whites, and boosted the country’s industries. Nyarota, who had seized an opportunity to train as an investigative journalist, earned a reputation as a reporter whose stories were hard-hitting, elegantly written, and scrupulously researched. It was a hopeful time for Zimbabwe.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Mugabe, liberator of his people, turned into a caricature of an African dictator. After exposing corruption in Mugabe’s cabinet, Nyarota was hounded by the police. It was then that Nyarota conceived of a publication that would tell the truth to Zimbabwe’s citizens and might activate change so that the democratic promises of 1980 could be realized—the Daily News.
These days, Nyarota often asks journalists whether they would die for a story. When “they answer in the affirmative, expecting to please me, I always tell them: ‘Rather than die for a story, live to write two more.’”
You may be wondering how Nyarota’s story connects with life in the peaceful Mid-Hudson Valley. When Mugabe’s government succeeded in outlawing his newspaper, Nyarota knew his number was up. And so, for the last four years, the editor in exile has lived in our neck of the woods. From Bard College, he runs the Zimbabwe Media Project, which produces the online Zimbabwe Times (www.zimbabwetimes.com). Its motto? “News Without Fear or Favor.”
Geoffrey Nyarota’s Against the Grain describes a life led with the same mix of mettle and integrity. We are lucky to have such a clear-eyed and eloquent guide to Zimbabwe’s troubles.