By Alex Magaisa –
I tossed and turned all night. Sleep was a reluctant and indifferent companion. How could one’s mind be at ease when it was trying to process the shocking news that arrived in the late hours of the afternoon?
Each time I woke up, I hoped desperately to discover that it was all just a nightmare; that it was not true. But the mind’s desire and reality were as far apart as day and night. The truth was a reality from which we could not escape. A brother and friend of many years, Dewa Mavhinga was no more.
The arrival of the news hit me very hard, a circumstance that was shared by many around the world where, by his work, Dewa had left a big mark. Dewa was the Sothern Africa Director of Human Rights Watch, a major international human rights watchdog based in the US. In that watchdog role, Dewa kept an eye on the human rights situation in several countries in the region. It took him all over the region and around the world where he made many friends and associates.
The fact that it brought him face to face with regimes and powerful individuals that violated human rights never daunted him. He was unfazed by the risk that came with his job. He was dedicated to his cause. The world is a large pool that is infested with predators and Dewa learned to swim with the crocodiles.
Many people got to know Dewa because of his work as a tireless advocate and protector of human rights. He never shied away from pointing out wrongful acts by the state and its agents across the region. He became an authoritative voice on human rights in the region, and with several fellow citizens occupying such roles at regional and international levels, he was an example of Zimbabwean excellence.
But to know Dewa and the humble and unassuming character that he was, you must know the boy who grew up in Majumba, a small-scale farming community in Chikomba District in Mashonaland East Province.
Majumba is in an area called Hwirisha, the locals’ version of Wiltshire, a name derived from a rural county in Southwest England. It was the practice of the white settler colonial community to give names that reflected their motherland. Apart from asserting a stamp of authority on the colonized, it was a way of recreating an imagined reality in the colonized lands and feeling right at home. Therefore, many places in formerly colonized countries bear names that were adopted from the colonizing country.
Thus, there was Wiltshire and nearby, another small-scale farming community was called Lancashire. But these names were too much for the local people’s tongues. They invented their versions. Hence Wiltshire was Hwirisha and Lancashire was Rangasha. Not far away there is Vherevencha, derived from the settlers’ name Fair Adventure!
Dewa, always the cerebral character who loved history would probably smile and chuckle at this little detour in his eulogy. And if he were present, he would no doubt add more detail to the explanation with more examples of indigenized British names. He was a reservoir of local knowledge because he was a man who read and listened widely.
I first got to know Dewa long before his profile became national and later, international. He was a small boy doing secondary school at Kwenda High in Chikomba. The school was part of Kwenda Mission, which was established by Methodist missionaries at Chimedza Hill. It is about 3 kilometers from our village.
Dewa and my younger brother were classmates and friends. When I visited home from the university, I often went over to the school to see my brother. Dewa and other friends would be there too and we would have interesting conversations.
I was aware that being with someone from university was quite an inspiration. I had been in their shoes before. So, it was always a pleasure to talk to these young and ambitious minds. They wanted to know all about the university and how to get there. It was then that I first met the young Dewa. He was focused, ambitious and driven.
He declared on one occasion that he had decided to follow in my footsteps and study law. He wanted to know if it was possible and what he needed to do to achieve his dream. Could a boy from Majumba do it? He was ambitious but not haughty. That self-doubt is always important because it pushes you to work hard. That was the start of a long brotherhood and friendship.
Dewa would go on to achieve his dream of studying law when he enrolled at the University of Zimbabwe, which had a highly selective recruitment process. I always knew that he was smart and highly driven but even he surprised me when he said he was running to be President of the Students’ Union. What did not surprise me was that he won the race because I had already observed that when he set his mind on something, he would make sure it happened.
But again, to repeat what I said earlier, to understand why this was a milestone in his life, you must go back to his humble origins. This was a lad from the obscure Majumba Primary School where the majority lived in parlous conditions and went to school barefoot and wearing tattered clothes. He had now risen to be President of the Students’ Union at the country’s elite university. For Dewa, nothing was impossible.
I saw that Dewa’s heart was set on a career in human rights law and advocacy when he was volunteering at an association of women lawyers in Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association.
At the time it was led by Lydia Zigomo, who is now Global Programmes Director at Oxfam International. His dedication to human rights and learning the trade in the field was palpable. His friends went into private practice or the public sector, but Dewa used the time to build his craft-competency in the civil society sector. Years later he would rise to head the regional arm of Human Rights Watch. To understand the enormity of that achievement, you must appreciate his humble beginnings.
Over the years, Dewa would become involved in other key civil society groups, including Crisis Coalition whose board he chaired. Sometime in 2011/12, Dewa wrote to me. Mukoma, he said, for Dewa never called his elders by their first names. He was, to use the language of our people, a man who had been raised by and among people.
This euphemism is used as a testament to one’s good manners and character. Mukoma, he said, we would like to set up a think-tank called the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) and we would like you to lead it. We can think of no one else to provide intellectual leadership to this institution.
Dewa was always charitable in his words and deeds towards me. I suspect it was the seed that had been planted all those years when he was a small boy at Kwenda High. I had shown him the ladder at the time, and now he was saying here is your turn, my brother. I was most humbled by the gesture, but it placed me in a very difficult position.
I thanked Dewa but told him, ‘Munin’ina this is good, I appreciate it greatly, but we have a small problem’. Morgan Tsvangirai, the then Prime Minister in the Inclusive Government had just offered me a role to head his advisory team. But the matter was not yet public and was not supposed to be until all details had been finalized.
I was not to tell anyone. But I had to betray the confidence and explain to Dewa why I could not take up the offer to head the ZDI. I, therefore, broke my word not to tell anyone, but I did so because I trusted Dewa. We both agreed that it was important at that time for me to take up the role with Tsvangirai.
One of Dewa’s several strengths was his ability to form relationships with many people despite their differences. This is called networking. You might hold a different view, but Dewa usually treated you with respect.
I saw how he responded to and dealt with critics and they weren’t few because of the nature of his work. He did not shout back at them. He understood that his work brought him face to face with many adversaries, some of them very powerful men, and women.
He had learned to navigate his way through the choppy waters of national and regional politics. It’s a lesson to many that the respect that you accord to others also earns you respect even from your most ardent critics.
He was not big-headed. No space was too small for him. In recent months with the advent of Twitter Spaces, you would always find Dewa sat in the audience, listening. Another important lesson here: no matter how lofty your role might be, it is good to just sit back and listen as others speak. You do not always have to speak. But when he did speak, he always did so calmly, with respect, and with facts to back his arguments.
Dewa was eloquent in both speech and writing. Many would have heard him speak or read his reports in the English language. But to fully appreciate Dewa’s prowess in speech and writing, you had to read his stories in his native tongue. Dewa wrote beautifully and he often delighted his audiences on social media with his tales from the village. In that regard, he was a kindred spirit.
If I wasn’t writing my stories from the village, I always enjoyed reading Dewa’s or Freeman Chari’s tales. Dewa’s were unique in that he expressed them in the language of our people and his command of the language was exquisite. I always thought one day he would write more.
The word “self-made” is often deployed liberally whenever someone who achieved success is described. Dewa worked hard to get to where had reached but he would not agree to have that term used in respect of him. A boy from the village is never “self-made”. Many people play their part in the success story of an individual. Dewa pushed the boundaries and went further than his any of compatriots at Majumba Primary or Kwenda High would ever have imagined. But he never forgot his family.
I spoke to his younger brother who is a medical doctor here in the UK. He said “Mukoma Musaigwa, we would not be where we are without Mukoma Dewa. He literally pulled us from the mud.” Dewa was part of a large family that has fought against the odds and under his leadership to be most exemplary.
An older brother is an accountant. A younger sister followed Dewa’s footsteps and is a human rights lawyer. A younger brother is an aeronautical engineer in The Netherlands. A sister is an economist. And this is just a snapshot. Dewa played an indelible part in the progress of his younger siblings.
He did not confine his generosity to his siblings alone. Many that came within his radar became brothers and sisters for life. When my son designed an exclusive range of jackets, Dewa was among the first to place an order. But when they arrived, Dewa called.
“Mukoma,” he said, “please tell young Musaigwa that I need another jacket”.
“What happened to the other one, munin’ina?” I asked.
“Hah, raenda riya mukoma! It has been impounded by Gamu and said she won’t give it back!” Gamu is Dewa’s eldest daughter, which is why his peers often called him Baba Gamu.
We laughed together and I said I would tell young Musaigwa. Now, he is no longer here to receive it. I was grateful for the support that he gave to my lad. Many people have the gift of speech but none of doing. Dewa had both. He spoke well and did what he said he would do.
Many people who knew his work as a human rights defender will write more eloquently about that department of his life. I just wanted to tell the story of the boy from Majumba; the boy who rose against the odds to take a seat amongst great men and women of this world.
From those small beginnings, he became a voice of authority on human rights and governance. But even as he shared tables with great people at those lofty heights, he never forgot those that he left behind. They were always on his mind. Not long ago he led a campaign to raise funds for the local clinic at Gandami in his home area. The other day we were talking about doing something to help the local hospital at Sadza Growth Point. He was a proud son of Chikomba.
Dewa may now be gone from this world, but he left a huge footprint that cannot be erased.
He was a leader in his generation and many who either knew or were impacted by his work will miss him greatly. But none more than his wife, Fiona, and their four children, his dear mother in Majumba, and his siblings. My heart goes out to them. He ran a fine race, and he positively impacted the world. May his good soul rest in peace.