The leader who shouldn’t have been: Part 1

These musings shall feature extracts from an article written by Percy Zvomuya on the New Frame.

About a kilometre from State House – the official residence of the Zimbabwean president, where Robert Mugabe lived until the mid-2000s before moving to his hideous mansion popularly known as Blue Roof – is the National Archives. The squat edifice holds a rambling but fascinating interview that a government functionary conducted in the 1990s with Mbuya (Gogo) Bona Mugabe, the mother of the former president who has died at the age of 95. It is one that might help us answer the often repeated question: What happened to Mugabe?

The interviewer had been sent to Mbuya Bona with the brief to help construct a hagiography of her son, Mugabe, who was born in 1924 at Kutama, a missionary station founded by the Catholic Church 80km west of Salisbury (now Harare). Here, he was also educated before heading to the University of Fort Hare in South Africa. Mugabe then migrated to teach in Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana before returning to join the nationalist movement and later become Zimbabwe’s first democratically elected leader in 1980.

But Mugabe’s mother had other ideas. All she wanted to talk about was Michael, her first-born child and the son who died when he was around eight or nine years old. “Aive nenjere dzakakomba,” she says in Shona during the interview. “He was extremely sharp.”

Michael appears to have died a few days after drinking from a container that had been used to mix pesticides. His death is said to have been painful and protracted. There was another death, of Raphael, Mugabe’s immediate sibling, in unclear circumstances. But it was the death of Michael that seemed to have affected the matriarch the most, perhaps because as the first-born, nevanji, Michael had a special place in his mother’s heart and was the child who, Mbuya Bona, then the mission station’s catechist, had hoped would become a priest.

By most accounts, Michael had been an exceptional talent, not only good at sport but gifted with a fine mind, who like a shooting star blazed through the night sky for a brief while and from whose death Bona never quite recovered.

Robert Mugabe, the third born, suddenly took the unequivocal place of honour that Michael had occupied. His move to the centre as a youngster was hastened by the sudden flight of Gabriel Mugabe Matibili, the family patriarch, to Bulawayo, where he started another family. Perhaps to oblige his mother, then dealing with her husband’s abandonment and the death of two children, the young Robert became forbiddingly religious and assumed a punishing schedule of piety for one so young. It is said that on Sundays he attended mass twice and that he was a regular presence at church during the week.

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