Feminist Chronicles: Diary 16: Sally Mugabe

Activism, Feminist Chronicles, Gender, Politics, Women, Zimbabwe

Forgive me if my story is a bit tardy today but as I was writing, lions-real lionsthe kind born in the bush and lives in the bush, were roaring a few hundred yards from my bedroom. Of course that made me very excitable and a tard bit distracted. I could not help appreciating the beauty of my country that I and all Zimbabweans are so privileged to have right in our midst, the beauty of the natural, and the splendour of living in untamed Africa.

 But to get to the business of the day, in Zimbabwe my generation, born in the 1980s and all other generations that follow are called maborn free, a term that is often backed by the assumption that since we were not born during the liberation struggle we were born free and therefore we do not understand what the struggle meant and do not value what it achieved.

 But what we really are is a generation born after a liberation struggle from colonialism but born into a struggle for democracy. So we were not born free. However, I feel particularly empathic towards the generations born after 1990s. These generations were born into an era of lies and distorted accounts of where our country came from and where it is going. Most of them are unable to critically analyse the socio-cultural, economic and political landscape to move towards progressive development for our country. But most of all they were unfortunate not to grow up nurtured by a caring mother of the nation.

 Born Sarah Francesca Heyfron in Sekondi, Ghana to Ghanaian parents, but fondly known as Amai (Mother) Sally by Zimbabweans, she was Zimbabwean having married the current president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe.

Amai Sally Mugabe

 In my entire life, only the deaths of two celebrities have moved me to tears. One was Diana, the Princess of Wales and the other was of my first lady, Amai Sally Mugabe. These two women, one white and the other black were married to royalty, for Diana a royalty born out of long standing tradition and for Amai Sally a royalty born out of the casting of ballot papers. Amai Sally was the wife of the then legitimate leader chosen by the people of Zimbabwe. Although her royalty was not meant to last forever the way Diana’s was, Amai Sally held her own in perfecting etiquette and executing her duties with dignity and the calm composure that was befitting of her grand role.

 Amai Sally was the embodiment of true motherhood as the mother of the nation – one who carried herself with dignity and decorum and related with the nation with humility and compassion. If ever there was a harsh word that proceeded from her mouth towards another Zimbabwean, then that person has not come forward to say so, even 20 years after she passed on.

 Her most inspiring quality was how she cultivated her own identity, not just as the wife of the President but her own persona, mobilising communities to stand against discriminatory practices on the lines of race, sex, gender, disability, and age among other statuses.

 During the liberation struggle, while her husband was enclosed in prison for his activities, she was arrested many times by colonial police for campaigning against white rule. In 1961 she spent six weeks in prison. She was charged with sedition and sentenced to five years imprisonment after she had led a group of women to the Prime Minster’s office protesting against the 1961 constitution which still perpetuated racial discrimination. She appealed this decision and after being subjected to house arrest pending appeal, she escaped to Tanzania then to London. Between 1967 and 1974, when she studied and worked in London, she constantly campaigned and lobbied the British government for the release of political detainees and prisoners of conscience in Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia.

 She also organised and urged other women to join the struggle. Her immense sacrifice in taking upon the liberation struggle of a country she married into makes her one of the most selfless people I have ever known. As she lies today at the Zimbabwe National Heroes Acre, where individuals who contributed towards the liberation of our country are buried, I can say with confidence that she is one of the few most deserving individuals lying in that shrine and indeed she was the first heroine to be laid to rest there.

Amai Sally with women in the grassroots. Picture credit L. Schoonmaker Keeler

 Amai Sally advocated the dignity of women and inspired many women to be like her; strong and capable. She founded the Zimbabwe Women’s Cooperative in the UK in 1986 and supported Akina Mama wa Africa, a London-based African women’s organisation that focused on women’s rights and development issues. She was also moved by the plight of the underprivileged and started or supported many initiatives that lifted the burden from the suffering’s shoulders. In 1981, she became the patron of Mutemwa Leprosy Centre in Mutoko, in Mashonaland East Province of Zimbabwe, where she worked tirelessly to remove the social stigma attached to leprosy.

 Her empathy towards children, when she had none herself, just exhibited her for the true gem that she was. Her only child, a boy named Nhamodzenyika, (meaning: the troubles of this world) had died of cerebral malaria aged 3.

 Amai Sally established the Child Survival and Development Foundation, an initiative that was greatly supported by the UN Children’s rights body- UNICEF. She also set up an orphanage in the Goromonzi district of Zimbabwe to give shelter and a home to many children who would otherwise have been destitute. Sadly this orphanage has become rundown in her absence.  The infrastructure is dilapidated because of looting and vandalism by so called ‘war veterans’ some of whom claim to have fought the liberation struggle but have never seen the barrel of a gun in their whole entire life.

 One thing she taught me is that even though the whole 7.5 million Zimbabwean women can not all be the first lady of Zimbabwe at a time, 192 of us could be first ladies. You know why, because being Ghanaian by descent, she married a Zimbabwean and became a better first lady than some Zimbabwean woman ever will. Maybe 192 of us could be the first ladies in the 192 nations of the world, and trust me if we become first ladies of a calibre as she was then the world will always remember us with respect.

 But the greatest legacy I got from her is to realise that we do not have to be the first ladies, we can be the Presidents and Prime Ministers ourselves as women.

 She was 60 years old when she died from a kidney disease and what a sad day it was, the 27th day of January 1992 when the whole nation lost the mother of the nation.

 I also thank her for cementing the relations between Ghana and Zimbabwe because it is one of the few African countries I have visited where I did not need a visa upon entry and can you believe they gave me a 60 day visa on my first entry when I only needed to stay for 8 days.

 What lovely people this phenomenal woman came from.