Man in the Middle: A Memoir

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Man in the Middle: A Memoir, by Father Fidelis Mukonori, SJ; Harare: The House of Books, 2017, Pb x +301; ISBN: 978-0-7974-7973-9

“Why plagiarise a title?” That was the question I had in mind when I started reading Mukonori’s book, knowing that a similar title pre-existed. In the end, I could not think of a better title for the memoir of this man who stands right in the middle of everything that is Zimbabwe’s struggle for political liberation and socioeconomic freedom. The narrative gets better as one reads on, ultimately manifesting the author’s unmatched capacity to bring friend and foe to the negotiating table and to midwife common solutions. Drawn from Mukonori’s incredible oratory skills, the book reads like a story told around evening bonfire, gradually revealing many layers of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, from leaders in exile to women and men on the war front, and to simple villagers who hid and fed “terrorists” or “freedom fighters” (depending on the side you pick).

Mukonori weaves a narrative that is generally one of the shared heroism of the people of Zimbabwe, who were displaced from their land by colonialists, oppressed by a racist Rhodesian regime, fought for and won political freedom, but are yet to regain the land and put it to good use. The reader would have heard this from elsewhere. Yet, Mukonori adds missing marrow to the dry bones. “Much of what I saw and what we did has been lost to history,” he contends, “and this book will look to fill in some of the more crucial gaps that many Zimbabweans have and must accept if we are to ever heal the divisions which have existed for too long and continue to plague us today” (p. 52). Further, he writes to “add the perspective that historians rarely understand” (p. 64), to expose some of the “dirty secrets of our history” (p. 167), and to explain why “we are where we are today” (p. 274), basically meaning politically free but still fighting for land and other essential resources for a decent life.

The author’s objectives are largely met. Mukonori introduces new insights into the story of Zimbabwe and provides facts that future students of the history must consider. For example, the role of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) in gathering information, providing credible data, helping parties negotiate, and lobbying with the international community, makes an interesting case for what religious bodies can do to rescue a society that is held hostage by bad politics. Moreover, although nearly everyone who has discussed Zimbabwe’s performance agrees that Gukurahundi—the brutal suppression of a dissident insurgency in Matabeleland, effected by a Fifth Brigade created by then Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and trained by North Koreans, which left thousands of civilians dead and, to date, still engulfs the country in a silence born of shock—is an embarrassing scar on the country’s post-independence image, few have traced its origins back to pre-independence strife between exiled factions of the liberation movement the way Mukonori does. Furthermore, in Mukonori’s narrative, the process of integrating war veterans into society, which dragged for far too long and eventually came down to distributing cash to men and women who had no clue what to do with it, stands out as a horrendous failure that  still hounds the country. In Mukonori’s view, by demanding payment Zimbabwe’s war veterans became what mercenaries are, not liberators who should be merely thanked by providing them with means for self-sustenance (p. 274).

The central role of a Catholic Priest in Zimbabwe’s political history has always raised curiosity. By writing the memoir, Mukonori goes a long way to making his own voice heard. In the end, the memoir gives the lie to the caricature of its author as a double-standardied, morally duplicitous stooge of Mugabe, as found in Heidi Holland’s Dinner with Mugabe. In Man in the Middle, Mukonori appears as one Zimbabwean who, even as a man of cloth, wouldn’t just sit back and watch his country go down the drain. “I love Zimbabwe” is his opening sentence, and “Long live Zimbabwe!” is his last. “I have two great loves: God and my country,” he declares, hastening to add: “I knew God would never want me to choose between one or the other” (p. 301). Doubtlessly, many a religious or cleric will identify with this passion for God and country.

Given Mukonori’s role in recent events that brought Mugabe’s rule to an end, his memoir might be sold out by now. That should create an opportunity for a second edition, not a reprint. That very end of Mugabe’s rule, seen from Mukonori’s perspective, is valuable material for a stimulating additional chapter. The author would also have chance to allow more credit to the people he calls “couch historians” who persistently miss the point (pp. 64, 269). With time, we are likely to be swamped with other memoirs by eyewitnesses who interpret the same events differently. For the most part, Mukonori’s memoir will become a necessary resource for those very historians whose lot it will be to reconcile its “facts” with those from other equally valid but competing narratives. When the second edition is done, the author might also drop words like what Americans only dare to euphemise as “the ‘n’ word” (pp. 203, 207, 213) and eliminate typos that, for example, leave the reader wondering who “Olugesun Obasanjo” is (p.115).

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