Revealed: Story of a south London pensioner and Sally Mugabe

The late Sally Mugabe

The Guardian

As we reach the close of the Mugabe era in the life of Zimbabwe, I would like to share a story about Robert Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, who was loved by the people and is still thought of as the founding mother of the nation. Her early death in 1992 from kidney failure was one of the factors that marked a turning point in the life of the country.

Sally is also remembered with affection by a friend of mine and an old friend of hers, an elderly lady now living in a care home in Croydon. Irene Owens, who is now 98, lived and worked In Zimbabwe in 1981.

On her return home to London she found she couldn’t forget the country she had grown to love and decided to write to Robert Mugabe to inquire as to how she could help, an unusual letter bearing in mind that Irene was a pensioner in a small flat in south London. Mugabe passed the letter over to Sally, triggering the start of a firm and productive friendship between the two women.

Sally wrote back to Irene saying she was concerned for the welfare of the women of the country and requested sewing machines. Irene asked around and was able to find a few that had been tucked away unused in people’s cupboards.

She didn’t have the means to ship them herself but arranged for Air Zimbabwe to fly them out at no cost. Irene continued to spread the word about the need for sewing machines and they began to pour into the tiny flat in Dulwich. One day an official black limousine arrived at the door and it was Sally Mugabe herself who had come to see her friend Irene and to collect the latest batch of machines. The two women enjoyed chatting over a cup of tea.

Eventually, 500 sewing machines were sent via Irene to Sally in Zimbabwe as well as a ton of children’s books and 1,800 measles vaccines. Later, Irene received an invitation to travel to the country where she went on tour with Sally, visiting some of the women who were using the sewing machines. She found they were managing for the first time to make a living for their families by making clothes such as school uniforms for sale.

The friendship and cooperation between Sally and Irene continued for many years until Sally’s untimely death. Irene had visited her in hospital in London when she was ill. When, after Sally’s death, Irene attempted to send another batch of machines, she was informed she would, for the first time, be charged shipping so, without the backing of the first lady, the project – like so much of Sally Mugabe’s work – came to an end.

Sue Hoar

Liphook, Hampshire


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