The Hashim Mbita he didn’t want you to know. . . a Father’s Day golden tale
As it is Father’s Day weekend, Robert Mukondiwa visits the extraordinary deeds and life of one of the continent’s fathers, and shows that there is more to fatherhood than blood.
There are certain individuals life and fate make you stumble upon not to learn from them as they breathe, but rather that we may marvel at their colossal nature when they pass on. Such was the case with Hashim Mbita, the Tanzanian general that was reported to have died on April 26 of 2015.
Reported I say, because even then, the media erred grievously. He was a soldier. A combatant. A hero of several liberation wars across the continent as under his watch, his dedication and chivalry, the Frontline States and indeed the colonial world turned into a free and sovereign Africa in a brave new dispensation of African liberty as the winds of change silently became a breeze of autonomy. How then someone like that could be alleged to have died is what boggles the mind.
After all, it has always been said that soldiers never die, they just fade away. And so it was with Mzee Hashim Mbita as he faded away on April 26, 2015.
I was first to meet with what now was Ambassador Hashim Mbita in the fall of 2005 in the most intimidating of circumstances.
As a junior reporter then for the Sunday Mail, I had unearthed a rich story which had all the hallmarks of a gem of a discovery. Tearjerker, larger than life, inane breakdown of democratic systems, madness, sacrifice and the death of humanity as we ought to know it, the works!
All that was rolled up in this tortilla of a news lunch.
While many sought the story that would not lead them away from their lives and their families as the economy wreaked of a putrid smell they chose to pursue the urban story; while on the other hand pursuing other little things to keep food on the table as the little they got officially got them nowhere — I went the other way.
In typical communist parlance, the companies then pretended to pay them hence they pretended to work. I was naïve and kept at the hard stories sacrificing my personal comforts for that hot scoop and I had landed the ultimate.
The story was of a poor boy from St Albert’s in Muzarabani, Ndaiziveyi Zembenuko, who had had a visit from debt collectors after the school had pursued school fees owed to them. The family had no money and so the father had to be taken into custody until they either paid up the amount or until they served the entire three month period-whichever came first.
The young chap, seeing that his father was extremely old, volunteered to go to prison in his father’s stead and so he served three months and his case was only discovered when he was just about to complete the sentence.
It was shameful. To the judiciary, the education sector, his school. On everyone who had anything to do with the case, not least of all humanity itself. A teenager being made to serve a sentence alongside hardened criminals simply because his family was too poor to raise his school fees.
His father had stayed on looking after his mentally challenged mother. The family had the ultimate and cruel highest qualifications in poverty.
I had then gone off the beaten path and penned the story which I personally entitled ‘‘On Trial For My Poverty’’.
The Tuesday after it was published I found myself in Mzee Mbita’s office-summoned. My little naughty heart was pounding. Had I erred, embarrassed a nation and exposed our system’s flaws to a world just waiting upon a negative Zimbabwe story at the height of international sanctions?
Then he emerged from his office. A large man. With a frame that left the doorway squealing as he somewhat seemed larger than the door itself, one would think this mystical man and his shoulders eased through the walls defying human laws of nature. For certainly how else could he have gotten out?
He had silvery-grey hair and occasional streaks of black atop his head. Once upon a time that hair was probably black but that did not seem altogether certain. And his moustache was the same. Cloud silver.
“You are too young to be the man with such a writing prowess. If at all a boy like you ought to be called a man,” he said I suspect in jest. I could never quite figure if it was jest because he hardly smiled back then never-mind laughed! But as his cautious milk white eyes and deep dark iris seemed to be smiling I fathomed he probably was being funny.
He then told me why I was in the office. An office of the headmaster of the African liberation movement’s highest school. And I felt like I was in the principal’s office indeed.
He wanted me to go with him to see this young man who had suffered such a terrible fate all because he wanted to be educated like the children of the well off.
“Such a thing should be unheard of in the world we live in and in Africa. Least of all here in Zimbabwe,” he declared.
A week later I found myself in his house ready to take him to St Albert’s. We would make the way to St Albert’s in what turned out to be a serious lecture on journalism and how I was on the right path. It was like being with a father.
“You write like a little god of writing,” he had said to me and I was beside myself. “Use that skill for great things and for good things. For selfless pursuits.”
Then he handed me a copy of an environmental writing guide book which he said would enrich my “little growing head” whatever that meant.
When we got to the compound, there was a distinct smell I had encountered when I had gone there in pursuit of my story. Poverty, paucity, lack, dearth, all that had a distinct deathly aroma. It hung and clung onto the family’s clothes.
The smell was there. On their wooden pole houses. On the young man, an ex-convict now that he was. And on is mother. His mentally ill mother whom his father had to wash and bathe at home while his son served a sentence for him on behalf of poverty.
It was even on the handful of chickens that I could swear did not have a single chunk of flesh beneath their poorly feathers which looked like they had been sought from the ‘‘mupedzanhamo’’ of chicken feathers.
Mbita pledged to pay school fees but also to keep the young man at home and not in boarding “,so that he would not get too comfortable and forget his roots and his parents,” had said Mbita.
Mbita held Ndaiziveyi’s hand as only a father could. Right there before me, I saw an adoption by African standards. No paperwork. Just love. Pure love of a young man by a protective loving, warm African elder. It is that hand holding that made me remember today that Father’s Day, tomorrow, has more to do with attitude and stepping up to the plate with love and warmth than just merely being the genetic father of a child.
Any man can make babies. But it takes a real man to be a father.
Then Mbita bought paraffin for reading lamps, food, books, and stationery of all types. Add to that the boy was to visit the ambassador every holiday and get holiday lessons. Making the trek to the city to his new found father in order to get a chance in life.
As we left a new smell hung over the compound. The smell of hope. Hope smells like sweet cinnamon and saccharine revenge to the evils that lack bring upon a family. His family wept with joy as we left as did I silently.
I was terribly happy. A great follow-up story had just presented itself. Before we got to Harare we stopped so Mbita could do a little shopping then worth a couple of million dollars! Rice, sugar, salt, meat, butternuts, apples, bananas. I was not surprised. As huge a man as he was, he certainly needed the supplies! ‘‘The man has an appetite bless him,’’ I thought to myself.
Soon he dropped me off in the Avenues in
the tiny cockroach infested hole that I lived in. He also dropped off the groceries. Apparently they were not for the large Army General with a gravelly grunting apparition in lieu of a voice. They were for the underpaid journalist with a ‘‘growing head’’.
I must confess though that haven’t really seen significant ‘‘growth’’ in my head since then.
As he left he came very close to smiling. “This was done from my heart to help that boy achieve his dreams. It is not a story. Don’t write about it!” And with that instruction my follow up was as dead as the hair cells on the top of Donald Trump’s head. But as with Biblical characters who told stories Jesus himself had said ought to remain secret, I have broken that story and I have told you, dear reader, the story.
I was later to see him at many forums. Visited him at his home several times. Got many lessons. Eventually saw him smile. Oh, and he did laugh heartily once in a while. A very long while. Apparently he could laugh as well. Thankfully. And the joke was often that the ambassador’s son has come to get more lessons from the old man. That is how I became the son of a diplomat. A diplomat who was also Ndaiziveyi Zembenuko’s father. A shared father. Who was a lot of things; selfless and loving. And intimidating and scary!
Now he has faded away like with every army general.
I know Mzee you said I ought to never tell this story but some things have to be told. Some selfless deeds have to be celebrated. And some lives, like yours, have to be hailed. Continue to rest in peace Mzee Hashim Mbita. Kwaheri Mzee Mbita.
You and people like you have to be remembered on this day. Father’s Day. For it is your day until eternity!