Ever since I was young, I’d always wanted to attend one of President Robert Mugabe’s birthday parties. At school, the headmaster would call out the names of children born on Mugabe’s birthday, 21 February. Whenever they returned from the president’s parties they would be paraded on stage before the whole school at assembly. On the day of the 21st February Movement, children would wear these bright red sashes around their necks, beaming with pride.
I envied them.
But this year, I finally got my chance. Not that I was still dying to go – obviously, the fascination has worn off with age – it was my job to be there.
This year’s bash was at a preparatory school where the summerhouse of British imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes II, was once built. His remains are buried on a hill close by. The irony of Mugabe, a man strong in anti-colonial rhetoric and pan-Africanist sentiment, holding a $2.5 million birthday party on Rhodes’s former estate in one of the poorest, most drought-prone regions in the country, was hard to miss.
But that didn’t deter the crowds.
Nor did the fact that hundreds of people who were killed during the ethnic massacres of the 1980s were buried within these hills. Tens of thousands of people were sprawled out on a rugby field, with many probably silently praying against the rain clouds gathering in the sky. During the 21 February Movement, girls in their red and white polka dot dresses and boys in their grey shorts excitedly sat waiting for the speeches to end.
Admittedly, it was a heartwarming moment to see the president’s sons handing out little boxes of cake to the children, but looking back on all the expenses leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
In the days leading up to the event, the streets of Bulawayo were filled with buses of party chanting Mugabe’s totem, “Gushungo, Gushungo!”, when government doctors are striking for better salaries and ordinary folk are queuing up overnight just to withdraw money. Several civil servants I know told me they were required to contribute $1 from their salaries.
Last Thursday, most public and private schools in Bulawayo were closed following a directive issued by the Ministry of Education calling on schools to close for two days to allow children to attend a march in Mugabe’s honour and to make way for the masses of people who’d be in need of accommodation.
As a child who looked up to the president, his birthday parties always seemed like such a thing, but with the financial mess Zimbabwe is in and all the difficult times the country has lived through, perhaps it’s time to rethink the day. With less money on the gig and more focus on the youth, the 21st February Movement could be more of a force for good rather than scorn among Zimbabwe’s disillusioned young.