I try to keep reminding myself that Robert Mugabe was once a towering figure in the epic anti-colonial wars on the African continent. These days, it’s so easy to dismiss him as a very senior citizen who really ought to withdraw from public life. Mark you I’m not saying Mugabe is senile. But we shouldn’t ‘nyam up’ ourselves so much over his provocative generalisations about gender politics in Jamaica. After all, Mugabe today is not his finest self.
In the 1920s when Robert Mugabe was growing up in what was then Southern Rhodesia, he was destined to become an obedient Catholic. His parents raised him in the faith and he attended Kutama College, an all-boys high school run by Jesuit priests. But Mugabe did not take refuge in religion. He became a man of the world.
After graduating in 1951 with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Fort Hare in South Africa, he became a lecturer at a Teacher Training College in Zambia. Mugabe then went to teach in Ghana where the pPortian-Africanist Kwame Nkrumah was prime minister.
Fired up by the radicalism of the times, Mugabe returned to Southern Rhodesia in 1960 and became a member of the National Democratic Party (NDP). Led by Joshua Nkomo, the NDP was later rebranded as the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).
In 1963 a rival liberation movement emerged: the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU). Mugabe joined ZANU and was arrested in 1964 and detained indefinitely when both parties were banned by Prime Minister Ian Smith’s white racist regime. While in prison, Mugabe took several correspondence courses, earning more degrees from London University. In 1974, shortly before he was released, he was elected as leader of ZANU. By 1980, Mugabe was prime minister of the new nation Zimbabwe.
Mugabe sings a different tune
As is now well known, Bob Marley was invited to chant down Babylon at the independence celebrations. His song Zimbabwe had inspired freedom fighters. I suppose Mugabe had no problems then with men who sing for a living.
Natty Dread it inna Zimbabwe
Set it up in Zimbabwe
Mash it up-a inna Zimbabwe
Africans a liberate (Zimbabwe), yeah.
No more internal power struggle;
We come together to overcome the little trouble.
Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary,
‘Cause I don’t want my people to be contrary.
Three decades later, contrary Mugabe is singing a quite different tune. His irrational attack on Jamaican men who supposedly sing, smoke and drink themselves into unconsciousness seems completely childish. And the charge can be easily dismissed. It’s simply not true. The vast majority of Jamaican men are not dysfunctional.
Yes, Bob Marley did sing and he smoked a considerable amount of ganja in his time, but the holy herb does not appear to have harmed him. In fact, many artists claim that herb heightens their awareness and creativity, making them ‘sight’ wisdom that they might not ordinarily ‘vision’. True, some people’s head cannot manage ganja and they go off the deep end. In exactly the same way, some people’s head cannot manage alcohol – a legal drug – and they also lose their way.
Quite frankly, what is even more troubling is Mugabe’s attack on Jamaican women. It’s the same old sankey. High-achieving women are to be blamed for the failures of men. We constantly conspire to make young women feel that their success is at the price of their male peers. We do not focus on the many ways in which our school system consistently fails to address the learning styles of boys.
Robert Mugabe is the product of a fiercely patriarchal culture in which women still struggle to be educated. One of the novels I’m teaching this semester is set in Zimbabwe. It’s Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. Incidentally, I didn’t have to resort to sexy advertising to sell the African/Diaspora Women Writers course this year. It filled from the get go: residual benefits of my marketing strategy.
Tambu, the central character in Nervous Conditions, is discouraged from going to school by her father. He asks her a most vexing question: “‘Can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables.’” With the reluctant support of her mother, Tambu plants maize in order to earn her school fees.
She describes her mother’s ambivalence in this way: “I think my mother admired my tenacity, and also felt sorry for me because of it. She began to prepare me for disappointment long before I would have been forced to face up to it. To prepare me she began to discourage me. “‘And do you think you are so different, so much better than the rest of us? Accept your lot and enjoy what you can of it’”.
When Robert Mugabe looks at Jamaica what he sees is a woman who has taken charge as prime minister. Portia Simpson Miller is a tenacious woman, like Tambu, who refused to accept her lot in life as a poor black girl destined for domestic service. Cooking is a vital job, not to be dissed. But men can cook just as well as women if they put their mind to it. Just think of all those male chefs who have made a very good living from cooking up a storm. Their meals are a great pleasure – just like a fine song. Put that in your pipe, Mr. Mugabe, and smoke it!