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Mugabe and the Irish priest


In exclusive interviews with brutal dictator, Heidi Holland gets inside the head of a lonely and bitter man abandoned by his father.

Robert Mugabe has been cut off from his feelings ever since his carpenter father abandoned the family when Robert was a shy 10-year-old. Had his mother, Bona, been emotionally robust, he might have weathered the crushing abandonment. But she was fanatically religious, having arrived at the Catholic mission station near Harare, where Mugabe and his siblings grew up, with hopes of becoming a nun.

Although she had struggled with faith-based issues throughout her married life, Bona fell apart after the death of Robert's much-loved older brother, Michael, in 1934. "That was a terrible blow," Zimbabwe's octogenarian president told me, in a rare interview at State House, Harare, last December.

"It was poisoning, and Father Jerome O'Hea (the village's Irish headmaster, who became Mugabe's surrogate father) was very sad. He thought this boy was a genius. He was very bright, very bright intellectually. And also very athletic, which I wasn't. It was a sad loss."


Revealingly, 84-year-old Mugabe -- the despot whose uncontrolled rage has steadily destroyed Zimbabwe -- describes Michael's death as if he were his 10-year-old self, watching a trauma so disturbing that he still recalled it as if it had happened yesterday. "In those days, we used to be given some poisonous stuff to spray on grass to kill locusts," he told me. "Michael possibly went into an auntie's room and fetched a gourd that had held poison and used it to drink water. That's what the person who was with him said he did.

"When he came home, having run there from seven miles away because the poison was working and he was very athletic, he was flat [on the floor] and my grandfather said, 'What's wrong with you?' And Michael said, 'My tummy, my tummy, my tummy.'"

Sitting in his sparsely furnished office, immaculately groomed in a dark suit and red silk tie, his soft voice barely audible at times, Mugabe goes into detail about his brother's death over seven decades ago:

"Ah, why not take him to hospital? 'No, we cannot take him to hospital. His father is not here, his mother is not here. If we take him to hospital, they'll take him to Salisbury and there, we understand, they cut people open. We will be blamed by the father. I am the grandfather, not the custodian, and I haven't got the permission to do it."

It was Michael's death at 15 that precipitated the departure of Mugabe's father, Gabriel, from Kutama, about 100km from Harare, for fresh pastures in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, where he remarried and, much to young Robert's fury, failed thereafter to support his first family.

With the death in unexplained circumstances of Bona's second son, Robert became the oldest of his deeply depressed mother's three remaining children.

Although the family was desperately poor, it was the emotional deprivation of his childhood that scarred Robert for life. While his grandfather did his best to compensate for the absent father, teaching Robert how to catch birds for the family pot, it was to austere Bona that Robert looked forlornly for affection.

Robert adored his mother. He attended Mass with her every day and twice on Sundays in the years following the deaths of his older siblings. After her husband left, Robert's mother became depressed. She could not cope alone.

Robert, although only 10 at the time, stepped into the breach. Suddenly the oldest child, he became his mother's favourite.

Gradually, he became isolated and prone to fantasy, as deprived children tend to do. His adored mother found it impossible to cope with her grief and became dependent on sensitive, caring Robert, who buried himself in his books while his siblings and classmates teased him as a mummy's boy and a coward who would not play and fight.

Largely friendless throughout his life (except during his marriage to his first wife, Sally Hayfron, who was not only his ardent supporter but an intellectual equal), the young Mugabe enjoyed playing tennis at Kutama's elite St Francis Xavier College -- as long as he was winning.

Brother Kazito Bute, a mathematics teacher now in his late 90s, who knew Mugabe over many years, lived close to the courts and used to watch the students. "Robert would hit that ball and hit it hard. He was keen and good. He often won and then he was happy. But when he was losing, you would hear 'love this', 'advantage that', and then 'game, bang' and his racquet went on the ground. He did not like to lose."

Kutama was a centre of worship and opportunity but a demanding challenge for those children fortunate enough to win a place at St Francis Xavier, the top boys' school in the country. Robert took his schoolwork very seriously indeed.

He also became an exemplary Catholic: once Bona started taking him with her to Mass in Michael's place, he became almost as pious as his mother. The founder of the mission station at Kutama was a French priest called Jean-Baptiste Loubière, who had arrived in Rhodesia soon after the turn of the century.

He taught Kutama's illiterate tribespeople to regard the entire outside world as an evil place that would engulf them unless they sought guidance through constant prayer. Mugabe told me: "In those days, the Catholics were living saints, or at least the church thought it could make them living saints. We lived in Christian villages. We were not allowed to go out... You could go out on a mission to see your granny, but you had to be back by 5pm."

His mother, who was made to wear high-necked, ankle-length dresses under Father Loubière's regime, took all the church's teachings to heart. "If his mother smacked him, Robert must thank her for correcting him; that's what she believed." mused Donato, Mugabe's younger brother (who died last year).

Loubière's successor at Kutama was an Irish priest, Father Jerome O'Hea, a gifted teacher and an exceptional man. He broke down the rigid taboos introduced by his predecessor, encouraging a modern, realistic view of the world.

He soon noticed the solemn, talented Robert Mugabe and began to nurture him. Donato remembered Robert "hanging around" outside the priest's classroom, eager to help the man by carrying his books or cleaning the blackboard.

An introspective child who failed to develop confidence in himself, Robert began to adopt a lofty attitude towards his siblings and fellow students. As Bona's special one in the family and an increasing favourite among teachers in the classroom, he focused all his energy on being "a good boy". Robert was always a loner, recalled Donato.

Robert found solace from the pressures of Bona's disappointment and expectations in books, not in other children. During my interview with Mugabe, I quoted to him Donato's recollection that books had been his only friends. Mugabe nodded enthusiastically, recalling his antisocial behaviour as a child.


"I always had a book tucked here (gesturing under his arm) when I was a young boy. Yes, I liked reading, reading every little book I found. Yes, I preferred to keep to myself than playing with others. I didn't want too many friends, one or two only -- the chosen ones. I lived in my mind a lot. I liked talking to myself, reciting little poems and so on; reading things aloud to myself."

Then came the prestigious endorsement of Robert's scholarly efforts that was to have profound implications not only for his life, but for the future of the country he would lead to disaster six decades later. "Our mother explained that Father O'Hea had told her that Robert was going to be an important somebody, a leader," said Donato.

"Our mother believed Father O'Hea had brought this message from God; she took it very seriously. When the food was short she would say: 'Give it to Robert.' We laughed at him because he was so serious, until he became cross. Then our mother told us to leave him alone."

Father O'Hea went out of his way to help the shy Mugabe child he described as having "unusual gravitas". With "an exceptional mind and an exceptional heart", he believed the boy merited extraordinary attention. In return, Robert Mugabe agrees that O'Hea was a father figure to him: "Yes, yes. And every Thursday he used to carry us on the lorry; drive to the river, to a pool, where he taught us how to swim. Some youngsters used to sit on him [gestures to his chest] as he did backstroke. He was a nice Irishman, yes. Only an Irishman could do that; an Englishman couldn't."

It was partly from his mother that Mugabe learnt the rigidity that characterised his leadership style in later years, believes George Kahari, another Kutama schoolboy and a relative of Mugabe. "Once he's taken a position, that's it -- you can't influence him. Robert developed a pathological hatred of his father, for example, and never revised it."


As he grew up, Robert got his sense of who he was from Bona. She left him in no doubt that he was to be the achiever who rose above everyone else; the leader chosen by God Himself.

To become one of the most educated Africans in the country from the humblest of beginnings -- with no electric light to switch on at home and read by, seldom enough food to eat, and little support except from those whose ambitions robbed him of childish things -- was a triumph of discipline over adversity in the classic Jesuit style.

Against the odds, the angry little boy with no friends did become the king of the castle.