Maintaining the National Heroes Acre

Emmanuel Kafe
The hilltop has a commanding view of Harare, features a huge bronze statue of three fighters and boasts black marble and granite flourishes.

It is quiet and Zimbabwe’s most exclusive neighbourhood, but once there, those who move in never leave.

An area and a place where the former Head of State, Mr Robert Mugabe, would deliver bombastic speeches denouncing his foes.

The National Heroes Acre is a burial ground for those who lived and died for Zimbabwe. Construction began in 1981, a year after independence, and continues on a hill overlooking Harare.

Within this compound are men and women who work, and have seen the mighty and powerful being buried with grace and pride. They keep the place well-manicured.

The Sunday Mail Society toured this majestic place last week.

Fortuitously, we met and had a chat with the compound’s longest-serving staff, the hands behind the maintenance of the National Heroes Acre.

Sabastian Mukono (38) has been manicuring the Heroes Acre for more than 16 years. Mukono works in the maintenance department and started off as a casual worker in 2001, only to be formally employed in 2004 as maintenance staff and guide.

“My duties are rehabilitation of graves, grass cutting and road maintenance at the main shrine,” Mukono said.

He added: “I have seen sturdy and mighty men of valour being buried here and I have shaken hands with great men like the President of China.’’

A father of two, very friendly and accommodating, the man said he enjoys his work and feels motivated to be one of those people who help send the mighty to their resting places.

Asked whether he might consider leaving a job he loves so passionately, should a better offer materialise, Mukono said: “The conditions here are favourable and I appreciate the peace associated with working at the Heroes Acre. I do not see myself working anywhere else,” he said.

During the chat, Mukono walked us through the rustic 140-acre grounds. He explained the wildlife that is found in this place, which includes monkeys and giant snakes.

We came to a stop at the imposing black granite, bronze and stone shrine. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier represents the heroism of Zimbabweans who died to free this country from colonial bondage, whose bodies were never found.

Today, their remains lie scattered in valleys, caves, disused mines, shallow and deep graves and many other unknown mass graves in Zimbabwe. We looked the other way at something more arresting. In the distance we could see a towering pillar.

“Everything here is symbolic,” said Mukono.

The tower was designed to make one feel like an ant looking at an elephant. Some of the designs reminds one of the Great Zimbabwe. It came as no surprise to learn that the Heroes Acre’s design team included some locals and seven architects from North Korea.

From the air, Mukono said, the mausoleum (grave yard) is meant to resemble an AK47 rifle, the most potent weapon in the guerrilla war for independence, with the central stairway as the barrel, the obelisk as the bayonet and the graves as the bullets in their chambers.

“An obelisk is that tall pillar towering upwards and it’s the one that flicker at night. That obelisk is 40 metres high. The white top is an eternal flame. Whenever you come across the flame flickering, it depicts the spirit of independence. It also says to the people of Zimbabwe keep on working hard for the cause of national purity. This is the National Heroes Acre, whereby the gallant sons and daughters who sacrificed their lives for our freedom are laid to rest,” said Mukono.

He pointed to Stalinesque bronze friezes depicting the African nationalist war for independence.

In one scene, white Rhodesian soldiers, wielding rifles and batons and marshalling a ferocious hound, terrorise a black woman who has fallen to the ground, a baby clinging to her back.

Above the friezes sit statues of the Zimbabwean national emblem, the African fish eagle.

We climbed up the steps of the monument, comprising tiered black granite and cobblestones that represent the Great Zimbabwean walls. Mukono pointed to the spot where Mugabe would habitually proclaim, “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again!” and the gaudy bronze statue of the Unknown Soldier, depicting a male solider with a flag, a male soldier with a bazooka, and a female soldier with an AK47 — a symbol of the representation of men and women during the liberation struggle.

There is also a well built tomb for Arthur Guy Clutton-Brock, a British social worker who continued to assist the independence struggle even after he was expelled by Ian Smith’s government. He was the first white man to be declared a national hero.

Ms Rumbidzai Bvira, who oversees the maintenance staff, says the upkeep of the national shrine is a process that runs throughout the year.

“Our maintenance can be divided into two main aspects which are the gallery and the shrine. These two have to be presentable at any given point and time since we receive visitors throughout the year,” Ms Bvira said.

She also emphasised that the National Heroes Acre is open to the public. She said people are frightened to visit due to the presence of the police.

“The police is there to protect and not block people from entering.”

With the annual Heroes Day holiday on tomorrow, the place will awaken to the sounds of the rustling wind and chirping birds before these natural notes are replaced by a cacophony and camaraderie of hundreds of local and foreign dignitaries as they join in the celebrations.

Opening daily between 8am and 4.30pm, including weekends and public holidays, the National Heroes Acre is a perfect place for one to familiarise themselves with a critical part of Zimbabwe’s history. Currently more than 125 national heroes and heroines are interred at the National Heroes Acre. These are not only those that gave birth to Zimbabwe through the liberation struggle but also those who were instrumental in shaping the country post independence. Among those who rest at the centre is the late Father Zimbabwe and former Vice President, Dr Joshua Nkomo.

The Heroes Acre pays due homage to these individuals who are no longer with us, but are remembered and honoured for their great works.

It is imperative that Zimbabweans of generations to come must know of the sacrifices made by these heroes and heroines such that their legacies may never fade. The National Heroes Acre accommodates 5 000 people seated in the public space and each year meets this capacity during the Heroes Day celebrations as well as during more sombre moments when Zimbabweans come to pay their last respects at fallen comrades’ funerals.

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