Tendai Frank Tagarira: A Harrowing Escape From Africa
Tendai Frank Tagarira, a 27-year-old Zimbabwean writer currently living in Aarhus, Denmark, commemorated his one-year anniversary as an International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) guest writer with a post he sent to Sampsonia Way. Below, he details his harrowing escape from Africa, and the distressing prospect of returning.
I arrived in Denmark on the 14th of June, 2010. I was fleeing from Namibia, where Mugabe’s intelligence personnel were pursuing me after I’d authored several books critical of his regime. My luck had run out: Mugabe’s henchmen had caught up with me and made my life unbearable.
While on the run, I received an invitation from the Danish city of Aarhus to become Denmark’s first writer under the Friby [Dutch for 'refuge'] arrangement with ICORN. I must admit that I knew very little about Denmark when I came here, but I did considerable research about its lifestyle. I came across an article that stated Denmark was the happiest country in the world. The same article also stated that Zimbabwe was the unhappiest country in the world. I am not sure I can agree fully with this finding; nevertheless, I was intrigued.
Because of my precarious political situation I had to bribe the Namibian airport immigration official to allow me to board Air Berlin, which was flying to Munich, where I would then board a connecting flight to Copenhagen.
The reason for bribing the airport immigration official was simple: It was the only way I could get to safety. So I paid the gentleman a handsome amount and gave him a copy of my non-political book, Beyond Money. He accepted and told me to sit down near the boarding passage for Air Berlin.
“But if you get caught, I don’t know you,” he warned me.
I nodded and proceeded to sit next to the boarding passage. I stared across the room and counted the seconds on a giant clock that was fixed against the wall while sweating profusely. It was a cold morning but the thoughts lingering in my head felt like the blazing African sun.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead and sat like a gentleman, trying not to draw too much attention to myself. I didn’t have a proper passport because anonymous henchmen had stolen my old one when they broke into my apartment. However, the Danish consul in Namibia furnished me with a Liazze Passe to travel with, which had a short term Schengen Visa affixed to it.
My palms were sweaty. I continued to stare at the large clock in the distance, wishing that time would fly so I could board the plane. But time ticked so slowly, almost as if it was in a silent slow-motion protest.
I had never been on a plane before and under normal circumstances, I would have been terrified at the prospect of flying high in the sky. But a burning fear of getting caught and being held captive occupied my thoughts.
I faced all my demons watching that clock and let me tell you: I was pretty sure if they caught me, they would have detained me and handed me over to Zimbabwean authorities.
I had committed a crime; the same crime I am still committing here in Denmark. My crime was simple. I dared to speak my mind and criticize Mugabe’s autocratic regime. I dared to fight injustice with my paper and pen. I dared to tell my life’s story. This is the heinous crime I committed: Freedom of expression.
Tendai Tagarira reading from “Zimbabwe Must Go!”
The kind city of Aarhus was rescuing me from facing jail time and torture by Mugabe’s thugs. Administrators in Aarhus had done all they could to get me all the necessary paperwork to get to Denmark, but the difficult task of leaving Namibia was a battle I had to fight alone.
So I fought that battle and with a handsome bribe the airport immigration official agreed to stamp my Liazze Passe with an exit visa. But he had warned me that my name was in their computers, wanted for questioning by the Zimbabwean High Commission. He pocketed the amount and smiled. He knew if shit hit the fan, he would denounce any knowledge of me. In fact, he would be the one arresting and detaining me.
As I was dripping in my own sweat, a German lady opened the boarding passage and I joined the queue to board Berlin Airways. I showed her my Liazze Passe and ticket and she nodded in approval. I proceed to board the plane. It was a Boeing jet with red Berlin Airways stripes.
I searched quickly for my seat and found it. I placed my small African weaved bag in the hand-held luggage carrier. My seat was next to the window and an old German man sat next to me. A few minutes later, the plane was filled with many Germans and I was the only African on board. This didn’t bother me at all.
I was worried, praying that some airport officials would not barge into the plane and ask me to disembark. I was so worried I barely understood the safety instructions of the flight attendant. Somehow I managed to strap myself to the seat, but I kept fiddling with great unease.
I have no idea how the plane took off, but I noticed the Windhoek Airport building getting smaller and smaller through my seat window. At that moment I felt a great relief and I knew I was safe. There was no way the Namibian airport authorities would ask the pilot to fly me back to Windhoek.
“Aren’t you afraid of flying?” the old German guy asked me.
“No. Not at all,” I responded, and continued staring outside through my seat window.
I could see the sky and the clouds and the plane felt as if it was flying higher and higher by the second. I thought to myself, here in the sky, Mugabe can’t get to me.
Soon I drifted into a heavy nap before being awakened by the flight attendant, who was serving us breakfast. I barely touched the food, but I drank the coffee and drifted back into a heavy nap.
In my dreams, I pondered what life would be like in Denmark, and if I would ever feel welcome there. I knew I had only two years to live in Denmark, but I was not worried because one more day with my head above the water was a good day.
It was a long flight to Munich—almost ten hours—and my buttocks felt like ice. I was relieved when we arrived at Munich Airport. I proceeded to the check-in booth with my Liazze Passe in one hand and some books in the other.
The German airport staff member smiled at me as I handed him my traveling document, which he immediately began to scrutinize with a suspicious look on his face. I guess it’s not every day that Denmark gives a Liazze Passe to an immigrant.
“I am a political exile. I write books and you can Google me online,” I told the official, while handing him a copy of the book that was the cause of my persecution.
He smiled but looked at me with stern eyes. He called another official and together they began talking in German. By now some onlookers were staring at me inside the booth. Perhaps they were wondering if I was some kind of terrorist being detained at the airport.
Nevertheless, after the officials inquired something on the phone, they stamped my Liazze Passe and handed it back to me, along with my book.
“Welcome to Germany,” one of them said to me.
I was relieved and I quickly began the long journey into the vast Munich airport to find my connection flight to Copenhagen. Soon, I was inside an SAS regional jet heading to Copenhagen.
Around 10 p.m. I arrived at the bustling Copenhagen Airport and simply followed the crowd. I walked for a couple of minutes and then I spotted two gentlemen holding a plaque with my name on it. They were two officials from the city of Aarhus: Michael Jaap and Lars Lyngsdal.
“Welcome to Denmark, Tendai!” they said to me.
“Thank you. It was a long flight,” I responded.
We booked a taxi and drove to a nearby guesthouse where they briefed me on a press conference that would take place the next day in Aarhus. We also talked about the situation in Zimbabwe and the ongoing world cup before retiring to bed.
I barely slept that night. I sat in my room and prayed. Here I was in a new and completely different country.
“How is life going to be here?” I pondered to myself.
But now I know.
I have been living here for about a year now and I am left with 12 months before my temporary residence permit expires. I have met many Danes from different backgrounds and shared my story. I have drunk all sorts of Danish liquor and tried all the traditional food. I have written several books here and, most importantly, I have carried on my work as a Human Rights Defender effectively because of my safety in Denmark. I have come to love Aarhus and Denmark as my home.
But a nasty thought lingers in my head. What will I do after my stay here ends? Where will I go? If I return to Zimbabwe my fate is sealed. Sometimes I consider jumping out the window of my fourth floor apartment and just ending it all in a painless way, instead of facing lengthy torture in Zimbabwe.
But I will never kill myself. I love life and I will fight to the bitter end. My future in Denmark is uncertain and if I return to Zimbabwe I am a dead man. So armed with the knowledge of my possible demise at an early age, I do what is important. I keep fighting injustice with my pen and paper. I fight it with my voice. I fight it with my hair, which I am growing into freedom dreadlocks. I will not cut my hair until freedom prevails in my country of Zimbabwe.
This is how I fight:
On the streets of Aarhus.
On the Internet.
In the media.
I shout, I scream, I write.