When President Emmerson Mnangagwa drove 75km north of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to Bagamoyo last Friday morning, he might as well have been in a time machine as meandered more than 50 years back to when he as a 20-year-old Zimbabwean undergoing military training.
The visit to what is now a town but was then just a village on the edge of the Indian Ocean opened a door to room that is deep and rich in the history of comradeship in the fight against colonialism.
It is here that more than 60 cadres – in whose ranks were a young Joaquim Chissano, six Zimbabweans (among them ED and Dumiso Dabengwa, and five South Africans – pioneered a military camp in 1963.
Alighting from his vehicle, President Mnangagwa and his obligatory national flag-themed scarf sauntered on a red carpet whose edges were chequered with Tanzania’s national colours.
Anyone could tell he had been here before, and that Bagamoyo induces a plethora of memories for Zimbabwe’s leader.
“I am extremely delighted to be here again. I was here 58 years ago. When we came here it was a bush; we had to clear this place; we were very few. There were 59 comrades from Frelimo and six from Rhodesia, five from South Africa. We were the original team,” said President Mnangagwa.
“I was telling my colleague here (Tanzania’s President John Magufuli) that it took us a full day to go to Dar es Salaam; now you can be here in (a matter) of hours.
“At that time, it was the beginning of the revolution, the armed struggle. Frelimo was ahead of us. This was their first camp. We had people like Chissano. We were young boys together when we begun this camp. I was responsible for security at the camp.
“This was about May-June 1963. I think most of you were not there and if you were there, you were very young,” he said.
Until Friday, part of this rich tapestry of history has hitherto remained hidden under his seemingly extremely reserved demeanour.
President Mnangagwa is known in leadership circles for talking little, but doing much. Theodore Roosevelt would say he speaks softly and carries a big stick.
Anyway, after this brief introduction, then came the big revelation of the day as ED recounted a colourful and savoury detail his year-long stay at Bagamoyo.
“I am so pleased that it has developed, it has become a college. It has always been my desire to come here. We used to – after clearing, working and having our drills and so on, on weekends – be allowed to go to the villages. This town was very small; it was a small village.
“I cannot say some of the things we were doing. I had a friend called John Mawawa – he was South African. We had become friends. We used to sneak out of the camp at night and go into the villages. But my friend is now late – he was hanged in South Africa later on,” he said.
“To the community, I am sure most of you are members of this institution. I am one of you; you looked after me at that time. We used to – well, I will say it – there was what they called Pombe, some kind of beer (a local brew).
“Now, what we will do – they are a very few who can remember – we would steal some tablets from the clinic and go and buy beer with tablets, but we didn’t know what they were used for. Some were brown, some green, some white and we agreed that this is for the stomach, this is for headches and then we would buy beer. Fortunately, no one died.”
Unsurprisingly, such a self-deprecatory account from the President solicited bouts of gratuitous laughter from the audience.
On this detail, Presidential Spokesperson Mr George Charamba interjected: “It was a good currency!”
Time has claimed some of President Mnangagwa’s comrades-in-arms.
He has beaten the odds to stand as President of Zimbabwe today: a colonial hangman’s noose, a brutal liberation struggle, poisoning attempts in the past couple of years, and a suspected grenade attack just over a week ago.
On Friday, ED reminisced on his time at Bagamoyo, and thanked President Magufuli for bringing him back in time.
“Initially we had tents for our accommodation. I then went that same year and went to China for my military training. But I have always thought I must come back and see this area,” said President Mnangagwa.
Kaole Wazizi College of Agriculture now stands on the site, and President Mnangagwa made a cash donation of $10 000 to the institution.
After his address, college officials – who described him as one of the “viable projects” from the camp – took the opportunity to show him a metallic contraption, which was passed off as a cooking pot that nourished him and his fellow comrades more than half-a-century ago.
As he made the journey back to Dar es Salaam, the heavens opened up and the rains seemingly fell on a historically colossal figure who today straddles an intergenerational landscape in a new Zimbabwe.
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