The beautyful ones
A personal reflection, by the daughter of a fighter in Zimbabwe's Second Chiumurenga, on the death of President Robert Mugabe.
That was my father’s refrain when I was naughty. And I was a curious and hyperactive child. So, I received a lot of warnings. I was in grade two when it escalated. My father gave me a single 20 cent coin for daily pocket money. Always. It felt like a fortune. Until, I discovered that I could have much more, from a pile that was on my parents’ dresser. More precisely, I could take more. Without permission.
Hearing the unmistakable clank as I skipped to open the gate for him to drive me to school that morning, he addressed me by my full name. Andriata, come here. I knew then, kuti nyaya yacho yakora. Empty your pockets. There, in my tiny hands, lay more than 2 dollars-worth of 20 cent coins. Red hands.
Ndakarohwa ndikazvirega. For that was the goal. Kuzvirega. Today, more than 30 years later, I remember his exact words. Handina mwana mbavha. No child of mine will be a thief.
Methodical and calculated strikes to my young and supple buttocks. Never again. Bhasop. I wept. The first and last time he ever struck me.
Mugabe has died. Nematambudziko. The funny thing about death is that no matter how much you expect it, or how much you know that it’s coming, it is always jarring. Surprising, somewhat.
Consciously, I was indifferent. But, underneath. Beneath the day-to-day reality of daycare runs, chores and adult responsibilities, I writhed. Amidst the depths of undecipherable emotions.
My father died a year before I left Zimbabwe. I miss him when I am sad. I miss him when I strive. He never used to say much. But when he did speak, gosh. And on the rare occasions he laughed, it was loud and gregarious. Hearty.
Much of what we learned about his war days came through the interventions of senior family members and comrades who visited him toward his final days.
Has your father ever told you about the time he spent weeks in the “pit” for talking back at the muguard jeri?
Dozer, have you told your kids about the time we swam across the Zambezi?
Through others, I learned tidbits about his and some of his siblings’ activities in the Second Chimurenga. In the war of liberation.
About how, as a ZIPRA cadre and political commissar, he had been lured from his base in Zambia to the interior, and “sold out” to Rhodesian agents. Of his subsequent near decade-long detention in a maximum-security prison, on treason charges. With occasional stints in the “pit.” Solitary confinement. Torture.
And, what about Shonga’s detention and interrogation at Matapi cells in Salisbury, together with her oldest daughter, Ever? To account for the whereabouts and intentions of her three sons: Arnold, Robson, and Hudson. Has he told you that story, at least? Asi mdhara, chii nhai?
Part of the disenfranchised and dispossessed black multitudes packed in the crowded and dusty townships of colonial Rhodesia, all three boys had vanished from Mbare or Neshinari, as it was known to the Africans. One by one, in that order.
They left the “comfort” of the tiny two-roomed house they shared with their parents and six other siblings on Vito Street, presumed by both family and state security to have joined the liberation struggle. Correctly so.
About Chiutsi, the second-oldest son, who did not make it back from the war? Nicknamed “Smoky” for the intensity of his dark, dark skin. Disappeared into thin air. Like smoke. Who knows, perhaps his remains lie in a mine shaft. Somewhere. (On page 80 of his autobiography, The Struggle Continues: 50 years of tyranny in Zimbabwe, David Coltart, a white Zimbabwean and current high-ranking official in the opposition MDC-Alliance opposition party, narrates his role as a Rhodesian security officer while serving with the British South Africa Police (BSAP) during the Second Chimurenga war. During this time, he partook, together with his subordinates, in the disposal of a dead black guerilla fighter’s body down a mine shaft, a practice he acknowledges as prevalent.)
About how Arnold met my mom. And vice versa. She, a younger and beautiful trainee nurse at Gwelo hospital. He, a strapping and bearded gandanga sent to the hospital under heavy guard, for near-fatal appendicitis. The audacity of love, huh?
Why, why haven’t you asked him?
I did not know how to, you see. Bhasop. He was my father. My protector. Disciplinarian. Sa Chironda.
The man whose incessant coughs helped me feel safe in the darkest of nights. No vampires could sweep and steal me away. For my blood. My Daddy would never let that happen. You see, he hardly slept. Whenever I turned and woke, I could hear him cough. A sound that tore through the night and his chest. And the reassuring whiff of his cigarette smoke as it drifted through the cracks of my bedroom door. Emphysema. Madison 20, always. His blood. For mine.
Representing Chaminuka house, I came first in my high school’s public speaking and earned, together with my Mzilikazi runner-up, the principal’s dispatch to the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) inaugural conference held at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) in 1997.
The houses of Chitepo and Tongogara did not cross the finish line.
Student leaders from the UZ, Harare’s Polytechnic and the National University of Science and Technology had decided to include high-school representatives at ZINASU’s inaugural conference.
There, I saw Tinomudaishe Chinyoka, former UZ student leader. Way before my time at Dadaya mission, in 1990, he had been one of the leaders who spearheaded the student strikes that led to an intervention by the Zimbabwean National Army.
Something that started as unrest over the bad food served in the dining hall had become much bigger. A student march to Zvishavane demanded an end to corruption writ-large. We, who came later, remembered the students who had marched as legends. Who, in standing up to local injustice, joined a long line of nationalist and historical figures who had also walked and rattled the hallways of Dadaya.
The preceding Dadaya student strike of 1947 had begun on the basis of something just as seemingly innocuous. It was a “protest against the whip; that most conspicuous symbol of European rule throughout colonial Africa [and] female students angered at being spanked responded with a class boycott.” The student strike led then principal of Dadaya, Garfield Todd, to fire the alleged instigators, including a teacher by the name of Ndabaningi Sithole.
It was at Dadaya where Sithole met Robert Mugabe, who taught there briefly after completing his teacher training in 1945. In post-independent Zimbabwe, Todd became more esteemed than Sithole and emerged to criticize the government for its heavy-handed response to the 1990 student strike.
I mustered the courage to introduce myself. He was courteous and encouraging. Be involved, my sister, he said. I was tongue-tied.
And there, I heard the likes of Brian Kagoro. Eloquent and substantive talk about the necessity of constitutional reform and the potential role of students and civil society in bringing that to bear.
I saw and heard many, many others. Many who debated, with great passion and abandon, the politics and future of our country. Our home. Be involved. I was sold.
What a time to be alive. To be young. Unbridled. Or so I thought.
Emboldened by these encounters, during my final year of high school, I sought an audience with Cephas Msipa, then Chairperson of the Governing Board, to petition against corruption and mismanagement of school affairs. One principal grievance pertained to the suspension of three senior “A” Level teachers on the critical eve of preparing for our final examinations. Their alleged crime—inciting student unrest.
After the student strikes of 1990 and the ensuing violence and destruction of property, the school administration had become uneasy. And paranoid.
Plans to meet the Chair had been discussed and finalized with my History classmates in Upper Six Arts. We would all meet in front of the administration building at the crack of dawn and board the 6am school truck into Zvishavane. But alas, none of my comrades appeared for our planned rendezvous. So much for the fervor and unison of our chants during Saturday “disco nights.” That no matter what, we would always be Iron like a Lion, in Zion!
Caught between crippling fear and my general disdain for unfinished business, the latter triumphed. I went alone. Ndakatsvinda. Spick and span in my crisply ironed school uniform—bottle green pleats, white shirt and blazer.
I received a two-week suspension and was sent back home with a letter. For my parents. Insubordination. Bhasop.
Politics is a dangerous game mwanangu, he said to me. You do not know what they can do to you. To sabotage your future. Focus on your studies and upcoming exams first. But I also noticed something else. A faint smile of pride on his face. Fleeting, but there, nonetheless. I was warned but emboldened.
And when the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) roared to life, and thereafter, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), I snuck out of the house to go to meetings and rallies. He had become frail.
Kufa kwangu zvarova. 2000.
Very few of his esteemed comrades turned up for his burial, KwaMutasa. No one fought or haggled over his remains. Over his memory. No ill-gotten wealth or power upon which to pontificate. Or inherit.
Many villagers and distant relatives we had never met came to mourn with us. To share and condole us with stories of his ceaseless generosity. Of his kindness. The many village kids he had helped with school fees. The old woman whose children had left to find work in the mines of Johannesburg in the 1960s, but never returned. How, she was set to receive a pauper’s burial, but he had intervened and paid for a coffin and funeral costs. The piggery projects he had financed. Many stories, hitherto unknown to us, about who and what he had been to others.
I did not view his body. I could not. I convinced myself that I was relieved at his passing. He was a shell, toward the end. I did not want to see the man he had become. It was too hard.
A few days before that. Manheru daddy, maswera sei? I did not expect him to respond. He was not talking much, at that point. Bedridden. I was going through the motions. Salutations of an obedient child. Back home late, from another MDC rally. An escape, of sorts.
Please make some tea and come and sit with me, mwanangu. The whites of his eyes looked so-so white, in the nearly dark room. It was not dark yet. Yes, I said. I closed the door and never went back.
He was “the man.” 2006. Realizing, belatedly, I shook. Eventually, I put the book down and wept. The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born. The tears would not stop. For a long time. Grief. Regret. Nyadzi.
As an insolent child, I had once wondered out loud. Why we “had” to live in an average-sized house and neighborhood, compared to some of his comrades from kuhondo or his subordinates at the Department of Civil Aviation. Many, ordinary public servants who had become inexplicably wealthy in the post-independent years, and were living it up Kuma dale-dale.
(In slang parlance, Kuma dale-dale is used to describe Harare’s more affluent northern suburbs such as Borrowdale, Mount Pleasant etcetera. Historically, prior to independence in 1980, these were mostly white neighborhoods. Blacks resided in these white suburbs as cheap labor. However, with independence, due to newly acquired affluence (legitimately or not), upward social mobility, and desegregated residential laws, many black Zimbabweans moved into these neighborhoods.)
He looked at me. At length. And said nothing.
And now, I get him. I get it. Somewhat. Or rather, I am striving to. Everyday.
As I was reading a few of the obituaries, tributes and tirades about President Robert Mugabe, I wept.
For my father. For the opportunity and moments forfeited. To youthful ignorance and vanity. For the times that I could have asked questions and gotten to know the man. To be more discerning. Kinder. Grateful.
For his humanity. And, for the many, oh-so-many unsung souls, who, in braving and fighting to guarantee that of future generations, gave up elements of their own.