Gatecrashing Robert Mugabe’s birthday party A true story

As Robert Mugabe prepares to celebrate his 91st birthday by tucking into elephant and lion at a party thrown in his honour, I thought I’d share an extract from my book, Swahili for the Broken-Hearted, where I snuck into similar celebrations at a stadium near Victoria Falls.


A huge billboard had been erected overnight outside the SPAR supermarket informing the good people of Victoria Falls that President Mugabe was coming to their town the next day to celebrate his birthday. The celebration included a public rally at the stadium with free beer and steaks for everyone. Apparently he chose a different town each year.

The party was being held in a stadium in Chinotimba, the black part of town. Here people sleep in shacks, not hotels, and buy their food from scruffy market stalls instead of restaurants. It is where the touts, the maids, the waiters and the cleaners that serve the tourists live and I was interested to see how they would react to Mugabe. After all, his policies were affecting their livelihood just as much as that of the tour companies and tourist hotels.

I told the guy running Shoestrings that I wanted to go and he said I was crazy. ‘Mr Mugabe isn’t too fond of white people,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure that you would be welcome.’

The presidential visit transformed Victoria Falls. On the day of the birthday party there was a group of policemen on every corner. Busloads of school kids in crisp, neat uniforms were trucked in from all over the country. They waited in lines at the Municipal Camping Ground, practising their singing and clapping while their teachers marked a roll.

Well-dressed dignitaries and party faithful wandered the streets, sweating in the heat and killing time before the show began. The men wore suits; the women wore bright sarongs, or kangas, as they are known in East Africa, featuring the president’s face. Everyone wore a laminated pass.

I followed a line of school children, still singing and clapping, as they filed across an empty block towards the stadium. The stadium was completely walled, but I could see the tops of white marquees being put up especially for the occasion. It was only 10 am but there were already thousands of people lining up to get in. I decided to have a Pepsi before I joined the queue.

A tout I had befriended during my stay spotted me and came over to say hello. His name was David and he asked me what I was doing up in Chinotimba. When I told him that I was going to the president’s birthday party, he didn’t seem surprised. Nor did he tell me that I wouldn’t be welcome. I had noticed that with black Africans. Unlike the whites, it didn’t even cross their minds that I shouldn’t be in a particular part of town, or in a minivan or at the birthday celebrations of an African president.

They weren’t letting anyone into the stadium until lunchtime so David invited me back to his place to drink some chibuku.

Beer sign in Zimbabwe

Chibuku is native beer, a white effervescent liquid made from sorghum, maize and yeast that is cheap and potent. It comes in two sizes: one-litre cardboard cartons (like milk), or the more affordable two-litre ‘scuds’ (brown plastic bottles with a blue screw top). The scuds have the advantage of being returnable and David kept a stash of empties that he had found abandoned, using the return fee to help purchase the next one.

David lived in a shack at the side of an established house. The owner had divided the house into lots of rooms and filled all the space in the yard with shacks to maximise the earning potential of the property. David lived in one of the bare-floored shacks. It was tiny, with only room for a bed, so we sat on the steps, under the shade of a frangipani tree, passing the scud of chibuku between us. It was awful, a fibrous liquid with a tangy aftertaste that left me feeling ill. I took little sips and when it was finished I gave David some money to buy some more.

David showed me a certificate he had received from the Salesman Institute of Harare. He was doing a correspondence course in marketing through them. He sent them $Z600 a month and in return they sent him books and course material. It sounded a bit dodgy to me, but he was very happy with the course.

Sensing I wasn’t convinced, he demonstrated some of the techniques he had learned. ‘Sometimes a customer thinks he knows everything,’ he said. ‘You must agree, but bring him around. Others are scared and say, “No! No! No!” But they really want your product, so you must allay their fears.’

Other tactics were needed when dealing with people that David described as ‘big shots’. The example he gave was Michael Jackson, and while I had a hard time imagining just what a raft trip tout from Zimbabwe would be flogging Mr Plastic Surgery, I let him continue.

‘He will say I have no time,’ explained David. ‘So you say, “I would really like to tell you about my product. When can I come and see you? Let’s make an appointment.” He agrees and that’s when you know you have him!’

I nodded my head. I hadn’t realised it was that easy.

When we returned to the stadium, the queues were longer but at least they were moving. David dragged me towards the entrance, using my whiteness as an excuse to get to the front of the queue. No one complained. They smiled, happy to see me as a guest.

Inside it was like a normal sportsground. There was a podium on the far side of the ground, backed by a poster of Mugabe like the one that had mysteriously appeared in town. (I figured this was where Bob would make a passionate speech about the importance of kicking white farmers off their land.) For the moment though, everyone’s attention was focused on the two marquees that had been erected on the soccer pitch. One served beer – litre cartons of chibuku tossed from plastic milk crates to outstretched hands. The other dished up barbecued kebabs of gristly meat. I grabbed a spot on a grassy hill and David went off for the beer and meat. He successfully used his queue-jumping techniques and was back within 15 minutes. I gave the chibuku a miss and after chewing the kebab for 20 minutes gave up on that too.

‘I am really looking forward to the marching band,’ said David, wiping grease from his chin. ‘It is always a highlight.’

Just after two the president’s limousine entered the stadium through a side gate. I stood up with the rest of the crowd and strained to catch a glimpse of the man. Just as a lackey in a uniform went to the back of the car to open the door for the president I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was a big black guy in a tight-fitting suit. Judging by the earpiece he was a member of the CIO, the Zimbabwean secret police. ‘What are you doing here?’ he snapped.

I said that I was celebrating the president’s birthday and a dark look came over his face as though he thought I was taking the piss. He clearly didn’t like me and, judging by the way the vein on his temple was throbbing, he was only just controlling an urge to thump me. Just when I thought his eyes couldn’t look any crazier he spat on the ground beside me. ‘Get lost!’ he shouted. Just in case I didn’t understand what he was saying he opened his jacket to reveal a revolver in its holster.

David gave me the kind of look that suggested I should do as the man said, and while I was at it, not mention that I was there with him. As it was, the guy grabbed me by the arm and forcefully took me to the entrance anyway, tossing me onto the street just as the marching band struck their first note.

I dusted myself off and walked back into town. Just outside the Kingdom Hotel a policeman yelled out ‘Hey Aussie!’ and motioned me over. I thought the word was out that I was some international troublemaker to be arrested on sight, but it was the policeman I had chatted to on the Zambezi Bridge. He shook my hand vigorously and I asked him what he was doing in town.

‘Just waiting for the old man,’ he said, referring to the president. ‘He’ll go back to his hotel room and then out to the airport. He’s not hanging around, never does.’

A wail of sirens announced the arrival of the presidential cavalcade, and soon a convoy of limousines, police cars and army jeeps full of soldiers swept by us and into the drive in front of the hotel. The drive was circular, and not designed to accommodate so many vehicles so it quickly became grid-locked. The soldiers jumped out of the jeeps and tried directing the cars, but their efforts at clearing the traffic jam were thwarted by a milk truck that had arrived to make a delivery and was blocking the only entrance.

It was a farcical scene captured for ‘Funniest Home Video’ shows around the world by well-heeled tourists with digital video cameras. Eventually Mugabe was hustled into the hotel surrounded by bodyguards. My friend the policeman just shook his head.

Swahili for the Broken-Hearted

Swahili for the Broken-Hearted

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