Tina Malowa was 14 when she fought in the war to liberate Zimbabwe from white rule in the late 1970s. Now middle aged, she still has the fierce eyes of a girl who came of age as a guerilla fighter, and has unwavering faith in the ruling political party. "I did not see why there should be an opposition political party," she recalls. "I saw the opposition as people who wanted to grab the country away from us, and return [it] to the white people. As long as someone belonged to the opposition party—it did not matter if they were my neighbor or even a sibling—I would not tolerate them."
Such lingering hard-line attitudes led to widespread political violence during the 2000 and 2002 elections in Zimbabwe. A 2000 human rights report described a typical incident: A truck transporting people to a party meeting was run off the road and attacked by members of another political group armed with AK-47s and iron bars. While most of the victims of the attack fled, two were trapped in the truck when it was firebombed, and died on the road moments later.
Thankfully, today there is considerably less political violence, and one of the groups that has made change possible is the Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust (ZIMCET). According to director David Chimhini, the organization, founded in 2000, helped eliminate much of the violence in just a couple of years. With funds from Oxfam America, ZIMCET established a network of local "peace committees" that have brought political opponents together to learn about nonviolent conflict resolution.
These peace committees are led both by members of the ruling ZANU-PF political party and their opponents in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). ZIMCET overcame the climate of distrust by keeping the focus on peace—something neither side could oppose. ZIMCET also cultivated strong relationships with local leaders, who encouraged the new peace committees.
One peace committee created a sports league for youth, many of whom were out of school and lacked employment, which made it easy to get caught up in violence. Another committee concentrated on cultural events. But ZIMCET's main accomplishment has been to help people acknowledge their mistakes and learn to forgive one another. "Our peace committees help people change their attitude towards each other," Chimhini says. "They now say 'Never again'! We will never beat or kill just for an election."
The process has not been easy. Tina Malowa was a much-feared political operative, but after attending training sessions with ZIMCET, her perspective changed. "Sometimes I sit down and think about all the violence and at times I find myself sobbing because I know I did some evil things. Things that I really regret to this day." Her transformation has been both personal and political: "I realized that my thinking was all wrong. In democratic societies, there is bound to be an opposition party."
Beside her, at a meeting in ZIMCET's Harare office, sits Simon Mapuvire, MDC district secretary for Manicaland. Mapuvire has also come a long way. "I was beating ZANU-PF people and I was directing people to beat others," he said candidly. "Then ZIMCET taught me that I was just beating my brothers and sisters. Now Tina is my friend and we work together, and I have thrown away that evil element in my head."