In a radio interview with Wanda Sabir on wandaspicks.com this morning we touched on my poem “To See or Not to See (Zimbabwe Was Once Rhodesia),” in which I purport to have spotted Robert Mugabe in Chicago. I spoke of my failed attempt to write a companion Mugabe poem based on the time I actually did meet the future Prime Minister and eventual President of Zimbabwe while working as a foreign correspondent in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
During my five years in Addis Ababa I was very close to cadre from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union who were there for military training. The reference I make in my poem “Plotting At The Ras Hotel” to a Zimbabwean guerilla who is no longer able to eat foufou (which would be like an American not being able to eat a hotdog bun) actually comes out of many conversations I had with these liberation fighters over lunch at their Villa. We were all around the same age so we would “hang out.” They set up an interview between Mugabe and myself at the local Hilton Hotel.
At the time of the interview in 1979 Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia, but Mugabe already expected to be treated as a head of state (it’s a national liberation leader thing) and asked to see my questions in advance.
Earlier that morning I’d heard a report on the BBC, in which Mugabe’s “rival” inside of the national liberation struggle, Joshua Nkomo, president of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, had made news by openly speaking of the two liberation’s group’s internecine struggle. When Mugabe read that question, and others associated with their rivalry, he sent his cadre back in the room where I was waiting with the message “Comrade Michael, Comrade Mugabe would prefer to concentrate on the anti-imperialist struggle.”
I had to switch gears on the spot. I am pretty sure that was the first time I had interviewed a future Prime Minister. At least half of my questions fell firmly in the “non anti-imperialist struggle” category, so after a short interview, padded with a few “new” questions I already knew the answers to, I handed Mugabe my original list of questions and said “Comrade Mugabe would you be so kind to look at these questions again and see if you might find a few to answer.”
Mugabe calmly took the sheet of paper, looked at the questions, and actually found a few he is willing to address. Before I was escorted out of the room, for the first time in the interview he smiled, and says “So you got your questions answered anyway.” In a hurry to get out of the room I replied by saying “ Well, seven out of ten is not too bad.”
I tried to tell that story in a poem, but could not find the poetry. Following is the poem in “The Armageddon of Funk” that Wanda and I discussed:
To See or Not to See (Zimbabwe Was Once Rhodesia)
I saw Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe, driving a
“Flash” taxi by “Vee Vee’s African Restaurant” in Uptown,
Chicago, where a meal at each backyard reunion must include
something barbequed from every kitchen of the world.
In this United Nations of neighborhoods a guerilla turned
head-of-state, once overthrown, just might weave undetected
through imperialism’s circular traffic, wooden beads across
his back, a see-through bulletproof borderline dividing his
imposed seat of exile from his passenger.
He might conceal a Saturday Night Special, more dangerous
these days than the Kalashnikov rifles a freedom fighter once
smuggled to Africa from the fabled Soviet Union long before
this cascading catastrophe after Zimbabweans fought, died,
liberated, signed, cried, waited, waited, waited, and took
promised, undelivered, soil, taking their “40 acres and a mule”
from white estates for power, reparations and enough to eat.
Mugabe – the dictator – is nowhere near Chicago. He lives
among offspring of Cecil Rhodes and Ian Smith, never named
dictators, or even thieves, their control camouflaged in flawed
accords and inheritance. Tainted history holds the most fertile
and desired farmland for ransom from the Africans it belonged
to before the massacres of “discovery,” when the dazzling glory
of diamonds, chrome, and gold, blinded world morality,
enabling the massacres we never see.