The Sunday Mail
On February 21, 2015, President Mugabe will celebrate his 91st birthday. The Sunday Mail will publish a series of articles in the run-up to the day, which this year culminates in 21st February Movement celebrations in Victoria Falls.
Today we start with a riveting narrative of President Mugabe’s escape to Mozambique in 1975, as told by Roman Catholic priest Fr Emmanuel Ribeiro. Read on:
A determining moment that would lead to the birth of a nation.
Rather inexplicably though, this episode has remained untold, perhaps because the main characters involved — President Mugabe, Enos Nkala and Roman Catholic priest Fr Emmanuel Ribeiro — swore to maintain a rather intimate kinship with secrecy.
Who would have imagined that Fr Ribeiro, a virtually unknown then, a simple prison chaplain — whether preternaturally or otherwise — changed the course of history by sheltering two nationalist fugitives of the Ian Smith regime inside his rectory?
It was only the priest himself who opened up on the four days he spent with President Mugabe and Cde Nkala at Rhodesville Roman Catholic Church in 1975.
But extracting details of this historic moment which launched the President’s flight into Mozambique to lead the liberation struggle was no easy task.
Fr Ribeiro is a devout Catholic.
True to his pious disposition, he initially ducked and dived, guarding the secret in the innermost parts of his bosom, safely away from this journalist who unrelentingly vied for a rare peek into his priceless information treasures.
It was only after several moments of close scrutiny and thought that he let out the story.
Yet, still, he related it in bits and pieces.
“The problem is people have distorted that part of our history,” he says finally.
“Up to today, not even one of the people who were involved in that episode has come out publicly and told of what transpired during those four days that we stayed with HE (President Mugabe) at Rhodesville.”
He stops suddenly.
His thoughts seem to drift away to a far off land.
His ageing eyes — with both tufts of brows narrowed close together — betray the deep emotion encapsulated in his now frail body frame.
He appears to be deep in thought like one combing through his mind, searching for that single missing but crucial piece to a puzzle.
Finally, with his thoughts collected and arranged in perfect sequence, he begins his narrative, right from the moment he met Robert Mugabe.
“I first met him around 1947-8 when he was teaching at Kutama Mission. I had just begun my studies there,” he recalls.
“Straight away, he struck me as someone who was special in some way. He was a very dignified young man who loved his books. And because he loved his books, it was not long before we gave him a nickname . . . but don’t ask me: I’m not going to tell you (the nickname),” he says, with a tellingly sly chuckle.
“We knew him as a books person; very quiet. At all times, he always had a book or two tucked under one of his armpits.”
Hardly the perfect meeting place
After Kutama, Fr Ribeiro and President Mugabe were to meet again in the late 1960s, this time in discomforting circumstances.
The quiet, unassuming bookworm the priest had known from earlier years was in the unfamiliar confines of Central Remand Prison.
President Mugabe was in detention alongside other revolutionaries such as Leopold Takawira, Simon Muzenda, Edgar Tekere, and Eddison Zvobgo to name a few.
By then, Fr Ribeiro had completed his theology studies and had been ordained priest in 1964.
Four years later, he was seconded to the Prison Services chaplaincy as part of the first group of black priests co-opted into the service which had previously been a preserve for white clerics.
His mandate included ministering to detainees and providing moral support.
“The chaplaincy had a service whereby the detainees were allowed to further their education. This was offered to everyone. The President was the strongest in that regard along with the late Edson Sithole. He studied either three or four courses while in detention.
“I became much closer to him during this time as we found time to sit and chat as well as share experiences. Again, his characteristics of being a strong-willed gentleman who is highly dedicated and spiritual shone. He was a man of very few words. You would, however, tell that everything he said was important.”
Fr Ribeiro said the President did not let imprisonment lock away his teaching skills and passion.
He conducted classes and taught fellow detainees.
“Being placed in a restricted area can either break or build you. Instead, he took the opportunity to build others by constantly encouraging them.”
And Fr Ribeiro constantly fed President Mugabe with reading material.
The two soon became close friends.
The Great Escape
In 1975, months after Cde Mugabe’s release from prison, the Ian Smith regime planned to purge nationalist leaders. It was no surprise that President Mugabe — who was on its “most wanted” list and was being pursued — found his way to Fr Ribeiro’s home at the Roman Catholic Parish in Rhodesville.
At the time, the Rhodesian security apparatus was at its most brutal.
The period inspired fear and apprehension.
Any slip-up would have spelt doom.
“What happened then is a critical part of the country’s history,” says Fr Ribeiro.
“It was on a Wednesday and I was on duty at Central Prison. At around 3.30pm I received a call from Fr John Gough. ‘You have visitors; it’s urgent,’ he said, before cutting the call.”
Fr Gough was the priest in charge at Rhodesville and was an active supporter of the struggle.
Fr Ribeiro drove back to the church in haste.
To his surprise, two familiar faces were in the living quarters.
President Mugabe and Enos Nkala were seated side by side.
The two known “fugitives from the law” sat staring right back at him.
Surprisingly, the priest was unmoved.
Fr Ribeiro knew he was already in too deep and that there was no easy way out.
“When you know the background of what you are involved in, hauvhunduke! I knew we were in the thick of the struggle and had developed a certain reaction to such situations. I knew that had I been caught, I would have been hanged,” relates Fr Ribeiro.
A white church secretary, who was on duty at the parish on that day, was hurriedly given days off before she could even make sense of what was happening.
“Tiri kutiza,” quipped the two gentlemen. I knew that someone’s life depended on every step I took.”
The duo was then warmly welcomed and since it was getting dark they were given a room to sleep in.
As a precaution, all the telephone lines were cut off.
For the next three days, the two clergymen harboured the fugitives while a plan for their eventual escape was being hatched.
On Thursday and Friday, both President Mugabe and Cde Nkala remained cocooned inside the four-roomed rectory while Fr Ribeiro went about his normal daily routine — to avoid any suspicion.
But as the tension grew, probably with the security dragnet closing, they all knew that it was time to go.
On Saturday, they caucused.
President Mugabe asked Fr Ribeiro to find someone they could trust, someone who could help engineer the second leg of the escape.
The name Sister Mary Acquina — an academic at Dominican Convent — was suggested and all were in agreement.
But right then as the story is developing, Fr Ribeiro suddenly has a change of heart.
“The problem with you journalists of today is that you just write for the sake of it. Your professionalism is questionable. I won’t go any further. I will have to ask the President first and see whether I can get permission to write that part of it myself.”
He rebuffs further efforts to elicit the rest of the narrative.
Instead, he has already put on his priesthood cap and is already teaching The Sunday Mail crew biblical philosophies.
A trained journalist who cut his teeth working as a BBC correspondent in decades gone by, Fr Ribeiro kept the rest of the narrative in a vice-like grip, unrelentingly.
No amount of cajoling or trickery could get further information out of him.
Suddenly, his phone rings.
He excuses himself to answer.
We have been chatting for more than two hours now.
He looks visibly tired.
“I cannot go on any further now. It’s getting dark and I need to get on to other things. I will tell you the rest of the story on another day.”