On a sunny Zimbabwean afternoon, Nokutenda is the first to spot me. I can barely hear the shy 10-year-old’s reply to my question asking if his mother is home. His younger sister Nenyasha, 6, is quite the contrast. She says hello with a wide smile, a partially eaten mango in her hand.
Soon, their mother Sheffra arrives, peering through their sky-blue gate. We go inside and arrange ourselves in a room crowded with furniture, a single window letting in some afternoon light.
I ask Sheffra how they are.
“We’re not great because Itai isn’t here. We don’t know if he’s alive,” she says wearily.
Itai Dzamara, 35, is Sheffra’s husband and Nokutenda and Nenyasha’s father. He was abducted three years ago today. He was getting a haircut on a Monday morning when four men bundled him into an unmarked vehicle and sped off. Itai’s whereabouts and the identities of those behind his kidnapping have remained unknown ever since.
“Every day I think that I’ll hear him coming through the gate,” continues Sheffra. “I think maybe I’ll see him on the news, or someone will send me a WhatsApp. These days my phone is always on, ready to receive news that Itai has been found. Maybe someone will phone, and he’ll be on the other end, or someone will give us information about where he is or tell us he’s on his way back. It’s hard to live like this, every day waiting to hear good news.”
“We fell in love”
Sheffra first met Itai on a commuter omnibus as they both travelled to their homes in the Harare suburb of Highfield after work. She worked for a printing company. He was a reporter for the Zimbabwe Independent.
“We were friends for a while,” she says. “He would walk me home . . . Sometimes he’d visit me at work. He always brought me lunch.”
Over time, she recounts, the two fell in love. “When he proposed, he said ‘I want you to be my wife. I love you’.”
It was 2004 and life was simple. The couple looked forward to building a life together. Itai honoured Sheffra and her family by paying the traditional roora bride price, allowing them to have a church wedding. He was a generous husband, helping his mother-in-law provide for Sheffra’s younger siblings and pay their school fees.
Shortly into their marriage, Sheffra learned that she was pregnant with twins. “I went to his mother in Mutoko because I craved peanut butter and mangoes so badly!” she recalls.
In Mutoko, she went into early labour, two months before the birth was due. One baby only survived only a few days. “When the twin died, Itai was hurt,” says Shefra. “I was hurt too, but I was grateful that God left me with one child.” They named the surviving twin Nokutenda.
A few years later, Sheffra gave birth again, this time with no complications. They called the girl Nenyasha. “It was a good pregnancy,” she says.
“He wanted to give our children a better life”
The couple now had a family, but by 2014, Zimbabwe’s economy was in free fall. Jobs were scarce and even those who were employed were finding it difficult to make ends meet.
Like many others, Itai blamed the country’s many troubles on the decades-long rule of then President Robert Mugabe. He left his job at the Zimbabwe Independent and founded Occupy Africa Unity Square, a social movement calling for Mugabe’s resignation.
Sheffra trusted her husband’s decision. “He said God had told him this was what he needed to do, that we would be fine, our family would be taken care of. I didn’t need to be a part of it or say anything publicly, but he asked me to pray. Itai was like that: once he made up his mind, that was it.”
Itai authored a petition to submit to the government. He discussed it at length with Sheffra, but she shrugs off the suggestion she helped write it. She says that Itai wanted her to fully understand his motivation for placing himself in the crosshairs. He wanted her support even if she was afraid.
“He used to say that working people weren’t being paid fair wages. He wanted to give our children a better life,” she says.
Itai delivered the petition to the President’s Office in Harare along with Philosphy Nyapfumbi and Tichaona Danho, fellow members of the Occupy movement. The response was immediate. Thirty minutes later, the trio received a call asking them to return.
They were taken to Harare Central Police Station where they were interrogated underground. Writing for Daily News, Itai described how they were treated with respect but that the unspoken threat of violence hovered in the air.
“Several officials, in suits accompanied us and made sure to move in a manner that kept us well encircled…Straight to a very small room at the back, we were led. Fierce looking police officers were crammed in the little room, about seven of them, with a couple of AK47 rifles at the back.”
When this intimidation failed, the agents turned to more open threats. “They reminded me that they could brutally beat me up with an assortment of sjamboks, iron bars and wood planks that were in abundance in the room. I said I could take it,” wrote Itai.
Next, they reportedly tried bargaining, with one of the officers pleading: “Look Itai, you are a learned person and you must agree that it is not proper to do what you are planning, please.”
Eventually, the security agents released the detainees with a warning. “He calmly and nicely said, ‘So you see Dzamara, we never beat you, we didn’t arrest you. Did we? We have no problem with your petition and it is your right to do that. But we request you to seriously think again about your plans to gather at Africa Unity Square.’”
Harare’s Africa Unity Square is a good place to start a revolution and, in 2014, the government feared that the kinds of protests seen in the Arab Spring a few years earlier could be replicated in Zimbabwe. The ruling ZANU-PF knew from its own experience that effective movements are built one person at a time.
Itai also knew this and organised marches denouncing corrupt state institutions. His message resonated widely and the crowds that gathered in solidarity grew in size over the following weeks and months. The call for Mugabe’s resignation grew louder and more people began to take notice. Itai and his lawyer, Kennedy Masiye, were beaten by police, but remained defiant.
In a Facebook post, Itai wrote about how his children reacted to the movement he was building.
“My son Nokutenda (7) – a very intelligent and highly discerning boy – has some understanding of my participation in the struggle for a new Zimbabwe, more than his little sister Nenyasha (3). He understands it when I am arrested, or brutally assaulted and admitted in hospital…
“So the other day I had a chat with him, and explained that I am fighting for him and his sister to live in a better Zimbabwe. He understood it and nodded his head in agreement.
“‘Aaa, asi Mugabe wacho. Asi anopenga kani (But what is wrong with this Mugabe old man? Is he mad?’) Noku retorted, sending us into laughter.”
Sheffra supported Itai and the cause by providing stability for their children. She says she wanted to join the protests, but her husband persuaded her to stay out of harm’s way in case he was rounded up by the police.
She recalls Itai telling her: “Mai Noku, you know what Mugabe’s government is like. If they come to get us, at least you will be here with our children and you will be able to carry on outside if I am locked up.”
Away from the protests, Sheffra would worry as she waited at home. “Sometimes I’d wait for him at the corner where the kombis stop. By 11pm, I’d be there hoping to see him come home. I was afraid for him. Even though prayer kept me strong, I was afraid. Mugabe’s government was cruel. We were very afraid.”
“I was terrified”
The couple’s last moments together were happy ones. As Itai left the house to get a haircut, Sheffra asked him what she should iron for him to wear that day.
“You know how it is when you are proud of your husband,” she says. “I wanted him to always look smart. I was ready to iron his clothes again to make him look extra neat, even though I had ironed them the night before.”
Itai laughed, she recalls, telling her he was happy to wear the clothes as they were.
The vehicles that were used in Itai’s abduction later that morning were unmarked. Many government-issue vehicles do not carry license plates. The barber told Al Jazeera that the men who took Itai accused him of cattle theft, handcuffed him, shoved him into a white twin cab and drove off at high speed.
“He was taken at about 10am,” says Sheffra. “They told me around 11am, after an hour. They thought Itai’s abductors might still be in the area. Because of that I was terrified.”
Nonetheless, she reported the matter at Harare Central Police Station accompanied by lawyers Charles Kwaramba and Kennedy Masiye. The police refused to assist her, saying she should go to Glen Norah police station instead. The next day, Sheffra succeeded in opening a docket on the kidnapping case under RRB Number 2391750. In the following days, she heard rumours and received text messages saying Itai had been thrown in acid or been murdered.
The Zimbabwean police’s institutional failings are variously documented. The force suffers from corruption, incompetence, and a lack of resources, capacity and political will. In 2016, the International Police Science Association ranked Zimbabwe’s police at 103rd out of 127 countries.
That meant it was not surprising that despite a docket, high court order, and international attention, the police dragged their feet. In consecutive interviews with Voice of America, Kwaramba’s increasing frustration is palpable. In one, the lawyer called on the president himself to say something publicly.
“As the Head of State, you must be able to send the message that you are worried about the person going missing. It’s not just about telling us about what is being done. Of course, we need that from the police, but as the leader of the nation …you must be seen to be saying and doing something about it.
“These are very crucial and urgent times for the nation of Zimbabwe and the truth shall set us free.”
On 18 November, 2017, an estimated 60,000 citizens gathered outside Zimbabwe House to protest against Mugabe’s rule. This was the single most significant expression of the people’s will since independence. This popular pressure helped force the president to finally step down after 37 years. Itai had been proven right. The people had the power to remove Mugabe.
“In the end, the whole country said Mugabe must go, and Mugabe went,” says Sheffra. But for her, November’s events were bittersweet. Mugabe’s resignation had come three years too late.
“This was what Itai had started, that Mugabe must go,” she says. “I was happy my husband was the first one to start it.”
Sheffra hoped that with a new government in place, she might hear news of Itai. “We thought that since Mugabe resigned, we would finally have peace and my husband would return or we would learn what happened to him.” But none came.
On 24 November, Emmerson Mnangagwa was sworn in as president. The excited crowd at the National Sports Stadium exceeded capacity. Many who attended had never dared imagine a day when Zimbabwe would be without Mugabe, a man his wife Grace had promised would even rule from the grave.
But for all the hope in a new era for Zimbabwe, Sheffra, Nokutenda and Nenyasha are still waiting. Mnangagwa’s administration shows no intention of digging up the skeletons of the past. They are keen to move on, ignoring ZANU-PFs history of vicious oppression.
“We should never remain hostages to our past,” declared Mnangagwa in his inauguration speech. “I thus humbly appeal to all of us that we let bygones be bygones.”
Judging him by his actions, Sheffra believes the new president wants to be different from Mugabe. She thinks that finally answering questions about her husband would go a long way in this regard.
“The whole country would love him if he announced that Itai was found or that he was coming home,” she says. “We would have closure. What happened to Itai Dzamara is in everyone’s mind.”
Indeed, Itai’s abduction is still engrained in the Zimbabwean consciousness. His unexplained disappearance remains a dark and constant reminder that power does not reside with the people, that speaking truth to power can get you killed and devastate your family.
Nokutenda suffered emotional trauma in the aftermath of his father’s abduction. His grades at school suffered and, even now, his eyes never leave his mother’s face as she speaks.
Sheffra says that Nokutenda and Nenyasha sometimes ask her when their father will be coming home. For three years today, she has been unable to answer them, but she refuses to give up.
“He said ‘let bygones be bygones’”, says Sheffra of the new president. “I’m not sure, but it sounded like he was saying what happened has happened. In the case of my husband, no, it’s not a bygone.
“We will keep pushing until they’ve given us an answer.”
Interview by Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa for Kubatana