Me and Mrs. Mugabe: a case of mistaken identity

Mystified by being called Mrs. Mugabe, Zimbabwe's famous first lady, an English immigrant does a little digging.

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The vegetable-seller ran to my car on a busy street in eastern Zimbabwe, a basket of nyimo beans balanced on her head.

"Mrs. Mugabe, did you have the baby?" she panted.

Mrs. Mugabe? I was baffled. How had I, an English immigrant, been confused with Zimbabwe's famous first lady, the glamorous wife of longtime president Robert Mugabe?

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"I'm sorry," I told the woman, sliding my gearstick into reverse. "I'm not Mrs. Mugabe."

She peered through my car window. "Now I see you, I realize you are not her," she conceded.

Engine idling, we haggled gently for a few moments over a couple of bags of nyimo beans (they're delicious boiled with a pinch of salt). Then I drove away, puzzled. Was this a clever sales tactic? Grace Mugabe and I are both youngish women: She's in her mid-40s, I'm on the far side of 35. But surely there the resemblance ends?

True, we both like clothes. The real Mrs. Mugabe's love of clothes shopping is well-known and more than a little controversial: During Zimbabwe's decade-long economic crisis, many wondered where she got the wherewithal to fund her purchases from Rome, New York, and Hong Kong.

After nine years in southern Africa, my idea of a satisfying shopping trip is raking through the second-hand shirts spread on sheets of plastic at the flea market in Sakubva township, along with the other housewives. "Two for a dollar, amai" (mother), the vendors shout. Once I found a satiny ball dress in night-sky blue and took it home, just for the stories I was sure were buried in its slippery folds.

Let's just say Mrs. Mugabe and I don't shop in the same places.

And what was this about a new baby? I hadn't had a baby for a long time, but then neither – as far as I knew and I follow these things pretty closely – had Mrs. Mugabe. She has three children with the president: These days her involvement with small children is, I think, confined to the orphanage she is setting up in Mazowe, central Zimbabwe.

It happened again. The next time was in the supermarket along Herbert Chitepo Street. "How is your family, Mrs. Mugabe?" the cashier asked warmly as I fumbled for my change. Her face fell when I explained I wasn't Mrs. Mugabe.

I realized I'd disappointed her.

I started hearing low calls in the street as I passed: "Mrs. Mugabe! Mrs. Mugabe!" One day I overheard snatches of conversation about Mrs. Mugabe's latest hair appointment – apparently she'd booked into the same salon I use.

Eventually, I made a few enquiries.

It turns out, of course, that there is more than one Mrs. Mugabe in Zimbabwe. In the capital, Harare, there are 48 listings under the name Mugabe in the telephone directory. Some will be related to 86-year-old President Mugabe (a prominent state lawyer with the same surname is believed to be his nephew); others will not.

I ran my finger down the phone entries and wondered about all those other Mrs. Mugabes: Did they feel a frisson when their name was called out, just as I had?

But the Mrs. Mugabe I was being confused with was tall and thin and blond, my informants said. She was married to a local technician. English wasn't her mother tongue.

Finally, I was introduced to my Mrs. Mugabe at a junior self-defence class. She was watching her two older children execute perfect sidekicks while a toddler clambered on her knee. Her hair was shorter than mine.

"I've been wanting to meet you for ages," I ventured. "People keep mistaking me for you."

Mrs. Mugabe looked at me closely. "But we don't look alike, do we?" she said with a laugh.

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