Evan Mawarire – Mobilising Hope
Written by Joff Alexander-Frye
Photos supplied by Evan Mawarire
Grow Editor-in-Chief, Joff Alexander-Frye recently met with Zimbabwean Pastor and accidental political activist, Evan Mawarire. Evan told Joff about growing up during the reign of Robert Mugabe, what it means to be a proud Zimbabwean and how he accidentally became the figurehead of a political and social uprising which saw him emerge as one of the most wanted and surveilled men in his country. So much so, he warned Joff that simply publishing this article may attract unwanted attention from Zimbabwean government personnel.
Life is all about perspective. Where we were born, our upbringing, our class, race, gender and age all educate our worldview. Add on top of those things the vastly different life experiences which we all have and it is no wonder that one person’s view of the world is so different from another’s.
That said, there are common things that bind us together, in spite of all of those differing factors. From sport and music to politics and religion, we crave meaningful common ground as humans; especially in an increasingly digital world. Of course, the difficulty with that is that for every belief or opinion, there is almost always a differing or contradictory one. That very same desire for common ground can easily become warped into a desire to only surround ourselves with people who believe or value the same things as us. And, this increasingly polarised view of the world can lead to a toxic worldview where relationship and community can only be based on agreement or compliance.
In reality, ‘disagreeing well’ and embracing difference is the basis for any healthy relationship, family, community or society. In some countries, disagreement is encouraged and facilitated but, unfortunately, in other countries, that basic right to a voice and an opinion is heavily suppressed.
I recently had the chance to meet a truly inspiring and beautiful man, Evan Mawarire, who has, somewhat accidentally, managed to find himself as the controversial figurehead of an anti-government movement for liberation and change in his home country of Zimbabwe, a country well-known for its suppression of anti-government voices.
Before his accidental transformation into a political activist, Evan was (and still continues to be), a Pastor of a small church of around fifty worshippers based on the rural outskirts of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. I met him whilst he was on a short trip to the UK, visiting friends and undertaking some speaking opportunities at conferences, schools and churches. It is only recently that he has been able to travel without fear of death or arrest so we met in a secret location due to the constant surveillance he is under and the political sensitivity of him travelling abroad. Indeed, he told me that he had even been trailed and followed by Zimbabwean government personnel during his time in England, with some of his hosts being approached and questioned about whey they were accommodating him. I, therefore, expected to find him on edge, with one eye over his shoulder but, instead found him to be a fully-engaged, remarkably humble and surprisingly jovial man with a quiet determination, indicative of someone with a fiery passion burning deep in their heart and soul.
Evan, now forty-one, was three years old when, what was the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, became the independent Republic of Zimbabwe. His early childhood experience (and that of countless other Zimbabweans) was of ‘the magical Eighties’, a time of new-found freedom, a sense of purpose and a hopeful vision for the future of the country.
Evan was born to civil-servant parents who were Christians and continued to work for the government until they retired a couple of years ago. He enjoyed a safe and instructional upbringing, learning right from wrong and, like almost all fellow Zimbabweans, also being taught that, if you opposed the government or spoke out against them, you would join the list of people who had done so in the past and then ‘disappeared’ never to be seen again. It was simply something that you didn’t do. End of story.
It was when Evan went to high school that he first encountered an alternative worldview to the one he had been raised to embrace. He explained how he started to allow himself to be influenced by other things than his Christian beliefs and other people than his parents, causing him to stray from his faith for some years. That was until the age of twenty-one when Evan nearly lost his life on a drinking expedition with friends. It was a sudden ‘junction in the road moment’, giving Evan an opportunity to reassess his choices and priorities. Evan expanded,
“I realised that life is fragile and I only have a short time to make a difference in the world. I had a deep and immediate urge to do something meaningful with my life and not waste another day.”
And, so, Evan came back to his faith and started leading a group of young people within a small church in Harare. Evan felt passionately that young people, as the future of the country, were key to focus his energies on and, after a short intermittent time living in London, he and his wife Samantha started leading their church back in Harare.
Up until this point, Evan’s life had been interesting but fairly unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. It is the next part of his story that you will find almost unbelievable. It was on April 19th 2016, the day after the national celebration of Zimbabwean Independence, that everything changed for Evan.
By this point in time, Evan was married with two daughters (he now has three daughters aged seven, five and two at the time of writing who live in secretive exile with his wife). With the country in political and economic turmoil, the government changed the national currency overnight, from US Dollars to a new Zimbabwean currency which wasn’t backed or guaranteed by any stock exchange or governing body. This meant that the money couldn’t be used outside of Zimbabwe and, effectively, meant that any money which Zimbabweans had in the bank the day before was now worthless.
Upon hearing this news, Evan sat in his home office, frustrated, angry and feeling a strong sense of injustice. The money he had been saving for his daughters’ school fees was now worthless. The young people that he was working with every day had yet another reason to lose faith in the country they called home. This was not the hope and promise that he had heard, seen and felt as a young person during those ‘magical Eighties’. He was an educated man, who should have been able to provide for his family but was failing to, due to no fault of his own.
Evan’s eyes were drawn to the Zimbabwean flag hanging in his office and he started to think about all of the colours and elements of the flag, which each have a particular meaning and are taught to Zimbabweans as children. The green represents the country’s vegetation and land resources, the yellow represents the country’s mineral wealth, the red represents the blood spilt during the liberation struggle, the black represents the black racial majority of the country, the white triangle represents peace, the red star represents Zimbabwe’s international aspirations and the yellow bird is the national emblem of Zimbabwe. Each of these elements are ingredients which add up to a promise and a vision for the country which Evan felt, bit by bit, had been broken and ruined.
So, Evan took the closest thing to him – his phone – put it onto ‘Selfie Mode’ and hit record. The next several minutes of his life would turn out to affect his future in ways that he couldn’t possibly imagine (and continues to, to this very day).
On the video that he recorded that day, he simply ranted (Evan described this video as “completely different to one that you would imagine a Christian Pastor to record”). He was angry, honest, passionate and pulled no punches in what he said, including criticism of Robert Mugabe and the governing political party. He stated his belief that it was the duty of every Zimbabwean to restore the promise of the flag and to have personal responsibility for taking part in the process of change for future generations. At the very most, he thought that a few hundred people might see it, with very little impact. After all, his church was only fifty-strong and he didn’t have a large following anywhere else. He recorded his message, posted it on Facebook and then went to bed.
The next morning, he took his girls to school, as he did every day, and got a call from a friend to say, “Are you ok?”.“Yes of course”, Evan replied, “Why?”. “I saw your video”, his friend replied. “What, my rant video?”, Evan said, “I didn’t think anyone would even see that! What did you think?”. The next words which Evan’s friend spoke, pierced like a pick-axe through ice. “It’s not what I think, it’s the 450,000 other people who have seen it that you have to worry about!”.
Evan hadn’t even been on Facebook that morning, so he rushed home and logged on, to find that Zimbabweans all over the world had watched, liked, shared and commented on his video. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans, like a powerful crashing wave, poured out their feelings of sadness, heart-break, frustration and anger at the state of the country that they so loved. Evan’s video had somehow given them a channel through which to communicate and rally together.
Of course, a video with that sort of virality was sure to capture the attention of the government too which, bearing in mind their approach of suppression and subdual of alternative narratives, made Evan feel very scared. Sure enough, the Minister for Information at the time (a man who has now fled the country for fear of his own life) was the first to attack Evan publicly on Twitter, saying “This young pastor thinks that he can appropriate a national symbol and he thinks he has a national message. He is clearly sponsored by Western detractors to overthrow the government!”. This couldn’t be further from the truth, which is that Evan had reached the point where he just couldn’t remain silent any longer and had simply felt the need to vent, with no thought or plan for anything to come from it.
The video continued to gather momentum, both in Zimbabwe and across the globe, so Evan attempted to calm the situation by posting a second video, to clarify his position. However, half way through recording this second video, the same passion and honesty that had been woven into his first video rose up again and this second video also turned into a rant, which only fuelled the fire and caused the situation to multiply. This growing surge of activity was both exciting and dangerous. People who felt voiceless were suddenly realising that they had a voice and were starting to use it.
The climactic moment of these crazy few days was when Evan recorded yet another video, in which he said that he wished the growing number of people watching could gather together and protest (which is illegal in Zimbabwe without the permission of the police). In a moment of ‘thinking out loud’ he said,
“Perhaps if everyone that wanted to send a message to Robert Mugabe chose a day and all stayed at home, then he might listen? Don’t go to work. Don’t open your businesses. Don’t go to school. Let’s choose the 6th of July and all stay at home on that day!”
Again, Evan expected a few people to join in, but he had no idea of the scale and momentum of this peaceful uprising. So, on the 6th of July 2016, nine million Zimbabweans stayed at home in protest to the government. Nine. Million. Evan, in disbelief, paused and said to me,
“How did that even happen? Who was spreading the word? Why were so many people listening to me – a random, unimportant guy?”
The whole country shut down. Every major city, many key institutions and parts of the country’s infrastructure ground to a halt. Evan, for the first time, realised the scale and scope of this uprising and, again, for the first time, feared for his life. He knew that government forces would surely be out to get him now.
Almost a week later, having stayed in safe houses all week due to the threat of arrest, abduction or torture, government personnel tracked him down and he was arrested for the first time on charges of subversion and attempt to overthrow the government. It was only then that ‘the penny dropped’ and Evan realised the severity of his situation.
The next day, he was due to appear in court for his bail hearing. A police officer came to his holding cell and said, “All of your people have gathered at the courthouse to demand your release. It is a dangerous situation so we can’t take you there today”. Evan wondered why a few people from his church would count as a dangerous crowd against the might of the government forces, only to be told by the officer that there were five thousand people surrounding the courthouse, demanding that Evan be freed.
Sure enough, there were over five thousand Zimbabweans protesting and praying outside the courthouse, with flags and signs demanding justice for Evan. People were leaving their places of work and running down to the courthouse to join in. Evan’s heart started to beat hard as he realised that this movement was not only growing but was also no longer limited to the internet or one-off peaceful acts of protest. It was spilling onto the streets.
His hearing was set for 9am, but due to the disruption outside, didn’t start until 8pm (even though the courts officially closed at 4pm). The gathering crowd outside had barricaded the doors and were refusing to let anyone in or out until Evan was released, without charge. Not only this but, as Evan couldn’t afford a lawyer, he had been appointed one for free by the Zimbabwean Lawyers for Human Rights. When the Magistrate in his case called the court to order and asked for his legal representative to offer his credentials, his lawyer stepped forward and so did over two-hundred other lawyers who had turned up to support Evan. It was a truly humbling and powerful moment for Evan to realise the support that he had behind him.
Such was the groundswell of support for Evan that the magistrate received orders from his superiors to say that the situation had escalated out of control, was a national security risk and needed to be slowed down. Evan was told that, despite being freed that evening, the following day he would be re-arrested and, this time, his treatment was likely to be far more brutal.
He also became aware that government personnel had turned up to his house and his daughters’ school that day to intimidate and threaten them. Fearing for his life (and the lives of his family members), their safety became the primary concern. With the help of a human rights organisation, they made the sudden and difficult decision to leave the country that night, where his wife and daughters still live to this day in a location which Evan guards with his life.
Evan, however, knew deep down that the job in Zimbabwe was only just beginning and, as hard as it was to come to terms with the fact, he knew that his future lay back in Zimbabwe, apart from his wife and daughters. He couldn’t sub-contract the responsibility to anyone else and he couldn’t live with himself if he abandoned the movement for change which was rising up within Zimbabwe and which he had found himself at the epicentre of.
So, despite the risks and sadness involved, he left his wife and children in exile (his youngest daughter just one month old) and went back to Zimbabwe. Arriving back in Harare International Airport on February 1st 2017, Evan was re-arrested immediately upon his arrival and then strip-searched, interrogated inhumanely and taken to prison. And not just any prison, but Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, the highest security penitentiary in Zimbabwe which has a reputation for alleged mistreatment of inmates and human rights abuses. Bear in mind that, at this point, Evan had not been charged with any crime.
With only his flag and Bible as belongings, Evan was put into leg irons, transported to the prison and, as they drew close to the site, he was told that he would be in the highest security D-wing of the prison, reserved for criminals with sentences ranging from eight years to life imprisonment. As they pulled up to the prison, Evan remembers thinking, ‘This must be how it ended for the countless other people who spoke out against the government and then disappeared…’. As he thought this, the full extent of the pressure, grief, loss and fear of his situation hit him and he wept bitterly in the prison truck, starting to make peace with whatever came next for him. He felt that his countrymen and his God had let him down.
Weeks later, after encountering all manner of mistreatment, abuse and interrogation (which Evan is still recovering from to this day), Evan’s parents sold their family house to raise bail and Evan was released. He was to spend much of the next year in and out of jail, charged with intending to undermine the President when he recorded a video about food shortages within the country.
His last arrest came on September 24th 2017, when police broke down the doors of his church in the middle of a service and tried to arrest him. Evan recounted,
“I’m not sure where the boldness came from, but without really thinking I said to them, ‘You’re not going to arrest me in front of my congregation. You can either wait outside for me until I’m finished, or you can sit down, listen to my sermon and then arrest me afterwards!”
By this point, Evan had received three counts of subversion, each of which came with twenty-year sentences. So he was readying himself to spend the rest of his life in jail.
However, in almost unbelievable circumstances, Evan’s story was to take a twist, the like of which is usually only found in Hollywood movies. On November 21st 2017, just three days before Evan’s appearance in the High Court to be sentenced, Robert Mugabe resigned after months of internal struggle in his party. It was an incredible moment for Evan and a landmark moment in Zimbabwe’s history. After thirty-seven years of repression, suppression and oppression from Mugabe, the country felt united once more, in the collective opportunity that his resignation represented.
When Evan stood in High Court three days later, he was acquitted of all charges. He was finally a free man, although his passport had been destroyed by government forces so he had to re-apply for a passport before being able to leave the country to see his family for the first time in over a year.
In the most heart-breaking moment of our time together, Evan started sobbing as he shared the heaviness that he carries as a father, having moved back to Zimbabwe when his youngest daughter was only one month old. He didn’t see her again until more than a year later and both his youngest and middle daughters were so young that, when he returned home for the first time after his release, they didn’t recognise him or know who he was. As Evan shared this, I thought about my daughters and imagined if I had missed the things that he has missed. Those vital early days, weeks and months where you bond and build relationships with your children. In a moment of deep reality, we both sat and cried together; drawn together by our common ground of fatherhood and masculinity. It was a special and deep moment, one that I will never forget.
Evan, through his tears, stated,
“I sometimes ask myself if I paid too high a price for people that probably will never know how much I have lost and had to sacrifice. Maybe I gave up too much, but the thought that I have played some small part in affecting change and altering the direction of the country that I love so much goes a long way to balancing out those haunting voices and memories.”
As our time together drew to a close, Evan thought back over this remarkable journey and humbly concluded,
“I’m not really sure why people are interested in my story. It’s just the story of an ordinary guy who somehow managed to play a part in some pretty extraordinary moments in Zimbabwe’s history. I am simply focused on change; from the people, for the people.”
Evan, know that you have countless people around the world championing you, cheering you on and supporting you. Also know, that I am now one of them.