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Quotable Orator: Remembering Robert Mugabe

Harare, Zimbabwe  — As the yellow sun came to life, Kutama village also awakened.  The dominant cockerels perched on elevated ground, pronou...

Harare, Zimbabwe — As the yellow sun came to life, Kutama village also awakened. 

The dominant cockerels perched on elevated ground, pronounce the beginning of the day, another eventful day. 

A middle-aged woman lugged a jug of water from the well towards her homestead. The weight dwarfed her effort. Before she enters the house, she offloaded the container aided by her angled right leg.

“Phew,” she moaned in reprieve.

She went down on all four limbs to resuscitate the fading ambers inside the thatched hut, feeding the fireplace with twigs, and there was a sudden glow, peering into the deserted yard. She planted a three-legged black pot on the fireplace, housing dried maize, which would constitute the afternoon meal.

 A few hours later, it will be ready, she knew. Outside, she strolled towards another hut, knocking softly at first, then pounced firmer after nobody answered.

“Wake up guys, its already sunup, you don’t want to be sleeping all day,” she cried. “There is plenty of work to be done around here.” At her command, yawning bodies emerged from the hut, rubbing their eyes, erasing the remnants of sleep.

“You are the man of the house now, young man. If you sleep all day, who will take care of the livestock and other chores around here.” The boy continued to scour his eyes, disregarding her mother’s probing. 

He trudged towards the kitchen, and scooped a gourd of water, paced to the rubbish pit, and rinsed his face. He snapped a thin branch from the tree, munched its tip, and scrubbed his teeth, and wiped his face with his shirt.

At the chicken coop, he circled the parameter, searching for any surviving predator’s trail. Convinced with his examination, he undid the flap, and the restless birds fluttered in a flurry towards the garbage pit to scrap for fresh crumbs. 

From the kitchen, he emerged with a basin of feed that he scattered on the ground, igniting a wild pecking. At the end of these regular chores, he sat on the earthen stool while his mother poured porridge into a bowl.

“Take care of the livestock, you are the man of the house now,” her mother emphasized, as he ate.

“I will mother, but when is he coming back?”

“You mean your father. I am sure he will come back, he still loves you.” His head drooped, nodding glibly, marching stingily towards the kraal.

In the savannah grasslands, the budding greenery was beginning to overcome the effects of spring. Young cattle herders crackled their whips, driving livestock towards the grazing area. The boy directed his livestock, tooting in conformity with the blooming surroundings. 

By now, he knew every beast by name and they all heeded his instructions. His commands had become an instinct to their actions. He had actually named most if not all of them, so he knew them individually. 

His unique whistling style had become a familiar lullaby to the herd. Over the years, he had tendered his father’s form of pride, observing them as they multiplied or perish.

During the drought years, he had shepherded the animals further into the mountains in search of virgin pastures to sustain the flock. When the paddocks dried, he witnessed animals succumbing to painful deaths one by one, with only cowhides and bones as an aching reminder.

Like most peasants, they relied on animal draught power for hard work. In times of lack, a beast or two were sacrificed for school fees. Or other urgent needs to sustain the family.

Along the way, the family bull promptly peeled from the herd, galloping towards the lush green of maize. The herder knew he had to act efficiently, or his family would face a stiff penalty from the village headman. 

Ignoring the sharp barbs, he pursued the errant bull, via the thorny trails, which percolated his feet, but he continued his pursuit undeterred. As the bull attempted to invade the field, he raised his whip and with a single, ringing crack, utilizing his residue energy, he sent the animal into a panicky sprint, to reunite with the rest of the herd.

His daring run had saved his family from the full wrath of the village court. Back in the flock, the bull frothed, rowdy shaking his head in a show of defiance, aware he was spared punishment due to his elevated status. 

The spotless black bull had recently been accorded a spiritual status, he was now a symbol of protection for the clan. And it was to be addressed as a person, an ancestor. The bull was therefore spared from any work, his energy was conserved to engage in territorial and mating battles, only.

Under the hissing tree, the brave boy extracted spikes rooted under his feet. The procedure was delicate, but common which every herder had grown accustomed to daily. A section of his friends appreciated his heroics. 

“The brave one has become haunted,” others mocked his antics when he ran after the bull. The comments agitated him, causing him to round his flock, and he steered to a separate grassland. Alone, he found comfort in his books.

Robert Gabriel Mugabe was held as a village hermit, his childhood associates confessed, who temporarily transformed into a hero, and later an unsettled villain during his finale. From a humble and often trying background, he was catapulted to world stages, becoming articulate and earning himself innumerable palms. 

When he addressed any audiences, people heeded. For his entire 96 years of existence, people often wondered if he ever had any regrets. Did he ever cry, even in secret? We deliberated how the loner became a hardliner, summoning harm to those who opposed his ideals.

Most records on Mugabe have been about his bravado, callousness, heroism and confrontation with his foes, mainly white folks. The late politician originated from a peasantry background, raised by his mother Bona after his father discarded the family. 

His mother struggled to gather food for the family during the Rhodesian era, earning little from back-aching chores around the village plots to sustain the family. The effects of an absent father took a toll on the juvenile Mugabe, who elected to conceal his anger and sorrow in his books.

Reading became his foremost source of comfort and leisure as his family could not afford much from their measly earnings. For school, he was registered at the nearby Roman Catholic school, later receiving a teaching diploma. Teaching ran in the family, with his mother also in the same trade. His forays during the liberation war occupy the bulk of his history.

In 1980, we hailed Robert Mugabe’s inauguration as the first Prime Minister of an independent Zimbabwe. Rufaro Stadium, joy in the prevalent Shona language was the venue. Crowds had gathered from every city for the event.

And more followed the proceedings from nearby, sagging treetops. The mood was rapturous, the purpose was mutual. The Union Jack was lowered, replaced by the Zimbabwean flag.

The multicolored congregation and every facet were well represented by the new floating flag. Black represented us the majority, red for the fallen comrades, yellow for the minerals. Green stood for the vegetation, and white stood for peace. I was aged two then, rested on my father’s broad shoulders. 

We all predicted a novel Zimbabwe. Like the decorated flag, it was a country for all, where everyone was represented, equally. Races blended freely. Liquor flowed in tandem with the unfolding triumphant mood. Bob Marley recited a rendition for us: “Africans are liberated, Zimbabwe.” Liberation had indeed come to anchor on our shores.

Mugabe beseeched eloquently then. “Stay with us, please remain in this country and constitute a nation based on national unity.” The war was not about skin color, it was about equitable distribution of resources. Everyone applauded. I am not certain how I reacted, but I am certain, I reciprocated the existing temperate. Like father like son, I presume. 

Our new leader had a vision for the nation and was affixed to its revival and growth. At least, we were not destined to be a failed, pariah state statistic, similar to our neighbors who had discarded their former settlers. The bespectacled past guerilla spoke like a true leader, overlooking race nor color.

I began school in 1985. It was free. It was exciting. My aunt availed stickers of Mugabe, young and energetic, and pregnant with promise. I proudly plastered them on my brown school pack, ruler and even school books. 

He was everyone’s hero then and he radiated promises for a better nation, in sync with his 1962 vision: “Africa must revert to what it was before the imperialists divided it. These are artificial divisions which we, in our pan-African concept, will seek to remove.”

As school children, we were impatient to be chosen to attend the 21st February movement to celebrate Mugabe’s birthdate. It was a moment for a feast, to be merry, and became a yearly holiday. Mugabe’s name became sacred, elevated, as places, streets were retitled after him. 

Nobody mentioned any other party other than the ruling party, it was a taboo. My parents were invited to a jacket and tie fetes to conclude his excellence’s birthday at exclusive hotels. On offer were cognacs, imported winery, and lobster dishes. 

Every April 18, our Independence Day, we assembled in respective party districts, provinces to observe the day, led by the ruling party. Each family contributed to the cause financially, materially. Or otherwise.

Spurs of confrontation were ignited later in the early 1980s. There were pockets of rebellion around the second city. Dissidents, they were branded. Dissidents we called them. And dissidents had to die, Mugabe persuaded us.

Mugabe pledged to crash any potential rebellion. The tone had shifted. The mood was now sour. Unity was at stake. His power base was at stake, too. An estimated 20,000 were excusably exterminated. We had entered another war phase. They were dissidents bent on fathoming confusion, we were assured. 

But the real recipe for retaining power was yet to erupt, this was just the initiation. And when it did, it resonated for decades under the leadership of Mugabe who had earlier promised to unite us all, and we had naively urged him on.

Grace appeared in Mugabe’s life before her due time, via a secret union, while Sally, the former wife was ailing with a kidney. Their son, a product of the ragging war had succumbed to death earlier, and their marriage remained childless thereafter. Grace was fished from the typing pool, her original married rumored to be on the rocks, her love life was renewed by the elderly Mugabe. 

The firstborn, named after his mother offered an AWOL zest to the aging man’s manly ego. He now had an heir to take over. Two more sons were birthed following a big wedding. By now Sally had bad us farewell, robbing the nation of her motherly humility.

The latest bride unleashed her new expensive taste, earning a moniker for her fondness to shop around the globe. She competed with global celebrities for fashion trends. With her, Mugabe’s youthfulness, almost consumed heavily while immersed in the liberation war was renewed. 

At her young age, she was not far away from controversy, yet her husband stood firm by her side. Though it was early days, we suspected she would come back to haunt the nation, who had celebrated her as the First Lady. Her sharp speech, a penchant for attention, downgrading her seniors, and a will succeed her husband, and many other excesses later became her downfall. And when it came, she had few sympathisers, if any.

When I concluded high school, I had few choices. Either I could become a teacher under Mugabe’s government. Or else I could have been co-opted into the green army, notorious for unleashing fear on voters inside remote villages. Yet, the way he perceived civil servants was sorry for someone who was once a teacher. So none of the above thrilled me. I wanted to become a writer, to write about Mugabe, not for him. 

Or his propaganda media. I craved to resurrect his good, bad, and ugly make-ups. Mugabe was news, he was bad news. He made breaking news, the front page was his dominion back home. Writing for Mugabe was rewarded, writing on Mugabe was a risk, until recently. There was freedom of expression, literally, and police were allowed the freedom to arrest, literally.

Along the way, his earlier assurance of ‘national unity’ became imaginary. Our parents were commandeered to prerogative marathon political gatherings. There, they were bombarded on imperialism, patriotism, and absenteeism could revoke reprisal for the entire clan. Every ‘ism’ was on the agenda. 

“You are either with us or against the system.” Nobody was nonaligned. On return, they were saturated by the political rhetoric hangover, such that we witnessed the torture spilling from their eyes, their lethargic efforts. And mostly their reluctance to accomplish any given political tasks. Pockets of resistance began to twinkle.

We were formally immersed into Mugabeism from 2000 onwards, a period lasting until his dethronement, and ultimate demise. Mugabe became ultra-defensive, either he blamed the west. His detractors. Or sanctions — but never himself. Or his party. With Mugabe, it was always the next person, not him. 

“Our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy.” He enticed his party devotees in 2002. Indeed, terror became the trump card. Farmers were threatened, maimed, and left for separate destinations. Together, the self-anointed veterans jabbed the air amidst liberation rhymes. Together they harangued commercial farmers out of production.

Inside the new millennium, the opposition was gaining a foothold as his appeal diminished. Mugabe was an apprehensive persona, gathering from his childhood actions, and his hate speeches. “We have fought for our land, we have fought for our sovereignty, small as we are we have won our independence and we are prepared to shed our blood,” Mugabe said during a 2002 Earth Summit in South Africa. 

“So, Blair keep your England, and let me keep my Zimbabwe.” From there on, Zimbabwe was riding the land reclamation rollercoaster, sometimes violently, yet often disregarded locally. Homesteads sprouted everywhere, anyhow like mushrooms on Viagra after a downpour dose. 

When mayhem erupted, farm production and exports declined. This process was suitably called the third revolution. Amongst the procession were teens, struggling to graduate from puberty, addressing each other as comrades of war?

Resources were allotted to disfranchise the opposition into submission. Activists were dispersed, maimed, some vanished, while others were hunted to the borders of the earth. The tremors of the ‘dissidents’’ elimination were echoing across the entire nation. In turn, the opposition was disintegrating nonstop to the advantage of the ruling party. 

“Our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy,” the pitiless politician pressed his party supports in 2002 during a rally. His entrenched traits were beginning to blossom, his fist was swayed irately to emphasize what he meant. When he dropped it, it meant someone became a victim, and usually it was the opposition that grieved.

Mugabe often elected to controvert events for his survival. “Our economy is a hundred times better than the average African economy. Outside South Africa, what country is [as good as] Zimbabwe?” Mugabe said in 2007. “What is lacking now are goods on the shelves — that is all.” 

By then, an estimated four million had eloped into foreign lands. Inflation was in quadrillion figures. The diaspora was denied voting rights, yet they remitted substantially in foreign currency to brook the comatose economy. But Mugabe regarded them as a foreign contingent motivated by a regime change agenda.

Because of Mugabe, 2008 remains etched into our family historic account, forever. Not only was there an election stalemate, thereafter a rerun that recycled him back into power. That year, thousands of lives were wiped as a cholera outbreak ravished the nation. Daily, fraught families made their way towards the underequipped health facilities, hoping to solicit any form of assistance that never existed. 

Hospitals were virtual deathbeds, as more innocent people perished, however, the state denied the existence of the waterborne disease. By then, water supplies had dried up across the country, and if ever it came, our taps coughed filthy droplets clogged with rust.

Yet, Mugabe’s security was amplified further to secure himself, his family, and he regularly flew abroad for medical checkups. It was always an eye cataract problem, we were made to believe. But we are a nation with reputable reading ability, we saw the truth, we knew this was another fib. 

Again, he had abandoned us to confront the cholera battle alone, while he sought comfort in well-equipped healthcare facilities in Singapore, and elsewhere. And when he needed our votes, he flew into villages issuing packets of pounded maize, cooking oil, and dried beans. Not even once, did he mention our dearly departed friends and families. And if a soul dared to ask, they were labelled traitors, then parachuted to jail.

As the outbreak peaked, we also trooped to the outbreak center when my mother complained of persistent stomach problems, followed by a persistent discharge. Inside, we prayed for her revival, anything that could restore her health at whatever cost. To access the nurse’s service, one had to bribe their way to get attention from the tired personnel. So I did, parting with a couple of notes. 

“She will be okay, she just needs more rest,” the health worker assured us with a smile devoid of humour. When we left, more patients flooded in, with elevated hopes though, but often their efforts concluded with a sobbing defeat, destined to the designated gravesite to dispose of another victim. You couldn’t blame them, they tried while the state targeted the west.

Back at home, she rested. From nowhere, the bout reemerged. She twitched, once, twice, then she outspread her body limply, and stiffened. My mother breathed her last that morning. Inside her room, confidantes paused patiently for the signal to unveil their mourning decibels. I wiped shut her inert eyes, restoring her dignity on her deathbed. Health personnel fumigated the house and ingested her into a sealed plastic body bag. 

We too trooped to the mortuary to offload her body, and later laid her to rest. Mugabe in his traditional cursing mood blamed the west, particularly Britain for waging biological warfare. “Because of cholera, Mr. Brown wants a military intervention. Bush wants military intervention because of cholera.” Everything was militant with Mugabe.

In his time, Mugabe was an immaculate speaker. He often elected the victim mentality. For his prolonged stay, he was prepared to do anything, as contained in his 2002 statement at the Earth Summit in South Africa.

“We have fought for our land, we have fought for our sovereignty, small as we are we have won our independence and we are prepared to shed our blood,” he reiterated. “So, Blair keep your England, and let me keep my Zimbabwe.” The martyr concept always located willing disciples. Zimbabwe was being isolated by many, and many wished Mugabe gone.

“Only God, who appointed me, will remove me — not the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), not the British. Only God will remove me,” Mugabe thundered. Zimbabwe wanted to change. The world wanted to change. Only Mugabe refused to change, he halted the change. Indeed, as he prophesied, the opposition MDC did not eliminate him. 

The British government was absent. His trusted lieutenants ganged up against him in November 2017. That year, I and others were pleased to see Mugabe humiliated. Previously, he had marveled at our displeasure, secured by his would-be tormentors. I assumed those present at his 1980 inauguration were pleased too.

While he was under house arrest, we assembled on streets to chant for his resignation, we wanted him far away from the throne. All races gathered, just like in 1980 at Rufaro, it was joy again. Protesters carried placards, sounded sirens, gyrated, embraced the army, and the opposition was there, too.

His days were numbered, he remained holed in his residence as the march continued. After days of waiting and hoping, Mugabe resigned, finally. The entire nation exhaled. The despot turned prisoner vacated office under duress from his comrades, whom he had shared everything during and after the war, except the throne of course.

After years of harassing foreign media, everyone, Mugabe had few friends, only enemies who wanted him gone, gone forever, and never resurrect again to torment anyone anymore. He had cartwheeled back to the days inside the paddocks of his village.

Images of the once aptly dressed comrade filtered on social media in an overgrown brown trench coat and khaki pants. Everything about him was upside down for a man who once spoke boldly on global stages. Alone, abandoned, and scared, he finally summoned the world media to spell out his situation.

His wilting frame shrunk into a huge chair, his grey hair sprouted wildly for the first time, Mugabe spluttered throughout the interview. He had relinquished power under coercion, he tried to explain his cause. But it was all too late, his hour was nigh. By now, nobody cared anymore, no one listened to his selfish plea. 

If he had not heeded to them, to us, to the world, why should we care about his forced removal? And why should the opposition, often living in fear, care about him or his family. What about those who only possessed haunting memories of their missing fathers and mothers. Why should they bother about his fate?

“Some of us were embarrassed, if not frightened, by what appeared to be the return of the biblical giant gold Goliath,” Mugabe mentioned in 2017 at the UN General Assembly. “Are we having a return of Goliath to our midst, who threatens the extinction of other countries?” The statement possibly marked his last appearance on an international podium, it was his farewell. 

But his words echoed into reality. In his lifespan, he was a hero in one instance. Mugabe never authored a single book. And his followers cannot extract any formulas but they silently consult and resurrect his wisdom. His antics and methodology are still in use, even when he was proclaimed as a failure, an albatross by his own party.

Mugabe possessed a chieftainship lineage, where succession is only guaranteed through the blood. “Grooming a successor, is it an inheritance? In a democratic party, you don’t want leaders appointed that way,” he claimed in 2016. His refusal to groom an heir returned to haunt him and gave rise to factions within the party, which he ostensibly supported for his political expedience. 

Just like the excluded his flock to another pasture whenever he felt threatened. No wonder his party lacked a clear succession blueprint. The opposition has also been devoured into a similar vicious circle, claiming leadership roles and maintaining them at the expense of their original democratic vision and mission.

After Mugabe’s departure, a new birth dawned. The newcomers promised to act differently. They would reengage the west. And stop all forms of corruption, abuse and harassment. Elections would be free, fair, finally. Everything that Mugabe’s administration had failed to do was on their manifesto. Further, the west’s hostility somehow thawed, likes were blown for the takeover comrades. 

Mugabe’s replacement was entertained at world platforms, offered airtime with world media that had been deemed antagonistic by Harare. For some of us who had lived during Mugabe’s prime, we were catapulted back to that era. His former stature was being revived, and we were ready to embrace the new era.

Until we heard that the new dispensation was the police, the army, and everything. Somehow, the tales that Mugabe was failing to locate an appropriate successor was almost coming true. I assumed Mugabe was apprehensive in his final stages but confident in his initial years, but the opposite was true for his inheritor. 

Once again, the presidential security was reinforced, more than what Mugabe had. I knew Mugabe’s spirit had been resuscitated. I saw Mugabeism all over their efforts. They tried to deny it, but his shadow wafted creepily across the country, though in a different format.

It was a matter of when we would revert to the marginalized states. Elections came and went, Mugabe’s militant mantra still reigned. The weary man had somehow located a democratic vein in his blood, and he was willing to partner the opposition to dislodge his tormentors. Where else could he locate salvation, other than the opposition as his only pastures to accommodate his quarantine? After all, they had removed him from the only party he had known all his political career. 

Mugabe disappeared from the public scrutiny, besieged by an unknown alignment, yet refusing to accept his downfall. The ailing leader surfaced in Singapore, again. Stress overtook him, and he knew how we also felt. The hospital machines he had trusted, when my mother endured nonexistent hospital facilities, could not preserve him. This time he returned neatly packed in an exclusive, expansive casket, befitting his rank.

Nearly two years after his removal, on September 6, 2019, Mugabe passed on. For real. He died of cancer, his acolyte stated. Alas, that was not news, it was just a confirmation, an endorsement of what we knew before. He had cheated death before, once was a bomb blast at the party offices, giving him the confidence to claim that, “I have died many times — that’s where I have beaten Christ. Christ died once and resurrected once.” 

His selection of words was both peculiar and blasphemous, perchance strengthened by his ripe age of 88, twice the nation’s life expectancy, so he undermined the Creator. Unlike Jesus Christ, Mugabe never resurrected, but his demise was overcrowded with drama, as his family and the state clashed over his remains. During the funeral, his wife was positioned by his side, obeying his death wish.

Even in death, Mugabe remained stubborn, refusing to surrender to his lieutenants turned persecutors. Through his family, he spurned every effort to entomb him at the national shrine alongside his departed comrades. Mugabe believed he was immortal, a demigod of some sort, with eternal interests, only curtailed by his self-regarding will. And that was his greatest nemesis, the mistake by the majority of African leaders. 

Only his will could be done on Zimbabwe. With the passage of time, he was convinced the country belonged to him, alone, a private investment. He could charter it wherever he wished, without the nation’s consent. For four decades, his will prevailed, even attempting to rule from the grave. Grace Mugabe, his second wife was once convinced his husband could reign forever.

It was a statement upon statement on his death. “He will be buried in a mausoleum being constructed at the national shrine,” the state proposed. Later, his family announced new plans to preserve him among fellow chiefs in his village. Either way, Mugabe was always at the epicenter, both in life and death, always fermenting controversy. From the blue, his wife decided he would be buried at the village, against earlier agreements. 

The convoy departed the blue roof, his official residence, destined for Mugabe’s boyhood village, where he had socialized with friends and foes, perfecting his recluse lifestyle. A fortified bunker awaited him. Thick, solid concrete slabs were cast to ingest the man who had defied everyone, all except death.

In the plains of Kutama village, the cattle herders’ elongated whips still snap. Years after Mugabe left his home, he is now back, forever, and embraced by the earth that once ingested his umbilical cord and the soil that preserved his herd. Inside his tomb, alone, nobody will interrupt him, not even his spoilers.

While he is gone, his beliefs are still in effect, his apprentices slyly resurrect his philosophies, conveniently denying him the credit. Others are still missing Mugabe, a man who on one occasion equated his deeds to Hitler, after what he did, and failed to do. Death, the unassailable equalizer silenced Mugabe, nonetheless, his two-pronged legacy lives on. —  Kalahari Review 

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