‘You must thank your ancestors’: My strange dinner with Perrance Shiri

Perrance Shiri: the late Agric Minister in March 2020 released regulations on compensation for BIPPAs and black farmers (AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

By David Masunda

Alex Goho, the musician and music producer, called: “Ko iwe svikiro rako raenda ka, nematambudziko!” (condolences, your spirit medium is gone).

A few years ago, I had been informed by a mutual friend, Doloroza Mubvumbi, that Air Marshall Perrance Shiri, the former Commander of Air Force and Minister of Agriculture, who died from Covid-19 this week, wanted a private meeting.

I had had a few run-ins with the Mugabe regime in those days and so was rightly a bit apprehensive. I knew Shiri was a no nonsense man, he was as hard as they come. I knew of the violent, brutal campaign that he had led as Commander of the North Korean-trained Five Brigade to crush ZIPRA dissidents in the early 1980s.

I had a bit of first-hand knowledge of some of the gruesome aspects of the campaign, having joined The Herald in 1983 and been occasionally briefed by journalists who were reporting on the Gukurahundi killings and skirmishes, such as the late William Bango, as reporters at the heart of a big story are wont to do.

Nearer home, Shiri’s driver and personal aide, the late John Masunda, was my cousin. He was my “Mukoma John”. A man of few words, Mukoma John wouldn’t talk much of the Gukurahundi campaign, he was a troubled man.

On many occasions on their way to or from the front, Mukoma John would pass by our apartment in the Avenues, raid the fridge, and drink himself to a stupor.

Because I wasn’t sure whether the Shiri invitation was a social one, or if it was an opportunity by the Air Marshall to “complain” about my writings, I asked Alex Goho to accompany me to the dinner. As some sort of security. I didn’t tell Doloroza that I was bringing an uninvited guest.

Doloroza kept on phoning and checking on how far I was from the venue, so I knew this was indeed an important meeting. A military general doesn’t just drop everything to break bread with anyone, even a senior journalist as I was by then.

Alex and I got to the Great Wall of China restaurant in Belgravia just a few minutes after 1900 hours. We were led to a private room by the restaurant’s employees, who were expecting us. There, sitting beside Doloroza was the huge, dark skinned general.

Doloroza made the introductions and I apologised for the presence of Alex, saying he had only driven me to the venue. I asked if he could stay. The general didn’t object.

Red, red wine

We ordered a bottle of red wine and made small talk. After a while, the general excused himself to go to the bathroom. I noticed he was limping. I said to myself that was probably why he wasn’t drinking. He must be ill.

We continued with the small talk and I could tell the general was picking my mind. He would throw something into the ring and wait for me to respond. If the other two made their contributions but I remained mum, he would solicit for my response.

After another two bottles of red, with the general only taking water or non-alcoholic juice but nibbling at the excellent Chinese cuisine, tongues loosened.

Suddenly he became agitated and blurted out: “Unemudzimu mfana iwe. Tenda mudzimu wako!
In English, it’s something like: “You must be grateful to your ancestors.”

And that’s ominous. It means someone up there has been looking after me and protecting me from danger.

I was dumbfounded. I was shaking. There was a deafening silence. After a while, and with the Dutch courage red wine brings in some of us, I begged the general to explain what he meant.

Despite attempts to glean it out of him, he just repeated it again and would not explain further.
After a while, tension somewhat eased and the talk became light and friendlier. Red wine and Doloroza helped. The general said he looked forward to hosting me at his farm in Shamva.

It was well into the night, and he rose to say his goodbyes. The bill, he said, was on him and we were free to order any more drinks and eats. The restaurant would not close.

I unfortunately never had the chance to honour the invitation to visit his farm. The last time I saw him was in Bikita last year, at the funeral of a very close relative, the late father of Lieutenant General Engelbert Rugeje, Chief Charamba.

The day Shiri died, Alex brought back the memories of that crazy dinner in Belgravia when he phoned to say: “Svikiro rako raenda.”

I have always wondered what Air Marshall Shiri meant when he said I had a very strong guardian angel that looked after me, that strange night at the Great Wall of China restaurant.

I guess now I will never know.

Air Marshall Shiri is gone and he has taken all his secrets to the grave. And there are many.

___

David Masunda is a veteran journalist and editor

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