AFTER what seemed an eternity for villagers who gathered at his rural homestead in Zvimba since his demise on September 6, Robert Mugabe’s body was on Monday brought back to where his life’s journey began 95 years ago.
Of course, throughout those years, former president Mugabe – except for the time he spent fighting for Zimbabwe’s liberation, mainly from 1960 to 1980 – never lost touch with the Savanna grasslands where he was born and raised.
Each time he got the chance, he would return to his village, either to have some quiet time away from the rigours of high office, or to attend mass at the nearby Kutama Catholic Mission, where he was a parishioner.
Remarkably for a man who played a central role in the nation’s politics for such a long time, Mugabe’s real family roots have remained something of a mystery or murky.
The story of his formative years, at least as it is known publicly, is patchy and unreliable, barely enough to fill a single page.
It begins in his mother’s hut which, having been preserved, still stands to this day in rural Zvimba, some 95km north-west of Harare where the family led a dreadfully poor life.
It ended at Kutama Mission High School, a stone’s throw away from the trendy rural homestead he has left behind but, beyond that, Mugabe hardly said anything else about his family, choosing to focus on the liberation struggle instead.
The only significant time he ever spoke about his father was when he narrated how he abandoned the family in the 1930s to settle in Bulawayo. This was at the funeral of his younger sister, Bridget, in 2014.
Mugabe told mourners at the time that his father abandoned the family following the death of his elder brother Michael – the second within a short time – believing he would never have peace if he stayed at the “hounded” land of his forebears.
The father, Mugabe said then, married a MaTshuma and began a new life in Bulawayo, never returning home until only when he was on his death bed.
The lack of information about Mugabe’s roots has given rise to many diverse theories as people sought answers which he was never prepared to give.
One such theory is that his father was a Malawian immigrant who came to Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, in search of employment like many job seekers in that epoch.
The other theory was that he was using his mother Bona’s family name, given that she had her roots in Masvingo province where the name Mugabe is prominent.
But then again, his mother was from the Gumbo clan, although she had also been liked with Sudan.
And until his death in Singapore seven days ago, very few people knew who really Mugabe – known during his days as a teacher in Matabeleland as “Teacher Ngwenya” – was.
This week, the Zimbabwe Independent visited Zvimba to trace his roots. It emerged from conversations with the inner circle of his family and clan that Mugabe actually led a full-blooded young life – which he probably wanted forever concealed.
The fascinating story of Mugabe’s lineage was separately substantiated by six men closest to him in his family, interviewed by the Independent.
This is the first time anyone from the family has ever spoken publicly about the origins of a man who emerged from extreme poverty and rural obscurity to become a leading politician on the Zimbabwean, regional and global stage.
Conversations with Mugabe’s relatives revealed a fascinating story that has never been told before – particularly the childhood years characterised by dejection and disappointment.
From the interviews, it emerged that what connected Mugabe to the land he so loved was not just its panoramic beauty, but deep-seated family roots and a strong sense of belonging.
The Independent tracked down Mugabe’s half-brother, Augustine Chirenda, an 86-year-old man with several gaps in his teeth who walks with great difficulty yet exhibiting a sense of Mugabe-esque wit which might persuade a stranger that the easy charm runs in the blood.
“We have heard people claiming that he was of Malawian origin. That is shocking. He was my brother and he was a true Gushungo,” declared the younger brother, Chirenda, forcing a smile which revealed the extent of his tooth loss.
According to Chirenda, Mugabe is a direct descendent of the founder of the Zvimba chieftaincy.
His great, great grandfather settled in the then virgin lands in the mid-19th Century after fleeing ethnic strife in the Chishawasha area.
Oral tradition has it that Mugabe’s ancestor and his family intended to travel further, but they ended up settling in the area by default after the patriarch developed swollen feet and declared he was unable to proceed further.
“He was thus nicknamed Zvimba, owing to the swollen feet problem which brought the migration to a premature end,” Chirenda, who turned out to be a brilliant storyteller like his departed brother, explained.
Zvimba then established his chieftainship in the area, which he subdivided among his three sons according to seniority, namely Chambara, Beperere and Chidziva.
Mugabe, Chirenda said, was a descendent of the Chidziva lineage. It is said Chidziva begot Karigambombe, who begot Matibiri, who begot Chatunga, Mugabe’s father.
But still, the mystery remains: where did the name Mugabe come from?
Many have believed that the late nationalist, who bestrode the Zimbabwean political landscape like a colossus, used his mother’s surname. However, such claims were strongly disputed by Chirenda and his clansmen.
“That is a wrong narrative. The name Mugabe was his father’s nickname which was later preferred by the missionaries when he started school at Kutama Mission,” Chirenda said.
Another fascinating piece of the jigsaw in Mugabe’s life was provided by another close family member, Fredrick Mabiri, now serving as the resident Catholic priest at Kutama Mission.
According to Mabiri, Mugabe developed a close relationship with his mother after his father abandoned the family.
Having waited for his return for many years in vain, Mugabe’s mother deserted the area occupied by her husband’s family, the Matibiris, taking along with her the remaining children, Robert, Sabina, Bridget and Donato.
Bona relocated to her family land near Kutama Mission in the 1940s and they lost touch with the rest of the clan.
Her father, after whom the Kutama mission was named, was of the Gumbo totem and a latter-day migrant from Gutu in Masvingo province.
“After Kutama’s daughter (Bona) married Mugabe’s father (Chatunga), he was given a piece of the territory to govern as a sub-chief reporting to the bigger Zvimba kingdom,” Mabiri explained.
In the aftermath of his death, Zimbabweans were shell-shocked when they heard that Mugabe was a traditional chief or of royalty.
But according to the family narrative, Mugabe was offered the Chidziva chieftaincy when it became his family’s turn to inherit the throne in 2012 as per tradition.
However, he turned down the offer, saying he would not be able to preside over affairs of the clan on a regular basis since he had a country to run, effectively passing the baton to his half-brother, the current Chief Chidziva, whose first name was simply given as Dununu, who was next in line.
“So it is very true that he was supposed to be a chief in this area. He only did not take it up when his family was due because of national commitments, otherwise he was regarded as a chief here,” Chirenda said.
Curiously, despite Mugabe exhibiting exceptional academic brilliance in the latter years of his life, there were no records of how he fared at Kutama Mission High School when the Independent tried to locate them.
“I have been teaching here for many years, I have never seen any records of his academic performances. The only record which is there is that he was a pupil at the school and nothing beyond that,” said one of the senior teachers at the school who declined to be identified.
But while debate rages on elsewhere on the true identity of the late strongman, there were no clear answers at the Mugabe homestead where villagers have been literally camped since the news of his death came through.
While details of Mugabe’s lineage may shed light on his origins, debate on his genealogy is likely to continue raging.