April 19, 2016—It’s night-time in a small, fluorescent-lit church office. A man sits alone, anxious and ashamed. He cannot provide for his family. His rent is due and so are his children’s school fees. He has a knack for fixing things, but not this. Not when his country’s economy has collapsed. Not when its President—in power for thirty-six years—rules with an iron fist. In the man’s office hangs a flag. He reaches for it as he considers the promise that a nation’s flag represents. He drapes the flag around him, picks up his phone, and begins recording. Hunched in front of the camera, hands toying with the ends of the flag, words pour out of him with passion and urgency. He ends his lament on a call to action:
“This is the time that a change must happen. Quit standing on the sidelines!”
Posting the video to social media would be preposterous, he knows. People in his country have been beaten, imprisoned, and disappeared on the mere suspicion of dissent. But a few hours later, he does it anyway. He uploads the video to Facebook and tags it: #ThisFlag. By morning, his four-minute video has gone viral and soon virtually everyone with a cellphone in his country, as well as many thousands who have fled the country, will see it. This hitherto unknown man is now a marked man.
What Evan Mawarire cannot foresee when he posts his video is that thousands of Zimbabweans will be emboldened to join him in speaking out, many for the first time, on the injustices, corruption, and decades-long collapse into poverty of their once prosperous nation. Within weeks, #ThisFlag will give rise to the largest social media movement his country has ever witnessed, and Evan will be called “the flag guy,” heralded far and wide as the spark for Zimbabwe’s Arab Spring. In a clever act of subversion, inspired by his act of wearing it, Zimbabweans from all walks of life begin displaying their nation’s flag.
Initially, the government appears clueless about the reach and power of social media with the government Minister of Higher Education dismissing #ThisFlag as a “pastor’s fart in the corridors of power.” At one point and farcically, the government attempts to ban the flag, but within weeks they realize its power. Evan starts receiving threats that range from anonymous phone calls to blatant physical assaults, which include being accosted by the government Minister of Information. Undeterred, he continues posting his videos—one a day for the month of May, and more in June which he now narrates both in English and Shona thereby expanding his audience and reach. At the start of July, Evan narrowly escapes an abduction attempt. He moves to a safe house. Then he takes his social media activism one step further.
Evan calls for peaceful protests in the form of a series of national stay-aways. Under President Robert Mugabe, any form of public protest is banned. And yet, on July 6th, 2016 Evan’s call for the first stay-away is, to everyone’s surprise, heeded by the entire nation as people stay at home. The nation comes to a standstill and the ruling Zanu-PF Party will almost certainly resort to its usual, brutal playbook. Under Mugabe, opposition leaders and activists are routinely imprisoned, beaten, and disappeared—and all for doing far less than bringing a whole nation to a halt. Preparing for the worst, Evan records a video to be released should he be arrested or abducted.
The day after the national shut down, I land in Zimbabwe for a family visit. The US has issued travel warnings and there is talk of riots; but on our drive from the airport to the northern suburbs of Harare, things appear calm. Visibly, not much has changed since my last visit three years earlier, other than further deterioration of the roads. But there is something new—all the roadside vendors are selling Zimbabwe’s national flag. The flag is now on cars, in shop windows, around people’s shoulders—it’s everywhere. Even more striking is what I hear. Everyone, from relatives to friends and even strangers, seem animated with mention of “the flag guy.” It’s the first time in my twenty-four years of visiting Zimbabwe that I’ve heard Zimbabweans speak so openly, almost fearlessly, in support of someone critical of Mugabe and his Zanu-PF government. What’s more, I learn that the flag guy is a pastor.
Over the years, I had been following the rise of Pentecostal preacher-prophets and their mega churches in countries where I once lived: Nigeria and Kenya as well as Zimbabwe. I’d seen how these preachers enjoyed extravagant lifestyles funded by the tithes and donations of their congregants while many of these same congregants struggled to make ends meet. In Zimbabwe, millions were surviving on food aid. These same preachers often courted the favour of repressive leaders in power, blessing them, and welcoming them into their churches. I had grown disillusioned with such leaders who, to my eyes, were not setting a Christ-like example of humility and service to others. So, to hear of a Pentecostal pastor of a small congregation, who was not only brave enough to speak truth to power, but to speak on behalf of ordinary citizens, was both inspiring and exciting.
The Junior President
When Evan was born, in 1977, Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia and under white, apartheid-style, minority rule. At that time, the black majority lived either in dense, segregated city townships or in the rural areas labeled maruzevha (native reserves). Evan’s family lived first in the rural areas and then later moved to Glen Norah, one of the older black townships on the margins of the capital. As the first-born of six children, Evan was expected to set a good example for his younger siblings and especially so once admitted to Prince Edward School.
I have visited this boys school on a number occasions—my husband was one of the first black students admitted after Independence in 1980. Until then, Prince Edward was a whites-only school steeped in the nation’s colonial history from its royal name and famous Jubilee Field to its school motto: Tot Facienda Parum Factum (So Much to Do; So Little Done) attributed to the imperialist Cecil Rhodes, who named the country after himself. This hundred-year-old school continues to be known for its academic excellence and sporting prowess with its own astronomy observatory, vast acres of lawns, sports fields, and state-of-the-art science labs.
When Evan started at Prince Edward in the early 1990s, this was an exciting time for him and for the country. Zimbabwe was doing well and seemed to be bucking the trend of other African countries. Its President, Robert Mugabe, was lauded at home and abroad as a model for Africa. Yet under the surface all was not well. Unbeknownst to many, a genocide had been committed in Matabeleland in the 1980s under Mugabe’s orders, and the news of this was kept suppressed. Meanwhile, at school, Evan was not faring as well as expected. He performed poorly on his Form Three exams, and his father decided to withdraw him. The fees were high and the family couldn’t afford to keep a child, who wasn’t doing well, in an expensive school. To Evan’s consternation, he was sent to a Salvation Army mission school under the supervision of a strict disciplinarian uncle.
Charles Clack Secondary School in Magunje could not be more different than Prince Edward. It was located in the rural areas and designed for black Africans pre-independence. It had no running water, no electricity, and only pit latrines for toilets. Cattle routinely wandered the school grounds. But at Charles Clack, Evan studied hard and did well. He became a school prefect and discovered an interest in civics. He joined the inter-schools’ competitions for Zimbabwe’s Junior Parliament and through this countrywide competition he would ultimately be selected, from students all across the country, as Zimbabwe’s Junior President.
The first arrests
July 12, 2016—Evan has been in hiding for several days when his wife sends urgent word that the police are looking for him. On advice from the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) he turns himself in and reports to a police station. Accompanied by a ZLHR lawyer, he is questioned for hours. Then his home is searched. No incriminating evidence is found. Regardless, he’s detained and charged for “inciting public violence and disturbing the peace.” He is thrown into Baghdad—a crowded holding cell in Harare’s Central Police station, where two dozen men sit huddled on the concrete floor. It’s wintertime. Evan has never been to prison before. The only spot available is next to the open toilet. His blanket, the last remaining one, is stained with fresh feces. Hours later, in the middle of night when other prisoners have fallen asleep, two men quietly remove Evan from Baghdad.
He is handcuffed and marched to a basement cell. Here he is ordered to remove his shoes and sit on the floor. The interrogators play good cop/bad cop. He is asked repeatedly for whom he is working and who funds his media activism. They don’t believe him when he says he’s acting alone. It’s freezing, and Evan soon loses sensation in his bottom and feet. The interrogators ask: What will you do if we send someone to rape your wife while we hold you in jail? How will you feel if we release you to bury your children? When they dump him back in Baghdad, they warn him to watch out for vamwe vacho vanoda varume (the men that like men).
July 13, 2016—It’s morning and Evan has been awake all night, shivering. He is transported to Rotten Row Magistrates Court. A crowd of several thousand has gathered. Inside, Evan is shuttled between one filthy holding cell and another. Finally, when night falls, he is led into the courtroom which has been opened to hear his special case. His face lights up when he sees his wife. She doesn’t look harmed. She isn’t under arrest. His lawyer is asked to stand, and alongside him are nearly one hundred more lawyers who have shown up in support. But then comes the pronouncement that his charge has been escalated. He is now being charged with attempting to subvert a constitutionally elected government. He looks visibly shaken. This new charge, akin to treason, carries a twenty-year prison sentence.
Then Evan hears the crowds outside singing—freedom songs and church songs! Like the Biblical battle of Jericho, the metaphorical walls collapse. His lawyers successfully argue that the switch to this second charge is unconstitutional and Evan is released. Now he’s outside with a moment of freedom, fresh air, and the noise of the crowd. Then the whisper, from one of the guards, that he will be immediately rearrested. To save him from rearrest, he’s told to go out through the crowds. The crowds in their excitement nearly crush him. They also act temporarily as a shield, but his lawyers know this is not enough. Another safe house, a quick disguise, and a fast journey south through a quiet border town into Botswana, and Evan is in exile.
Days after Evan escapes, President Robert Mugabe himself rebukes Evan on national television, questioning whether ‘he’s a true man of God’. Days later, on July 23rd, the government-sponsored newspaper, The Herald, carries the headline: Mawarire Is No Saint. The article claims that Evan made up his story of financial woes and that he was in fact “sponsored by Western governments to distabilise (sic) the country.”
When news arrives that Evan is safely out of the country, many Zimbabweans feel relief, but soon there are grumblings. What good is their Savior outside? And now that the State had lost its prey, officials are undeterred in their efforts to discredit Evan. Fueled by clever disinformation, people’s disappointment grows. Evan is called a “sellout” and after the years of war, the pastor knows well what happens to a sell-out. Meanwhile, President Mugabe continues to ridicule him in public. It is clear that Evan is not welcome back in the country.
Evan spends the next six months out of Zimbabwe, first in South Africa and then in the United States, during which he finds the support to get his family out of the country too. Abroad, his wife gives birth to their third child. Evan is safe, his family is safe, but he is dislocated. He has no job in this place of safety, no friends, no community. He had acted on impulse, impulse born of desperation, and his voice had been the voice of the people, but now he feels rudderless. After discussion with a few close friends, and his lawyers, he decides to return. He knows it’s dangerous for him to return to Zimbabwe but he also doesn’t want to abandon the cause. He makes plans to return telling only a few people the date of his arrival.
February 1, 2017—Evan is met by the authorities as soon as his plane lands. Five men march him away, interrogate him, then turn him over to the police. He is arrested and sent to remand prison. That night, Evan is thrown into a truck and told that he’s going to Chikurubi. He’s the only prisoner in the truck. His leg irons began to clatter as his legs shake. The mere mention of Chikurubi (like Robben Island, Rikers, or San Quentin), is enough to instill terror. Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison is known for housing the most hardened of criminals, and for its prison violence, overcrowding, and disease. It is here, in the years before Independence, where the white Rhodesian government used to throw the leaders of the struggle. Evan asks his guard if this is the end. He’s imagining being dumped in a ditch or worse. They arrive at Chikurubi—high concrete walls, razor wire, security lights, and armed guards everywhere.
Inside, Evan is given a bucket to hold all the possessions he’s allowed to take—his Bible, some underwear, and a striped prison-issue sweater made by the prison guards’ wives. He’s placed in the D Wing. D is reserved for the most serious offenders—from murderers to rapists—those serving eight years to life. Now comes his crash course on life in a maximum-security prison—a beating from a prison guard and some unexpected kindness from fellow inmates.
For the next few months, Evan will be in and out of prison in a continuing cycle of arrests, imprisonment, and release on stringent bail conditions that include the surrender of his passport as well as the title deeds to his parents’ house. This pattern persists until November. Then, the unimaginable happens.
November 14, 2017— Major General Sibusiso Moyo appears in full military fatigues on Zimbabwe’s national TV. He announces that the armed forces have stepped in to “pacify a degenerating social and economic situation in the country.” It is not “a military take-over” or a coup, he insists, even as troops appear on the streets of Harare. The troops block government buildings and occupy the State House. Within days, Robert Mugabe is forced to step down. And with him goes his wife—his one-time secretary and hugely unpopular would-be successor, mocked as the “The First Shopper” and “Gucci Grace.”
Two weeks later, Evan’s case is finally brought to trial and he is acquitted of all charges. He becomes a free man as Robert Mugabe is deposed. The country goes wild with jubilation at Mugabe’s removal—people crying, ululating, dancing, horn-blaring in the streets. Pastor Evan is amongst them. He’s ecstatic—laughing and crying, as people pose with him to take selfies with their flags. Flags are everywhere—on cars and buildings and wrapped around people like superhero capes. Mugabe is out and his former Vice President-turned rival, Emmerson Mnangagwa (nicknamed “The Crocodile” for his suspected role in the Gukurahundi genocidal killings) is made interim President. Mnangagwa (also known as “ED”) proclaims a “New Zimbabwe” wearing a scarf in Zimbabwe’s flag colours. The fact that Evan was the first to wear the flag as scarf appears forgotten. The scarf is now called the “ED Scarf.”
It’s early evening in the summer of 2018 and Evan is wearing jeans and a Stanford university sweatshirt. I notice the Zimbabwean flag tied around the straps of his backpack which he puts down as he arrives. My husband, who had met Evan two years earlier after Evan had escaped to the United States, has invited him to our home in San Francisco for dinner. Two others join us, both Zimbabweans—one is a cousin visiting from out of town and the second, an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley.
When Evan sees me, his greeting is warm and effusive: “Hello ma’am, how are you? It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he says, smiling broadly as he turns to greet the others. As I watch the ease with which he interacts with the younger student, it’s easy to see what made him a popular, humorous youth pastor. “Wow!” he exclaims enthusiastically when hearing what each of us is doing, even though we are more interested in hearing about him and the situation in Zimbabwe.
We are meeting in the run up to Zimbabwe’s first election following Mugabe’s removal from power, and Evan is running for political office. He is running as an independent for a seat in Harare’s city council, which is where he feels he can make the most difference to improve people’s daily lives. He had been campaigning up until a few weeks prior. But then, as he explains, being offered the prestigious Draper Hills Summer Fellowship at Stanford University was an opportunity he couldn’t turn down, as it enabled him to see his family in America whom he hadn’t seen in a year and half. Meanwhile, he remains in close touch with Zimbabwe via phone and social media, and his excitement for the promised hope of this election is palpable.
A few days later, with the election results now in, we meet up with Evan again and this time his mood is subdued. He says his disappointment is not about his own electoral loss, but about the lives of the peaceful protestors and bystanders shot dead on the streets of Harare in the wake of the election. The election has been won by Mnangagwa, the interim President who replaced Mugabe. Mnangagwa is from Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party, not the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). For years, Mugabe had brutally repressed the MDC. He had also cheated the party, most blatantly, out of the 2008 election.
Indignant and angry, Evan sits hunched at the dining table with his muscular forearms braced in a semi-circle in front of him—a stance like that of his first #ThisFlag video. Our conversation around the election and the ensuing violence pauses when, after dinner, we attend the first International Congress of Youth Voices, where our son is a delegate. As we listen to the passionate presentations, Evan is visibly heartened. One of the congress mentors is Congressman John Lewis, the much-revered civil rights leader who once worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. When Congressman Lewis speaks of the necessity of getting into what he calls “good trouble” and “necessary trouble,” his words strike a chord with us all. By the end of the evening, Evan is the first to stand in applause. Soon after, he leaves California to return to Zimbabwe.
In the words of others
I am now keen to know, with the passage of time, what people think of Evan. In Zimbabwe, I ask everyone who will speak with me—from young to old, black and white, formally educated or not, rich and poor, professors, students, artists, and business leaders. Similarly, I ask Zimbabweans in the diaspora—in South Africa, the U.K., and the U.S.—many of whom left Zimbabwe either because of the country’s economic collapse or simply to escape Mugabe’s brutal ruling party. Everyone I ask expresses admiration for what Evan did, or attempted to do. Most, however, only seem to know a small part of his story and few are aware of his ongoing work within civic society, which includes mobilizing for clean water services in the wake of a cholera epidemic.
Of the many who praise Evan, some know him from his church, others from what they have heard or read in the news or social media, and one from a chance encounter at Avondale Shopping Center where, in the carpark, they had discovered a shared love of Land Rovers. People describe Evan as a “good person,” as “grounded,” “level-headed,” “a church man of morals,” “humble,” and a man of “Presidential potential.” Several highlight the fact that Evan never set out to be a political leader and that his aim all along was to engage citizens—to start a citizen’s movement. He had resisted joining any political party and refused to run for President as many had wanted him to do. Nevertheless, one Pan-African businessman suggests that Evan ought to have done a better job of acknowledging the activists that came before him (such as Morgan Tsvangirai, a respected leader of the opposition MDC).
One student says that in a country like Zimbabwe where most people are religious, Evan could have done more to harness the power of the pulpit. Others say that Evan should not have “run away” from Zimbabwe after his first arrest in 2016. In a heated conversation between a group of Zimbabwean students studying at the University of California, Berkeley, one claims that had Evan stayed in Zimbabwe just two more weeks in August of 2016, something “fundamental” would have happened. “Yeah,” quips another, “he would have been dead!” Others make the point that so much was beyond Evan’s control. Funding was a challenge, says a struggling Harare-based entrepreneur, explaining how difficult it was for Evan to get his message to the rural communities where people, though connected to social media, didn’t have funds to buy “bundles” (data packages) to download his videos.
Many blame Zanu-PF as well as ex-President Mugabe for destroying Evan’s credibility by pushing the story that Evan was backed by Western sponsors. Also, as one businessman puts it, Zimbabweans had been conditioned to see their opposition leaders (such as Nelson Chamisa and Tsvangirai) beaten up and because Evan never appeared to have severe cuts or visible bruising, this made some people suspicious.
In his own words
When Evan speaks, his passion and oratory skills are reminiscent of other preacher-activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu. His speech has a Biblical ring to it when he uses phrases such as “the least among us,” “those who are heavy laden,” or references “widows and orphans,” and occasionally he quotes scripture. He has an ear for accents and a natural feel for the poetry and rhythm of language. What is also striking is the conviction and passion conveyed through his words.
Evan becomes particularly animated when he speaks of some of the most marginalized people who have had a lasting impact on his life, including prisoners he met while at Chikurubi.
He is humble when talking about himself, frequently referring to others as brighter and more courageous. Those that he mentions as having inspired him are not the famous people he has sometimes been compared to, but ordinary, everyday people including his parent’s pastor and a caretaker at Prince Edward School.
When I ask Evan to describe the events following his first arrest, he does so with a sense of timing and drama that keeps me rapt, sometimes adding deadpan humor at the tensest moments of his story. When being transported—handcuffed in the back of a pickup truck—to his first court appearance, he describes the moment when he asks the heavily armored guards if he might pray with them and, to his surprise, they all lower their weapons and close their eyes. And when recalling his first stint at the notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, he describes the way prison guards looked at him as though he were a rare, wild animal caught in a residential area. They were surprised to find him so young and so short.
Evan is not only quick to draw on humor, often poking fun at himself, but he is also candid when chronicling the rollercoaster of emotions felt in the course of his journey. He admits to sobbing uncontrollably and to nearly convulsing on the first night he was interrogated, to struggling to hold back tears when he saw his pregnant wife patiently sitting in court on the following day. Often in the course of conversation, Evan is contemplative, reflecting on what he has learned since the events of 2016 which brought him to national prominence:
One of the things I learned when people responded by calling me a sellout [was] the realization that if you’re going to do it, you have to do it out of conviction and not out of the applause or what people want to hear. The way I learned the lesson was that my two major arrests had one very distinct difference. The first had thousands of people gathered there. The second, when I was arrested at the airport, there was nobody. No one! It was a shock but also the penny dropped that if you’re going to do this, you can’t do it for the crowd because they’ll be there when it’s exciting, but when it gets tiring, they don’t have an obligation to be there at all.
I lost a lot of friends along the way when I started speaking out. I still have one or two but it’s a very small circle. I’m in one of these strange situations where you feel like everybody knows you, but you know no one.
One of the fears in the kind of space that I’m in right now is that I would disappoint the people who do love me […] Sometimes I’m caught off guard, I’m not in the space of “here’s the other cheek.” That’s why, as a pastor, it has been such a terrible thing for me and I’ve said to people: “you know what, I’m not speaking as a pastor. I’m speaking as an ordinary person who has hurts, who has frustrations, who has fears, and who is concerned about how they’re going to deal with a future that has been messed up by someone who’s no longer here.”
When people look at me and my life through the lens of the high moments—the different nominations for prizes and the invitations to speak at these high-level gatherings, or amazing institutions of learning—they don’t understand the aspect of cost. None of that could ever be a replacement or a reward for being away from my kids for three years, missing all of their birthdays. None of that could ever help me explain why my daughter would ask me, after she hadn’t seen me for fourteen months, if I’m her dad. So sometimes people see my life through the lens of some of those things and they think that the cost is easy, but it’s quite a cost to bear. The prison arrest and the attempted abductions and threats to life—all put a value on how much I value my family. I’m prepared to die for them, I’m prepared to go to prison for them, so that my children understand what freedom means, what justice is. And it’s my hope that my kids will learn earlier in life what it means to fight for what you believe in. In many ways, it started off being about my family, but it has become much bigger. Sometimes I regret it. Many times, I regret it. When I speak in public, I have to find the courage to be brave for everyone else, to not say I’ve had enough, to not say I can’t take it anymore even though I feel like that a number of times. It’s just not the thing you say when you happen to be the symbol of hope for everybody else.
January 16, 2019—In the dead of night, armed men arrive at Evan’s Harare apartment and attempt to abduct him. They assault the caretakers in his block and try ramming down his front door. Unable to get in, they send police to arrest him early the next morning. The arrest is filmed by neighbors and posted online. Evan is remanded and charged with inciting public violence and for being in support of the trade unions who called for peaceful demonstrations protesting the doubling of fuel costs. His charges are later escalated to that of subverting a constitutionally elected government—identical to the charges leveled at him =two and half years earlier. He is thrown back into Chikurubi. This time, he’s placed with fifty-three others in a cell measuring just eight by five meters. Many of these inmates had been rounded up in the course of the fuel protests. Some have broken bones while others have open wounds from police beatings. A few are minors only sixteen years old.
January 30, 2019—Evan is released on bail. He is suffering from a chest infection. One of the first questions a reporter can be heard asking on a posted video is: “Were you beaten?” As in 2016, the conditions of his bail are stringent. At each successive court date, Evan’s case is kicked down the road. Between January and September 2019, he makes ten court appearances.
Meanwhile, things in Zimbabwe continue to deteriorate. An Amnesty International report published in August describes Mnangagwa’s first year in office as marked by a “systematic and brutal crackdown on human rights including the violent suppression of protests and a witch-hunt against anyone who dared challenge his government.” On August 26th, Evan writes an op-ed for TIME Magazine describing the depth of the nation’s economic hardships and the government’s brutal response to those who dare to protest. Then, in September, the unimaginable happens again. Ex-President Robert Mugabe is dead. He was ninety-five years old.
September 6, 2019—On the day Robert Mugabe dies, I am in Cape Town participating in South Africa’s Open Book Festival. In a surreal moment, I awake to the news of his death from the animated chatter of Zimbabwean housekeeping staff that I can hear standing outside my hotel room. I understand enough of what they are saying in Shona to guess that something significant has happened. I switch on the TV and that’s when I hear Zimbabwean government officials speaking of a deceased Mugabe as though he were a hero—the same officials that had cheered at his ousting less than two years earlier.
Three days later, I fly to Harare. I message Evan to ask if we can meet. I’d like to hear what he makes of Mugabe’s passing and of reactions to his death. I’m also concerned for his mental and physical wellbeing given how long he’s been held in limbo and separated from his family and also given the continued hardship of daily life in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s economic collapse had not ended in the two years since Mugabe’s ousting. My mother-in-law, like so many others in Zimbabwe, has not had running water for months and power outages are now the daily norm. The prices of things—including basic commodities such as bath soap, deodorant, and Vaseline—have become prohibitively expensive. Cash is also in short supply. I wonder how Evan is supporting himself, let alone his family of four and responding to the extended family expectations that come with being the eldest son.
I’ve arranged to meet Evan at Avondale’s popular Café Nush. While I wait for him, I try figuring out where best to sit. I am guessing that his movements and meetings are constantly monitored but still, I’d like to find a spot which is not in full view of everyone.
Evan greets me with his warm smile. It’s his choice that we sit outside. He’s dressed casually in jeans and a t-shirt bearing Zimbabwe’s initials—ZW. There’s a tear in the seam of his shirt and he looks thinner. He’s been running marathons, he tells me. He is wearing sunglasses, and after we order (a coffee each and a barbecue beef wrap for Evan) he asks if I mind him keeping his shades on. He says his eyes are sensitive to light then, half jokingly, that the sunglasses make him feel invisible, but of course “they see me,” he adds.
His voice turns serious as we begin to talk about Mugabe. “The saddest thing in all of this,” he repeats “is that whilst he [Mugabe] lived, we were forced to be silent, and when he dies we are again forced to be silent. And the least he could have done, the least he could have done,” his voice now getting louder, “was to die here in Zimbabwe!” Angrily, Evan describes how as Zimbabwe’s hospitals were falling apart, Mugabe received treatment in an expensive hospital in Singapore until his death. Evan tells me that he cannot bring himself to say “rest in peace” for Mugabe and he’s furious with the hypocrisy of those who do.
After a pause, he apologizes for raising his voice. I respond by saying that I’m not surprised by people’s hypocrisy, coming as it does from a country so traumatized, until Evan’s cold stare stops me short. His voice grows quieter but even more steely as he reminds me of Mugabe’s cruelty which he insists was there from the very beginning. He reminds me of the Gukurahundi genocidal killings of the 1980s and the notorious Fifth Brigade ordered by Robert Mugabe to commit the atrocities. The death toll estimated by some reports was as high as tens of thousands. “His [Mugabe’s] death has to be a point of clarity rather than a point of contention!” Evan insists, with a stern, no-time-to-waste demeanor.
As we continue speaking, Evan is even more candid about his emotional state than I remember him being previously. He speaks of how difficult he finds it when strangers tell him what he should do, when they lecture him on how he must not exhibit rage as a pastor. But writing, he tells me, has helped him deal with things. That morning he had written what he felt were a few good pages in the memoir he is working on. And yet, just as he shares what gives him focus, he admits to feeling confused. He describes these feelings with the same fervor and urgency as in his #ThisFlag video, except this time there is no sense of hope:
It’s like I’m stuck with this thing, this ball of yarn. And I don’t know where the start is or the finish anymore. And I feel like I’ve spent the last two years trying to figure out where is the beginning of it, where is the end of it? And I’m on my own and I’m just frustrated with the thing that I’m trying to unravel and it won’t. It just won’t unravel. Each time I’m coming to the end of it you just get caught up in another arrest and then you pull it and …
Feeling stuck, he says, makes him question his relevance. He’s worn down by those who accuse him of being a sellout. The determination I had heard him express a year earlier—of the need to do things out of self-conviction rather than be swayed by the fickle whims of crowds—seems to have been ground out of him. And with a heavy sigh he acknowledges that those in power have also been successful in baiting and taunting him.
“Up to today,” he says, banging on the table, “People still say, why did you run away? I feel like saying just F-off! Bloody hell! Not only did I come back and get arrested and spent a whole year in and out of prison and got tried for it. Do you realize that I was tried for this? And then, after all is said and done, I still stayed. If I was a freaking coward like you said I was, the moment I was acquitted, I would have packed up my little bags and left! And never come back! Not only did I stay, but I spoke out again.”
Now his tone is bitter and combative. He admits to being less patient, to swearing where he never used to, and to being prone to pouncing on people rather than giving them the benefit of the doubt. He tells me he hasn’t been able to speak freely to anyone for a long time. He doesn’t trust people to be genuine. He feels that everyone has an angle. As he speaks, I am reminded of the moment in his first video when he wonders whether those who sacrificed for Zimbabwe in years past would feel, in hindsight, that their sacrifice had been worth it. I’m wondering if he feels his sacrifices have been worth it when he tells me:
The 2019 arrest, I feel like that was not worth it. I feel like it was because of all these people. I feel like I had to do something, I had to prove that I was still in the game, that I was still committed. Because people, they keep taking. They take, and take, and take, and take!
As I listen to Evan and watch him, it’s almost as if I can see him enmeshed in the ball of yarn, twisting between acknowledging that he’s on edge (and not wanting to be) while simultaneously justifying his right to lash out. Now there’s no deadpan humor in his narration, only anger and frustration followed by silence, then further outpourings:
People seem to be enjoying watching you taking the hard punches. We love it when you’re hit hard and you just return a soft answer or you just say something inspirational. And I’m saying: sometimes I’m fresh out of inspirational quotes. Sometimes I’m caught off guard, I’m not in the space of “here’s the other cheek.”
Evan flicks away tears from under his sunglasses as he angrily clanks his way through his beef wrap, always careful to be polite and cheery to the workers who wait on our table. Still thinking of what he’s said about his last arrest not being worth it, I find myself wanting to reassure him. I tell him he doesn’t have to prove his relevance. Surely, he has proven this already. He listens silently before the words pour out again:
I can’t be a Mandela! I don’t feel like being a Mandela! Is that what it means for me to continue to be relevant? Is that what it means for me to continue to be someone that you love, appreciate, and trust? Because I don’t know if I can sustain that. There are days I can do it, there are! But there are days and moments when I’m just a human. I’m just a human being.
He falls silent until he picks up his phone to show me the latest pictures of his daughters that his wife has sent. In these pictures, unlike the ones he had shared in 2018 while visiting us in San Francisco, Evan does not appear. The other day, he says, his youngest daughter screamed “Daddy!” so excited was she to see him on the video call that he couldn’t help but burst into tears. He describes his girls with love and tenderness—one is “a fireball,” another just started school, and then there’s the daughter that recently Googled him. She told him that she’d figured out he was a “YouTuber,” that he’d been with the police, and that he’d been in prison—all this before she asked: “What do you really do, daddy?” And here for one brief moment in the seriousness of things, Evan’s humor returns. “If I could have taken a commercial break, that would have been the time to do it,” he laughs.
I ask Evan what he wants. “That’s a really tough question, but whatever I do, I don’t ever want my girls to go without me.” Then, after a pause he returns to my question. “But if there’s anything you couldn’t stop me from doing, it’s finding ways to help people that need it. You can’t stop me from that. It’s a good thing. And sometimes, it’s what gets me into trouble.”
October 3, 2019—Evan is back in court. His case is once again kicked down the road. The next court date is scheduled for January 2020.
November 20, 2019—I receive a text message from Evan: “Just come from court and got some good news. They have withdrawn the charges and will proceed by way of summons whenever they are ready. The only downside of it is that the case continues to hang over my head and can be called up anytime.” I text him back, excited to hear this good news. Hours later, I see a post on his Facebook page denouncing a new round of police brutality. Peaceful crowds waiting outside the opposition leader’s headquarters had been beaten and tear gassed by police forces.
And so it continues.