Murphy’s Law says that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. In Zimbabwe, it played out loud.
We were here to cover the elections, formally known as the “harmonised national elections”, and billed as crucial to the country’s path to democracy and the post-Robert Mugabe years in which it was eternally isolated and sanctioned by the West.
Little did we know that the Nation team – Chris Omulando, the cameraman, and myself – were about to experience a Spartan life that we had only heard about on television.
Let’s start at the end: Last Saturday we packed our bags and headed for Harare’s Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport. By Zimbabwean standards, it is an imposing relic of the past regime. But it is also a punctuation mark for Zimbabwe today. This is where foreigners, especially journalists, get their baptism by fire.
Our return flight from Harare Zimbabwe to Nairobi was on schedule: Saturday August 26 at 1605 hours. We had a pending clearance issue with the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA), who had been holding our camera equipment since our arrival six days earlier.
So we knew that the only requirement, at least on paper, was for us to arrive early from our hotel, pay the storage fee and check in.
We arrived at 11am local time, paid the bill at 12.29pm and were technically cleared. However, the team on duty insisted that the equipment would not be released to us until check-in began at 2pm.
That was when the problems started. Little did we know that we would spend the next 24 hours at the airport. The airport officials kept saying they were looking for the equipment, and when we missed the flight, they came back demanding another surcharge for storage for the time we were stranded at the airport.
The problems of returning home were just part of a basket full of misery. Zimbabwe’s 2023 general election was due to take place on August 23. And before we left, we applied to the relevant authorities for permission.
After days of waiting, on Friday August 18, two days before the deadline for accreditation, the Ministry of Information and Publicity granted it.
It seemed to be a simple matter, as the permission letter included details of all the equipment we would be travelling with, as requested earlier.
However, on the same letter, the ministry indicated that each journalist would have to pay $200 for accreditation with the Zimbabwe Media Council and a separate similar fee for further accreditation with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
By then we were all aligned and the necessary accreditation fees had been processed. We knew everything was in place. We were ready to go.
On Sunday, KQ 706 took off from Jomo Kenyatta International Airport at 7am, bound for Harare via Lusaka. We thought we had done some research on Zimbabwe.
We had heard that some foreign journalists and election observers had been denied permits or deported. We expected a thorough investigation. But we had some consolation.
All along, we had been in contact with senior government officials in Harare, as well as representatives of the local media community, who had helped to secure our accreditation. But that was not the whole picture.
As soon as we landed, we found a team of officers who I suspect were disguised as airport staff. They were checking passports and asking people where they were going.
“Journalists?” my colleague replied in the affirmative, and they told us to fill in the immigration forms. Zimbabwe does not require visas from Kenyans, so we thought we had cleared another hurdle. The hurdles kept coming.
Chris and I shared a pen to fill in the forms. But it actually gave us time to assess the mood. A tall, thin man approached us from the ‘Customer Care Desk’. He wanted to help.
We looked at each other and accepted his offer. He escorted us to the baggage carousel where we picked up our bags. But there was a problem: the camera tripod was missing.
The tall man directed us to another counter where immigration officials checked our passports before handing us a lost luggage form.
As we left to report our missing luggage, he asked us to go to the arrivals section and print out a hard copy of the Ministry’s clearance letter. They don’t do electronic letters, he said. The ministry had provided one in electronic form. But the airport charges $6 to print a six-page copy.
Meanwhile, the man gave us a non-existent phone number to call back to check if our luggage had arrived.
Our second shock came when customs refused to release our cameras and the Live U kit, the backpack we journalists use to broadcast live from the field.
The officials demanded that we first obtain a new licence from the BAZ (Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe) and then deposit half the value of the cameras and the Live U kit, which would be refunded once we left Harare with the equipment. This was to guarantee that the equipment would be taken out of the country after use.
We were also supposed to pay for a clearing agent and insurance before we were allowed to take the equipment. That was a problem. These charges were imposed on us as a surprise. It was not included in any of the detailed requirements we had asked for. Problem two? The money was required in cash, in US dollars.
After almost an hour of pleading our case and showing the ministry’s approval, we lost the battle. We had to either return to Kenya or enter the country without equipment and tell the story by any means necessary. We chose the latter.
Somehow, though, we held out hope that we might be able to retrieve our lost luggage. We returned to the airport on Monday, but it had not yet arrived.
On our second attempt to get our equipment released, there was another problem: everything on the Ministry of Information’s list had to be available before clearance. As the tripod hadn’t arrived, the officials refused to discuss the matter. Another lost battle.
That afternoon, the main opposition candidate, Nelson Chamisa, held his final rally in the heart of Harare. We knew this would be crucial for us to start telling the election story. There is no better time than the closing speeches. But we had no cameras. No tripod. No broadcasting equipment. We were working with one hand tied behind our backs.
We had to invent something. So we contacted our colleague Kitsepile Nyathi, a long-time correspondent for the Nation. He put us in touch with local stringers who helped us with footage. The idea of landing a few days before the elections was to get a feel for the ground and the politicians. We had to survive on stringers for the whole week. And it wasn’t cheap.
So when the Kenya Airways flight back to Nairobi left us stranded in Harare, we knew we were in for a bad week. Tired, hungry and angry at having arrived early and missed the flight home, it was too much. We started making frantic phone calls. We called our office in Nairobi and representatives of the Open Society Foundation, who had supported our mission here and had been following the election.
They began working on a plan B to ensure we left Harare as soon as possible.
There were no flights from Harare that night. We still had to rely on Kenya Airways. The airport was cold and lonely all night. A colleague on call from Nairobi was sympathetic, but then launched into his silly jokes. “Settle down, kids. You will live to tell the tale,” he joked. Not in the mood to laugh, we used our luggage as pillows until morning.
The next day, we were still standing next to the Kenya Airways check-in desk with our equipment in a tight grip. Aware of our travails at the airport, and with a call from KQ head office, we were booked into business class and given vouchers for the business lounge. From then on it was back to civilisation.
Once you fly business class on this miserable planet, you never want to land. It was a better soothing for our baptism of fire.