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Out of Africa

A Southerner: from front lines to the home front.

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The news these days from the African country of Zimbabwe is grim. Let the facts and the figures speak. On a single date just last week -- March 4, 2004:

The Bush administration announced new sanctions.

Zimbabwe's ruling government, headed by 80-year-old president Robert Mugabe, denied allegations by the BBC that teenage boys and girls are being trained in violence against members of Zimbabwe's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

A "Political Violence Report," issued by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, detailed the intimidation, assault, unlawful arrest, abduction, torture, and attempted murder of MDC supporters.

The Daily News, a Zimbabwe newspaper critical of Mugabe, was fighting government efforts to shut it down.

And "Enough!," an underground group of Zimbabwe activists, was identified as the force behind the latest weapon in agitation propaganda: condoms.

Grim news but perhaps no news to Neely Tucker, the Detroit Free Press foreign correspondent based in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital, from 1997 to 2000. No news because Tucker has seen his fair share of political violence -- all told, 50 countries or territories in his seven years spent overseas: Poland, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Congo, Iraq, Rwanda, southern Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, Nigeria, Kenya, to name a few. "I could cover almost any horror but felt very little about anything at all," Tucker writes in the prologue of his new book, Love in the Driest Season (Crown).

"Felt very little" until Tucker and his wife, Vita, entered a Harare orphanage set in an industrial slum. There they met Chipo, an infant who'd been left to die in the countryside. Chipo's weight at three months: four pounds, 12 ounces, and falling. Her dire condition: malnutrition, diarrhea, dehydration, troubled breathing, rapid heartbeat, and bouts of pneumonia. The possible cause for Chipo's problems, assumed by the staff of the overcrowded, underequipped, unsanitary children's home: complications from AIDS.

Tucker and his wife decided to act, first by foster-parenting Chipo, then by trying to adopt her. The bureaucratic red tape, spread over 18 maddening months and stretching from social workers to government ministers, is a major component of Tucker's memoir. A second component: Tucker's growing unwillingness to search the globe for worst-case scenarios. A third: Tucker's marriage -- a husband, from Mississippi, who is white and a wife, from Michigan, who is black. A fourth: Tucker's upbringing amid family tensions in the post-'60s Deep South.

It's a moving, multifaceted, multigenerational story, based on a feature article Tucker wrote in 2000 for his current employer, The Washington Post. Still, Love in the Driest Season -- written in the space of 90 days inside his parents' home near Starkville, Mississippi -- was, he said, "like opening a vein." Here's what he recently, by phone, told the Flyer. (Background sounds courtesy of Chipo at play with a pet terrier.)

The Flyer: Do you still keep tabs on Zimbabwe? Do most Americans have any idea what's going on in that country, that journalists are being labeled "enemies of the state"?

Neely Tucker: In terms of U.S. news screens, Zimbabwe is barely a blip on the radar. But according to the wires, after the U.S. announced new sanctions, Jonathan Moyo, Zimbabwe's information minister, said basically the U.S. can go to hell. So I do keep an eye on what's happening. My wife and I still have friends in Zimbabwe. But communication is difficult. It's not exactly impossible for outside reporters to get in, but it's very close to impossible. What you're left with is anecdotal information. The problem of the orphans continues.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum reports that "youths" are often the perpetrators of the violence against opponents of Mugabe. Is the government exploiting Zimbabwe's orphans?

A lot of it comes down to if you want to eat. Even getting food into the country is a tug of war. The government wants food flown in, but they want to distribute it and only give it to their political supporters. As for the future, what happens 10, 15, 20 years from now when these orphan boys grow up to be 25-year-old men without families, without much education, without jobs? It's not a promising picture.

And after Mugabe?

Man, I wish I had that crystal ball. If anyone had outlined four or five years ago that inflation in Zimbabwe would be over 1,000 percent, that there would be a complete takeover of white farms, that there would be international sanctions, that Zimbabwe would be drummed out of the Commonwealth, no one would have taken that seriously. Time was, Robert Mugabe was thought to be a more sophisticated, more eloquent leader than, say, Daniel Moi, former president of Kenya. Unfortunately, that happens not to be true.

The future of Zimbabwe depends on how Mugabe goes. If he turns over power to a member of his party, that'll be one thing. If he dies while in office, it's likely to be chaotic. In a free and fair election, the majority would vote MDC.

You write, "[As a young man] I had the working idea that there was a higher form of truth to be found in the world's most impoverished and violent places, a rough-hewn honesty that could not be found elsewhere." Do you still believe that?

I certainly did then, and at the wise old age of 40, I know in some ways it's still true. It's what was most compelling about reporting on such situations. I don't report on them today. There are risks you have to accept. I choose now not to volunteer. I'm a dad.

But do you miss eye-witnessing world conflicts?

I do, but I'm not conflicted. My favorite part of the day is reading to Chipo at bedtime. I know as a correspondent, from having done those jobs, I'd be gone 50 to 60 percent of the year. That's half my daughter's life.

The main thing is for people to pay attention, to recognize that these world events are important, critically important.

How is Chipo doing these days?

As you've heard behind me, she's perfectly healthy. She's a rambunctious 5-year-old. But she knows her story. She knows she was adopted. She knows she was born in Zimbabwe. There are no secrets here.

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