Mugabe and me: A personal history of growing up in Zimbabwe

Mugabe and me: A personal history of growing up in Zimbabwe
From BBC - November 24, 2017

As Zimbabweans usher in a new era, author Petina Gappah considers the long shadow ex-president Robert Mugabe has cast over her life.

Through the crackling static of the transmission came frenetic drumbeats. Then an announcer's voice, speaking emphatically, with dramatic pauses before every word. "This Is The Voice Of Zimbabwe." Then the song that all the township children came to know so well, the closest we would get to war:

"Kune nzira dzamasoja dzekuzvibatanadzo. Tererai mitemo yose nenzira dzakanaka."

I remember vividly the last two years of Rhodesia's war. As children repeating that song in the school playground, we did not know that it was an adaptation of Mao Zedong's Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Points for Attention.

"Be honest in buying and selling, return everything you borrow, pay compensation for everything you damage, do not hit or swear at others, do not damage crops, do not harass women and do not mistreat prisoners."

These principles, translated into the Shona language and set in song, were the code of conduct for the struggle for independent rule in Rhodesia.

'His voice was rich and beautiful'

I was eight when the war ended. It was far from our family in the township of Glen Norah in Salisbury, but the war came to us every night as my father Tererayi Mureri fiddled with our radio receiver to catch the shortwave transmission from Radio Mozambique.

I was with my mother Simbiso when the news reached us that guerrilla leader Josiah Tongogara had died. Her grieving shock was so penetrating that in my confusion, I thought we had lost a relative.

It was through this transmission that Robert Mugabe came into my life, and entered my imagination as the embodiment of the struggle.

His voice was rich and beautiful. I would later come to understand that what made his voice so unusual was that it was essentially manufactured, carrying almost no trace of his education or ethnic background.

I did not understand everything he said, but I remember that he called us always the people, not of Rhodesia, but Zimbabwe. This reminder, that this was a battle for a new country, and a new way to be in the world, was emphasised by the words that concluded each broadcast, "People of Zimbabwe, Victory Is Certain."

Hero worship

Victory finally came after a ceasefire that ended the war and negotiations in London to chart the path for the new country.

After the elections in March 1980, I sat with my parents and younger siblings as Mugabe addressed us again, this time on television as prime minister of our new country.

There was that voice again, but with an image to go with it, not of a fearsome gorilla, which is how I heard the word guerrilla, but of a man in large glasses who wore a safari suit like my father's.

I found him reassuringly normal. Surely, he said, this is the time to beat our swords into ploughshares. We should become Zimbabweans with a single loyalty, to our nation, and to a common interest.

That year, we moved house. In my simplified understanding of the world then, I thought it was purely thanks to Mugabe that my parents were able to buy a new house in a former whites-only suburb that had a library with more books than I could have dreamt of. In my mind, I associated Mugabe with these riches.

I learned more about Mugabe the guerrilla in history lessons at secondary school.

Our O-Level class of 1988 was the first to study under the new curriculum. So we learned that the history of all society is the history of class struggle. The independence war was re-cast as a heroic, historically inevitable struggle between the black socialist majority and white minority capitalism.

I poured over the black and white pictures of Mugabe and other independence leaders. I fell in love with African history.

By the time I went to the University of Zimbabwe to study law, I was a budding Marxist-Leninist. My feelings for Mugabe were approaching hero worship.

Political awakening

Dark shadow


Continue reading at BBC »