Author of ‘Beating Chains’
“Rusty has been through a trauma few have experienced. In 2003, the successful Zimbabwean businessman, who ran a safari outfit, flew his own aircraft and had a fishing resort on Lake Kariba, was framed by a poacher, the police and the courts and wrongfully convicted of drowning a poacher. He served 10 years in Zimbabwe’s prisons, including notorious Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison during the Zim dollar crash, with food shortages, no running water and people dying around him daily.”
What was the most challenging aspect of being imprisoned?
One of the hardest things to deal with was going from somebody substantial to being nothing. Initially, I started out with nothing and worked hard to build a big empire. I donated to charities, old age homes and children’s homes – I contributed to society.
I was falsely accused, spent 10 years in prison, and I lost everything.
One of the hardest things to deal with is having your confidence shattered and having to rebuild it. When you go to prison, they crush you. They crush your soul, they crush your spirit, but they especially crush your confidence, and to pick that up is tough.
One of the hardest things to deal with was going from flying high, feeling bulletproof, with money, to rock bottom; from flying your own aircraft to sleeping on the ground – and the conditions in there were tough.
There is no entertainment in prison, no TV nor radio. The only entertainment you have is hard-core robbers telling story after story about how to break into different cars, or houses; or what gangs to join; or where to buy guns or sell illegal merchandise. That goes on 24/7, year, after draining year, and it is tough to get used to.
When you go to prison as an innocent man, the first question you ask yourself is “why me?” You wonder what you ever did to deserve this. I thought that maybe I was put in there to be protected. A lot of farmers were being killed at the time. Then I thought that I may have been put there for a purpose. I always told my kids, “everything happens for a reason,” so I thought I had to walk my talk, and believe that there was a reason for this – which is really hard to do when you are an innocent man sleeping on the floor, being bitten by lice.
Those were the emotionally challenging elements. There was a physical aspect too.
We shared a cell, 13 meters by 3 meters, with 78 guys. Everyone got 33 centimetres of space, marked out on the walls in chalk, and that was your space. We were packed like sardines. We all faced the same direction, and when you turned over, you all turned over together. Your hip bones burn from the pressure and your shoulders ache.
I spent 8 years on a cold, concrete floor. You’re given three lice-ridden, worn-out blankets (you folded two of them to fit your space for cushioning and you lay on that, and then covered yourself with the third), but the cold went through the blankets. There is nothing to keep a prison warm, just concrete and steel. The lice bit you day and night.
We were only allowed one set of clothing at any one time, and we had to wash our clothes. There are no basins nor taps in the cells, just the toilet in the corner: a cement block with a stainless steel bowl. We had to wash our clothes in the cell toilet at night wearing a blanket, and then hang them on the walls to dry by the next morning. For anyone, that would be humiliating beyond comprehension.
In 2005, Harare ran out of water. For three years, the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison allocated only one plastic cup of water to each prisoner a day. One cup of dirty, orange city runoff water from a nearby dam, carried by farm prisoners – to drink, clean your teeth, wash your face, or bath. Some guys didn’t bath for nine months, if it didn’t rain.
I am a very affectionate guy, and not being able to give anyone a wholesome hug for eight years was tough. I spent my last two years in an open prison, and the condition was that you could go home for five days, then spend thirty days in prison, then five days at home again. It was then that I got to cuddle my daughter for the first time.
The only colours you see are white or cement coloured walls. Even something as simple as touching a tree for the first time in six years is significant. I made the prison soccer squad, and we played against a team of officers. I remember being escorted to the soccer ground for the first time. I asked an officer if I could “touch a tree for the first time in 6 and a half years”, and he looked at me as though I was crazy. You have no idea how beautiful and uplifting it felt to be able to touch a tree, and to feel green grass again.
For the first 6 years, I watched over 2200 people die in prison. During the Zimbabwean Dollar crash, when there was no food outside prison, never mind inside, we had a cholera outbreak. In Harare Central Prison, 432 out of 1200 prisoners died in 8 months in 2008 and 2009. That’s more than a third of us in 8 months. It was horrific, and it stays with you.
If you had to replay your experience, knowing what you were going to be going through, what would you do differently?
I was told I was going to prison before I actually went: a political connection told me to get out of the country. I learnt a big lesson about reputation, and I still have mine. If I had run, it would have been a different story. So, I wouldn’t change anything. It was tough, but the lesson there is, remain who you are and stand up for yourself.
If you look at the bigger picture, I was a big fish in a little pond, a hamster on a wheel going round and round in Zim. Now, I am a little fish in a big, wide ocean, making a difference and changing lives. For me, the feedback and the feeling I get in making that difference is worth a whole lot more than the money I was making before. I feel I have a calling now, I feel I have a purpose.
Did you make any real friends in there, who you still keep in touch with to this day?
You make friends as you go, and you make a lot of mistakes in prison by befriending the wrong people. There are two guys I keep in touch with a lot, one’s name is Moyo. He was from the Safari industry in Bulawayo, where I was from, and we spent 4 years in Chikurubi Max together. I got a call last September from his previous employer, telling me he would be out in six weeks, and tears streamed down my face. When you make special friends like that, you never forget them.
What was the most significant change you noticed coming out of prison having been away for so long, and what are you doing today?
The amazing thing is that when you come out of prison after 10 years, it is not the trees and streets and houses that have changed, it is the people.
Technology and social media was something that obviously changed, and trying to catch up with what I missed was mind-blowing.
I’ve been in the safari industry since 1982, and I carried on with that out of prison – working for the guys that used to work for me. I remember sitting around a fire one night, telling my story. One guy felt that it just needed to be told. He flew me out to Johannesburg, I met with people who helped me put a presentation together, and in 2016 I became a motivational speaker.
I’ve written a book as well. It’s very hard to put 10 years into a book, but the feedback has been unimaginable. I do master classes on some of the lessons I learnt in prison, and I do intervention talks. My wife and I are starting life coaching courses as well, which is very exciting.
I am also involved in field guide training courses in Zimbabwe, as part of the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa.
What were the most important life lessons you learnt from your experiences?
Number one is the power of positive thinking. We carry so much in our heads that hurts us. To be able to find positives in all the negative going on around me brought hope. Hope was a big part of getting through there with a normal mind.
Forgiveness was a massive lesson for me. I was angry. When you go in there for nothing, you feel anger, hatred, bitterness, revenge, and it was eating me up. After about a year, I realised that I was carrying all that in my head, and that those who I had wished all this evilness on had forgotten about me long ago. The single biggest lesson I learnt in prison was about forgiveness, and once I had forgiven them wholeheartedly, my life in prison changed. It happened in a day, in an instant moment, and it was amazing. It was an incredible weight off my shoulders.
The next is gratitude. I think we often want too much in our lives, concentrating on what we haven’t got instead of being grateful for what we have.
People do not understand freedom. I wish I could describe the feeling I felt when I walked out of those prison gates towards freedom – it was unbelievable. People do not appreciate freedom. Freedom is not only not being in prison. It is the ability to make a choice and act on it; it is letting go of what you can’t control; it brings forgiveness; it is being free from negativity.
Appreciation of the everyday things is important, like a soft bed, a hot bath, a sip of a good wine, or a spontaneous cuddle from a loved one, because those are the things you miss most when you have it all taken away.