I’m a millennial Zimbabwean. This is what Robert Mugabe Meant to Me.

For most of my 26 years, I have had only one president: Robert Gabriel Mugabe. He came into power and officially became the president of the Republic of Zimbabwe in 1987. And to the country, he was more than just a man. He was a symbol, an icon, a name whose utterance inspired fear, anger, pride and patriotism.

Questions of how he should be remembered have ignited mixed reactions online. Although opinions on his legacy differ, one thing is clear: Mugabe’s life and death affected Zimbabweans and non-Zimbabweans on a deeply personal level.

As a child, I did not know much about Mugabe. I saw his name splashed across billboards, his image in full-page adverts in the newspapers. I heard snippets of his speeches on television during the evening news. His voice filtered through the radio on my way to school.

He wasn’t just our president: Mugabe was Zimbabwe.

The two were inseparable. I accepted what I read and saw of him, word-for-word. He was a strong, black African leader being punished by America and Europe for his Pan-Africanism. In my young mind he was a liberator, a force, highly intelligent and most of all, a leader who cared for his people. I sang along to the jingles and songs praising his exploits, not fully aware of what I was singing. I had always seen adults around me speak of Mugabe in hushed tones, even in the comfort and privacy of their homes. It didn’t make sense why they did so. Why were they afraid of their liberator?

It was only when I reached adolescence that my perception began to change. I started high school in 2005. By then, Zimbabwe’s economy had been in steady decline for a decade, but things were getting worse and they were getting worse faster than before. I started to wonder: if Mugabe was such a powerful, intelligent leader, why was there no bread in the shops?

The hushed conversations and whispers got louder and louder, and this time, I listened when adults spoke.

I listened as they spoke about Operation Murambatsvina, a campaign that destroyed and demolished slums and left an estimated 70 000 people homeless and destitute. I listened as they spoke about police attacking, intimidating, beating and kidnapping opposition members and political activists. I listened as they spoke about the corruption and cronyism that was rampant in government circles. I listened as they whispered about mass killings in the 1980s. I listened. And I was horrified. I had been lied to for years, and I had believed it. As inflation rose, fuel queues got longer, basic goods got harder to find and electricity shortages left us in the dark, the childlike admiration I had for Mugabe the icon died.

All that was left was resignation. He had been in power longer than I had been alive. Who was I in the grand scheme of things? I was not a boy. I was not rich. I was not powerful. I had no liberation struggle credentials. And the history that I was slowly learning taught me that if I was none of those things, then I wasn’t valuable or respected in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.

And so I spent the next years cynical of any signs of change and progress in Zimbabwe. I resolved to learn as much as I could about my country’s history so I wouldn’t be deceived again. But the more I learnt, the more disillusioned I became. The people who were meant to be our heroes – symbolised in Mugabe – had betrayed the very people they’d picked up arms for. I was angry, frustrated, sad.

And no matter how much I tried, Mugabe was unavoidable. His name came up as soon as I mentioned I was Zimbabwean.

The reveal of my nationality was usually accompanied by “how’s Mugabe doing?” Non-Zimbabwean activists at my university invoked his name in the spirit of Pan-Africanism. And whenever Mugabe trended on Twitter, I rolled my eyes and wondered what new hell had been unleashed.

And now, he’s gone. A name that for 39 years was infused into Zimbabwe’s story is no longer here. Robert Mugabe outlived his peers, opposition leaders, and other big African statesmen. He was a leader who started with the hopes, dreams and blessing of his people. They trusted him to deliver the country they fought and sacrificed for. And now, looking back at his 37 years as a president, all I feel is loss and pity.

Mugabe could have been a wonderful leader. He could’ve transformed Zimbabwe into a stable, proud nation. He could’ve guided us as we dealt with the trauma from nearly a century of colonisation and white minority rule. He could’ve handed over power to a successor, retiring with the love, appreciation and respect of his people and his continent. Instead, Mugabe’s story has a different ending. His legacy is marked with mass killings, the collapse of the national currency, the deterioration of healthcare services, economic instability, intolerance of opposition and a culture of fear and violence. I pity the nameless, faceless people who were the victims of this legacy, people whose names won’t make international headlines, people whose deaths didn’t get obituaries in leading newspapers. Mugabe left an indelible mark on Zimbabwe. Even now, his unseen hand is everywhere.

And now, after his death, all I ask myself is if we can shake off his influence, or if Mugabe and Zimbabwe are to be forever entwined.