There is an island in the Shashi River that a man once declared for himself as an independent country. It’s a small island with a few big trees and some desperate shrubs. It is surrounded by the sands of the Shashi, which are dry for much of the year, plonked closer to the Botswana side of the river than the entrance to Zimbabwe.
“The story goes that an old boer claimed it his own personal country,” said Adam Scott, one of our guides on the Tour de Tuli, the mountain bike trip through Botswana and Zimbabwe last weekend. He was apparently given a lesson in international politics, told to get lost, and, possibly after a look around at what was a whole lot of nothing, legged it. I wonder what he would have made of a group of mountain bikers pushing their bikes across the kilometre or so that is the width of the Shashi, heading from Botswana to Zimbabwe on the second day of the four-day trip. Madness, he may have whispered to his lifelong friend, a basketball with a drawn-on face. “They’re headed to the land of plenty that now has nothing, where men are told to be men except when they want to be with men.”
We wheeled our bikes into Zimbabwe and then set about filling out immigration forms. It was dead easy, except for the bit that asked “occupation”. I wrote a “J” for journalist, and then scribbled it out. Then I wrote a “W” for writer, and scribbled over that, too. I nearly put “sub-editor”, but I have my dignity. So, I wrote “public relations”. It was close enough. I wasn’t sure if they would let sports journalists into the country without accreditation, even if I wasn’t in the land to work. Plus, the thought of walking back over the Shashi and then riding 60km back to the camp in Botswana through elephant sh*t and thorn bushes was not something I much fancied. A little white lie never hurt. Besides, my girlfriend is in PR and she occupies much of my time.
The immigration officer looked at the form briefly, whacked my passport with a stamp and I was in Zimbabwe for the first time in my life. He didn’t look at my occupation. I wonder if he would have looked had I written “sports journalist with gay friends”. Or might he have merely stamped it, and a few months later, when his boss found the form at the bottom of his out (of the closet) tray, would have cursed at allowing a homo-loving-hippy-honky into the land.
Last week, in the land towards which Robert Mugabe directs much of his ire, Stephen Fry, the writer, broadcaster and comedian, wrote an open letter to David Cameron, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, asking that the country lobby for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi because of Russia’s anti-gay laws. There have been abuses of gay people in Russia that will echo with South Africans. There has been corrective rape of lesbians, and the abduction, torture and death of gay men. Russia’s anti-gay law makes it illegal to spread gay propaganda amongst under-18s, which is defined as any “non-traditional sexual relations”. Vladimir Putin, who famously posed with his top off in that Brokeback Mountain-esque shoot a few years ago, has, wrote the New York Times last month, “declared war on homosexuals. So far, the world has mostly been silent”.
At the beginning of July he signed a law that banned the adoption of Russian-born children by gay couples or by anyone living in a land where “marriage equality exists in any form”. That’s South Africa stuffed, then. A few days before that, he signed a law that, according to the NY Times, allowed “police officers to arrest tourists and foreign nationals they suspect of being homosexual, lesbian or ‘pro-gay’ and detain them for up to 14 days…” The law could mean that any Olympic athlete, trainer, reporter, family member or fan who is gay – or suspected of being gay, or just accused of being gay – can go to jail.
Fry called on Cameron and the International Olympic Committee to lobby to take the Olympics away from Russia. The IOC replied that they have been assured that the laws don’t apply to the Games, which is a disgraceful cop-out. “The IOC has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.” They also told the world that internet searches for human rights abuses in China would not be restricted during the Beijing Olympics, but could not enforce it.
Cameron and US President Barack Obama have said a boycott is not the answer and would be unfair to the athletes. There is some sense to this. A boycott would not create the same reaction as, say, Cameron attending the games wearing a rainbow tie. Nor would it grab the papers and broadcasts if athletes from enlightened countries wore rainbow ribbons, or gay athletes openly spoke about their sexuality during the event. Some may get arrested, but the story and awareness created would be immense. A boycott could be a success for Putin and his laws if Russian athletes win a landslide of medals. Better a gay salute from a podium than a deafening silence from the rest of the world. Noise must be made in Russia, Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa, where the president has boasted of hitting gay men.
“Welcome to Zimbabwe,” said one person as I climbed the bank out of the Shashi last week. “You’ll have fun here.”
“I’ve heard stories,” I smiled back. I had. We all had. We need to find a way to change the stories, to make Zimbabwe a land for all, part of a grander, global revolution for political, gender and sexual freedom. It should not be an island stuck in a sandy river with little more to offer the world than the silliness of one man shouting into the wind.