Robert Mugabe’s only surviving brother, Donato, (now deceased) is sitting on an upturned plastic milk crate on the veranda of his house at Kutama, about 100km southwest of Harare, the village where he and his siblings were born and where Donato has remained all his life. He is a large, white-haired man with a lot of laughter lines on his face, but he looks decidedly wary on this occasion.
He and his wife, Evelyn, invite me indoors reluctantly. Huddled together on the sofa, they are silent and unblinking. I am acutely aware that few, if any, journalists have been to talk to Donato before me, possibly because we were collectively not interested enough to uncover Mugabe’s ancestry in earlier years when the going was good, but later on because it’s dangerous to ask leading questions in Zimbabwe, let alone to walk into the middle of the terrorised country’s first family.
Donato begins by telling me that for some years during his schooling at Kutama, Robert Mugabe lived with his maternal grandparents “so that he could be watched carefully by them”, he says. “He was a good boy and he loved to play tennis at school. That was what he did besides reading. He passed teacher training in 1942 but he did not show off. He was quiet and never harsh to anyone. He was always determined. Whatever he wants to do, he can do. He never recognised the word “no”; it was not in his language. He went to Ghana for teacher training and sent letters to our mother.”
His wife says something to him in Shona and he suddenly bellows: “Sally came from Ghana.” Looking delighted at the thought of his late sister-in-law, his eyes stare into space again for a while. “She was a lovely person. It was a happy marriage,” he remembers. “It was a happy time in Zimbabwe.” When I mention Grace, Mugabe’s second wife, Donato nods sagely, offering no comment at first. “She gave him children,” he says on reflection, nodding slowly.
Behind the sofa is the large official portrait of Mugabe that hangs in government offices and most public spaces in Zimbabwe. Alongside the couple on a table is a framed, unsmiling photograph of Bona, the president’s late mother, her unusually elongated head wrapped in a scarf that typifies the attire of local rural women. Robert Mugabe adored his mother. He attended Mass with her every day and twice on Sundays in the years following the deaths of two of his older siblings. Both of the dead children were boys. One of them, Michael, was the acknowledged family favourite, loved by everyone in the village, not only the Mugabes. Donato’s description of Michael’s cause of death as “something he ate” is typical of the bare details on offer, not only because the man sitting in front of me does not entirely trust me with his story but because, in the ’20s, life at Kutama was austere. People endured, they fell ill, and they died. Donato, who was christened Dhonandho and called Donald at school, does not remember how or why Raphael, the second son of the family, died.
Their father, Gabriel, left home after Michael’s death, says Donato. “He went to live in Bulawayo, where he could get work, and he remarried there. He was a very good carpenter. Robert remained cross with him because he would never help us with our schooling. He came back later with three children, and died at Kutama.”
That was a lot of loss for Bona to bear. After her husband left, she became depressed by all accounts. She could not cope alone. Robert, although only 10 at the time, stepped into the breach. Suddenly the oldest child, he became his mother’s favourite. It was he who set about trying to restore the light in her eyes, to be what she wanted him to be. He could not forgive his father the hurt he had inflicted because Robert’s life was so difficult in Gabriel’s absence.
“The other children used to tease him and he became lonely. He didn’t seem to care, but maybe he did,” muses Donato. “Our mother protected Robert from everyone, especially me, but he himself did not fight. Our (half) sister Bridget was the one who fought with me. She was the strongest one – never Robert. She had the courage of a man, not like him.” The Catholic head at Kutama was an Irish priest, Father Jerome O’Hea, a gifted teacher and an exceptional man. He soon noticed the solemn, talented Robert Mugabe and began to nurture him as a scholar and a credit to St Francis Xavier. Donato remembers Robert “hanging around” outside the priest’s classroom, ever eager to help the man (who had probably become a substitute father) by carrying his books or cleaning the blackboard.
Unlike the happy-go-lucky Donato, Robert’s childhood had effectively ended when his brothers died and his father left home. He found solace from the pressures of Bona’s disappointment and expectations in books, not in other children. An introspective child who may have been neglected in babyhood by a burdened mother and therefore failed to develop confidence in himself, Robert began to adopt a lofty attitude towards his siblings and fellow students.
As Bona’s special one in the family and an increasing favourite among teachers in the classroom, he focused all his energy on being “a good boy”. “Robert was always a loner,” recalls Donato. “He was a person who was not interested in having many friends. His books were his only friends. I was the opposite, talking to everybody and even fighting with some of them. I could run fast but Robert could not, he was lazy, just reading all the time. When he went to herd cattle because our grandfather told him to go out into the fields, he would take his book. He held the book in one hand and the whip in the other.
It was a strange thing for all of us to see. When the cattle were settled, he would sometimes sit in the shade under the trees. Sometimes, if our grandfather asked him to get something for supper, he would catch many birds, especially doves. He would cut sticks, tie them with grass and put some soft leaves inside with some seeds. This nest he would put near the river and wait quietly, reading his book. When the birds came to drink water, he could catch them. He was the only one who could get the birds because he could sit very quietly and that’s why grandfather said it was his job.”
Robert was different from his siblings in other ways, too. He loved to be at school even when his brothers and sisters were home playing. Their house was so close to St Francis Xavier College that he could come and go as he pleased. “He used to be very serious and not always happy,” recalls Donato. “He seemed to have matters to think about.” Then came the prestigious endorsement of Robert’s scholarly efforts that was to have profound implications not only for his life but for the future of the country he would lead to disaster six decades later.
“Our mother explained to us that Father O’Hea had told her that Robert was going to be an important somebody, a leader. Our mother believed Father O’Hea had brought this message from God; she took it very seriously. When the food was short she would say, ‘Give it to Robert.’ But he would refuse and say he didn’t want to eat. A doctor (academic) from Salisbury (Harare) came to talk to Robert about his lessons. We laughed at him because he was so serious, until he became cross. Then our mother told us to leave him alone. She believed he was a holy child and she wanted him to become a priest.”
Father O’Hea went out of his way to help the shy child he described as having “unusual gravitas”. With “an exceptional mind and an exceptional heart”, the boy merited extraordinary attention, he believed. Promoted to the next class as soon as he could hold his own, Robert was always younger and physically smaller than his contemporaries. His greatest desire was to please his mother and to earn praise from Father O’Hea. However, the favouritism of two such important adults in a tight community made him increasingly the butt of jokes among his peers, including his brothers and sisters.
As the children teased him mercilessly, Robert became defiant and presumably angry. With his reputation for cowardice well established, he was constantly mocked for having his nose in a book by the village children who had not scored highly enough for ongoing study. As he grew up, Robert got his sense of who he was from Bona, a cold, stern nun of a mother. She left him in no doubt that he was to be the achiever who rose above everyone else; the leader chosen by God himself. She may also have viewed him as a substitute for her own failure to serve the church as she and her parents had intended.
Aloneness and the inability to co-operate are the dominant features in all the descriptions of Mugabe’s childhood. Considering all the available evidence, Mugabe seems to have been driven from very early on by a determination to show those who scorned him and his books, who called him a mummy’s boy and a coward, that he was, nevertheless, the king of the castle – and that they would all have to acknowledge it sooner or later. Instead of seeing their taunts accurately as sibling rivalry and jealousy from less-accomplished classmates, Robert seems to have felt persecuted, bitterly resenting the failure of everyone around him to appreciate his difficult role in a fatherless family.
“He said he did not have time to play and we always laughed when he said big stuff about himself,” admits Donato. What the young Robert achieved by single-mindedly pursuing his studies at school, and for years after he left Kutama, was truly remarkable.
To become one of the most erudite Africans in the country from the humblest of beginnings – with no electric light to switch on at home and read by, seldom enough food to eat, and little support except from those whose ambitions robbed him of childish things – was a triumph of discipline over adversity in the classic Jesuit style. Against the odds, the angry little boy with no friends did become the king of the castle. But Robert’s diligence was also his way of coping with a universe he believed to be against him. Despite periods of contentment, he was to be consumed by distrust for the rest of his life. – The Times (SA).
*Holland’s book, Dinner With Mugabe, is due to be released by Penguin Books this month.