Who is Anna Tibaijuka? And Why Did She Make Headlines as One of Twenty “Black Women to Know”?

This post is the FIFTH in a series of mini-biographies that chronicle the power of the memoir. Some of the stories are great and inspiring; some are tragic and teachable; some are about ordinary people just like you. Maybe after reading them, you’ll consider writing your memoirs.

India is famous for many things: rich curries, decadent sandalwood, gorgeous silks … and yes, slums. Slumdog Millionaire (2008) helped shed light on life in India’s slums with its Bollywood-tinged rags-to-riches plot line and nod to popular American TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, Slumdog was by all accounts successful.

Far fewer people are talking about Africa’s slums. Almost under the international radar, in 2005 Zimbabwean President Mugabe implemented Operation Murambatsvina (literally, Operation Drive Out Rubbish), also known as Operation Restore Order. As its dual names might suggest, the campaign was part of a large-scale effort to forcibly clear out slums across the country—completely disregarding the millions of nationals who would be and were displaced.

Today the United Nations estimates that as many as 2.4 million Zimbabweans directly or indirectly suffered from a loss of home and/or livelihood. Government officials say the operation was intended to curb illegal squatting and the transmission of infectious diseases like tuberculosis, but the relocation of thousands to cramped holding centers only increased the prevalence of both TB and AIDs. To top it off, Zimbabwe’s doctors fled the nation in droves after unsuccessfully striking for higher salaries to compete with out-of-control inflation. Suffering conditions “far worse than the demolished shanty towns,” more than one-third of the population became dependent on food aid and life expectancy plummeted to 33 years.

Further fueling the “humanitarian nightmare” of Operation Restore Order were rumors that the government’s motivations may have been far darker and more corrupt than a simple “spring cleaning.” Zimbabwe’s urban and rural poor comprised a large percentage of the oppositional constituency that threatened President Mugabe’s long reign, introducing a vulnerability that had to be crushed.

In June of 2005, the secretary general appointed Anna Tibaijuka, professor and UN delegate, as his special envoy to study the impact of the Zimbabwean government’s campaign. After two weeks in the field, Tibaijuka concluded that “while purporting to target illegal dwellings and structures and to clamp down on alleged illicit activities, [the operation] was carried out in an indiscriminate and unjustified manner, with indifference to human suffering.” The report was of course censored in Zimbabwe and plans to launch a flash appeal all but silenced. Mugabe disputed Tibaijuka’s findings, insisting that a mere 2,000 people had been affected by his evictions.

Anna Kajumulo Tibaijuka (1950) was born to coffee and banana farmers in Tanzania. After graduating college in Sweden, she earned three doctorates and was the recipient of several more honorary degrees. Until 2010, she was the second-highest-ranking African woman in the UN system. Her resignation was inspired by her desire to run for political office in Tanzania. Tibaijuka won, and currently serves as a member of the Tanzanian Parliament.

Meanwhile, in 2008, Valerie Tagwira, a Zimbabwean medical doctor and author, published her debut novel The Uncertainty of Hope. The story is set in Mbare, Harare, where its characters struggle in the aftermath of Operation Murambatsvina. Check it out for a more personal (albeit fictionalized) encounter with Zimbabwean unrest.