Construction began in 1981, a year after independence, and continues on a hill overlooking Harare. It is a favourite spot for President Robert Mugabe to deliver bombastic speeches denouncing his foes. This hallowed cemetery is also the place where, though his supporters are seemingly in denial about his mortal flesh, Mugabe will one day be buried.
My tour of Heroes Acre began in a poky gallery amid wooden stepladders and cans of paint. A temporary exhibition about the role of women in the struggle against white minority rule was being taken down. A guide, Manuel Kazowa, drove me through the rustic 140-acre grounds explaining that the wildlife includes monkeys and giant snakes.
We came to a stop at the imposing black granite, bronze and stone shrine but looked the other way at something more arresting. In the distance we could see two nude male bathers, the sun glistening on their backs and their bottoms. Kazowa’s sister, accompanying him to learn the ropes, grinned. Kazowa shouted at the men and, suddenly embarrassed, they ducked hastily out of sight. There must be an architect somewhere who gets very rich furnishing the world’s dictators. There’s a familiar idiom: the sweeping plaza, the heroic statues and sculptures, the gimmicky monument to an ego blind to its own vulgarity. It’s designed to make you feel like an ant crawling over an elephant. At Heroes Acre I was immediately reminded of my first view of Saddam Hussein’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad, or crouching before socialist-realist grandstanding in China and the former Soviet Union.
So it came as no surprise to learn that the design team included seven architects from North Korea. From the air, the mausoleum is meant to resemble an AK47 rifle, the most potent weapon in the guerrilla war for independence, with the central stairway as the barrel, the obelisk as the bayonet and the graves as the bullets in their chambers. “After the tour I promise to exhume one body for you, do you like it?” began Kazowa. “You can just tell me which one you want to be exhumed. I’m just joking, people. This is National Heroes Acre, whereby the gallant sons and daughters who sacrificed their lives for our freedom are laid to rest.” He pointed to Stalinesque bronze friezes depicting the African nationalist war for independence. In one scene, white Rhodesian soldiers, wielding rifles and batons and marshalling a ferocious hound, terrorise a black woman who has fallen to the ground, a baby clinging to her back.
Above the friezes sit statues of the Zimbabwean national emblem, the African fish eagle. We climbed up the steps of the monument, comprising tiered black granite and cobblestones that represent the Great Zimbabwe walls.
Kazowa pointed to the spot where Mugabe habitually proclaims, “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again!” and the gaudy bronze statue of the Unknown Soldier, depicting a male soldier with a flag, a male soldier with a bazooka, and a female soldier with an AK47. Kazowa continued: “Behind the statue we’ve got that skyscraper. We call it the tower, but I think it should be called an obelisk. That obelisk is 40 metres high. The white top is an eternal flame. Whenever you come across the flame flickering, it depicts the spirit of independence. It also says to the people of Zimbabwe to keep on working hard for the cause of national purity.” There are 76 male and four female heroes buried here. Among them is the president’s late wife, Sarah Francesca Mugabe, whose tomb has her picture and the biblical inscription, “And make her the mother of nations”. To its left are several empty graves, but it is uncertain whether 85-year-old Mugabe will lie by her side. Kazowa insisted that the plots cannot be booked in advance.
I stopped at the tombs of Mugabe’s guerrilla rival Dr Joshua Nkomo, Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi, the hammer of white farmers, and Arthur Guy Clutton-Brock, a British social worker who continued to assist the independence struggle even after he was expelled by Ian Smith’s government. He was the first white man to be declared a national hero by Zimbabwe. But to be British here is to carry the disease of colonialism. The curator of Heroes Acre turned up and asked if I was enjoying the visit. Then he turned to Kazowa and spoke in a different language. What he said, I discovered later, was: “Did you tell him we have taken the land? We have taken it forever.” Mugabe decides who’s in and who’s out of Heroes Acre. When in opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change boycotted state funerals, refusing to endorse his narrow definition of heroism. But the MDC’s leader, prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai, did attend a burial in March, the first at the site since he joined the country’s peculiar team of rivals. I asked Kazowa if Tsvangirai will one day be laid to rest in this pantheon. He hesitated. “That one is very difficult for me to answer,” he said, bursting into laughter. “I cannot disclose anything about that. It’s too sensitive. It’s the politicians who will decide. I’m just a tour guide.”Post published in: News