The Lion of Zimbabwe looks to polls to end exile

March 25th, 2008 - 9:00 am ICT by admin  

By Clare Byrne
Harare, March 25 (DPA) Five years of separation from the country whose struggles inspired all his music has wounded the Lion of Zimbabwe, Thomas Mapfumo. Speaking down the line from his home in Oregon, US, he admits: “I feel so bad.”

Mapfumo is talking about his exile from Zimbabwe, where he invented the country’s own brand of struggle music during the last days of minority white rule in the 1970s, earning him a short prison term and the status of national icon.

“I’ve been away from home for such a long time,” he sighs.

Mapfumo, 62, is probably the best known of the estimated 4 million Zimbabwean exiles who have been squeezed out of the country by economic hardship and political oppression over the past decade.

His fall from grace with President Robert Mugabe’s government began in 1989 when the voice of the chirumenga (struggle in his native Shona, also the term for his style of protest music) trained his sights on the new government.

In 1989 he released an album entitled Corruption and for years afterwards was harassed by the state. Government spies used to come looking for him at his home. They also warned one of his friends, who worked in the presidency: “The president doesn’t like you to go to Mukanya’s (Mapfumo’s nickname) place.”

In the late 1990s he moved to Oregon. Since 2003, he hasn’t been back Zimbabwe - not even for the funeral of his mother who died on Christmas Day, 2007.

“I’ve been hearing a lot of rumours, you know, about some people trying to harm me,” he says.

Mapfumo still sings in Shona mostly and tries to stoke opposition to Mugabe’s repressive rule but the tone is less angry, more reflective.

In his 2005 album entitled Rise Up, he urges “Let’s go, father” while trying to reason with Mugabe, saying: “I’m one of your own so don’t hate me for what I say.”

Several of his more recent songs are banned in Zimbabwe, where state-controlled radio prefers his old revolutionary tunes, but his name is still spoken with reverence across the country.

“Mapfumo was the best but they chased him away,” says Eddie, a taxi driver in Harare about half the singer’s age.

Like many Zimbabwean exiles Mapfumo is sceptical about the prospects for change in the upcoming elections, in which 84-year-old Mugabe is seeking to extend his 28 years in office.

Asked for his thoughts on former finance minister and ex-ruling Zanu-PF politburo member Simba Makoni, who is standing against Mugabe in the polls, Mapfumo shoots back: “How can you trust someone like that?”

Longtime opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai gets a slightly more favourable response. “We all used to think that Tsvangirai would be given enough room to manoeuvre but he seems to be doing not much for the people.”

Mapfumo, by now a grandfather, continues to tour internationally, keeping in touch with his fans through his page on the Myspace social networking website and keeping tabs on the situation in Zimbabwe.

“I have friends who are in the ruling party, even some ministers, and police. They sometimes call me on the phone,” he says.

“I was thinking maybe if there’s any chance of these elections coming out clean … maybe if there’s a moderate leader, there’s a chance we’ll be able to go back home.”

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