Mugabe Was a Man of the Masses — I’ve Experienced His Warmth
One morning in June 2006, I was giving a talk to the senior students of the Indian School in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, on our Gondwanaland Expedition, a 25,000 km scientific mission that I was leading from the Indian Himalayas to Cape Agulhus, the southernmost point of Africa, to study earthquake geology and human evolution.
Some of the tired expedition members and students slept openly while others nodded, pretending to be listening with genuine interest. Just as we had finished our presentations, we received a call from the Indian ambassador saying that President Robert Mugabe wanted to see us immediately. Bidding hasty goodbyes to the enthusiastic teachers, we scampered into the expedition Scorpios and sped in a state of excitement towards the State House on Chancellor Avenue, the president’s official residence. As our convoy approached the humble mansion, soldiers, armed for business, flung open the gates and saluted us in.
A Man of the Masses
Minister for Science & Technology, Olivia Muchena, and Ambassador Ajit Kumar were already waiting. The president’s secretary ushered us into the conference room, and we sat on cushy chairs behind a polished horseshoe table. Empty cups and plates were placed before each of us and we eagerly eyed the pastries and sandwiches that were placed in one corner of the room.
After a few minutes, the attendants opened wide the doors, and President Mugabe stepped in glittering in his black suit and tie, a blue shirt with white stripes, gold-framed glasses and black hair that may have been dyed.
A man of the masses, he stopped to shake hands with each expedition member, not in a frosty, indifferent, aloof and procedural sort of a way, but with warmth and friendliness, pressing each hand with both his hands, looking into our eyes, bowing humbly, saying a word or two, and connecting completely.
He sat under his own portrait and the Zimbabwean flag – and we immediately dropped into a free and easy chat. Ambassador Ajit Kumar told him about our mission, and I introduced the team members and rubbed him on the right side by telling him that he was the “tallest leader of all the Gondwanaland countries” and about the geological future of Africa: as the continent moved northwards at the rate of 10-15mm per year, in a couple of million years the Mediterranean Sea would close, Africa would collide against Europe, a new mountain range, like the Himalaya, would be lifted up, and the European countries would apply for membership to the African Union – stirring up a hearty laugh from him.
‘You Must Prove that Man Originated from Africa’
Then the president humoured us with his rattling experience of the M 7.5 February earthquake that had rocked much of Zimbabwe and Mozambique and parts of northeast South Africa. He fell silent for a while as he pictured the incident in his mind and then came out of his trance with a deep breath and a nervous laughter. “Never. Never. Never. I never want it to happen again,” said the guerrilla fighter, shaking both his hands, his face clearly revealing an expression of dread and fright. I imagined the president, rocked out of his sleep by the midnight quake, seizing his money before his pyjamas and starting towards the door.
Mugabe then took over, inflicting upon us his knowledge of the continental drift theory, the evolutionary theory, and the mysteries of life and human migration.
“Your prime minister, my friend, Indira Gandhi, once told me that there were people of African origin in India,” he said.
“The Great Andamanese, the Onge and the Sentinelese in the Andaman Islands,” I added.
“That’s it! How did they get there? There was no need for them to walk all the way,” he said, contemplatively. “You must prove that the continental drift theory is true, and man originated from Africa. If you can do that, all these racial issues, the differences between blacks and whites, will be put to rest forever. You will have served the cause of humanity.”
Our 15-minute meeting lasted for almost an hour. The staff, the attendants, the media – all were so engrossed in the conversation that they forgot to serve us the tea. I handed over the Indian prime minister’s message to Dr Mugabe and he graciously expressed his gratitude for it and said that he would be writing to Dr Manmohan Singh and thanking him. Mugabe came across as a kind, warm and a simple man rather than a dreadful, bloodthirsty tyrant he is made out to be.
What the Front Pages Said About Our Meeting With Mugabe
Dr Rajeev Uppadhyay requested the president to autograph the expedition route map printed on papyrus paper. Standing over the map, Mugabe examined it searchingly and observed the signatures of other dignitaries. “Aah! The President of Ethiopia – he is a friend of mine,” exclaimed the leader, short on allies.
Then he saw where Madagascar was placed on the map and enquired if the country was a part of Africa or not. I assured him that during the Gondwanaland period it was hemmed between India and Africa, and that it was very much a part of Africa. “During our freedom struggle, when we formed the Organisation of African Unity to support African liberation movements by giving military training and weapons, Madagascar refused to join us. They said they were not a part of Africa. Can you imagine! However, later they joined us.” On leaving, the sociable president again shook our hands and patted our backs. Happy and contented to have met a genuine African freedom fighter, we retired to our hotel.
Next morning, Vice President Mrs Joyce Mujuru came to flag us off. She brought along copies of a newspaper that had our pictures with President Mugabe splashed on its front page. It was a more bendable daily. The opposition newspaper (I think it was ‘The Independent’) carried a full-page article on our meeting with President Mugabe, mauling him unfairly, stating that he had issued instructions to the Zimbabwean scientists to ensure that Africa does not collide with Europe 200 million years from now, and had challenged the Indian scientists to prove that man originated in Africa millions of years ago.
The sarcasm-loaded article was making a point that their ‘failed’ president was more interested in something that happened three million years ago or something that will happen 200 million from now – rather than the present, when the country is experiencing over 1000 percent inflation, food and fuel shortages, economic sanctions, breakdown in health and education services, and every conceivable ill in the modern world.
“Mugabe Didn’t Bend to Placate the West”
Not everyone considered Mugabe a devil. At the Mutare border with Mozambique, the lady Customs Officer inflicted upon me an endless monologue on the virtues of freedom. Pointing to a stout, white Zimbabwean taking a speedboat on a trailer to his newly-established beach resort in Mozambique, she whispered: “Good riddance.”
“But they say that because the whites are leaving, your industry and agriculture is in shambles. Is that correct?” I interjected.
“Of course, they’ll say it! Oh yes, they will. We are suffering not because they are leaving. It is because of the economic sanctions that have been imposed on us. We can neither export to nor import from Europe and America. The white race has ganged up against us. Only because we took back the land that they stole from our forefathers. After centuries of exploiting us, discriminating against us in our own land, the whites now say that they are being discriminated against! They want us to carry out a land audit, give decent compensation, then arrange for leaseholds, management contracts, surety of tenure and individual title deeds. Did they do any of this when they took our land? Robert Mugabe stood tall. He did not bend backwards to placate the West. His policies made us suffer economically – but he did not compromise on our pride and respect.”
Wishing the good people of Zimbabwe a less ruinous future, we crossed into Mozambique.
(An author and explorer, Akhil Bakshi is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Fellow of Explorers Club USA and Editor of Indian Mountaineer. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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