Heidi Holland: Young Mugabe ... The making of a despot





[Heidi Holland is the author of Dinner with Mugabe published by Penguin.]

Robert Mugabe has been cut off from his feelings ever since his carpenter father abandoned the family when Robert was a shy 10-year-old. Had his mother, Bona, been emotionally robust, he might have weathered the crushing abandonment. But she was fanatically religious, having arrived at the Catholic mission station near Harare, where Mugabe and his siblings grew up, with hopes of becoming a nun.

Although she had struggled with faith-based issues throughout her married life, Bona fell apart after the death of Robert's much-loved older brother, Michael, in 1934. "That was a terrible blow," Zimbabwe's octogenarian president told me, in a rare interview at State House, Harare, last December. "It was poisoning, and Father Jerome O'Hea (the village's Anglo-Irish headmaster, who became Mugabe's surrogate father) was very sad. He thought this boy was a genius. He was very bright, very bright intellectually. And also very athletic, which I wasn't. It was a sad loss."

Revealingly, 84-year-old Mugabe – the despot whose uncontrolled rage has steadily destroyed Zimbabwe – describes Michael's death as if he were his 10-year-old self, watching a trauma so disturbing that he still recalled it as if it had happened yesterday. "In those days, we used to be given some poisonous stuff to spray on grass to kill locusts," he told me. "Michael possibly went into an auntie's room and fetched a gourd that had held poison and used it to drink water. That's what the person who was with him said he did.

"When he came home, having run there from seven miles away because the poison was working and he was very athletic, he was flat [on the floor] and my grandfather said, 'What's wrong with you?' And Michael said, 'My tummy, my tummy, my tummy.'"
Sitting in his sparsely furnished office, immaculately groomed in a dark suit and red silk tie, his soft voice barely audible at times, Mugabe goes into detail about his brother's death over seven decades ago...


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