Interview by Christina Lamb
Born in 1965, Felix Ndiweni moved to London to study in 1981, after Zimbabwe gained independence. He later worked as an auditor for Waltham Forest council. In 2014, he returned to Zimbabwe to succeed his father as paramount chief of the Ndiweni people. He is now pushing for a restoration of the Ndebele monarchy, more than 100 years after the last king was defeated by Cecil Rhodes.
I don’t really have a private life — when I wake at about 4.30, there are already people waiting for me. Some have walked 10 or 20 miles, so I meet them even before breakfast. When I can, I grab a bowl of mealie meal, which is a bit like polenta, or I’ll have cornflakes and a cup of tea. Then it’s back to work.
There are about 10,000 Ndiweni. As one of 75 chiefs I’m everything — farmer, judge, psychologist, marriage counsellor. I live in a normal house, but I wear traditional robes — leopardskin with a Zulu headband.
I learnt from the old man. He was very hands-on and chief for 71 years. Every day is different. One day I am dealing with a young lady who has broken up with her husband; another day it might be a man whose vegetables were eaten by his neighbour’s goats. I fix up my old tractor to plough my land and that of widows, I build latrines for schools, I fix roads. As a chief, I’m expected to control all such things, but the government gives us only $300 a month, which you can do nothing with.
Some of the poorest chiefs don’t even have a vehicle — they’ll be riding their bicycle to go and adjudicate disputes. I’m seeking restoration of the monarchy because it would regenerate the traditional leadership structure and help us all to be financially independent and fulfil our duties. I’m also looking at the corporate world and the international arena for sponsorship — in my area we have strong gold veins.
Lunch is usually on the hoof. I don’t have the time for exercise, but it’s not a pen-pusher’s job; it’s very hands-on and I’ll be sweating buckets during the day. Recently, the sewerage system of our clinic broke down, so we had to go out digging holes and carrying rocks.
I have mixed emotions about the fall of Mugabe. His exit after 37 years was a good thing, but the incumbent needs to address what happened in our area in the 1980s, when the most heinous of human crimes was committed — the Gukurahundi genocide. We don’t have accurate figures as we’ve never been allowed an official investigation, but at least 20,000 civilians were killed by the Zimbabwe National Army. It smacks me in the face every day when I sit in a village with a Ndebele family and can see that all the males are not there. They simply vanished into thin air.
There’s a lot of pressure on me to produce an heir. My first wife, who I married in Walthamstow, is 52, like me. She’s an intensive care nurse who used to work at Southend Hospital, but is now working in Jeddah.
Recently, I took a second wife, Ntokozo, who is 32. Of course, my first wife wasn’t happy to start with. Some would say I chickened out, but it was the Ndiweni women who put it to her. In fact, they found my second wife for me.
The staple here is mealie meal, but, perhaps because I spent so many years in the UK, I have grilled meat and salad for dinner. At the end of the day, I rarely have time to relax. The modern chief has a lot of paperwork. I enjoy woodcarving, painting and basket-weaving, but I don’t have the time. On the rare occasions I get to watch television, I’m a sci-fi nerd. I love Stargate, Game of Thrones and comedy, like Keeping Up Appearances.
I try to call it a day by 11 or midnight. I’m a man of faith and spirituality, and being a chief is very different to my old life. I still have a house in England, but I don’t often get back there.
WORDS OF WISDOM
- Best advice I was given I learnt from the best — my father — a failing chief is a failing community
- Advice I’d give Follow your gut instincts, because they are rarely wrong
- What I wish I’d known How hard it would be to restore the Ndebele monarchy, but I’m certain we will.
The Sunday Times