It is no ordinary July Saturday afternoon in Bindura. The usually sleepy town has been invaded by local and international journalists covering “the battle of the two Elliots”.
Elliot Pfebve of the Movement for Democratic Change is battling it out with Zanu PF’s Elliot Manyika for the vacant Bindura parliamentary seat following the death of Border Gezi in a car accident near Mvuma in April.
Tensions are high and palpable. MDC president Morgan Tsvangirai has according to his party, survived an assassination attempt while on the campaign trail with Pfebve. Countless incidents of organised violence have been reported across the constituency.
We are driving around in the constituency with journalist colleague Luke Tamborinyoka, now Tsvangirai’s spokesperson, Daily News photographer Aaron Ufumeli and our driver, Shadreck Mukwecheni.
As we approach an intersection, a driver in a car besides us motions us to pull over. We had no idea who it is until he gets out of his car.
It is Retired General Solomon Tapfumaneyi Mujuru. In his trademark stammer, he says: “Mho-mho-mhoroka nhai Sa-Sa Sandra.”
“Ah General Makadii?” I respond. “U-u-uri kutsvageyi kuno,” he probes. I tell him we are covering the by-election. “Oh, by the way,” he says.
“Sa-sa-saka madya here? Ha-ha-handei kumba kwangu mu-mu-munodya sadza.”
Of course we could not turn down a rare opportunity to have lunch with the General in his own home. We drove behind him to his house which apparently was a stone’s throw away from where we had just met. We find his son Tendai at home. We later learnt that he had a fishing date with his dad on that day.
I offered to help Tendai bring the food to the table as the boys sip whisky with the General. He cautioned them not to down the whisky too fast, saying they would not be able to do their jobs well. Back in the newsroom, the whisky shots would be christened the “Chitungwiza tot”.
To Tamborinyoka, the General turned as he filled his second glass and said: “Wava paglass rechipiri. Ndosaka dzimwe nguva muchizotinyepera mumapepa menyu umu muchiti rally yeMDC yanga iine vanhu 10 000 ivo vari 50.”
I also remember him telling Ufumeli not to take any photographs of him because “ha-ha-handidi kubuda mu-mu newspaper.”
True to the General’s humorous nature and ability to use metaphors, some of which if translated from Shona to English lose their richness, he compared the election to his wife’s difficult pregnancy with one of their daughters. “It’s painful, but it will soon be over.” he says of the election.
With full stomachs, we leave the Mujuru residence and drive deep into the belly of the constituency. We come to a police checkpoint where we are greeted by our names.
We paniced because none of us recognised the policemen. The officers are unusually friendly to a Daily News crew wondering in a Zanu PF stronghold.
Our safe passage had obviously been cleared and we could only assume it was by the man whom we had had lunch with. We proceed with such relief.
I first met General Mujuru as a young journalist working for the Zimbabwe Inter-Africa News Agency (Ziana). I could never reconcile the person I saw, from the journalists’ cubicle, wearing a suit, sitting in the chamber facing the Speaker’s chair with the person I later saw in the Parliament bar where he continuously churned out infectious jokes, some of them not suitable for a family newspaper.
In one of the milder jokes he told, the General did not think God had been fair to mankind by letting HIV and Aids ravage and decimate populations. His gripe with the Creator was why HIV was mostly transmitted via sex.
“Da-da-dai Mwari vacho vakaisa Aids yacho panyama tayi-tayi-tayingoita heduka ma-mavegetarian.”
I was formerly introduced to the General by my then home editor, the late Ndaba Nyoni. It took a while to get myself into the circle of the General’s trusted journalists. He would always turn down my requests for interviews saying “ha-ha-handitaure nemajournalists.”
One thing that was certain during all the times I sat down with him was his love for Zanu PF. He loved his party to the core and was proud of all his achievements from the day he chose to join the liberation struggle to the day he decided to hang his uniform in the wardrobe to venture into business.
One of my memorable sit-down interviews with the General was in 2001 when violence was raging in his home district, Chikomba, Mashonaland East.
He had given up the Chikomba seat hoping the draft constitution of 2000 would be adopted and he preferred to be in the Upper House. War veterans’ leader Chenjerai Hunzvi took over as Chikomba MP.
During Hunzvi’s electoral campaign, reports of chilling incidents of violence were reported in the constituency. But, they soon subsided following the intervention of the General, working hand in glove with the then MDC secretary-general Welshman Ncube and MDC candidate Oswald Ndanga.
Ncube told of how Mujuru had organised braais and other activities for Zanu PF and MDC youths, and used those platforms to encourage them to shun violence.
“How can I just stand by and let this happen? This is not what we fought for, to take away the dignity of our mothers by taking their clothes off and beating them up,” he said in the interview.
I was to later secure another interview with him. A day before the interview, he saw a screaming poster along Samora Machel Avenue that read:
“Journalists arrested”. He called me and asked:
“Wa-wa-wasungwa?” to which I replied no.
“O-o-okay, ndanga ndaona chibhodhi chekutengesa newspaper chichiti ‘journalists arrested’ ndikafunga kuti wasungwa sa-sa-saka interview yafa.”
In this wide-ranging interview he talked about his party (a party he loved to death), his business and his family life. He spoke about his wife, Vice-President Joice Mujuru’s ring he had bought in Iran on one of his trips to seek funding for “macomrades”. “That is the ring Joice wears up to today.”
Through my professional contact with him I learnt so much about a man who was all for nation building, tolerance and encouraged self-reliance.
One of the last times I saw him was at the corner of Kwame Nkrumah and First Street as I prepared to leave for the UK to read for my Masters in International Journalism.
I told him I was leaving and his advice; “U-u-ufambe zvakanaka, ka-ka-kasi uzive kuti, u-u-uri kuenda kunyika yevamwe saka wa-wamutorwa ikoko. Vakati suka ma plates, suka nekuti you need to prepare for your life in the future. Zve-zvekuti ndiri political editor zvo-zvopera pauchakwira ndege.”
(Have a safe journey, but remember you are going into a foreign land, whatever job you get, take it for it will help you plan for your future.)
I hold no brief for the General, but I’m sure many journalists of my time will remember “Big Solo” fondly.
I sure will miss hearing his stammer at the end of the line and I know his close friends and family will miss him more, especially VP Mujuru.
The serious and intimidating look he assumed when he wore his camouflage was indeed very deceptive.
The General I knew, despite his impeccable war credentials was just so ordinary, simple, human and very humorous.
There may be others with different stories about the General, but mine is a story of a very modest person who lived the life of an ordinary man.
General was surely for me the most extraordinary and humble man in Zimbabwean politics.
I shall miss his legendary jokes and if they serve whisky there, I am sure he has them cracking up all the time in his new environs.
I can only imagine what he is telling them about the fire that was the agent used to move him to another world.
Till then Ge-Ge-General . . .