When I was a boy growing up in Zimbabwe, our primary school textbook had a story about an owl that ruled all the other birds.
The current situation in Zimbabwe, with the end of the 37-year regime of President Robert Mugabe, has reminded me of that folktale from the Shona, a Bantu ethnic group native to Zimbabwe, Mozambiuque and Zambia.
The story is called the “Owl and Drongo” (Zizi naNhegure in Shona, which is my mother tongue). One day Zizi the owl summoned all the birds of the forest. In his booming voice he declared that, since he was the only bird with horns, it was fitting that he should rule over all the birds of the forest. For many years he ruled with absolute power. Every morning all the birds brought fat worms to his nest.
But the always skeptical fork-tailed drongo (Nhengure) wasn’t so sure about that. The drongo is a small songbird with black feathers, known for imitating the calls of other birds to steal their food.
Tired of slaving for the ruler owl, the drongo decided one day to test how potent the owl’s horns were. With all the birds watching, he dove from the sky and pecked one of the owl’s horns. And poof — the horn shattered into tiny feathers.
All the others cheered the drongo’s bravery — and realized that the owl was not as powerful as it seemed. From then on, the owl could only come out at night. Traditional belief among the Shona people is that all nocturnal birds and animals are evil and often associated with witchcraft.
But even though the birds were happy, they weren’t quite sure what would happen next.
I see great parallels in the mixed emotions expressed by the birds at their time of transition — and by my fellow Zimbabweans.
The first feeling is shock. Shock that all it took was a few military generals, with only one confirmed casualty, to dislodge Mugabe. I recall the same sentiments expressed globally at the downfall of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. How can such powerful people fall so quickly from absolute power? Much like the horned owl, the greatest power that dictators hold is the sense of invincibility. Once that power is tested, people see them for who they really are — mere mortals who at some point started to believe their own propaganda.
The second feeling is excitement.
We are not sure where the country is headed but there is a sense of change in the air. Much like the birds who had to bring worms to feed the owl, Zimbabweans are tired of working hard with no benefit for themselves. Once the bread basket of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe turned into a different kind of country under Mugabe’s rule. It now imports most of its food. Nearly 28 percent of children under age five in Zimbabwe are stunted due to chronic malnutrition. Although the country boasts one of the highest literacy rates in African and a solid education system, the unemployment rate is estimated at 95 percent.
Meanwhile, the first family lived a life of pure excess. Only last month, one of Mugabe’s sons was filmed drenching his $70,000 diamond watch with a $260 bottle of champagne.
So Zimbabweans are celebrating the dawn of a new era. Life continues with the usual routines. Kids are going to school, farmers are preparing the fields for planting and the few that are employed are going to work. Only this time, everyone seems to have a new bounce in their step.
The last feeling is anxiety. No one seems to know what the next chapter might be. Will there be peace and stability? What will happen to the economy? Much like the birds in my story, we got used to the certainty of an authoritarian leader. Who will fill the power void?
We need clear minds to rebuild Zimbabwe into a free and prosperous nation. We have to be careful not to replace one owl with another.
Although in a twist of irony, the likely new president — recently fired vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa — is known as “the crocodile.”