As a young boy growing up in the unrecognized African state of Rhodesia, Tapiwa Kapurura was faced with injustice. He was born in the town of Mount Darwin in 1971, the son of a teacher. From an early age, Kapurura became aware of Rhodesia’s apartheid-style segregation laws, which were designed to separate whites from Africans in all aspects of life.
“We were in a colonial system,” he remembers. “Whites lived in their own space and black people lived in their own space. We had separate schools, separate churches, separate everything. The segregation system helped whites keep the native populations under control.”
Tired of being oppressed and exploited, many Africans rose up against the white government in a conflict known as the Rhodesian Bush War. Violence raged across the country and left no village untouched. Kapurura witnessed many atrocities as a child that have been seared into his memory.
“I remember going to the village where my parents grew up to visit my grandma,” he says. “Somebody had been killed, so his body was dangled below a government helicopter. A soldier was speaking over a megaphone, saying, ‘If you want to be the next victim, then you could be like him. Look at him. He was trying to fight the government.’”
One day, the war came to Kapurura’s home. His mother was outside, washing clothes in the river with some other women, when government soldiers marched into town. They brought a little boy with them, asking him about which people in the village knew where “the terrorists” were. Out of fear, the boy pointed to Kapurura’s mother.
“My mom was pulled aside to give more information about what she knew of ‘the terrorists,’” Kapurura explains. “She had my younger brother on her back. My mom said, ‘I don’t know anything about what this little boy is telling you.’ So, to torture my mom, they started rubbing my brother’s tender head with the butt of a gun until it started bleeding. They said, ‘If you don’t say anything, maybe your baby’s going to die today.’” The soldiers took Kapurura and his family to a nearby camp for further interrogation but eventually released them.
While the war was extremely traumatic for Kapurura, it did not last forever. By 1979, resistance forces overthrew the Rhodesian government, and on April 18, 1980, the nation of Zimbabwe formally declared its independence. Prominent revolutionary Robert Mugabe became the country’s first prime minister, and people were ecstatic.
“We felt like Robert Mugabe was a god,” Kapurura exclaims. “Everything was just different. We felt like we were finally home. Independence was here.”
Thanks to independence, Kapurura was able to live life on his own terms. He swam at formerly all-white pools and watched movies at fancy, formerly-segregated theaters.
“This was an open check for me to go wherever I wanted,” Kapurura says. “I asked myself, ‘Is this a dream? Is this all real?’ It was real. I was so thankful to the freedom fighters for gaining our freedom.”
Kapurura was also a good student, and independence allowed him to pursue his education. He graduated from high school as first in his class on his Cambridge exams, and he went on to study law at the University of Zimbabwe. When he graduated in 1995, he noticed that Mugabe’s government and Zimbabwe’s political system were changing.
“People were starting to mistrust what was happening in the government. We could tell the infrastructure was going unrepaired and unattended,” Kapurura explains. “We started noticing some planned accidents, traffic accidents, of people in the government. The president was eliminating his political opponents. He did not like smart people around him.”
Fed up with Mugabe’s policies, Kapurura participated in protests against the government. He founded a law practice in 1997 that represented clients from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a party that despised the regime’s increasing corruption and violence.
Along the way, Kapurura married in 1998, had a child, and continued advocating for the rights of those who opposed the government.
Unfortunately, Kapurura’s work put a target on his head. His name was featured on television as someone who needed to be detained for standing against the regime. He also received death threats over the phone, with one man cackling, “You think you’re safe? Haha!”
Then, a few days after he attended a party with members of the MDC, Kapurura made a disturbing discovery.
“I found a blue envelope with no stamp or return address in my mailbox. Someone had come into my yard during the night and dropped it in,” he says. “I opened the envelope and found a handwritten letter that said, ‘You are no longer safe. You can keep running, but you cannot hide.’”
Fearing for their lives, Kapurura and his family immigrated to the United States in November 2000. They flew to Dallas, Texas, where his wife gave birth to twins. Kapurura and his wife immediately began adjusting to life in their new home.
“We suddenly had three small kids,” he explains. “We got call center jobs and trained ourselves to live within our means. We didn’t need luxuries. If we had to turn the heat down, that was OK. It’s better to be cold than to live in fear.”
Kapurura applied for asylum in the United States and his application was eventually approved. Wanting to resume legal work, he moved to Oregon and enrolled in Willamette University, graduating with a master’s degree in transnational law. Kapurura currently works for Multnomah County, using his legal expertise and personal experiences to help immigrants and refugees get settled in the United States.
Kapurura feels satisfied with his life in the U.S. His wife works as a nurse, and his children are pursuing their educational and professional careers.
“One daughter is soon to graduate as a designer, and the other daughter and our son are studying to become attorneys,” he exclaims. “To a parent, there is no greater joy than seeing your children grow up and be smart, kind, and successful.”
Yet, Kapurura remains painfully aware of the injustices that plague his new homeland, which resemble the issues that he fought so hard against in Zimbabwe.
“When I look at the civil rights movement in the U.S., it rings bells with my upbringing,” Kapurura says. “Why is it that some people can commit a crime in which they are found with hands dripping with blood, but there’s no justice? There are different elements of justice depending on your name and what you look like.”