Young Mugabe: The making of a despot
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Young Mugabe: The making of a despot

Abandoned by his father, raised by his fanatically religious mother, and devastated by the death of his adored elder brother, Robert Mugabe’s childhood left him lonely, bitter – and ruthless. Through a series of exclusive interviews with the dictator and his family, Heidi Holland uncovers a history of private torment

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:

“Ah, why not take him to hospital? ‘No, we cannot take him to hospital. His father is not here, his mother is not here. If we take him to hospital, they’ll take him to Salisbury and there, we understand, they cut people open. We will be blamed by the father. I am the grandfather, not the custodian, and I haven’t got the permission to do it.

“By the third day, my mother came. Then she went to Father O’Hea in the evening. Father O’Hea came and he applied an enema. I still remember the dish where pieces from Michael’s intestines were lying. And Father O’Hea shook his head and said to my mother, ‘Come, walk with me.’ He was trying to convey to her that things are bad and perhaps he might survive with the will of God, but it was serious. My mother came back and within minutes Michael passed away. Father O’Hea said if he had been sent to hospital early enough he would have been saved.”

It was Michael’s death at 15 that precipitated the departure of Mugabe’s father, Gabriel, from Kutama, about 100km from Harare, for fresh pastures in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, where he remarried and, much to young Robert’s fury, failed thereafter to support his first family. With the death in unexplained circumstances of Bona’s second son, too, Robert became the oldest of his deeply depressed mother’s three remaining children.

Although the family was desperately poor, it was the emotional deprivation of his childhood that scarred Robert for life. While his parental grandfather did his best to compensate for the absent father, teaching Robert how to catch birds for the family pot, it was to austere Bona that Robert looked forlornly for affection.

Robert adored his mother. He attended mass with her every day and twice on Sundays in the years following the deaths of his older siblings. After her husband left, Robert’s mother became depressed. She could not cope alone.

Robert, although only 10 at the time, stepped into the breach. Suddenly the oldest child, he became his mother’s favourite. It was he who set about trying to restore the light in her eyes; to be what she wanted him to be. It was a lot for a shy, sensitive child to live up to.

Gradually, he became isolated and prone to fantasy, as deprived children tend to do. His adored mother found it impossible to cope with her grief and became dependent on sensitive, caring Robert, who buried himself in his books while his siblings and classmates teased him as a mummy’s boy and a coward who would not play and fight with the other boys.

Largely friendless throughout his life (except during his marriage to his first wife, Sally Hayfron, who was not only his ardent supporter but an intellectual equal) the young Mugabe enjoyed playing tennis at Kutama’s elite St Francis Xavier College – as long as he was winning. Brother Kazito Bute, a mathematics teacher now in his late nineties, who knew Mugabe over many years, lived close to the courts and used to watch the students. “Robert would hit that ball and hit it hard. He was keen and good. He often won and then he was happy. But when he was losing you would hear ‘love this’, ‘advantage that’, and then ‘game, bang’ and his racquet went on the ground. You would know Robert was going to be hurt and angry. You would see his head fall and his shoulders drop down and he would leave the court without saying anything to anybody. He did not like to lose.”

Kutama was a centre of worship and opportunity but a demanding challenge for those children fortunate enough to win a place at St Francis Xavier, the top boys’ school in the country. Robert took his schoolwork very seriously indeed. He also became an exemplary Catholic: once Bona started taking him with her to mass in Michael’s place, he became almost as pious as his mother. The founder of the mission station at Kutama was a French priest called Jean-Baptiste Loubière, who had arrived in Rhodesia soon after the turn of the century. He taught Kutama’s illiterate tribespeople to regard the entire outside world as an evil place that would engulf them unless they sought guidance through constant prayer. Mugabe told me: “In those days, the Catholics were living saints, or at least the church thought it could make them living saints. We lived in Christian villages. We were not allowed to go out… You could go out on a mission to see your granny, but you had to be back by 5pm.”

His mother, who was made to wear high-necked, ankle-length dresses under Father Loubière’s regime, took all the church’s teachings to heart. “If his mother smacked him, Robert must thank her for correcting him; that’s what she believed. The other children used to tease him and he became lonely. He didn’t seem to care, but maybe he did,” mused Donato, Mugabe’s younger brother (who died in May last year).

Loubière’s successor at Kutama was an Irish priest, Father Jerome O’Hea, a gifted teacher and an exceptional man. He broke down the rigid taboos introduced by his predecessor, encouraging a modern, realistic view of the world. He soon noticed the solemn, talented Robert Mugabe and began to nurture him. Donato remembered Robert “hanging around” outside the priest’s classroom, eager to help the man by carrying his books or cleaning the blackboard.

An introspective child who failed to develop confidence in himself, Robert began to adopt a lofty attitude towards his siblings and fellow students. As Bona’s special one in the family and an increasing favourite among teachers in the classroom, he focused all his energy on being “a good boy”. Robert was always a loner, recalled Donato.

Robert found solace from the pressures of Bona’s disappointment and expectations in books, not in other children. During my interview with Mugabe, I quoted to him Donato’s recollection that books had been his only friends. Mugabe nodded enthusiastically, recalling his antisocial behaviour as a child. “I always had a book tucked here (gesturing under his arm) when I was a young boy. Yes, I liked reading, reading every little book I found. Yes, I preferred to keep to myself than playing with others. I didn’t want too many friends, one or two only – the chosen ones. I lived in my mind a lot. I liked talking to myself, reciting little poems and so on; reading things aloud to myself.”

As Donato recalled: “When he went to herd cattle because our grandfather told him to go out into the fields, he would take his book. He held the book in one hand and the whip in the other. It was a strange thing for all of us to see. When the cattle were settled, he would sometimes sit in the shade under the trees. Sometimes, if our grandfather asked him to get something for supper, he would catch many birds, especially doves. He would cut sticks, tie them with grass and put some soft leaves inside with some few seeds. This nest he would put near the river and wait quietly, reading his book. When the birds came to drink water, he could catch them. He was the only one who could get the birds because he could sit very quietly and that’s why grandfather said it was his job.”

Robert was different from his siblings in other ways, too. He loved to be at school even when his brothers and sisters were home playing. Their house was so close to St Francis Xavier College that he could come and go as he pleased. “He used to be very serious and not always happy,” recalled Donato. “He seemed to have matters to think about.”

Then came the prestigious endorsement of Robert’s scholarly efforts that was to have profound implications not only for his life, but for the future of the country he would lead to disaster six decades later. “Our mother explained that Father O’Hea had told her that Robert was going to be an important somebody, a leader,” said Donato. “Our mother believed Father O’Hea had brought this message from God; she took it very seriously. When the food was short she would say: ‘Give it to Robert.’ We laughed at him because he was so serious, until he became cross. Then our mother told us to leave him alone.”

Father O’Hea went out of his way to help the shy Mugabe child he described as having “unusual gravitas”. With “an exceptional mind and an exceptional heart”, he believed the boy merited extraordinary attention. In return, Robert Mugabe agrees that O’Hea was a father figure to him: “Yes, yes. And every Thursday he used to carry us on the lorry; drive to the river, to a pool, where he taught us how to swim. Some youngsters used to sit on him [gestures to his chest] as he did backstroke. He was a nice Irishman, yes. Only an Irishman could do that; an Englishman couldn’t.”

Promoted to the next class as soon as he could hold his own, Robert was always younger and physically smaller than his contemporaries. His greatest desire was to please his mother and to earn praise from Father O’Hea. However, the favouritism of two such important adults in a tight community made him increasingly the butt of jokes among his peers, including his brothers and sisters. As the children teased him mercilessly, Robert became defiant and presumably angry. The village children who had not scored highly enough for continuing study mocked him for constantly having his nose in a book. “Those who did not value learning tormented him,” says Lawrence Vambe, who was at school with Mugabe. “And even we who appreciated his diligence felt he was trying to prove too much.”

It was partly from his mother that Mugabe learnt the rigidity that characterised his leadership style in later years, believes George Kahari, another Kutama schoolboy and a relative of Mugabe. “Once he’s taken a position, that’s it – you can’t influence him. Robert developed a pathological hatred of his father, for example, and never revised it.”

Kahari believes that by making him “too good to be true” among his childhood peers, Bona inadvertently created an outcast and gave Robert “a terrible inferiority complex, which he hides behind his eloquence to this day”. Kahari also believes that the young Mugabe’s dependence on his mother helps to explain the homophobia he exhibited in later years.

As he grew up, Robert got his sense of who he was from Bona. She left him in no doubt that he was to be the achiever who rose above everyone else; the leader chosen by God Himself. She may also have viewed him as a substitute for her own failure to serve the Church as she and her parents had intended.

Aloneness and the inability to co-operate are the dominant features in all the descriptions of Mugabe’s childhood. His relative, the late James Chikerema, who grew up at Kutama with Robert, once described the boy’s stubbornness: if anyone argued with him while herding, Chikerema remembered Robert simply detaching himself from the group, selecting his own beasts from the herd and driving them into the hills far away from the other boys. He never sought reconciliation or compromise in an effort to fit in with those around him. His standard response to criticism was to warn that he would get even some day, according to Chikerema.

Mugabe’s early life shows how he was driven from very early on by a determination to show those who scorned him and his books that he was, nevertheless, the king of the castle – and that they would all have to acknowledge it sooner or later. Instead of seeing these taunts as the sibling rivalry and jealousy of less accomplished classmates, Robert felt persecuted, bitterly resenting the failure of everyone around him to appreciate his difficult role in a fatherless family. “He said he did not have time to play and we always laughed when he said big stuff about himself,” admitted Donato.

What the young Robert Mugabe achieved by single-mindedly pursuing his studies at school, and for years after he left Kutama, was truly remarkable. To become one of the most erudite Africans in the country from the humblest of beginnings – with no electric light to switch on at home and read by, seldom enough food to eat, and little support except from those whose ambitions robbed him of childish things – was a triumph of discipline over adversity in the classic Jesuit style. Against the odds, the angry little boy with no friends did become the king of the castle. But Robert’s diligence was also his way of coping with a universe he believed to be against him. Despite periods of contentment, he was to be consumed by distrust for the rest of his life.

This is an edited extract from ‘Dinner with Mugabe’, by Heidi Holland, published by Penguin. To order a copy at special price of £16.19 with free postage and packing, call Independent Books Direct on 0870 079 8897, or visit www.independentbooks

  • This article was originally published in 2008 by the Independent. We republish in its original format in the interest of our readers

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