Sad story of Dembo’s mother

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“If I had a radio I would listen to his music every day. I can sing most of his songs, but these days I no longer hear the songs often. When I am lucky, I hear the songs being played in public places, but that is only when I travel. Unfortunately, I rarely travel and I can go for many months without singing along to my son’s beautiful music. If only I had a radio, it would comfort me.”

These were the first words from Leonard Dembo’s mother Sukai Pasipanodya during a recent visit to her home in a resettlement in the Beatrice area. She is not sure about her age, but seems to be in her late 80s.

She has fond memories of the great legend’s life and career, yet – 21 years after his death – she still feels robbed by the departure of her popular son, who was a darling of many music followers in the country and beyond.

To prove that she can indeed sing some of Dembo’s songs the old lady belted out some lines from “Venenzia” and “Musha Rudziiko”. She shook her head after singing as her mind seemed to wander to a distant land of memories, then a sudden chuckle announced her return to reality.

“I enjoy the music. I attended some of his shows. When he was performing in areas near Chirumanzu, he would come to take me. I would be there backstage and sometimes he introduced me on stage and people cheered. You can imagine what a proud mother I was. Being a mother of a legend with so many followers made me happy. I was even happier because he loved his mother so much. He took care of me and I always had almost everything that I needed. ‘Joyous’ was my other name,” she joked.

She had every reason to be joyous because the comfortable life had been preceded by a sad era that began when her husband died while her children were still young.

Tendai and Morgan Dembo
Tendai and Morgan Dembo

“My husband was working in Masvingo and when he died we moved out of the company house and my children went to stay with their uncle while I went back to my family in Chivi.

“Leonard was the third born and he was still young. Their uncle could not afford to send them to school and Leonard left without saying where he was going.

“I moved on with life but later went to take my children. I was told they did not know where Leonard had gone. Some said he had gone to Bulawayo while others said he was in Harare. He never communicated. I took my other children and we survived on farm jobs.”

The years in-between were littered with misfortunes and bitterness. For more than 10 years she did not know where Leonard was. At one point she thought he was dead and it later emerged that Dembo also believed that his mother was no more. The story of their reunion is like a folktale and it, inevitably, was a tearful affair.

It began with Dembo’s brother Jerifanos hearing his music on a bus.

“After a few years of farm life, Jerry went to work in South Africa. One day he was on a bus coming back home and he heard Leonard’s music playing on a local radio station. He was surprised to hear Leonard’s name and he disembarked in Masvingo and looked for a copy of the music. He bought it and brought it home. We were then staying in Chivi. I was angry with him when he tried to convince me that Leonard was alive and he had bought his music.”

Jerifanos then used record company details on the record to track his brother. He finally managed to talk to him on the phone and they arranged to meet in Masvingo.

“They arrived at night. Jerry said ‘Mother, Leonard is here’ and I told him not to start his stupid funnies again. I went out to see them and got the shock of my life.

Leonard Dembo’s widow Eunice (left) pictured together with Barbra Tazvida in this file picture.

“Leonard ran and hugged me and we cried some minutes. He said he also thought that I was dead and his situation in Harare was complicated. Because of childhood bitterness and what he had gone through when he eventually ran away, he had just chosen to lead a lonely life. He was in this mysterious shell and most people say his character sometimes revealed such bitterness. He was doing music part time and was working for a bottling company.”

The reunion apparently brought blessings to Dembo and his music began making serious impact. Within a few years his life changed. He had several cars and a house in Belvedere. He took his mother and stayed with her before he started building a home for her in Chirumanzu.

“In Harare I had my room that no one used when I was away. When he began building the home in Chirumanzu I went there to supervise builders. I always had money and would buy what I wanted. The builders were fast because they also got everything they needed.

“After the completion of the homestead, I settled with some helpers and Leonard would visit almost every week. His wife and children sometimes spent time with me at the home.”

Indeed she was leading the life of a mother of a legend and everyone in the area knew and respected her. Dembo would at times visit with fellow musicians like Nicholas Zakaria and System Tazvida. The Dembo homestead became popular in Chirumhanzu and his mother also became a celebrity in the area.

However, a sad era began when Dembo fell ill.

“He was in and out of hospital and he briefly stayed with me at the homestead when his condition deteriorated. He then went back to Harare to seek further treatment.

“I later heard he had gone to seek spiritual assistance at Madzibaba Nzira’s shrine and that things were not well at all. I was planning to visit when one day his wife, Mai Morgan came and said we should immediately go to Harare.

“I was shocked. I thought Leonard was dead. I could not even take a bath. I thought she did not want to tell me the truth.

“When we got to Harare we went straight to Madzibaba Nzira’s shrine. We got there and we were told he had gone to hospital because his condition had worsened.

“I refused to greet Nzira. I did not respond to his questions. I was angry with everyone.”

They found Dembo admitted in hospital and he did not immediately recognise his mother.

“I asked him how he was feeling and I thought he had recognised me. Later when we were in the ward he heard me coughing and called his wife: ‘Mai Moggie, who is coughing?’ She told him and questions came my way: ‘Mother you have come. Have you come to take me? I want to go home. Did you bring me something to drink?’

“We did not want to disturb him and just assured him that everything would be fine.

“I would go to the hospital in the morning and wait to check on him during visiting hours.”

The musician’s condition did not get better. After a few days, the nation lost one of the greatest legends to grace the local music scene. That was on April 9, 1996. The news came to his mother through a phone call at night.

“We were home in Belvedere at night when we received a call that announced my son’s death. It was a blow.

“I still could not believe it. When we got to the hospital and found him being taken to the mortuary, I collapsed. So, this was the end of my most caring son? The end of a legend who had made me so proud?”

News of Dembo’s death went around early that morning and many of his fans rushed to the hospital in the early hours.

“Around 5am there were many cars outside. There were many people milling around. People wailing loudly and some sobbing quietly.

“I realised my son had more fans than I thought. When we went back home the street was packed. No parking space. Cars of all types were there. The yard was filled. Hundreds of people.

“His band spent the night performing and prominent figures also came.”

It was the same case as they took Dembo to his final resting place at his homestead in Chirumanzu.

“We met people at every shopping centre waiting to say goodbye to their icon. In Chivhu, we actually stopped as people blocked the way demanding to see his coffin.

“It was even worse in Chirumanzu. Scores of people were waiting to bid him farewell and in the midst of deep pain, I had consolation in the realisation that he had done his part and left a mark in the nation.”

A few years after Dembo’s death she relocated to Chivi. She says she could not stay in the house because it kept the wound fresh in her heart. The homestead is now dilapidated since no one has stayed in it ever since. Unfortunately she had to move again from Chivi when their area was affected by Tokwe-Mukosi floods.

She had to relocate to her grandson’s farm in Beatrice where she was given her small portion where she stays with three grandchildren. But she says things will never be the same again. She says Dembo’s sons Morgan and Tendai sometimes visit her.

In a separate interview, Tendai said they often go to check on her and, resources permitting, they will rebuild their father’s homestead in Chirumanzu.

  • NEHANDARADIO