Clockwise from top left: Zimbabwe First Lady Grace Mugabe, President Robert Mugabe, a presidential guard, and one of Swaziland’s royal princesses. The author is shaking hands with Mr. Mugabe.
I’d been on the road with Venerable Master Hui Li for two weeks. Li’s a Buddhist monk from Taiwan who has undertaken the task of building orphanages in each of Africa’s 53 bedeviled countries. My idea was to see what sort of grumpy despots crawled out from under their blood-covered boulders as Li went about his mission. And wouldn’t you know, it turned out that the Michael Jordan of the megalomaniacal-tyrant circuit would be making an appearance: Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe!
Africa, as everyone knows, has orphans like China has dead baby girls. Nowhere is this more evident than in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Mugabe’s 29th year at the country’s helm is in full swing, and since the national inflation rate hit a record 516 quintillion percent (that’s 18 fucking goose eggs) earlier this year, a billion-Zimbabwean-dollar banknote isn’t worth the energy it takes to print it. The US buck has since replaced it, as bark-and-soil broth has replaced food. The day after we arrived in Harare, Li was scheduled to meet First Lady Grace Mugabe. She would be holding court at her Iron Mask Farm in nearby Mazowe, where Li had arranged to build an orphanage. Genius, right? Move the lonely, hungry babies to where the food and drink is! Kind of. But more on Grace and her farms in a minute. At sunrise, Li piled us into his Toyota Land Cruiser to go find the Mugabes. When we arrived, Li seemed pleased with the progress being made on the orphanage. Grace showed up right on time, in a cloud of red dust, and emerged from her glossy black SUV with a smile as dazzling as her diamanté sunglasses. She was wearing a charmingly rustic outfit and utilitarian Chanel galoshes and greeted Li in conversational Mandarin. Grace bubbled with optimism and enthusiasm and dove straight into news on the developments at Iron Mask. Despite her borderline satanic media persona, Grace was proving to be an absolutely charming hostess. A couple hours later, one of the dozen or so queens of Swaziland arrived with one of the Dlamini princesses—an adorable nine-year-old with braids who was wearing a Hello Kitty tracksuit.
Two of my gracious hosts: Grace and the Venerable Master Hui Li, a Buddhist monk on a crusade to put an orphanage in each of Africa’s countries.
Grace led our delegation on a tour of the orphanage, striding confidently through the empty rooms and pointing out noteworthy features with the finesse of a seasoned real estate agent: ample cupboard space, imported kitchen fittings, marble countertops, Italian tiles. There are plans for tennis courts, a shopping center, and luxury guest lodges. The temple on the top of the hill will be on a par with some of the greatest tourist attractions in Asia. It is about as far as humanly possible from the ascetic prototype of Li’s orphanage in Malawi, where the kids stack into bunk beds like Tokyo salarymen in capsule motels. Five or six kids per unit, Grace reckoned. “When you come from the street, you need to be given the very best opportunities in life,” she noted. Li seemed very uneasy.
Around noon, we set out in a presidential cavalcade toward the dairy farm where we would meet the Swazi king, Mswati III, and President Mugabe for lunch. Max, our giant escort, drove straight into oncoming traffic, clearing a path for the dozen or so X5s and Range Rovers in the procession. Recently, the human-rights organization AfriForum called on consumers to boycott Nestlé products if the company continued buying milk from Grace’s dairy. The reason for this was that back in 2002 Grace had taken over six of the country’s most valuable white-owned farms as part of Zimbabwe’s controversial land-redistribution scheme. She is now one of the largest dairy farmers in the country. Our formal conversation didn’t touch on the gruesome circumstances under which she obtained the land. And it seemed rude to probe when she was being so damn friendly. Should everyone abstain from Nestlé products? I’m not really sure (they are yummy), and I don’t really care. All I can say is that Grace Mugabe knows a shitload about dairy farming. The jewel in her pastoral empire is Gushungo Dairy Estate in Mazowe, formerly known as Foyle Farm. The cows here squirt out nearly a million liters of milk a year, almost all of which is sold to Nestlé. The setup at Gushungo is totally futuristic, with chrome control stations that monitor every drop that passes through the thousands of udders and into the pens below. Grace even had speakers installed in the ceiling, since classical music relaxes the cows and subsequently increases milk yields. She talked authoritatively about pasteurization and the dangers of mastitis, including a few enlightening anecdotes from her breastfeeding days, before the royal delegation moved ahead.
Li, at the end of the presidential motorcade and before ditching Mugabe for some pizza.
The road was suddenly lined with a portable mob of supporters waving flags, banners, and posters emblazoned with the regal portraits of Mugabe and Mswati. The refrains of the predominantly toothless rural women intensified as the presidential convoy pulled up behind a truckload of military guards in black motorcycle helmets holding AK-47s. Mugabe and Mswati emerged. They proceeded down the line of ministers alongside the dusty farm road, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries. Mugabe danced a small jig, much to the delight of the swarming crowd. Grace led us to the end of the line for an audience. My encounter with Mugabe was brief, consisting of a firm, leathery handshake and an introduction. He avoided eye contact, and shooting a portrait of him wasn’t really possible. I snapped a picture from my hip as Mugabe was distracted by the Hello Kitty princess, whom he patted on the head affectionately while the guards looked at me menacingly. But I’d done it. I’d shaken the claw of Robert Mugabe. I held my palm up to my face and took a deep whiff. Then I realized: I’d all but forgotten about my Zen master. The dust and the fanfare stirred up a silent whisper of irritation in Li. It was clear he was totally over this presidential tour. The Mugabe supporters were already crammed into buses and truck beds on the way back to their mud huts and barren fields. Grace had vanished, so Li and a few of us sneaked off back to Harare, making a detour for pizza. Jupiter (our translator) soon received an incensed phone call from the Mugabes’ chief aide. He was calling because there were six empty seats at the banquet, and Mugabe was not impressed. The kitchen had even prepared a vegetarian meal for the monk. Li shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and took a bite of his slice.