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Lorenz Gude - Short Writing
An African Moment

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An African Moment

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Gwanda Zimbabwe

Beyond the usual ideology
Len Roberts

We all knew that the old man who had owned the Teutonic mine, Len Roberts, was to leave this morning by plane for his own private game park in South Africa bordering on Kruger National Park. He will die there shortly. He is in the later stages of motor neuron disease which atrophies the muscles or one's control of the muscles. The morning was therefore filled both with feelings of sadness and anticipation of the beginning of a new era. John, the new owners uncle and mine manager had his video out and several of us had gathered to watch the old man's departure. Because I had never met him I waited until he had been carried to the plane before going out to watch. I felt it wasn't right for a complete stranger such as myself to intrude on this public indignity. When I got out to the plane I saw that he was indeed a huge man, head and shoulders over the pilot in the seat beside him. With his departure imminent, John sent word urgently a second time for his former workers to come away from their work to say good bye. Nothing happened for a few minutes and we all stood around waiting in the quite morning. Finally, a group of about fifty of the workers arrived on the trot. They came without speaking and quickly surrounded the plane. All one could hear was the sound of their feet rustling through the long grass. The old man managed a wave and then threw his head back in a silent laugh. They say that when he was healthy, this laugh could fill a hall, but now there was no sound...only the man's characteristic gesture that once let the sound out. That was all that was left to him. In the end he cried. The pilot waved the workers out of the way and began starting the engine. He had to try several times but it eventually started and the plane moved slowly away toward the runway. As it went past the workers, one of the older men, Johnathan Nyathi the builder, who had laboured for the old man for many years held his hand over his heart. I missed this moment, but the secretary Marion who has lived all her life in Zimbabwe pointed it out to us later over lunch. She said she saw it as a sign of deep respect and would translate it to mean that 'we know you are dying and our hearts go with you.' A strong relationship between worker and owner that survived the war between black and white here in the seventies in which Len Roberts was a leading pilot on the white side. The plane made its way to the far end of the runway and then stopped. Someone realised that there were some livestock in the way and a couple of workers ran out to chase them away. As we waited I spoke with the oldest of them - Gaston (Gasteni) Phiri from Malawi - who is 85 and who has worked here as an electrician and plumber for 45 years. I was 10 when he came here. I had noticed that when he ran with the other workers his movements were like that of much younger men - men younger than myself.

Later, as we looked through the Roberts now abandoned house, I asked what the tall narrow white metal cabinet was in the corner of the veranda. A gun cabinet I was told. Evidently everyone had them during the war. When we opened it, it was full of fish food and bird seed.

This incident took place in Zimabawe in 1998. All material copyright Lorenz Gude 2003.