The first president of Zimbabwe, Canaan Banana is known for his efforts that brought together two strong political parties in Zimabwe; ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union) and ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union). Born and raised in the now Matebeleland South region, Canaan studied at missionary schools and then later went on to a teacher training institute. He was ordained as a United Methodist minister in 1962, shortly after he received his diploma in theology. He worked at various missions and he was chairman of the Bulawayo Council of Churches in 1969-1970, and of the Southern African Urban Industrial Mission from 1970 – 1973. In 1974 and 1975 Canaan Banana was a student in Washington DC at Wesley Theological Seminary. He later became the vice-president of African National Council after he took part in the black liberation movements as he denounced Ian Smith’s practices as prime minister. Banana published his own version of the Lord’s prayer, encouraging Africans to resist white supremacy which alerted the authorities.
For slightly over five years, Canaan and his family fled Zimbabwe for the United States after many Council members were getting arrested in the late 1960s. He was however arrested in 1975 upon his return for approximately a year. When he was under house arrest, he decided to join Bishop Abel Muzoriwa’s plans for the country, but left them shortly for ZANU, led by Robert Mugabe; which was dedicated to overthrowing Smith administration, which he was eager about. Canaan Banana was arrested again in 1976, this time for supporting ZANU. However, his efforts with Robert Mugabe to overthrow Ian Smith finally were a success in 1980, Canaan Banana eventually became the first president of the new independent country of Zimbabwe, led by the Prime Minister Robert Mugabe. One of the reasons why Canaan was popular in Zimbabwe was that he always urged his congregation to reject the European luxuries and embrace African life and culture.
After he retired, his largely ceremonial post was taken over by Robert Mugabe in 1987, Canaan moved on to become a diplomat of Organization of African Unity and head of the religious department at the University of Zimbabwe. Canaan Banana took on the role of an elder statesman, traveling around the continent and presenting himself as a man of the people who wanted to make society better for mankind. In 1988, he played a major role in creating ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front), a merger between ZANU and ZAPU.
As negativity follows most politicians, in 1997 Canaan Banana was arrested on charges of sodomy to which he pleaded not guilty. He fled the country claiming Mugabe was plotting to kill him, but was later convinced by Nelson Mandela to return home and face the charges. He was released in January 2001 after he was sentenced in January 1999, serving 18 months. Canaan always proclaimed that the charges were ‘pathological lies’ intended to destroy his political career. According to his son, Nathan, false reports may have been passed to ZANU-PF because of Canaan’s close relationship with Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s main opponent in presidential run. Nathan states that his father’s efforts were only to bring peace between the two main parties with a peace talk similar to that of 1987 Unity Agreement.
Canaan Banana was diagnosed with cancer which took his life on 10 November 2003 after he had travelled to South Africa to receive appropriate treatment. In a radio address, Robert Mugabe called him a ‘rare gift to the nation’. Banana was buried without the full honors that are traditionally accorded to former heads of state. Although a forgotten national hero, Canaan’s tireless work will not be forgotten by the people he served faithfully to. Negative reputation will not undo the work he did, the tireless efforts serving faithfully to Zimbabwe. This work will last a lifetime, and he will forever be a Zimlegend.