DOMBOSHAVA, Zimbabwe — Four grandmothers wearing bright yellow headscarves, T-shirts and skirts huddled around a cellphone in Zimbabwe’s rural Domboshava area. They cackled at a video showing a troop of mischievous baboons ripping up ruling party election posters with the face of the president on them.
With a swish and a click, 64-year-old Elizabeth Mutandwa posted the video on a couple of community WhatsApp groups, and followed it up with some election campaign information from the party she supports in next week's election — the main opposition Citizens Coalition for Change.
The grandmothers say they and their fellow opposition supporters are facing intimidation from followers of the long-ruling ZANU-PF party and a biased state-run media that restricts their options. But they have found a way to counter that with the use of WhatsApp group chats.
“Let’s share this one with our own people. It’s good content,” said Mutandwa of the baboon video, once her giggles had subsided.
She then got up and walked several kilometers (miles) wearing the yellow colors of her party to a rally addressed by opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, the man she hopes will finally bring change to Zimbabwe after 43 years.
The ruling ZANU-PF party has been in government ever since the southern African nation won independence from white minority rule in 1980, and Mutandwa was a young woman in her early 20s.
A couple of hundred others attended the Domboshava opposition rally alongside Mutandwa to hear presidential candidate Chamisa speak.
But with national elections just days away, many more stayed at home, afraid of being threatened, intimidated, or maybe even attacked by ruling party activists for daring to show support for Chamisa and his party, Mutandwa said. Others hadn't even heard about the rally because the state-run TV and radio channels they mostly rely on for information rarely cover opposition events.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power in a coup in 2017, is seeking re-election Wednesday. Chamisa will challenge him again, having lost to Mnangagwa in a very close and disputed contest in 2018.
The 80-year-old leader has warned his supporters against engaging in violence in the buildup to the Aug. 23 vote. That plea came days after an opposition party supporter was killed, allegedly at the hands of ruling party activists, in the first deadly violence of the election buildup.
Even though Mnangagwa replaced long-ruling autocrat Robert Mugabe in that popular coup, he's been accused of weaponizing the police and the courts to stifle opposition in the same way Mugabe did. Chamisa and international rights groups claim opposition party figures and supporters are often targeted with harassment, violence and intimidation.
Some rural folks like Mutandwa have found a way to combat the threats and the media bias they also see, but which often go unnoticed deep in the rural areas where the majority of the country's 15 million people live, and where the opposition's reach is limited.
“Everyone around here knows we are opposition activists, so some people are too afraid to openly associate with us," said Mutandwa. “But it’s not a problem anymore. We talk to them through WhatsApp and they can participate in the campaign from the safety of their homes.”
The way Mutandwa and her group of grannies are using cellphones and the internet to cut through the propaganda ahead of elections represents a shift from past rural election campaigns, said Rejoice Ngwenya, a strategic communications specialist in Zimbabwe. While cellphone and internet access was widespread in the cities, opposition parties previously could only use rallies, community meetings, or sometimes even funerals, to reach rural voters and share their message.
Mutandwa now gets Citizens Coalition for Change information straight to her smartphone. And she spreads the word, too, among the 10 or so WhatsApp groups the four grandmothers in Domboshava administer. She needed a couple of lessons from one of her grandsons to get going on WhatsApp, she said.
WhatsApp and other messaging apps are having a “high impact” in rural areas in the buildup to these elections, according to Ngwenya.
“Everybody has a cellphone,” he said. "They are not necessarily state of the art, but that they can be used to send a message is an appeal.”
The four grandmothers are going up against a ruling party machine, though.
European Union observers compiled a report on the use of state media — the domninant outlets — following the last general election in Zimbabwe five years ago. It said that state-controlled public television dedicated 85% of its coverage to Mnangagwa's ZANU-PF during the election period. Just over 80% of coverage went to the governing party on one popular public radio station monitored by the mission.
During this election campaign, Mnangagwa and his party have dominated TV and radio again, and have also been sending bulk text messages to millions of people with campaign information and notifications of ZANU-PF rallies that Chamisa's opposition party, and the grannies, simply can't match.
Their hope for long-awaited change in their country lies more in word of mouth — or word of message — with Mutandwa hoping, but not really knowing for sure, that her WhatsApp posts are re-posted and shared multiple times. She said people are yearning for change, even in rural areas once ZANU-PF's strongholds, but are still afraid.
“We are not afraid, but we know that others are," she said as she tossed some grain to her chickens in her dusty yard. “At least we are able to communicate with some of them and the ones we reach can spread the word to others.”