This spurred the most profound jumbled memories so much so that I sought out picture albums from my last trip to Zimbabwe.
My relationship with Zimbabwe started when my first love was accepted to study medicine at Parirenyatwa Hospital within the University of Zimbabwe. We had been studying at the University of Guelph since September of 1980. The Monday after Valentines day 1981 she called me at 6 am. requesting that I meet her on the lower level of the library. She informed me that her father had called telling her that she was admitted to medical school in Zimbabwe. He had a post there running the school that trained Zimbabwe’s diplomats. With this news I felt as if my life had stopped and all around us silent and still. She asked me, “what should I do?” I was 18, she was 20. The only woman I have ever competed for, she who finished me as a man more than any other woman ever has. We were all there studying, thrusting towards our ultimate dreams. What right had I to stand in her way. I told her, “Go for it.” She called her father shortly after and by the 28th of February she was gone. My life imploded and I discovered a truth about myself that I never believed possible. I was in love and lost without her. Ours was that perfect love that I never really felt that I deserved. I was naturally mercenary in my pursuit of the life that I was committed to until that point.
I spent 4 years bound to a long-distance relationship that tethered me to Zimbabwe while studying at the University of Guelph and then my second degree at Carleton University. Phone calls, letters well before the internet, attempting to bend time and space. I studied its history and remembered news items of its struggles but it was not until December of 1983 that I decided to make the trip. All my reading about Zimbabwe and its transition from Rhodesia remained inspiring yet as one could imagine it was so pale in comparison to what I would see and experience when I arrived. I received some C$6,000 from student loans and grants. More than enough to afford the C$2,000 air fare.
Having to travel to a country where I knew only one person I thought it prudent that I should make other contacts before my trip so I walked into the Zimbabwe High in early May of 1984 and met a gentleman by the name of Michael Zinyama (Financial Commissioner) then ushered to meet their Information Attaché, Francis Nhema, the youngest diplomat in Canada at that time. Francis was warm, articulate and flavoured with a certain eclectic sense of finesse. He was happy to make my acquaintance and without question he offered me his family contacts and access to his apartment in Avondale walking distance from the medical school. After my trip Francis became my life long friend. Francis knew my first love’s father well as he ran the school that trained Zimbabwe’s diplomats. Her father, E. M. Debrah now holds the Star Of Ghana, I understand that he was colonial Africa’s first Diplomat.Kwame Nkruma was as her Uncle and Sally Mogabe was her cousin.
I arrived in May of 1984. She met me as I came through the doors from customs and immigration and whisked me to a waiting bus. Traveling towards Harare I felt as if I was taken through to a time in my past. The homes looked very much like my Aunt Pru’s home. Aunt Pru’s home was my first home as an infant having stayed there for my first 6 months before moving to my parents’ home in rural Jamaica. The connection to Zimbabwe’s architecture and its landscape though flatter than Jamaica’s it seemed quite relative.
I noted Zimbabweans to be remarkably polite people very loving and dedicated to pleasant and peaceful life. I learned that they are ultimate survivors with the soul of Africa so fervently flowing through their veins. Before independence military trucks would turn up at homes where children were about to turn 14. They would be given a choice whether to jump in the back of the trucks to be trained as soldiers for Rhodesia or be killed on the spot. The children who could not or would not serve Rhodesia had no choice but to run to refugee camps in Zambia and join the resistance movement. Rhodesia established the Selous Scouts, Rhodesia’s special forces who hunted and slaughtered Africa children who trekked hundreds of miles through the bush to get to Zambia. They were fired upon by helicopters and planes. I heard stories of many who hid behind trees only to have the bullets tear through the trees ripping their bodies apart. The Rhodesian government bought Auschwitz like ovens from Germany where they reduced 600,000 to 800,000 of Africa’s children to ashes.
In 1984 the leader was Bishop Muzorewa, Banana was the President and Robert Mogabe was transitioning towards becoming the Prime Minister. I arrived months after Robert Mogabe became Prime Minister. While we walked through Harare I saw a purse snatcher swift and true to his art running with a ladies purse. A female police office apprehended him and another officer attended dressed in their Khaki uniforms the suspect was not beaten. He was not shot. He was held and respectfully directed to what I felt would have been a justice system. There were huge pictures of Mogabe about the square. Life seemed quietly peaceful and pleasant.
While in Zimbabwe I met the most powerful man that I have ever known. His name was Ali Sykes, a wealthy Tanzanian and the father of a friend of mine. He moved in elite circles and bought a home next to Ian Smith’s Home. The home was so massive and with cathedral ceilings, the servants quarters was a spacious 3 bedroom bungalow. He was well connected to the leaders in Zimbabwe. He made no secret of the fact that his home was larger than Ian Smiths. There was a botanical park 5 minutes walk from Mr. Sykes where there were prominent signs stating that there was to be no admittance to Africans or animals. The same was posted on public washrooms and even above the entrance to the hospitals. People simply ignored the signs at that point.
Rhodesia was designed to benefit a couple of hundred thousand whites with East Indians as a buffer race with the Coloureds and 10 million Africans suppressed as an under class. High density areas were created where Africans would live compressed and oppressed. Mogabe inherited the tremendous challenge to transition such a system to benefit all its citizens equitably. Mega farms had been created by displacing millions of Africans destroying their villages and their histories dispatching them to high density areas. Even though repatriating land to African elites meant reducing harvests I believe it was necessary to establish an active intent to return Africa’s land to its people.
During my second trip I visited the high density area that Francis had lived in as a boy. His Tete’s (his father’s sisters) still lived there. The home of one Tete was shared by her husband, her son and his pregnant wife. The home was tiny, maybe 400 square feet. There were thousands of these little homes broken, shabby and coloured with dirt.
Francis had his friends took me day by day to see and experience their histories of Zimbabwe. Michael Munyati was hailed as Zimbabwe’s Phil Donahue offered another enlightened tour. He took me to his high density area where there was an old tattered open shopping area much like a basic plaza and not far from there was a market. He was hailed by a woman who shared a childhood with him. She had a baby on her hip and introduced us to her. She said that her boyfriend gave her this baby and that though they no longer were together she would forever respect him for this cherished gift of their baby.
A brand new SUV slowed and stopped by us. A young man popped out and greeted Michael. He was well dressed sharp and true. He was a Zanu PF child soldier during Rhodesia. The Rhodesians discovered that he was an operative and when his parents and siblings refused to give him up they slaughtered them all one by one. He was alone then. Facing his freedom alone.
Robert Mogabe didn’t just inherit Zimbabwe, he fought for it, suffered for it and even more importantly he loved his people and planned for their evolution towards independence and freedom. Mogabe had been a teacher holding the value of education most dear. In 1984 I saw so many schools that had been created for children and adults. A people disadvantaged by Rhodesia’s apartheid now were privileged to learn and grow while building their country towards a new dream. Many whites ran back to Europe leaving homes that now accommodated upwardly mobile Africans.
When returned to Canada, my relationship with this first love of mine slipped from my grasp, It was as if I was shattered and I felt that I would never be whole again. Francis became a very good friend. Through him I was welcomed to the African Canadian diplomatic community. Having been considered a brother I was welcomed to their homes. I attended their parties. Their children called me uncle. I had great insight into their lives, their histories and their perspectives.
Francis and I made a pact that should either of us marry first the other would travel to attend the wedding. Francis married first and his bride would be Louise Nkomo, the daughter of the legendary leader of the freedom fighter political party Zapu (Zimbabwe African Peoples Union). Louise is a beautiful soul, strong articulate yet truly feminine.
I was invited as Francis’ best man. The wedding lasted a week and I had the opportunity to meet and dine with Robert Mogabe on several occasions. His presence was tremendously understated. He was pleasant stately courteous a remarkably articulate orator. He spoke with a calm firm voice denoting a soothing authority. He was an all around dynamic human being given that he is considered deserving of the criticism that he had earned.
I was impressed that not too many years before that point and well after independence Nkomo had displeased Mogabe and the 5th Brigade was sent to Bulawayo the southern Capital to destroy Nkomo. Some 5,000 people were slaughtered. Yet in later years Mogabe forgave him and invited him to be his Vice-President. They forgave each other for the sake of Zimbabwe’s future.
During this period Zimbabwe was still under attack by white Rhodesians who would bomb public sites frequently. On one occasion two Rhodesian terrorists attacked Zimbabwe’s two military jets and destroyed them. They were surprised that Mogabe had them arrested and treated to Rhodesian style torture.
What impressed me most was that Mugabe’s ZANU PF (Zimbabwe African National Union’s Peoples Front)extended forgiveness to the Rhodesians when he took power. Many stayed because even though they had lost their white privileged status their lives were easier than if they should return to Europe. Many of the ministers in Parliament were white. Many white heads of ministries were retained. It was explained to me that they were the best at their jobs so it made sense to keep them. There were some skirmishes between retired Rhodesian soldiers and retired Zanu PF combatants but for the most part there were tremendous efforts to blend Zimbabwe military forces with not only Zanu’s 5th Brigade (North Korea trained) and other rebel forces. The child soldiers as usual lost out being relegated to civilian life that they were ill prepared for. I remember seeing white privates moving about. A bit unusual for an African country.
I had the pleasure of spending an evening on Zimbabwe’s commando base hanging out with their most elite soldiers. At that time they were being deployed in Mozambique harassing the MNR. I found these guys to be the most quiet, peaceful, pleasant gentlemen. One of their officers was standing by the bar with a young man who he introduced to me as his young brother. The commando was crying as he introduced him to me. He said between his tears of overwhelming pride “This… is my young brother… he was born in my hands… he graduated from university today”. He wept with such joy and pride. This was one of the most important gifts that Robert Mogabe gave to Zimbabwean’s.The young brother was the first person to have a university education in that soldier’s family.
I met another commander, one of their officers. He was a 5th Brigade commander trained by North Korea and the man Mogabe sent to Bulawayo to go after Nkomo back in the day. I was told he had personally killed hundreds of civilians during that campaign in a diabolical rampage. He swore never to drink again. On the head table at Francis’ wedding, there were four men who drank only freshly squeezed orange juice. Robert Mogabe, Joshua Nkomo, Francis Nhema (the Groom) and I.
Robert Mogabe is truly an example of a man who shaped his country with remarkable thoughtfulness.
I was there when he first took the reins of his country from the Rhodesians in 1984. I was 21 years old and more an idealist than I am today. I saw dreams in the making and drew refreshing hope with every breath.
I am not suggesting that Mugabe didn’t benefit from many millions of dollars grafted from presidential influence. Or that he is not responsible for ordering the death and torture of countless Rhodesians and Zimbabweans. But as an African leader he was one of the few that were educated only in Africa. However, in my humble opinion never will there be another leader in Zimbabwe that was responsible for redistributing income, property and education as he did.
I read a bit today that I felt was so unjust. It read, “ he freed Zimbabwe so that he could destroy it.” Zimbabwe still lives. Changed, molded, more equitable, enhanced, evolved, poised for a future. Many people look at countries like Canada, America, Britain and France and they forget their histories of battles and leaders that made hard choices, others that exploited resources for their own benefit. Leaders are people too. There are none that are totally honest, decent, trustworthy. None that are totally evil. In my opinion Mogabe had his vices, he did yield to the narcotic toxicity of absolute power, but I believe him to have been an awesome leader and a decent human being, flawed and exceptional.
It is interesting that I visited his crypt during my 2nd trip 27 years ago. I wonder if they will still bury him there. Please find attached a few pictures.