Mugabe shows a softer side
By appearing in public this week, President Robert Mugabe put paid to rumours that he had died weeks ago and that the government was hiding the fact.
A crowd big enough to fill a small stadium descended on Mugabe's rural home in Kutama village in Zvimba for the burial of his sister, Bridget Mugabe.
Among them were government officials, service chiefs, diplomats, top civil servants and Zanu-PF supporters, as well as villagers — not because they knew her or because she was popular.
Even the party seemed to struggle to imbue her with liberation heroine status, which is lower than provincial or national status.
Instead, the funeral was an opportunity to show loyalty to the president. All the government ministers attended, except for those who were out of the country.
Owing to the large turnout, mourners were stopped from the tradition of individually shaking the hand of the president and offering their condolences because, according to the master of ceremonies, "it would take forever".
Bridget's loving nature
Relatives attributed the large turnout to Bridget's loving nature. They said she was known as "tete" (aunt) because of her selflessness. She raised the children of many relatives and always helped the community.
But clearly others just wanted to see how Mugabe was: Could he stand unaided? Would he speak? Was he gravely ill and was the government covering up his alleged illness — and perhaps even his death, as suggested in some foreign media recently?
In his eulogy for his late sister, Mugabe cracked jokes, despite the evident pain etched on his face, and used the funeral to quash rumours that his health had deteriorated — a point he made by refusing to rest against the podium while delivering his speech.
He spoke for more than an hour with no signs of tiring; not once did he need any form of physical support.
He appeared to be in even better shape than he was towards the end of last year when he was giving short speeches and often leant on the podium for support.
He said he had no secret for long life and had no idea how he had survived for so long, even outliving Bridget, who was 79. Mugabe turns 90 on February 21.
Cooking for freedom fighters
Like Mugabe, Bridget was also a teacher by profession and she was credited with cooking the last meal for the seven freedom fighters who fired the first shots of the Second Chimurenga (war of liberation) in Chinhoyi in 1966.
Using the opportunity to claim his place in history, her nephew Leo Mugabe recounted how it was he whom Bridget sent to feed the guerrillas who were hiding in a banana plantation and how the seven were all killed after a clash with Rhodesian forces the next day.
He said Bridget was arrested for her role and tortured. The Zanu-PF secretary for administration, Didymus Mutasa, later said that, for that act alone, Bridget deserved a higher status to be bestowed on her, suggesting she was fit to be a national or provincial heroine.
But the funeral was all but a state-sponsored affair. Soldiers from the presidential guard carried her white casket covered by the Zimbabwean flag. The funeral lunch was served by uniformed soldiers.
At home and in his element, Mugabe gave rare insights into his childhood history and private life — something he has guarded against in interviews with the media.
Born the third child, he said, circumstances forced him to care for his siblings after the death of his two older brothers and father.
Mugabe's father's identity
"My parents wed on August 15 1918 and the first child in our family, Michael, was born in 1919.
"The second born, Raphael, was born in 1922. I never saw him because he died when he was six months old. There was a diarrhoea outbreak at the time and he was one of the victims," Mugabe said. "Michael died in 1934. He was poisoned."
He said, after Michael's death, his father, a skilled carpenter, was so bitter that he decided to leave his rural home and went to stay in Bulawayo, leaving him and his siblings in the care of relatives.
But Mugabe skirted the issue of his father's identity — something that remains undocumented. Rumours abound that his father was a Malawian national.
He said his father did not visit his family for several years, resulting in the young Mugabe becoming very bitter and which led to him writing his father a strongly worded letter in 1939 to express his disappointment. But he said his uncles forced him to apologise to his father because the letter was too severe.
Mugabe said he finished school in 1941 and, in 1943, when he was a teacher, he decided to visit his father, who had moved to Tsholotsho.
He said his father had remarried and the couple had two children, Albert and David. He said he was well received by his father and left on a good note but, unbeknown to him, his father was ill.
Mugabe said, in 1944, while he was teaching at the Dadaya Mission in Midlands province near Zvishavane, his father returned home to Bulawayo with his three children and in-laws. In 1945, the young Mugabe went to Bulawayo on holiday. An uncle told him his father had died.
"I came back to see him. He was already buried," he said. "He had brought back his three children and not only that but [also] his in-laws. I said to myself: ‘Oh God, what shall I do to take care of these two families?'"
Mugabe said that, after a discussion with his mother, she agreed to care for the stepchildren and they had grown up as a united family.
The deaths, Mugabe said, made him assume responsibility at a young age and he did his best to ensure that his siblings were well educated.
He said that, of his two sisters, Sabina was more practical whereas Bridget was theoretical.
He said Bridget, who lived with him at State House, was less successful in life and had depended on him for survival. Bridget collapsed at Sabina's funeral in 2010 and was in a coma for more than three years.