Savanna Madamombe’s life is very different than it was a year ago.
Originally from just outside Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, Madamombe moved to Manhattan in 2000, where she worked in hotels and restaurants — and watched from afar as her country slowly crumbled under the authoritarian rule of President Robert Mugabe. She felt helpless, like she didn’t even recognize Zimbabwe anymore.
So she got on Facebook and started speaking out, talking to other members of the Zimbabwean diaspora. She organized protests with hundreds of people when Mugabe visited the United Nations last year. And she live-streamed all of it on social media.
All of this meant that it was too risky to return to Zimbabwe to see her family while Mugabe was in power. Under Mugabe, who ruled for 37 years until last November,police routinely used excessive force to snuff out dissent, rights groups say. Law enforcement violently crushed peaceful protests and arrested opposition activists. Prominent critics were beaten and sometimes mysteriously disappeared.
But last week, Madamombe, 49, sat in her sister’s house in Harare, beaming as the low winter sun streamed through the window.
When a military takeover resulted in Mugabe’s ouster last November, he was replaced by Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former member of Mugabe’s cabinet. Despite concerns over Mnangagwa’s own human rights record, the new leader has taken steps to lift restrictions on free speech and pledged for a more open Zimbabwe. He also promised fresh elections in July — the first without Mugabe’s name on the ballot since the country gained independence in 1980.
Madamombe saw her chance to come home. In December she did, and she brought her activism with her. She says she views this as a moment of opportunity for the country, and she wants to seize it to show people in Zimbabwe that they can hold leaders accountable.
“I know for sure that if it was still Robert Mugabe, I would never dare to do it,” she says, referring to her activist work. “The Mugabe era is gone, and it’s something that can’t ever be allowed to come back.”
Her videos in Harare are all about drawing attention to the ways the city has deteriorated in the past few decades, partially due to economic collapse, but also due to inaction in the city council. She walks through the center of town, live-streaming on Facebook, pointing out piles of trash and crumbling buildings. And she calls out city councilors by name, tagging them in her posts.
In the six months that she’s been doing this, she hasn’t been arrested — or even questioned by police.
But when NPR visits her, she has a broader project in mind, one that she had been planning for weeks. She’s going to First Street, a boulevard of shops and restaurants in the city’s central business district that was once a destination but is now in disrepair without proper upkeep.
Her main focus: Giant concrete planters, once filled with plants, now full of trash and weeds.
“In good faith, I want to plant some flowers, do something small,” she says. “Blooming flowers to me speak of a new life.”
She piles into the back of her brother’s flatbed truck, along with team of mostly family members, and as they rumble along Harare’s pothole-filled streets, she streams a video.
“Hi guys, I know I haven’t done a live video in a bit,” she shouts over the engine noise, greeting her social media followers as they tune in. “Good morning Mark! Hi Jacob. Hi Sam! Do me a favor, guys — share the video!” The views and shares on her videos are routinely in the hundreds. One from a New York City protest last year drew more than 30,000 views.
A short while later, the truck pulls over to a roadside flower nursery, and Madamombe hops out, instructing the staff to pile the truck bed full of flowers. Over 450 pansies, snapdragons, petunias, violets and marigolds are carefully lined up, ready for the journey downtown.
Madamombe pays for all of it through donations, carefully counting out a mix of U.S. dollars and Zimbabwean bond notes — and, of course, live-streams throughout the transaction.
When they arrive at First Street, it’s lunchtime. People crowd the sidewalks, leaning on the giant planters, eating food from street vendors.
Madamombe and her team get to work, jumping on top of the planters, picking out empty liquor bottles and napkins, and hoeing the dry clumps of dirt. They’re wearing matching T-shirts with “Fix Zimbabwe or Die Trying” stenciled on the front. Madamombe had them made at a local shop.
In most cities, this would not be revolutionary. In Harare, it was unheard of, until recently. Any form of protest, however small, could elicit a violent response from authorities under Mugabe. Even planting flowers in a public space.
Bystanders stop to stare and ask what’s going on. They offer suggestions or give her words of encouragement. It doesn’t take long until someone jumps in to help.
Kuda Ndanga is a 25-year-old artist waiting for a friend, headphones in, staring down at his phone. As the team starts to unload the flowers, he slowly puts away his headphones and quietly approaches Madamombe. She throws him a T-shirt and motions to the truck. Within minutes, his hands are covered in soil.
“No one would ever think of doing this, which is cool!” he says with a laugh. “It feels good to be helping.”
Madamombe and her guerrilla gardening crew work well into the afternoon, and she tirelessly interacts with people as they walk by. She hands out her phone number for people to join in next time, and asks business owners on the block if they’ll help care for the plants and make sure to water them.
By the end, the trash is gone and the planters are transformed into a rainbow quilt of new life.
Samuel Nyawaranda, 44, works in the area, and he’s out running an errand, counting coins on the side of the planter. He sees Madamombe at work and approaches her to tell her how much he appreciates it. He says he thinks this is all part of the new Zimbabwe so many people are hoping for, after elections next month.
“You know, when everyone is expecting a change, even the environment needs to be changed,” he tells her.
Days later, the flowers are still there. Madamombe has been watering them every day, with water from a broken pipe down the street. A man who runs a sidewalk stall selling shoes across the street is also helping protect the flowers. He picks out trash and says he wants to make sure the planters don’t go back to the way they were.
Councilman Rusty Markham is one of the city councilors regularly tagged in Madamombe’s videos to draw officials’ attention to protest issues. He says he likes what she’s doing, but warns that Zimbabwe is far from a free and open democracy.
“It’s outspoken, it’s activism in its truest form,” he says. “One of my slogans is, ‘Just ask the question.’ Because people stopped asking the question. Now, if you get stopped by someone who wants a bribe or a fine or something, say, ‘Why do you want it from me? What have I done wrong? Show me.’ No one does that.”
Zimbabwe has huge national problems — a cash shortage, corruption, a broken economy, to list a few. A recent explosion at a political rally for Mnangagwa left two dead, and several wounded. So what can a few flowers really accomplish?
“Forget the flowers,” Madamombe says, shaking her head. “It’s a symbol. I’m hoping this will start a conversation. That’s essential. That has been gone for a long time.”