A tottering Kamuzu Banda totally tripped and ate the pavement (akadl’evhu, as they say in the rich Karanga dialect of Shona) during a State visit to Zimbabwe in the 1990s when the Malawian leader was well into his 90s, evoking both pity and laughter.
BY Conway Tutani
Smashing the camera or deleting pictures — like what happened at Harare International Airport in February — won’t change a thing. It’s not the camera’s fault to catch the moment.
Yes, people had a hard time not laughing because of Banda’s self-important, imperious airs as he strutted with a whisk in hand plus Homburg hat looking more British than Malawian, but still felt pity because of his age. Banda had become an anachronism who lived royally in a poor country.
He was totally and utterly out of touch with his compatriots. People around Banda routinely conspired to give him a false picture of the country he ruled.
President Robert Mugabe’s increased foreign trips at his advanced age coupled with failing health against the backdrop of a deep socio-
economic crisis has raised eyebrows.
The President flew to Tanzania last Saturday barely 24 hours after his return from Algeria. From Tanzania, Mugabe proceeded to Ethiopia for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa summit.
All in all, since he came back from his annual holiday on January 21, Mugabe has travelled to Ethiopia, South Africa, Singapore, Japan, Namibia, Algeria, Tanzania and Zambia. This is excessive even for a frequent traveller like Mugabe and no gloss will mask this.
Indeed, we need to be outspoken enough to let the other know where they stand, but mature enough to respect the other. The continual reference to Mugabe as a “nonagenarian” in some sections of the media is too scornful.
It smacks of ageism, prejudice against or stigmatisation of elderly people as if they are totally useless. Yes, Mugabe is a nonagenarian, but should that be repeated in each and every report? We need maturity and responsibility all round, not just from the ruling Zanu PF. If you find yourself increasingly using adjectives in a news report, then you are on the down slope to petulance and pettiness.
That said, at his age, 91, does Mugabe have to subject himself to such a punishing schedule? If you factor in jet lag, for how long can his body take it?
Jet lag — also known as time zone change syndrome — occurs when people travel rapidly from east to west, or west to east on a jet plane — which Mugabe has been doing frequently since the European Union and the United States slapped travel sanctions on him in 2001 when his trips were mostly jet lag-free as they were northwards and southwards. The more time zones that are crossed rapidly, the more severe jet lag symptoms are likely to be.
Mugabe’s trips to Europe only involved crossing two time zones at the most whereas with the Far East, as many as eight time zones are crossed.
The older a human is, the more severe are their jet lag symptons, and the longer they will take to get their body clocks back into synch. Mugabe admitted as much at the Kutama Mission centenary celebrations where his fatigue almost detracted from the joyous occasion. People with jet lag have their sleep-wake patterns disturbed. There was plentiful evidence of that at Kutama, embarrassingly so.
Furthermore, for Mugabe to chant: “Down with Zanu PF!” (his own beloved party) and refer to his 91st birthday as his 21st birthday indeed shows disorientation; that is, loss of sense of time and place.
Another thing: Lately the President has been thinking aloud. It’s a worrying development. In his public addresses, he is now saying things that might better remain as private thoughts.
If we are lucky enough to live long enough, we all age. But the trick is to age well, meaning one should adapt to the physical, psychological and social losses of ageing. When someone acts according to their age, they have aged well. They are not obsessed with maintaining their appearance.
Look at the late South African liberation icon Nelson Mandela, an example of ageing well. He looked his age and behaved his age to the benefit of South Africans at large. With his creased face and grey hair, there was something reassuring and dignified about him. No wonder South Africans regardless of their ages gave him the term of endearment “Tata” (“father” in Xhosa).
Stepping down doesn’t always mean you’re weak. Sometimes it means you are strong enough and smart enough to let go and move on. Mugabe’s age-mate former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died last week, retired a whole quarter of a century ago after laying a firm foundation of his programme so much that he did not have to uproot the plant each day to see if it was growing. He knew very well that his continued presence would have stunted growth. The institutional framework and enabling environment were there to guarantee the continuation of his policy thrust. But then, Zanu PF long sold its soul to greed and corruption.
At 91, Mugabe should now be avuncular — that is, at the stage of being kind and friendly towards the younger or less experienced generations —instead of being involved in slanging matches with people way below his age. It’s unbecoming for older people to get entangled in that kind of argumentativeness. Someone else doesn’t have to be wrong for you to be right. You can’t start the next chapter of your life if you keep re-reading your last one.
It’s about ageing with dignity.