Thoughts of Sally Mugabe, Zimbabwe and our Africa

Saturday November 25 2017

Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, with his

Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, with his first wife Sally Hayfron on their wedding day in 1962. She died in 1992 from a chronic kidney ailment. PHOTO| FILE| NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Austin Bukenya
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We only think as we are. That might sound like a trivialisation of the Cartesian “I think therefore I am.”

But what I realise more and more as I grow older is that the kinds of life we live have a significant impact on our thought processes. The reverse is also true, of course, in the sense that the way we think largely determines the way we live and the kinds of people we are.

But speculations apart, you may be amused to hear that, on first hearing of the stunning events in Zimbabwe last week, the first thought that came to my mind was: “what shall we do”? That is from the song by which we in East Africa know and love Zimbabwean crooner Oliver Mtukudzi.

That hints at the way I think. Much as I am fascinated by hypotheses and abstract thought, I am happiest when I can hang my ruminations on specific memories, particular situations and people, especially as they have affected me.

After all, what can I do better than tell the story as my contemporaries and I have lived it? It is from the lived experiences that the thoughts and theories should arise.

Thus, of Zimbabwe, my thoughts moved from Mutukudzi to the few remarkable Zimbabwean writers I have read and to other African literati that I associate with the central African country.

But beyond all that, I marvelled at how much Zimbabwe highlights Africa as just one interconnected country.

This particularly struck me when, in the midst of the “crisis”, leapt a strangely powerful character whom I never even had the privilege of meeting, Sally Mugabe.


We depend a lot on pictorial stimuli for our communication than on voices and texts.

Thus, many of us might have missed what I think was the strongest symbol of the agony of the Zimbabwean “transition”, simply because it was not, for quite understandable reasons, captured as an image for our screens.

We have only narrated versions of how Comrade RGM, in his final hours as President, “cried uncontrollably” in his detention chamber, wishing that Sally were by his side. Now, Sally Mugabe (née Sarah Francesca Hayfron), has been dead for all of 25 years. The fact that she would have been uppermost in the mind of her husband, Robert Mugabe, in his worst moments, would be a research goldmine for psychologists, historians and romanticists alike.

Add to that the reality that the Comrade has, since 1996, been married to Grace Mugabe (née Marufu), one of the major triggers of his downfall, and the plot really thickens. Was the old Comrade realising, too late, that things might have turned out differently if Sally had lived, and Grace had never entered his life? But we said we would relate the events to ourselves.

When I visited Zimbabwe in 1989, Sally Mugabe was alive and well, much beloved by Zimbabweans, who fondly called her “Amai” (Mamma). She had been married to Robert Mugabe since 1961, following their encounter as young tutors at the Takoradi Teacher Training College in Ghana, Sally’s motherland.

I had been invited to Zimbabwe by a Ghanaian-Kenyan lady, our own beloved Ama Ata Aidoo, the famous novelist and dramatist. I had first met Ama in Nigeria in 1977 and she and I had shared our East African and, especially, Kenyan connections. For Ama had spent several years in Kenya, teaching at what is today KU and interacting with all the prominent writers on the Nairobi literary scene of the time, including her beloved “brother”, Jonathan Kariara.

Ama Ata Aidoo happened to be a friend of Sally Mugabe, and I believe Sally helped Ama to establish a base in Zimbabwe when things were rather chaotic in their native Ghana. Ama then invited me and Njabulo Ndebele to judge the Africa Region Commonwealth Literature Prize with her in Harare, when she was head of the panel.

But getting to Harare, I was considerably and pleasantly surprised to find several of my former Nairobi colleagues and acquaintances there, including Micere Mugo, Kimani Gechau and Ngugi wa Mirie. They had left Kenya when the political heat on writers and academics, in the 1980s, had become rather intense. Harare was, at the time, a vibrant new African metropolis and a beacon of hope for progressive African thinkers.

Another treat for me in Harare was the opportunity to witness at close quarters the vibrancy of the rising literary scene in Zimbabwe at the time. The dazzling but utterly tragic Dambudzo Marechera had, among other things, published his House of Hunger in 1978 and Chenjerai Hove, an eventual multi-award winner, was already on the path of his illustrious career. Our own choice for the winner of the Commonwealth Literature Prize that year was Tsitsi Dangarembga’s hauntingly memorable Nervous Conditions.

These were all precursors to the phenomenally successful authors, like NoViolet Bulawayo (Elizabeth Zandile Tshele) and the late Yvonne Vera. A tragic pattern I found among these writers is that many of them died at surprisingly tender ages, Chenjerai Hove at 59, Marechera at 35 and Vera at 40. I suppose their productivity is a challenge to all of us not to fritter away the precious time mercifully granted to us.

Further on the one-Africa connection, I noted that the Zimbabwean authors have had a strong impact on Ugandan writers, especially my sisters of FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association. This has been mainly through the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, in which FEMRITE has regularly participated since the late 1990s. I am almost sure that the discovery of writers like Yvonne Vera, praised for tackling so-called ‘taboo’ topics, has influenced authors like my friend, Goretti Kyomuhendo, founder of the Africa Book Trust.

Should we add one more inter-African connection? Grace Mugabe was actually born in South Africa, and Robert Mugabe, like Nelson Mandela, Gertrude Rubadiri and Charles Njonjo, is a graduate of Fort Hare. As one American President might have put it, this continent is a truly “great country”!


Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]