10 Surprising Facts About Young Robert Mugabe

Amid reports that Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has been elected to a seventh term in elections widely described as fraudulent, it's hard to find anyone who can say a kind word about one of Africa's most notorious despots. But people used to the Western media's coverage of Mugabe might not know that things weren't always like this. Mugabe was one of the most prominent African revolutionaries before Zimbabwe's independence, and what's happened to him since he took power in 1980 could only be described as a fall from grace. Here are 10 facts about the young Mugabe that will surprise most Westerners.

1. He was educated at a Jesuit mission in Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then called). An old Irish priest was his mentor.

2. He was an unusually disciplined and stern young man. He had a difficult youth after all — by age 10, he had lost both of his two older brothers. One died of poisoning, and shortly after his Malawian father left the family.

3. He was a schoolteacher before becoming a revolutionary. No wonder education was a priority when he took over. Under his leadership, Zimbabweans became the most literate people in Africa.

4. His last teaching stint was in Ghana. Newly independent from Britain, Ghana was a hub for young African nationalists at the time. It had its effect on Mugabe. After two years there, he returned to Zimbabwe to join the revolution.

5. His first wife, Sally, was Ghanaian. Zimbabweans would come to love her when Mugabe was prime minister and president. They would call her amai, or mother.

6. Once back in Zimbabwe, the Rhodesians put him in prison. They kept him there for 10 years. When his first son with Sally died from malaria in Ghana, he was denied permission to attend the funeral. Some say the decision was made directly by Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia. Some say Mugabe never forgave Smith for that.

7. He has seven university degrees. Six of them were obtained by distance learning while in prison. They cover education, economics, administration, and law.

8. A white nun helped him to escape from Zimbabwe once he was released from prison. With Rhodesian agents in hot pursuit, he just managed to cross into Mozambique, where the revolutionary armies were based.

9. He consolidated his power quickly when he became leader of ZANU, the dominant revolutionary movement in Zimbabwe. Several competitors died under mysterious circumstances, others were rejected from the party.

10. He was on the short list for the 1981 Nobel Peace Prize. When he won the new Zimbabwe’s first election, he renounced retribution against whites. “Our people, young and old, men and women, black and white, living and dead, are, on this occasion, being brought together in a new form of national unity that makes them all Zimbabweans.”

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Patrick Van Nieuwenhuizen

Patrick spent two years as co-founder and co-president of Upenyu Health Group, a non-profit focused on eradicating worms from rural Zimbabwe. Now he is a medical student at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Previously he studied physics at Princeton University.

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