By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee
What I remember of Zimbabwe is a beautiful country where I met and interacted with many nice and friendly people, and discovered our common humanity. What a pity that even post Mugabe the politics has not been able to salvage the country
“Several years later, in 2000 in fact, I felt a shudder when I read that a journalist from the Daily News had been arrested and imprisoned (and later died in custody, presumed to have been murdered) after he had reported on a Christmas shopping spree by the First Lady of Zimbabwe at Harrods in London. According to reports, she had travelled in the presidential plane with a retinue, and had spent 36000 pounds, returning on the next day. The irony and tragedy was that at that time Zimbabwe was going through the throes of an HIV-AIDS epidemic which was killing its victims by the hundreds…”
Robert Mugabe, former President of Zimbabwe, died in Singapore on September 6, and his body was flown back to Zimbabwe two days ago. Reading this news and a couple of articles about his death revived some memories I have of encounters with some of its citizens and in the country.
In fact Zimbabwe before its independence in 1980, when Mugabe took over, was known as Rhodesia, and if I am not mistaken earlier it formed part of the earlier Federation of Federation of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (now Malawi). The first time I met someone from there was during my medical student days in the second half of the 1960s in Calcutta (now Kolkata), who like me was on a Government of India scholarship awarded by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). He was studying economics at the St Xavier’s College, and we stayed in the International Students’ House.
In those days, we had a Foreign Students Association (FSA) of which he was the president. The FSA used to organize an annual dinner dance which was always packed, and the president had to make a speech. During one of these functions which I attended, that friend (let’s call him John) in his address made an interesting remark which stuck in my mind – although it was much later that I came to realise its full implications. In a light vein, he said (I reproduce from memory): ‘As you know my friends, every country has a national game, like in England it is football. In Rhodesia, our national game is politics!’
Everybody had a good laugh of course. I don’t know whether this friend (whose real name I don’t remember) went on to become a politician, but what is true is that whenever we got into a conversation with any of the African friends residing in the hostel – and there were many – the talk would invariably end up discussing politics. I had been forewarned about this by a fellow compatriot who was also staying in the hostel. So it seemed kind of natural that John should make an allusion to politics in his address, given that many countries in Africa at that time were engaged in the struggle for independence, including of course his own.
The next time I met a Zimbabwean was in 1992, when I was on a Commonwealth Fellowship, representing the Commonwealth Medical Association, in London. There were twelve of us from different parts of the Commonwealth and from different professions, and John (this was his first name) was the Features Editor of the Daily News published from Harare. We all got on superbly during that one month, and I learned from him that Zimbabwe’s equivalent of our bouillon brede-satini coco was maize flour mixed with mustard oil. And that’s what he went to relish at a countryman friend’s place in Brighton on the weekend we were ‘off’ sort of, while I went to an aunty’s place in London to indulge in Indian food.
Several years later, in 2000 in fact, I felt a shudder when I read that a journalist from the Daily News had been arrested and imprisoned (and later died in custody, presumed to have been murdered) after he had reported on a Christmas shopping spree by the First Lady of Zimbabwe at Harrods in London. According to reports, she had travelled in the presidential plane with a retinue, and had spent 36000 pounds, returning on the next day. The irony and tragedy was that at that time Zimbabwe was going through the throes of an HIV-AIDS epidemic which was killing its victims by the hundreds.
I know, because I had been travelling to Harare for WHO meetings as WHO Representative for Mauritius. In fact, I had gone for the interview for this post with two other colleagues at the end of August 1999. It was held at the headquarters of the WHO which was situated in a wing of the Medical College. I was to learn later that President Mugabe had put this part of the Medical College at the disposal of WHO, because of the ongoing war in the Congo, and Brazzaville was not considered safe. Later WHO shifted back.
The Regional Director of AFRO-WHO was the late Dr Ebrahim Samba from Gambia, who had qualified as a surgeon from Edinburgh. He had a flamboyant, dynamic personality, and was a very good speaker too. It was during one of his interventions that he remarked: ‘When the White man came to Africa, we had the land and he had the Bible in his hands. When the White man left, he had the land and we had the Bible in our hands!’, probably paraphrasing from Desmond Tutu’s famously known quote: ‘When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.’ I wonder what would Pope Francis’s reaction to such a truism.
To some extent therefore I could understand President Mugabe’s angst about the land issue in his motherland, but perhaps another, less brutal approach could have been found. By then I was no longer WHO Representative so I have no first-hand knowledge or experience of the tragedy that unfolded in that beautiful country. Basically the problem was about the compensation to be paid to the evicted White farmers, and it was disputed whether it was the British or Zimbabwean government that should pay, a matter that I believe is yet to be resolved.
But the plight of the AIDS patients was very sad indeed. And on the last day of a regional meeting that was held, Dr Samba asked all delegates to walk up to him and donate 100 USD for an orphanage that had recently been set up about 120 km from Harare for children babies born to mothers with AIDS, many of whom were dying. And he proposed that those of us who were interested could go and visit the orphanage that day, and transport would be provided.
I opted for that trip. The orphanage was situated in a beautiful location, against the backdrop of a huge hill. And imagine my pleasant surprise to meet the person in charge: a lady from Mauritius married to a Frenchman, both of whom had relocated from Madagascar where they had spent their lifetime doing charitable work. As it happened, her sister who lived in a flat not far from the Nouvelle Clinique Ferriere was a patient of mine!
She took us around, and all I can say is that c’était écœurant! She led us to a cot where that very morning a woman had come and left newborn twins. The husbands or partners simply disappeared, abandoning the poor mothers to their fate.
As the saying goes, some things are too deep for tears…
When I came back, I made a collection in the UN system, getting a little over 700 USD which I then dispatched to the Regional Office for onward transmission to the orphanage.
What I remember of Zimbabwe is a beautiful country where I met and interacted with many nice and friendly people, and discovered our common humanity. What a pity that even post Mugabe the politics has not been able to salvage the country. I sincerely hope and pray that its people will sooner rather than later come to better days. They deserve it fully.
* Published in print edition on 13 September 2019