My life away from a reign of terror

Better days: Ethel Maqeba, who was a refugee from Zimbabwe but has gained a degree from the University of Sheffield
Better days: Ethel Maqeba, who was a refugee from Zimbabwe but has gained a degree from the University of Sheffield
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She was beaten, intimidated and feared for her life, but now Ethel Maqeba is enjoying a peaceful life of literature in Nether Edge, as Star reporter Rachael Clegg found out.

BARELY seven years ago, Ethel Maqeba was terrified for her life.

She lived in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe - former Rhodesia - where, under Robert Mugabe’s regime, people were regularly beaten, sometimes to death, and queues for bread and cooking oil would stretch around the block.

Mugabe has been Zimbabwe’s leader for almost three decades. He came into power after seizing land from wealthy white landowners. But this led to a decline in the nation’s economy.

What was a successful ‘bread basket’ with a thriving agricultural and tobacco industry collapsed under Mugabe’s rule.

That led to rampant inflation and shortages of food and fuel.

Mugabe’s successive re-elections and the violence associated with them has led to his rule being dubbed ‘a reign of terror’ - and, based on what Ethel says, it’s not hard to see why.

“There was so much violence and we felt intimidated all the time,” she says now from the safety of her home in Nether Edge.

“There was no recourse to the law either but it was hard to tell how bad things were while we were in it - it’s not until you get out that you realise how harsh it was.”

Queues for food and supplies were so bad that disorder often broke out, and this instigated intervention from the authorities.

“The police would just beat people up,” she said. “Sometimes they’d beat people to death. I was beaten up myself as a student one time.”

It wasn’t just violence at the food queues. Election time was notorious too, with frequent violent outbursts from the authorities.

“People who were potentially voting for the opposition would get beaten up. It was very tough. You never knew if you were safe and as a result you were constantly anxious.”

Ethel, now 40, believes her family was under particular threat because of her husband’s job - he was a journalist who trained at Sheffield University in 2005.

“My husband’s job meant we felt very intimidated and eventually it became untenable. There was no single event that made us leave Zimbabwe - it was a culmination of events.”

The couple and their two children moved to Sheffield.

“We wanted to come here because my husband knew people here from his course, so we moved across and my children moved later, after staying with friends in Zimbabwe for a while.”

That was in 2005. Now, seven years on, Ethel sees Sheffield as her home. She has a job here, sings in a local choir, volunteers at an English language teaching organisation and has a full social life. But she can well recall her first feelings of arriving in the city.

“The feeling of freedom was instantaneous. It’s difficult to describe what life was like before but I remember feeling so relaxed and safe as soon as I arrived.”

There were, of course, huge cultural differences between Sheffield and Harare, not least the northern English climate.

“The main difference was the people - I found British people reserved but friendly. Africans are very exuberant, colourful and even garish.”

This year, Ethel completed an MA at The University of Sheffield in creative writing. “When I first came here I was working in catering but I wanted to do something that would give me better prospects.”

And the MA’s done the job.

“I have work at Sheffield College as a learning support assistant and now I am able to go for jobs that I wouldn’t have been able to in the past. It has been fantastic doing the course and I really enjoyed it,” she said.

“Until now I never quite believed in myself, but this made me realise it is never too late to study and find your confidence.”

Ethel starts her PhD in creative writing in post colonial feminist Southern African literature this September - an opportunity afforded by her move to Sheffield and completing her MA.

When she looks back on her life she can’t believe what she and other Zimbabweans endured.

“Sometimes when you’re in a situation you don’t see how ridiculous things are, or how they should be, until you leave, but now when I speak to other people about it and I see how horrified they are by what we went through, I realise how bad it was.

“I love Sheffield and I’m happy here. I walk through Graves Park to work every day and it’s so peaceful - just dog walkers, grass and trees.”

Sadly, Ethel does not live with her husband and children.

“They are in South Africa and I do miss them very much,” she said. “I try to get out there in holidays but it is expensive so I can’t go as often as I would like.”

For now though, Ethel is enjoying her new-found academic life.

But she hasn’t forgotten about Zimbabwe.

“I miss it - my parents are still there and I suppose you miss places you have been to on holiday so you are bound to miss the place in which you were born and raised.”