One chief I knew who was a real father to his people was Rekayi Tangwena. He was elected chief at a time when Ian Smith's settler regime was trying to drive his people off their ancestral lands, in the Nyanga mountains on Zimbabwe's eastern border.
They tried to persuade Rekayi to co-operate with them by offering him a modern house, a car and a course of instruction in how to be “a proper chief”. His reply implied that he knew enough about being a chief. He refused the offer, said his place was with his people, and, true to his word, took to the hills.
The Jesuits have a holiday house just over a range of hills from the Tangwena lands on the Gaeresi river, so a number of our brethren were able to use their recreational visits there to carry supplies for the Tangwena, who were living in hiding in the hills. I had been seen in the chief's company in Harare, so I reckoned it would be unwise for me to join these parties. My part was to be present whenever Chief Rekayi was hauled into court in Harare, as sign of support. As I recall now, that seems to have happened at least monthly in 1971.
The harrassment and resistance continued until the Tangwena people assisted Robert Mugabe's escape to Mozambique in May 1975. The liberation war was intensifying and they were on the front line, so the settlers stepped up the pressure on them and Rekayi led them across the border, where they remained as refugees till Zimbabwe became independent in 1980.
The new parliament had ten seats reserved for traditional chiefs. Rekayi chose to stand for election like any other citizen, for a “common roll” seat. He won, of course, and throughout the life of the first parliament he was a voice for the common people. Unlike the majority of MPs, who seemed to glory in showing off how well they had mastered the Queen's English, he insisted on exercising his right to speak in his mother tongue.
He died in 1985. He was declared a national hero and buried at the Harare Heroes' Acre. An officious whippersnapper probably too young to remember the war refused to let me into his lying-in-state because I was the wrong colour.
I often wonder when we will hear reports from the seismologists of the tremors caused by his turning in his grave as the space around it gets filled with the remains of timeserving fat cats.