To some, he was a child of darkness.
Others saw him as a tormented soul, a troubled spirit, one given to frolics with demons.
That was Stephen Chidhumo – the last of the most infamous criminals to be hanged in Zimbabwe.
His many antics as a gun-toting robber still haunt his victims. However, relatives and associates in his home village in Zaka remember him as an unassuming, respectful and generous “son of the soil”.
They refuse to accept tales of his criminal path, and what justice ultimately served him 13 years ago. “He might have been a criminal, but he was my brother. He was not only loving, but generous, too,” says Chidhumo’s only surviving sister, Phyllis, in a chat with this writer in Zaka last week.
Chidhumo captured national attention in November 1995 when he was arrested in Masvingo on 16 counts of robbery alongside James Musara, Langton Charumbira and the equally notorious Edgar Masendeke.
They were each sentenced to 16 years imprisonment, but escaped from remand prison after overpowering warders.
Life on the run took them to Mozambique from where they launched sporadic raids on Manicaland and Masvingo, evading the proverbial long arm of the law for two years before Chidhumo and Masendeke were re-arrested.
Chidhumo was sentenced to 37 years in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, with seven years suspended.
The two must have relished their two years of infamy for they escaped again, alongside fellow inmate Elias Chauke.
A z$60 000 reward was placed on Chidhumo’s head. As before, he fled to Mozambique, perhaps hoping for another lengthy spell of freedom. But it was over in 29 days as detectives shot and arrested him in Beira.
He was to meet his end at the noose for the murder of a prison warder shot on the day of their second escape. He was 30-years-old when the executioner summoned him.
People in Zaka remain both fascinated and bewildered by Chidhumo.
Padare Village headman Mr Emmanuel Danda says, “He was born here; we knew him from his childhood. He committed serious crimes, but never stole even a match box in these parts.”
Businessman Mr Percival Timire adds, “We knew he was a dangerous criminal. However, his behaviour drew sympathy from locals. He neither imbibed nor smoked.
“On the few occasions that he came here while fleeing police, he would either play snooker or sit quietly in a corner. It might seem improper to say kind words about a criminal, but the truth is he treated locals kindly.” According to Headman Danda, Chidhumo was a businessman’s son.
However, the businessman denied paternity, and the youngster was raised by his maternal grandfather.
He attended Rusere Primary School, dropped out at Grade Six and then went to live with an aunt in Bulawayo.
Alias Richard Mangwiro Sithole or Sigauke, Chidhumo never married and has no known children.
His mother died during his imprisonment. Some villagers say he became a criminal by association while others believe it was in his blood.
“We were never told about his execution; we only learnt this via radio news. It would have also been acceptable for them to give us his body for burial,” says Phyllis, as her eyes drift into space.
Headman Danda adds, “He remains our son, a son of the soil. I think he lacked parental guidance, especially when he moved to Bulawayo. If he is to be reburied here, we will not hesitate to give him a decent burial.”