Monday, 22 August 2011

Tichaona Mkuku

"Per la tua protezione," says Tich, passing me something hard and cold under the table.
   We sit in the dappled shade of a Jacaranda in the beergarden of The New Royal Hotel, Bulawayo. The jazz band that's been playing is on a break. A waiter returns with our order, ice cold Lion lagers and a packet of Madison cigarettes. I toy impatiently with the metal object sliding in its silk handkerchief wrapping until the waiter has moved on to the next table.
Tichaona Mkuku RIP
   Tich is small but perfectly formed, immaculate in tailor made suit, Jacquard necktie, gleaming patent leather shoes. One of his favourite quotes is 'the clothes maketh the man'. "People sometimes think I am arrogant. How can one be arrogant when one is so beautiful? I mean, look at me..."
   He grins now at my reaction to his gift: A semi-automatic pistol in very good nick in spite of its age - this is a pre-World War II Tokarev, the TT-30 to be precise, still in use to this day in the Soviet, Chinese and Korean armies.
   "For my protection," I murmur.
   "Bene!" he claps his hands. "You improve, fratello mio."
   Apart from his latest role as arms supplier, Tichaona is also my friend, colleague and Italian tutor. The irony of the last role is not lost on either of us; my father was Sicilian and my mother half Irish, half Italian. Tich has pure African pedigree. His linguistic arsenal comes from the fact that he's worked for Ziana, the Zimbabwe Inter Africa News Agency. He is well travelled, "an international man of mystery," he laughs. He has lived and worked in China, attached to Xinua; and in Italy, with Reuters' Rome desk.
The unforgettable Tich
   Against all odds, we are best shamwaris. It doesn't matter to Tich that I'm a minnow to his shark (professionally speaking). Or that I'm a white teenager in just-recently independent Zimbabwe, while he has longtime ties to Marxist ex-freedom fighters who consider me and my kind to be the enemy. Tich has close relatives in ministerial roles at the ruling party's Jongwe House. Hence the casual ease with which he makes a gift of a deadly weapon in a buzzing beergarden on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
   "It's loaded," he says. "Make sure the safety is on."
   Tich taught me a lot. About journalism ("Everyone is lying, to some degree," was another common refrain, and a fundamental lesson); about having fun, being confident, the power of charm - I only had to watch Tich in any situation to witness the near-magical effects of appearing completely comfortable in your own skin.
   Another good lesson, temporarily forgotten. "If bastards imagine you are weak, they will go for the jugular. Better you let them know from the start to cover their own throats. But do it with a smile - and have your finger on the trigger under the table."
   I never needed the gun. I did need the friendship, it made a difference when it was most needed.

DIED 25/12/1998
Rest in peace, Tich.

Photographs and press cutting provided by Thandeka Mkuku, one of Tichaona's three children. I'm very grateful to you, Thandeka. Although I hadn't seen your father since the year before he died - and didn't possess a photo until now - I was able at any moment to recall every detail of his face. These photos are facsimiles of the vivid memories I have of that Mkuku swagger, charisma, charm, humour and razor-sharp intellect. With or without a photograph, he remains the unforgettable Tichaona Mkuku.  

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