Two minutes with: Robyn Paterson

by Listener Archive / 06 December, 2012
In her documentary Finding Mercy, which screens on TV1 this week, Paterson takes a frightening undercover trip with cameraman Jacob Bryant back to Zimbabwe to look for her childhood friend, Mercy.
Robyn Paterson
Robyn Paterson

Did the Zimbabwean authorities buy your story that you were a tourist coming home to visit with her boyfriend?
They largely did. We had a number of moments that aren’t on camera where we had to play that story quite hard. There were definitely some uncomfortable times where we were certainly being interviewed, in effect, by people who were striking up seemingly casual conversations with us, but the nature of the questioning meant we were very aware we had to play relaxed.

You saw changes such as the lack of farming and industry, and the rundown schools and houses. What gave you the biggest shock?
In some ways the lack of people – there’s been such a huge exodus, and a lot of people have moved into the rural areas and are subsistence living. It’s hard to describe the feeling of going back somewhere that you know intimately and finding it exactly the same except as if someone walked out the door 20 years ago and hasn’t done a thing since. It’s a ghost-town experience.

Were there times when you wished you hadn’t gone on the journey?
There were definitely times when I might have thought that. We carried tension with us throughout the journey, because you really don’t know in Zimbabwe where the threat is coming from. There’s a saying over there: “The spider you can’t see is worse than the spider you can see.” It’s not like travelling in the Sudan where people are pointing guns at you, and you know that person is dangerous. In Zimbabwe, it’s more about who you talk to, where you talk to them; you just have to be on guard the whole time. Both my cameraman and I lost a lot of weight while we were there through pure tension – we were eating well. It makes you realise the level of stress people are under and I just don’t think they even know any more that they are under so much stress.

The car ride you take into the rural area in search of Mercy’s family was just frightening.
It definitely was the hardest day of the entire trip, in terms of the threat level and in terms of our emotions.

Do Zimbabweans feel abandoned by the international community?
I think they do, yes. [President Robert] Mugabe gets written off as mad and crazy and all the rest of it, and to some extent that’s true, but he’s incredibly intelligent and he’s been very effective at putting off the international community from getting involved. One of the ways he’s done that is to target white farmers, which makes the whole situation appear to be a colonial issue. What people don’t know is the extent to which things were happening well before the white farmers’ situation came up; thousands of people were killed in the most horrific way during the early 80s when Mugabe was being celebrated around the world.

If you could, would you go back to live in Zimbabwe?
Possibly. It’s hard to say after so many years in New Zealand whether I’d ever live there again. At the time we left, you had to relinquish your citizenship rights, so at this point I’m not able to even if I wanted to. A lot of people are leaving stateless and are having quite a battle to get papers. We had a friend just yesterday who had to flee overnight. He had less than 12 hours to get out, so he has no papers.

FINDING MERCY, TV1, Monday, 9.30pm.
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