LAST week, the King George VI Barracks, which house the Zimbabwe National Army and Air Force of Zimbabwe headquarters were renamed Josiah Magama Tongogara Barracks at a ceremony that was graced by President Mnangagwa. The Tongogara family, led by his widow Angeline felt humbled by the occasion.
Our Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni caught up with General Tongo’s son, Hondo Rangarirai (born January 8, 1969 in Lusaka, Zambia) who spoke about the renaming of the barracks and for the first time revealed General Tongo, the father. This is fascinating father-and-son story from the liberation struggle. Read on . . .
MH: The renaming of the barracks to Josiah Magama Tongogara after all these years. How did that make you feel?
Hondo: It meant a lot to me and the Tongogara family. It was a great honour mainly because of the contribution that my father made to the liberation of this country. Growing up and seeing what they were doing out there, and seeing the results, it was indeed a great honour.
MH: After all these years weren’t you disheartened that your father was not being recognised enough?
Hondo: Not at all. I never thought about that. I am a true believer that everything has its time and why sweat over things that I don’t have control over? My main focus was to make a living, take care of mom and make sure everybody is taken care of. Keep pushing as a family.
MH: Many freedom fighters I have spoken to openly complain that they are not being given due recognition. From your perspective do you think heroes like your father are given due recognition in the country?
Hondo: Well, I don’t really know. You see enough is quantitative but I think there is recognition. That’s why there is Heroes Acre, Heroes Day but in terms of enough, I don’t know how much is enough. I think Zimbabwe remembers its heroes. There are even provincial heroes acres. So in terms recognition, I think it’s there.
MH: Briefly tell us about General Tongo’s children?
Hondo: There is Hondo, Tichafa, Bvumai and Nyaradzo from my mom, Angeline. But Conrad is mdara’s first son, then myself, Tichafa, Bvumai, Nyaradzo. There is Simba and Granger, we knew about them after independence. I am sorry if I have forgotten the other guys. I think there are two more.
MH: Where do you live?
Hondo: I live in the US.
MH: I have spoken to a number of people who say as General Tongo’s son you were supposed to be involved in the country’s national politics. They say you should stay in Zimbabwe and play an active role in politics. What is your comment?
Hondo: (laughs) Well, like I said, I am a firm believer that everything has its time. But it seems like it’s inevitable that I might end up in politics. Like you are saying, people are asking “why, why, why?” I don’t know but if an opportunity presents itself, yes I will. It’s all about the right time. I come from a political family and I have a father who has this great name. The probability is very high that I might end up in politics.
MH: When it was confirmed to the family that the barracks would be named after your father, did you have a chat with your mother because the last time I spoke to her, she was quite emotional about such issues?
Hondo: Yes, we had a chat. This renaming process, I don’t know if you are aware that we have the Tongogara Foundation to honour my father’s legacy? We have been trying to have something like that happen but it kind of took a little bit longer. So it’s been a long time coming. When I spoke to mom, she was really on cloud nine. This was also the first time she got the opportunity to be with all the children at the same time. We are all scattered all over the world. So yeah, she was on cloud nine. Very happy. All of his children were there. From my mother’s side, but he also had other children. My brothers and sisters were all there. It was such a great feeling. A great honour and we were humbled. I am sure you heard mom’s speech. It was a really humbling experience. As a family we are very, very honoured. Zimbabweans should really, really know that. This is something that sometimes is a little bit overwhelming.
MH: Your father was very popular and he held influential positions during the liberation struggle. As his son, how do you remain humble when your father was such a huge figure?
Hondo: I think I can attribute that to how our mother raised us. She always used to say “your father didn’t leave a bank account. He was a freedom fighter. What he had was all that, but he is not here anymore so it’s just me. You have to remember he left a very, very strong name that needs to be preserved. You as boys you are eventually going to become man. Don’t think that this name is going to give you everything.” I guess that’s where it emanated from. They also tell me my father was a down-to-earth man, he could relate with all the comrades.
MH: You said you are living in the US. Tell me, when people get to know who you are and who your father was, how do they relate with you?
Hondo: That is one of the most overwhelming part of my life. The accolades that this man gets, the respect I get just for being his son, it’s something. He must have done something really, really right because I really haven’t come across anyone who say bad things about him. It’s always, thank you, thank you. It’s a very humbling experience but it also gives me challenges. It makes me do the right things.
MH: Let’s go back to Zambia during your early years. What are some of the memories you have of the time you had with your father?
Hondo: I was a little bit young, but it was the usual structure. Going to school and during the holidays we would end up closer to where mdara was. We ended up at the camps, just to visit him. These were exciting moments knowing that we were going to see daddy. My father was a very energetic guy. He had a presence but he was kind of dambe nevana. He really liked playing with us a lot. He was a busy guy but he made time for us. We played a lot.
MH: Would he sometimes take you to the Zanla meetings?
Hondo: No, no, no. It was mainly when he came back home. Sometimes the meetings would actually be at home but they would be held in a different room.
MH: Do you remember some of the comrades that came to have meetings with your father?
Hondo: Pretty much the guys who are in top positions in Government. The guys who have been running Zimbabwe for the past 37 years.
MH: But who among the comrades frequently visited your house, not for meetings but just to visit?
Hondo: You need to understand that mdara’s house was never just for us. There were so many comrades coming in and going out. They would pass through our house on their way to training or on their way back from training. They would come to our house and later be transferred to different camps. I remember the late Vice-President Mzenda and many others. If you look back at the 1980 cabinet until today, most of those comrades visited my dad.
MH: Was General Tongo the kind of father who would sit down with you to do your homework?
Hondo: To tell you the truth, like I said he was a very busy man. Being the Chief of Defence, it was a very big responsibility. You also need to understand that the environment was kind of different. It was not like it is now. Back then there was a mission to be accomplished. Yes, he had time for us, but as for homework, umm, I can’t remember. I was around seven to 11 years when he passed on.
MH: Because daddy was that busy, were there times that you missed him?
Hondo: Well, not exactly. This was the way it was. I was told mdara arikurwira nyika yeZimbabwe and it’s a big responsibility. So that was the mind-frame I grew up in. Now in hindsight, I see that indeed these comrades were on a mission. The respect I get. The accolades he gets from all Zimbabweans.
MH: Did your father sometimes speak politics with you?
Hondo: Hey, I was still a bit young and he was away a lot. When he came back home, it was mainly bonding. Izvi zvava zvemazuvaano zvekuti unogara pasi nadaddy and talk politics.
MH: So daddy was always busy. How was it living with mama?
Hondo: Remember it was mama and a lot of comrades always. Always, always. So it’s kind of I grew up with a lot of people. Because of that I am a social guy and I like hanging out with people. I like hearing what other people think. Always learning. I keep an open mind.
MH: Was your father into music?
Hondo: Ohh, yes, yes. He would listen to Dolly Parton and other musicians of the time. They would dance with mom. Kenny Rogers, you know country music. I think he also listened to some funk music. Music from the 70s. The Hurricanes.
MH: This environment you grew up in must have socialised you into something?
Hondo: It taught me to appreciate people and how to co-exist with others. Good morals and so on.
MH: Did mama speak about daddy when he was not around?
Hondo: Ohh, yes. She would always tell us that daddy vari kurwira nyika yeZimbabwe kuti tizosununguka kuti tigoenda kumusha. I was young but I understood that we were not home. I knew that mdara was at work to make sure we go back home.
MH: I know you were young, but were you not afraid that one day your father could get injured or be killed during the war?
Hondo: I was too young to worry about that but as a little boy I looked at my father, he was a giant and I thought he was invincible. He was a big guy, so I had no time to worry about anything. I just figured he is taking care of things and he will take care of himself. It was more like ohh, man he is a cool dude.
MH: What is the message that your father constantly spoke about to you?
Hondo: Well, it was “we are fighting the bad people.” He would constantly tell me “tiri kurwisa vadzvinyiriri, vana Smith and one day tichasununguka.” All the comrades who came home, this was the talk all the time. So at a very early age, I knew we were fighting for the liberation of Zimbabwe.
MH: Some people would think that growing under such an environment, you would automatically be socialised to become a politician?
Hondo: I really don’t know. I don’t look at my life like why didn’t this happen or why didn’t that go. To tell you the truth I don’t know why things happened the way they happened. When I graduated from school, I just wanted to go to university. I thought out there maybe a better opportunity and I left the country. I am into Information Technology. I got fascinated by the computer.
MH: In 1979, General Tongo passed away. As his son how did you feel?
Hondo: Ohh, I was shocked. Very shocking. I couldn’t believe it but it eventually sank in. So while everybody was going through the euphoria of independence, we were going through a difficult time. We were moaning. Very difficult time.
MH: Do you remember your last moments with your father?
Hondo: Yeah, I remember. The night before he left. I remember my young brother Bvumai crying saying “daddy musaende hamusikudzoka, daddy musaende hamusikudzoka.” As a big brother I consoled him saying “stop crying, daddy will be back.” Then the next morning we woke up and there were so many people in the house. It wasn’t the usual so many people. It was more like what’s going on? Why is everybody so sad? Then they broke the news to us. We cried a lot.
MH: Why do you think Bvumai was saying “daddy musaende hamusikudzoka?”
Hondo: Well, kids say the dandiest things.
MH: How did mama receive the news?
Hondo: Of course, she was very heartbroken. Very devastated. Being left as a young widow. Three boys apa une nhumbu so you can imagine. Can you imagine? She was very devastated. What made the situation worse was mdara’s stature. The funeral and so on. But I can tell you my mother is a strong woman. I can tell you that. She handled the situation very well.
MH: When I spoke to mama she told me one of the most touching moments was when she was given the opportunity to view General Tongo’s body. To you what was the most touching moment?
Hondo: The whole death and funeral was touching for me. Very sad.
MH: When General Tongo passed on you were 11 years old. Tell us of your life from that time.
Hondo: I became a regular kid. Went to school just like any other kid. I went to Martindale Primary School then went to Gokomere then to Fletcher High and Goromonzi High. I later left for the US.
MH: Did your life change after the death of General Tongo?
Hondo: Not very much because when he was alive he was not around a lot. And remember when Zimbabwe got independent, people went back to their families. Mom started doing what other people do – raising her kids as a single mother.
MH: With the role that your father had played during the liberation struggle, didn’t you think you were supposed to be treated differently after the attainment of independence?
Hondo: I will speak for myself. I don’t think like that. I believe in working for what I get. I also believe in contributing to society through hard work. I believe in being fair to people. Just because my father was Tongogara doesn’t make me special or better than anyone else. I am sure there are people who are smarter than me. This was my father’s life. Inini I am the son. Of course it’s a great honour to be a son to such a father but that shouldn’t be you. Become great yourself in whatever way that you can be. If you want to be like your father, you find another niche. Whatever you are good at, be great at that. Not to use your father’s name. That’s not how we were raised. We were taught to work. We saw mom working for the family.
MH: The renaming of the barracks after your father and the role that your father played during the liberation struggle – if your father was listening what would you say to him?
Hondo: Ahh, man! What words can you say to a guy like that? I just want to let him know that “you didn’t go to work for nothing. If you could see what Zimbabwe is today, I see people walking in the streets, they love being Zimbabweans, being free and they are proud to be Zimbabweans. Zvamaitaura zvekudzvinyirirwa zviya hakuchisina. The black man is running the country. Your work didn’t go in vain. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for everything. The legacy you left us, we will try to keep your name.”
MH: Are you thinking of coming back to Zimbabwe and getting involved in politics?
Hondo: Well, I come from a political family so it seems to be inevitable that I might end up in politics. But I definitely want to come back and contribute to Zimbabwe, the rebuilding of Zimbabwe. If it’s going to be politics, then it’s gonna be politics. But definitely yeah, I am going to be involved in the rebuilding of Zimbabwe.