When Zimbabwean game farmer Tendai Musasa speaks about his president, Robert Mugabe, his voice softens with joyful pride.
At a giant party in Victoria Falls on Saturday to celebrate Mugabe’s 91st birthday, the 20,000 guests -- and perhaps the president himself -- will feast on elephant meat donated by Musasa, who pledged to slaughter two of the beasts.
One young bull elephant, shot Thursday, has been cut to pieces and conveyed to the organizers of the feast. A second, yet to be killed, will be handed out to members of the community.
Musasa, whose lifelong dream is to meet Mugabe, said his main motive for donating the elephants, as well as a lion trophy, a crocodile trophy and a small herd of live impala, was gratitude. He’s a beneficiary of Mugabe’s land reform policy, a program that saw white farmers ousted from their holdings without compensation after 2000.
“We regard him as our father,” he said of the world’s oldest leader, who has been in power for 35 years. “Our provider, our hero. We regard him as a very courageous man.”
Musasa originally planned to donate a wild buffalo or two, to be slaughtered for the feast. However, recent rains made it difficult to find any, so he donated five live impala to breed in the president’s game reserve. The lion, which he recently hand-picked, and a crocodile are to be stuffed as trophies, not eaten.
He said there was a strong cultural obligation for Victoria Falls to show hospitality and thank Mugabe for celebrating his birthday in the town.
Others who have donated items include government heavyweights Jonathan Moyo and Obert Mpofu, who each offered 20 cows for slaughter. Mpofu also donated $40,000 toward the event, according to local media.
The extravagance of the birthday celebrations has attracted criticism because of the stark contrast with Zimbabwe’s high unemployment and failing businesses. The country’s struggling public enterprises, including electricity and transport providers, are expected to contribute to the event and a teaching union official Raymond Majongwe, told local media the nation’s threadbare schoolteachers had been forced to donate from $1 to $10 each.
Mugabe’s increasing frailty has ignited a succession war in the ruling ZANU-PF party, with Joice Mujuru ousted as the nation's vice president last year among accusations of plotting to kill Mugabe. Scores of her allies, including senior party officials and 15 ministers and deputy ministers, were purged in December.
Musasa, director of the 31,000 acres Woodlands Conservancy near Victoria Falls, said it attracts big game trophy hunters from all over the world, including the United States.
He said it was better to kill one elephant for the Mugabe feast than 20 cows. “It’s one life versus 20,” he said.
Musasa, sensitive to criticism from conservationists -- though he doesn’t always agree with them -- added that the elephants would have been shot anyway because they were nuisance animals that were threatening local farmers. He said Zimbabwe was severely overpopulated with elephants.
The elephant shot for the feast Thursday was a young bull.
“It had grown up [with] a tendency of charging and hostility to farmers,” he said. “They’re going to the ripe corn. They become aggressive, stubborn and unflinching in their attacks.
“Elephants have got characters, like human beings. There are the rogue ones who become accustomed to being thieves. They attack people guarding the fields.”
He said the conservancy usually shot about two elephants a year as part of its “problem animal control.”
“We send a message to the rest of them not to be rogue animals. We put down the most formidable charger or aggressor to say to the rest, ‘Don’t do this thing.’”
The lion to be given the president as a trophy would be shot later this year by an international game hunter who would pay a trophy price, he said.
“I personally identified an old lion, a huge one," he said. "If you have studied the dynamics of the lion kingdom, these lions are soon ousted by the pride. They start to pray on farmers’ livestock. They start to be a danger to human lives.”
Musasa was 4 when Zimbabwe won independence in 1980. At university, studying engineering, he led a students’ movement in favor of land redistribution from white farmers to blacks.
Mugabe’s land seizures were violent and controversial: The program led to a significant decline in agricultural production and undermined related industries, as new black farmers struggled to run their holdings without infrastructure, resources, knowledge, farming experience or access to bank finance.
Many of the farms were parceled out as favors to Mugabe’s allies such as generals, government ministers and judges. Some ruling party bigwigs grabbed several farms apiece, and Mugabe’s family, including his wife Grace, owns several.
In a rare concession, Mugabe admitted missteps in the land reform program in an interview with Zimbabwean state television aired Thursday, saying that large tracts are not being farmed.
“I think the farms we gave to people are too large. They can’t manage them," Mugabe said. “You find that most of them are just using one-third of the land.”
The white former owner of Woodlands was ousted in 2000, and Musasa, along with 117 other black Zimbabweans, took ownership in 2004.
Getting a share “has changed my life," Musasa said. “Now I have got assets. I have got access to prime conservancy land near the world-famous site of Victoria Falls.”
Musasa said Zimbabwe had “no choice” but to force white land owners from their farms because the “very intransigent white settler community did not want to share resources. In building an equitable society, there needs to be give and take.”
Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change has called for the birthday party to be canceled because of the country’s widespread poverty.
“All the money that has been collected to bankroll this obscene jamboree should be immediately channeled toward rehabilitating the collapsed public hospitals, clinics and rural schools in Matabeleland North Province,” MDC spokesman Obert Gutu said in a statement.
Musasa hopes that Saturday he might meet his lifelong hero.
“I dream for that. I’d say, ‘Happy Birthday, Mr President, I wish you many more happy returns. You are our hero.’”
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