Real deal: Zanla fighter’s daughter now top medical officer in US

An infectious diseases specialist, she has just become the top-ranking medical official in the city of St Louis, a major city in Missouri along the mighty Mississippi River in the US.


While a good number of gallant veterans of Zimbabwe’s war of liberation brawled this week in Harare with the police, who charged them with seeking to incite public violence, a city in a distant land toasted the daughter of one deceased war veteran for an outstanding achievement.

I am focusing this week on a development that possesses the rare potential to unite the nation — our perpetually warring politicians included — in celebrating a daughter of the soil for her remarkable accomplishment out in the distant Diaspora.

Mati Hlatshwayo-Davis, is the daughter of a late fighter in the Zanla guerrilla army which waged a war to liberate Zimbabwe from colonial bondage.

An infectious diseases specialist, she has just become the top-ranking medical official in the city of St Louis, a major city in Missouri along the mighty Mississippi River in the US.

Mayor Tishaura O Jones of St Louis proudly announced the recent appointment of Hlatshwayo-Davis as the new director of the city’s health department, the first black woman ever to hold the post.

Hlatshwayo-Davis played a leading role in St Louis during the coronavirus pandemic.

She says she has plans already formulated to help protect the city’s population from the coronavirus, while addressing the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases and focusing on behavioural health.

While paying tribute to the new director, the Mayor said, “The city’s director of health is a key player in keeping residents safe and healthy, from increasing the life expectancies of our most vulnerable communities to managing our administrative healthcare systems.

“As the Covid 19 crisis deepens across the country, St Louis needs a healthcare leader who can reach hesitant communities about the importance of mitigation and vaccination.

“With her impressive background and extensive experience as an infectious disease expert, I am confident in Dr Hlatshwayo-Davis ability to lead our Covid-19 response, as well as our efforts to improve health outcomes across the city.”

Jones said the new director brought a wealth of experience and knowledge in both medicine and public health with a focus on addressing infectious disease disparities among marginalised communities.

Hlatshwayo-Davis immediately announced that she plans to tackle continuing Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy and complacency as the devastating pandemic continues.

Hlatshwayo-Davis also said that gun violence had always been an area of great concern in St Louis, a city with an estimated population of 308 174.

She cited behavioural health as another area that was very important to her.

“We know that this is an area of concern across the board,” she said, “but specifically it can be difficult to address in certain cultures where it is not the norm to talk about mental illness.”

She said, finally, that sexually-transmitted infections had been and continued to be an area of concern in St Louis.

Hlatshwayo-Davis was born in Ashdown Park, Harare, 39 years ago.

Her husband, Jesse Davis, is an American-born paediatrician.

The couple has two children, the second one having been born at the height of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Her late father, Gaylord Themba Hlatshwayo, enlisted as a freedom fighter in the guerrilla army that fought for the independence of Zimbabwe.

Born and bred in Old Highfield in Salisbury in colonial Rhodesia, he attended Bernard Mizeki Secondary School in Marondera.

His first job was with Spinalong, a music shop in the city.

Early in 1975 the young Gaylord attended political meetings at the Highfield home of nationalist, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, who had recently been released from 10 years in detention.

Mugabe and fellow ex-detainee Edgar Zivanai Tekere, were to stage a dramatic escape and crossed into Mozambique.

Mugabe was to assume leadership of the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), the umbrella organisation of the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (Zanla) which waged the long drawn out and bloody campaign against the government of rebel Prime Minister, Ian Douglas Smith.

Soon afterwards, Gaylord left the security of his job.

He and three friends, Tommy Mandigora, Charles Chaza and Nobby Mutsambiwa conspired to join the exodus of young people travelling the long journey to Mozambique to enlist with Zanla for the liberation war.

After undergoing military training they were deployed into the field of operations in 1976. Mutsambiwa was to die in action.

Hlatshwayo, now called Comrade Mao, was redeployed in 1977 to headquarters in Maputo where he worked in administration under Tekere.

In 1978 he was appointed the Zanu chief representative in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana.

Mandigora was to serve as Ambassador to Botswana after independence.

After the ceasefire agreement signed at Lancaster House in London in December 1979, Hlatshwayo was recalled to Maputo by Mugabe who assigned him to work with the election directorate, preparing for the forthcoming majority rule elections.

On January 27, 1980 he arrived back in Salisbury on the flight that repatriated the Zanu  leadership from exile in Maputo.

Mugabe became the first Head of State of the independent Republic of Zimbabwe on 18 April.

He appointed Hlatshwayo as principal private secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office.

At a time when many of the returning freedom fighters exuded an aura of fearsome importance, Gaylord quickly resumed his original name, although many still called him Mao.  

He became popular as the boy from Highfield who remained an unpretentious former freedom fighter, while now stationed in the Prime Minister’s Office.

He became a frequent patron of the famous Quill Club, the official watering hole of journalists in the city centre.

He became a socialite of note on Harare’s social scene.

In 1981 Gaylord joined hands in holy matrimony with Macyline Marcia Mubika, a pretty air hostess flying with Air Zimbabwe, the national carrier.

This was at a time when he was a constant traveller to distant lands on the delegation of prime minister Mugabe.

The couple’s wedding ceremony at the then Park Lane Hotel, now the Grain Marketing Board headquarters along Samora Machel Avenue, was a highlight on the social calendar of the year in Zanu PF and government circles.

In keeping with the changing times, the Park Lane had just been acquired by indigenous Highfield businessman, Philemon Garikayi Machipisa, a Zanu founder member back in 1963.

The Hlatshwayos were blessed with three daughters. Matifadza (You have made us happy in the Shona language) was the eldest.

She was born in 1982. The couple divorced in 1988.

Hlatshwayo was later posted as a diplomat to Rome at the Zimbabwean mission in the Italian capital.

He died there in April 1997. He was buried at Warren Hills Cemetery, close to the National Heroes’ Acre.

Hlatshwayo-Davis received her medical degree from Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine and a Master’s in Public Health Degree from Case Western Reserve University.

She completed her internal medicine residency at University Hospitals Case Medical Centre.

She completed her Infectious Diseases fellowship at Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM), also completing a one year dedicated non-ACGME (Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education) HIV fellowship and a two year dedicated Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) fellowship.

The girl from Ashdown Park, Harare, is now an international medical contributor on Covid-19 with a special focus on marginalised populations.

She has been featured on CNN, BBC, as well as on Al Jazeera, among other major networks.

As a young girl Matifadza attended her first two years of primary school at Bishopslea in Belvedere before she transferred to Gateway Primary, where she became head-girl.

She then enrolled for her secondary education at the prestigious Arundel High School. She played in the Zimbabwe field hockey B Team.

“I only live abroad because my husband and family are here,” says Hlatshwayo-Davis.

“Otherwise, I miss home so much. I want to do as much as I can to represent our flag and work to bring my skills set back home.”

She said Zimbabweans have a wealth of talent.

“But I know that not everyone has the same access to the same opportunities,” she said.

“So it’s up to leaders like me and within government to make young Zimbabweans have equitable access to opportunities for achieving their dreams.”

In her case, however, this gain for St Louis is another loss for Harare.

Related Topics