COLUMN | Of kung-fu masters, the great Dr Angeline Kamba, and the art of mentorship

Mentorship: Angeline Kamba (pic: Zimpapers)

In which Chris Kabwato makes the link between kung-fu movies, Bruce Lee, and the lessons of mentorship from one of the leading lights of Zimbabwean arts and culture – the late Dr Angeline Kamba


Once, I passed through an international airport and saw something in one of the duty-free shops that had my heart beating with excitement like a muchongoyo drum. I had espied a set of six DVDs of Bruce Lee movies nicely packaged and well-priced too. I bought the package in haste as if the price might just change.

In my childhood, back in the Republic of Dangamvura, Bruce Lee was revered. We had stories for days about his life and death – mostly all fake even though the indanet and soshomedia were not part of our imagination.

When I got home with my new stash of DVDs, I was eager to watch with the young ones. But re-watching The Fist of Fury after a couple of decades, I was disturbed. I realised the storylines could be very tacky. It was not really a new insight; in our teens we used to laugh that the premise of a fight in a kung-fu movie could be as simple as:

“You insulted my sister 1000 years ago. LET’S FIGHT!”

But there was one edifying quality to these cheesy flicks. I picked up from the Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies one common motif – there was always an old man who lived as a hermit but who was extremely skilled in the art of kung fu. This “teacher” was the master of a certain way or ‘school’ of kung-fu. It could even be kung-fu (Chinese) versus karate (Japanese) and the anti-imperial undertones.

Always – by some coincidence – the teacher would accidentally encounter our hero (Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan) and the hero would beg the master repeatedly to be taught how to fight. But the master would not make it easy. The master knew that the pupil simply wanted to learn the tricks of the trade and rush off for revenge. The master also needed to work on the maturity of the student.

Enter the mentor

I left the University of Zimbabwe at the turn of the 90s raw as they come. Whilst the university had done a good job of teaching us critical thinking, it had neglected the soft skills; communication, writing a CV, interviewing for a job, etiquette. I suppose our university administrators and academics thought these social skills were the province of the home and the school.

Just like in the movies, now entered a mentor to save the unkempt ruffian. In 1994, I was asked by my director if I was interested in assisting Mrs Angeline Kamba as a ‘researcher’. It was not a job per se – it was more of playing the role of a sounding board. Without hesitation, I readily accepted. At that time, Mrs Kamba was a Public Service Commissioner and her offices were at the NSSA Building.

Some notes on the master

Mrs Kamba was appointed the Director of the National Archives of Zimbabwe (NAZ) shortly after our independence in 1980 when she returned to the country from the United Kingdom where she had been in charge of the University of Dundee Law Library. A consummate professional librarian and archivist, she led the transformation of NAZ into a documentation entity that served all of society instead of a privileged segment. She was vice-president of the International Council on Archives from 1984 to 1988. Given her intellect, passion and international profile, Mrs Kamba was appointed a member of the UNESCO World Commission on Culture and Development and became a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Rice Research Institute. In later years, she would chair the Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA).

Angeline and Walter Kamba at the farewell event at University of Dundee, UK, 1980


Into the lion’s den – sort of

It was this formidable person that I made an appointment to see at the Public Service Commission offices. The moment I entered the huge reception area of her offices, ultra-tidy and with a stern PA sizing me up, my heart sank. I had not cut my hair. Instead, I had what we called ‘pushback’. With the then culture of ‘one-for-the-road’ every single day, I was furiously chewing some mints to kill the fumes of Delta Beverages. I had not done much investment in formal attire either (courtesy of a serious flirtation with the reggae fraternity).

Ushered into Mrs Kamba’s office and directed to an easy chair around a low coffee table, I found my shoes thankfully sinking into the Persian carpet. The shoes could hide a while. Tea in dainty chinaware was next. Mrs Kamba was at her desk finishing off a call. I was a total contrast to her. She tall, aristocratic, confident. Me…

Anyway, she greeted me warmly and expanded on her request. She sat on a few international boards, she explained, and with the one linked to the United Nations she was going to make a series of presentations on the link between culture and development. I got the brief and, in a pre-internet era, I spent time in public libraries researching. I would twice a month or so meet with her to discuss some of my findings. We had lively discussions in which she treated me as if I was a peer.

Observing the master

Mrs Kamba would share with me her drafts of the addresses or presentations for international conferences with one instruction: make changes where you deem fit and then let’s discuss. Given her extreme eloquence and the way she seemed to be able to choose just the right word to express a thought, I had no choice but to raise my game. I put so much into the research and into my summaries. I had parked away the language that my buddy and I used to throw at each other: “It is a catalogue of unmitigated cataclysmic catastrophes.”

She was a driven, energetic, credible and pleasant person. Watching her in action was a study in efficiency and application of intelligence. She always demanded excellence in everything she did – public service, arts and culture, board duties and international engagements.

I became more confident with each encounter and to avoid the forbidding gaze of the personal assistant, I upgraded my appearance. I now had a navy-blue blazer courtesy of a Sales House account.

When the mentor does the reference letter

Well after the research gig was over, I kept in touch with Mrs Kamba and would confide in her on my career trajectory. When I applied for a job at an international cultural agency, I asked her if she could provide me with a reference letter. I have kept intact a copy of the classic letter she wrote. It was a letter that opened doors for me whilst also creating the burden of trying to match the qualities highlighted in the missive.

I hope you too, dear reader, find a mentor who impacts your life.