Today, I had the honor of speaking with Mdiweni M.S., (*names changed) the great-grandson of one of Zimbabwe's Nguni chieftains, and a fighter in the struggle for Independence. I was welcomed into his home to discuss the battle for freedom, in pre-independent Zimbabwe, current events and developments that he foresees in the wake of Nkomo's death.
Mdiweni's daughter brought me to the house, a cozy respite from the busy city, on the outskirts of Bulawayo. "The lawn used to be green, but ever since the drought it has all turned brown," she lamented. "There used to be a borehole [well], and people from the high-density suburbs would walk kilometers to get here and fetch water." Now, little blue-breasted birds hop between the dry bushes while freshly washed clothes dry on the line.
My friends from Bulawayo, Rose and Linda had told me it doesn't matter if you are Shona or Ndebele, so I asked if it was true. "You tell me your surname, I know who you are," he said.
He explained that there really was a difference in Zimbabwe if one was of the Ndebele tribe or of the Shona tribe. In fact,: for safety, his own family had changed their surname to one that passed for either Shona or Ndeble... Joshua Nkomo, the recently deceased Vice-President and a leader of the Ndebele, was legendary for his ability to bring people together without regard to clan, but with his passing, "We are lost,"said Mdeiweni sadly, "we seem not to see any way out."
During the struggle for independence, Ndebele and Shona worked together for a united, free Zimbabwe, under the leadership of people like Nkomo. Mdiweni told me stories of working with the freedom fighters during the war. They would try not to be out at night, but if they did have to go out, to deliver medicine to the guerrillas, for example, they would dress in karate uniforms, as if they were on their way home from a martial arts demonstration or class. "The police would leave us alone when they saw our uniforms," he explained.
Mdiweni commented that the information network at the time was well-organized, from one end of the country to another. Information would be passed in coded letters or by messengers, and, "we had to be very intelligent about how to pass this information and how to read it." As an example of how efficiently information could spread, Mdiweni related a personal tale. Once, on the evening of December 25th, 1977, he and another driver were involved in a minor car accident on a rainy highway... Four years later, after Independence, at a Highlanders football game, another person asked him about that specific accident - and knew all the details of the time, place and date... But this person was all the way in Tanzania at the time- he had heard about the accident in a country hundreds of miles from the site. "If I was a sellout, everyone would know," said Mdiweni. "This is the danger of being identified as being brave. And yet when it's in you, you can't run away from it."
Mdiweni commented further on the nature of bravery, saying, "Bravery is not right. Because you pay. And I paid for it. I was arrested." During those frightening years before 1980, Mdiweni evacuated his family to Botswana, and remained in Zimbabwe alone. At the time, his daughter was very young, just a little older than Lindiwe is today. "One time they threw tear gas at the gate and afterwards my daughter had terrible chest pains," he says of his reasons for moving his family. "My survival was because of the police. [Earlier] As a gardener, I would carry my produce to each and every police station so they would recognize me," Mdiweni continued. The police knew him only as the gardener with the fresh produce, and thus did not suspect him of being more heavily involved with the guerrilla movement.
In the years since independence, Mdiweni believes the quality of life has declined. "In the past, 100 Zimbabwe dollars would equal 350 Botswana pula. Now it's reversed," he comments, and concludes, "Smith [the white former president] had a bad system only. That's the only thing they should have changed." The decade after independence was marked by a Zimbabwean government as authoritarian as Smith's colonial government. Mdiweni believes that the differences between Ndebele and Shona-speaking peoples also contributed to the country's economic decline, due to the violent struggle between the ZIPRA (the armed wing of ZAPU, the Zimbabwe African People's Union) and ZANLA (the armed wing of ZANU, the Zimbabwe African National Union) factions, which were largely divided along tribal lines. In Matabeleland in particular, there were outbreaks of killing, robbing, and vandalism that seriously damaged the morale of entire communities and effectively silenced the voices of the people.
Today on the BBC and in the local papers, headlines announce that Prime Minister Mugabe will be compensating survivors and relatives of victims of the 5 Brigade, a group that actively destroyed property and murdered civilians in Matabeleland for eight years after Independence. Mdiweni asks why this action is taking place now, just after Nkomo's death, rather than many years ago. "Irregardless of who we're listening to now, the true leader of our country is dead," he claims. "The truth is becoming unveiled," Mdiweni continues. "Now we know who the actual leader was. This is my opinion but I share it with a lot of people who lived through this struggle. He [Nkomo] didn't want the power. He wanted to be with the people."
Mdiweni hopes that schoolchildren like Rose and Linda - and you - will be able to learn some of Zimbabwe's recent history, particularly about the struggle for liberation that he took part in, as well as how Ndebele and Shona have fared differently in the years since 1980. He sighs, then pats his granddaughter, sitting on his lap. His hope is that the past will not be forgotten, and I hope that you, too, will learn more about the lessons of the past as you continue to create the world of the future.
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