Zimbabwe celebrates the life of the “Soul of the Nation”, Dr Simon Muzenda, who died on September 20, 2003 and is interred at the National Heroes Acre. As part of celebrating the life of this great nationalist, The Sunday Mail will over the coming weeks serialise Professor Ngwabi Bhebhe’s biography of the late Vice-President, “Simon Vengai Muzenda and the Struggle for and Liberation of Zimbabwe”. Below are excerpts.
Prof Ngwabi Bhebhe
It was in headman Ndawi’s area that Simon Muzenda was born on 22 October 1922. There, he grew until the age of eleven. But there is some confusion as to the exact month the late Vice-President was born. When Cde Muzenda registered for admission to Mirrianhill Mission in South Africa, he gave February his month of birth.
His mother told him she went into labour for his delivery during the planting season, which in Zimbabwe normally starts in October. Cde Muzenda’s aunt, who was educated at Alheit Mission, also corroborated the month.
Cde Muzenda’s mother, Theresa Muchapedzei Chekasi, was born in Jaravaza village in Chief Nyamandi’s area. Her family belonged to the Shiri Hungwe totem and her parents, in accordance with the common practice then, gave her in marriage to Muzenda Chekesai, Simon’s father, when she was a child.
Simon was the third child of his mother, but the fourth of his father. His father had a son Davison, born out of wedlock. By all accounts, Simon’s father, Muzenda Murefu, was very handsome.
Both his grandchildren and surviving daughter testify that many women were attracted to him and some ladies would propose to have affairs with him so that they could bear children as handsome as him.
Apparently one of the women was a local widow who developed a brief affair with the elder Muzenda, leading to the birth of Davison who was brought up by Simon’s mother.
On Simon mother’s side, the first born was a girl, Otilia Mazvitireni. After Mazvitireni, his mother had a stillborn baby.
Then came Simon, another boy Chikwereti, who was followed by another stillbirth, and finally there was the last girl, Dadire.
Chikwereti and Dadire died in their teens, leaving Mazvitireni and Simon to grow to adulthood and eventually parenthood.
Simon’s mother took a long time to get over her grief at the loss of her children. Mazvitireni remembered that there were days when her mother would be so overcome with grief that she would cook and not eat the food but simply push the plate of food to her husband to eat alone. That went on until the husband persuaded Simon to take her to the nearest Catholic Mission for religious assistance with the hope that she might find spiritual healing and comfort.
When Simon was at Gokomere Mission for his upper primary education, he decided with a group of friends to come and start a preaching place in his home area.
He was in company of other school friends from his area, such as Risto Mubari, Zindoga Mubari, July Mubari, Shewedza, and a sixth friend from Jaravaza Village.
The area was predominantly of the Dutch Reformed Church and, as they did not want to go back to that church, they setup their own Catholic Station and invited a priest to come and attend to their spiritual needs.
It was to that initiative that Simon’s father responded by allowing his wife to join the Catholic Church.
Once her mother started to go to church, Mazvitireni took advantage of that and also followed suit.
Simon Muzenda’s upbringing was in a typical Shona village, with typical Shona values, cultural practices and entertainment.
It was a culture he fully assimilated and was to use effectively to reach his people and to draw upon to mobilise mass political following.
Even though he converted to Christianity and remain wedded to Christian values, the environment in which he grew up influenced him not to despise his rural fellow Africans who retained many of their original values.
He stuck to a monogamous family and yet many of his followers in the rural areas practice the opposite.
Such contradictions did not in the least bother him; if anything, he deeply understood the world of these people.
He said his childhood prepared him to live with such contradictions.
In the process of soaking himself in his people’s way of life, Simon also trained to become accomplished in poet, singer, dancer and orator: what they called nyanzvi in Shona and igabazi in Ndebele.
These skills were acquired as part of growing up and cultural socialisation.
The quiet and almost self effacing young Simon Muzenda would sit by the fire side in the mornings and evenings to listen to the elders discussing politics and social affairs, and expressing themselves in rich and idiomatic Shona.
That must have sensitised him to the magnetic power of his mother tongue, if correctly employed.
At the time he was growing up, entertainment was made up of traditional dances and he developed a special love for ngororombe and mbakumba, both of which are sung and danced to the accompaniment of drums, whistles and traditional flutes.
At the time, mission schools did not ban these forms of entertainment, but instead took them as part of their curricula, so that children were able to live an almost homogenous life from their homes to school.
As shall be seen, the approach dovetailed neatly with the objectives of the colonial architects of African education, who wanted to see educated Africans firmly bound to tribal life. As Simon Muzenda recalled fondly:
“Each village had its own ngororombe dance group. Our parents and the surrounding communities would be invited to come to our school to see us dance.
“We would take up different points in the school yard and start dancing. In order to be considered winners, a dancing group was supposed to have all the spectators or the largest group of spectators gathered around them.
“Those without spectators or with small crowds around watching would gallantly consider defeat and join the spectators.
“Away from school, such competitions happened during beer working parties. I was always in the winning dance group”.
Apart from traditional upbringing, Simon Muzenda received a Western education and went up to the highest academic standard which was available for African children in the country at the time.
One of the most intriguing paradoxes concerning Muzenda and his generation was their ability to become different from what they were intended to be by the education they were given.
The drama of Simon’s refusal to go to school is worth telling in some detail as it illustrates how he sought freedom from parental control by seeking refuge at his grandmother’s village.
Simon did register to start school and apparently attend classes, but only erratically. For the greater part of schooling Simon played truant.
At home, he did everything that every child who was going to school did and thus managed for a long time to deceive his parents into believing that he was attending school.
When the school asked children to bring along grass to thatch their class rooms, Simon would ask his mother to cut the grass and make a neat bundle for him to take to school, which she would do.
Instead of taking the bundle to school, he would go up the local mountain, throw down the bundle and take a nice rest until he would join other children returning home after school.
That went on until the other children alerted his mother that her son was not attending school.
The next time he asked for a bundle of thatching grass, his mother dutifully prepared the thatch for him and he again pretended to be going to school.
His mother followed him without his notice. When he got to the mountain, he dropped his bundle and climbed up one of the local fruit trees called mutobwe to fetch matobwe fruit.
After he had plucked enough he got down and chose a nice spot to lie down while chewing his matobwe.
Before he could enjoy the delights in the preparation for a snooze, his mother surprised him when she shouted “Vengai! Is this your school?” he got up and ran away to his grandmother’s place at Nyamandi.
His father pursued him and tried to bring him back, but Simon kept on running away to a point he was nearly swept away by the swift current of the flooded Devure River. Simon’s father gave up and left him with his grandmother.
He lived with his grandmother for a long time that the local people at Nyamandi thought he was one of his grandmother’s children.
It was at Nyamandi at the age of fourteen in 1936 that he went for his pre-school education.
Even then it was not out of love of education that he went to school, rather it was because of a girl whom he loved very much and hoped to catch her eye by going to the same school with her.
Simon Muzenda was to enjoy his academic studies and delighted in the stiff competition he had with Sixpence Karonga.
Two of Muzenda’s classmates, including Sixpence Karonga, his arch competitor and Mubaira Mawere, a Standard Five graduate of Makumbe Mission in Buhera who also joined Muzenda at Domboshawa in 1944, testify to Muzenda’s being a highly intelligent student.
Although quite a brilliant student in academic work, Muzenda was far from being a perfect student when it came to manual, industrial and agricultural work.
Apparently he shared his somewhat reproachable side of his character with his classmate, Sixpence Karonga, so that the two often slipped into the bushes to hide away from their industrial teacher and supervisor.
The habit was so bad and so noticeable, that the school staff even contemplated expelling them.
One day, the teacher spotted them as they tried to slip back to join the other students. On being questioned0 as to where they were coming from, they tried to lie, saying they had gone into the bush to relieve themselves but the teacher remained unconvinced.
By then word had gone round among the staff that the two were lazy and some of their teachers were demanding that they should either fail their Standard Six or be expelled from school.
But the majority of the teachers found little or no moral justification to send down their brightest students. They were the top two students in a class of sixty-five. That’s how they avoided being expelled.
In fact, when he finished his Standard Six, Muzenda had done so well in his examinations that he was offered a government bursary to train as an agricultural demonstrator, which he turned down for political reasons.
The years at Domboshawa were also the years when Muzenda experienced the stirrings of political awareness.
African teachers at the school did a lot to contribute to Muzenda’s political consciousness.
Muzenda and his fellow students followed closely the way the war between the British and their allies, on the one hand, and Germany on the other was progressing from the news bulletins which their African teacher brought along.
In 1944, Muzenda witnessed a bit of Godfrey Hugging racist attitude, which left him absolutely disgusted.
In that year Huggins visited Domboshawa School in the company of Sir Evelyn Baring, the High Commissioner of the protectorates of Bechuanaland, Basutoland and Swaziland.
The reception organised for them included students, teachers and chiefs. Sir Baring went round shaking hands with the chiefs and even hugging them while Huggins studiously refused to even shake hands with the African rulers.
Students, especially Muzenda, found the attitude of the Rhodesian Prime Minister shocking and unbelievable.
Thus, when he completed his Standard Six and having made up his mind that he would not be used by colonial authorities to plunder his peoples wealth, one of his ambitions was to go to South Africa to explore educational possibilities and to experience life there.
To get money for the journey he decided to look for a job first in Bulawayo using his brother Davison.
When the job in Bulawayo did not materialise quickly, he took two shillings and sixpence his brother had given him to buy meat for relish and used it as train fare to go to Plumtree to look for a teaching job in the Catholic Schools under the Catholic schools of Empandeni.
The Catholics hired him and posted him and Gwangu School in the Semokwe/Kezi area. That was Joshua Nkomo’s home area.
At Empandeni, he had another encounter with future significance, meeting with a young teacher, none other than Robert Mugabe, the future President of the Republic of Zimbabwe.
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