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Mightier than the Sword
[Interview] Citizen reporter Ambrose Musiyiwa talks about his writing on human rights
Kaye Axon (kayeaxon)     Print Article 
Published 2006-07-15 16:38 (KST)   
Ambrose Musiyiwa
Ambrose Musiyiwa has experience as a freelance journalist, book reviewer and teacher in Zimbabwe.

He has been published in a wide variety of media including the World Press Review, Virtual Writer, and Leicester Review of Books.

He also writes short stories and has had one featured in Writing Now, an anthology of contemporary Zimbabwean writing. In 2005 he was short-listed for the Leicester and Leicestershire Short Story Contest.

Musiyiwa was born in Chitungwiza, a dormitory town just outside Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, and moved to Leicester, in the U.K., in May 2002.

Kaye Axon interviewed Ambrose Musiyiwa by email between July 10 and July 14 2006.

Did you write in Zimbabwe?

I've always been writing.

As a child, at school, I was writing short stories and other narratives. When I moved to high school, I was writing narratives, short stories, poems, letters and opinion articles for national newspapers and magazines. After high school, I stopped writing poems altogether and concentrated on short stories and feature articles for newspapers and magazines.

When I went to teacher training college, I was concentrating more on feature articles and book reviews than on short stories or other narratives.

The list of newspapers and magazines I've written for is long. It includes The Sunday Times, The Zimbabwe Independent, High Density Mirror, The Daily News, The Financial Gazette, The Sunday Mail and The Herald as well as the women's magazine, Mahogany.

How have your personal experiences helped to shape the direction of your work?

In the short stories that I do write, I tend to concentrate on those things that I personally find difficult. Things I wouldn't know how to deal with otherwise. For example, one of my short stories explores the effects of suicide on a family. Another one is about a teacher who's trying to come to terms with a death threat he's received for doing his job, as he understood it.

How do you balance the different aspects of your writing, such as short stories, journalistic work and book reviews?

I don't think I've ever made a conscious effort to balance the different aspects of the writing that I'm doing. I tend to write those stories that want to be written the way they want to be written. This is also probably why I tend to write more journalism and book reviews than short stories.

I find the book reviews more demanding in terms of the time I've got to give to a book before I can even start drafting the review itself.

Many of your factual articles focus on human rights issues, is this area of your work something that you have decided to concentrate on?

I write on human rights issues because I feel strongly about what people as individuals, groups and governments are doing to others. In the U.K., for instance, there's the way government is actively criminalizing asylum seekers and pushing them into destitution and poverty. The British government is currently electronically tagging asylum seekers and in that way further reinforcing the popular image of the asylum seeker as a criminal. There's the way government is denying asylum seekers access to education, housing, legal representation and medical care. There's the way government is threatening to snatch the children of asylum seekers from their families and force them to live in care homes. There's also the way government is encouraging white England to view the Muslim as a foreigner and a terrorist and the black man as a foreigner, a drug dealer and a criminal.

On the other hand, there is a committed group of people, working as individuals or organizations that are working very hard and against great odds to reaffirm the humanity of asylum seekers and refugees. These include people like the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu and other church leaders, the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns, the ASSIST Service in Leicester, the parliamentarian Kate Hoey and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Zimbabwe.

Do you feel that by publishing human rights abuses that it is possible to reduce their frequency and severity?

This is my hope. This is what I hope for.

With human rights defenders, for example, one of the ways of keeping them alive is by writing and talking about them. In that way you tell governments that you are watching and can see how they are detaining the activists, how they are torturing them and how they are killing them.

For example, in Zimbabwe, security agents have been known to detain, harass and torture human rights defenders and opposition party members. Some human rights defenders have died in accidents that can be traced back to the hand of security agents. Chris Giwa, a student leader, died in a traffic accident involving an army vehicle.

Others human rights defenders have disappeared without a trace after coming under the radar of Zimbabwe's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization. Recently, the women's rights activist Jenni Williams was told by a senior police officer in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city, that she will end up losing her life if she continues organizing demonstrations and protest marches against government policy.

If you could write a few paragraphs that would influence U.K. policy on asylum seekers what would it be?

I am concerned that the British government, and the Home Office, in its efforts to reduce the number of asylum seekers in the U.K., has stopped seeing asylum seekers as people, as human beings. What it is saying over and over again is that asylum seekers are numbers to be kept down. It is becoming increasingly inhumane and punitive. It is subjecting those asylum seekers who are in the U.K. to lives of extreme insecurity and hardship and is then sending them back to famines, dictatorships and war zones.

For example, in May 2005, the British government rejected Muhammad Osama Sayes' asylum application and sent him back to Syria. Muhammad Osama Sayes, a known member of the Muslim Brotherhood (M.B.), was arrested on arrival at Damascus Airport and is now serving a 12-year prison term in Syria after being convicted of belonging to the M.B. The M.B. is banned in Syria and membership to that organization carries a maximum penalty of death.

The Central Intelligence Organization routinely detains and interrogates Zimbabweans returning to that country after long stays abroad. Some of the returnees and deportees have been tortured and imprisoned. Others have disappeared without a trace. And yet the Home Office insists it's safe to return asylum seekers back to Zimbabwe.

Also, the Zimbabwe government accuses human rights defenders of being treasonous and of acting against the country's interests and is legislating to contain this "treasonous" activity. Under Zimbabwean law, the maximum penalty for treason is death by hanging. Human rights defenders' passports can now be seized if they try to enter or leave the country. The government is also working on legislation to make it mandatory for all Zimbabweans to apply for exit visas if they want to travel abroad. Journalists now face the possibility of 20 years in prison should they write a story which the authorities deem to be false or which exposes the president or vice-president to ridicule or which insults the president or vice-president.

What do you find are the major hindrances to your work and how do you overcome them?

I write all my notes in long hand. This means when I'm interviewing a source, he or she has to speak slowly. To overcome this, I increasingly have to rely on tape recorders and I'm learning short hand. I'm also increasingly relying on email as a tool for conducting interviews because it is sometimes impossible to travel to meet sources physically.

Given that all those hindrances disappeared and you could write about anything what would you write?

I'd most likely carry on doing what I'm doing now: writing on human rights issues, writing about human rights defenders, writing about writers and other artists and writing the occasional short story.

On a lighter note, how is the latest short story progressing?

At the moment, I'm collaborating with a civil rights activist on a narrative about what she is seeing and the detainees she is meeting when she visits immigration removal centres. It's not a short story in the popular sense of a short story -- every detail in it is fact and is verifiable. The places are real and the people are real. It is a short story in the sense that it is short and can be read like a short story.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Kaye Axon

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