AT first glance Peter Mtangadura hardly looks like a murderer.
As he sits quietly on a sunny Thursday morning watching other patients air their concerns and grievances at Ingutsheni Central Hospital’s Mambo Ward, Mtangadura does not seem to harbor a single violent bone in his plump 72-year-old body.
On his face is what appears to be a permanent mask of half-hearted interest, as he observes the lively interaction between nurses and patients during the ward’s health education session.
Mtangadura’s mask does not shift and neither does his body stir as a towering patient wraps up the ward’s morning’s proceedings with few stanzas of the praise and worship song, uJesu Uyamangalisa.
He maintains his calm posture as he sits on a wheelchair, his legs stretched out on a chair in front of him. Two pillows give the legs, which bear the tell-tale scars of past surgical operations, comfort.
In 2003, back when he was a prison officer at Grey Prison, back when his bones were stronger and when he was yet to be imprisoned in a wheelchair by his own ankles, Mtangadura brutally murdered two people.
Record has it that after a minor altercation with a fellow villager in Kwekwe, Mtangadura later went to his unwary adversary’s homestead with an axe in his hand and destruction on his mind.
Once there, he found the man’s hapless aging mother and granddaughter.
The two never stood a chance.
A savage attack from the former prison officer left their heads severed from their necks. After the brutal assault, Mtangadura then went around the village holding their two heads, like trophies, brandishing them to all who came across him.
After his arrest and trial, the courts ruled that Mtangadura was not mentally fit to serve a prison term.
It has been over a decade since he came to Mambo, Ingutsheni’s forensic ward where patients who committed gruesome acts but were acquitted on account of ill mental health are housed.
In those years, he says, what used to be a small crop of grey hair has now grown to a field that covers his whole head. Along with his physical appearance, his version of what occurred back in 2003 has also changed.
“I had a mental problem which was first diagnosed in 1985,” Mtangadura says. As he speaks, his right hand shakes.
“One night I started walking away from my home until I came to a strange farm. I found an axe there and I went further on in the bush from Kwekwe rural until I reached Sherwood. It was a whole night’s walk. I walked until I reached another farm and that’s when I killed an old woman”.
Mtangadura’s story is not in sync with official records of what actually transpired.
According to the ward’s matron, Ms Tendai Chimbindi, it is not rare for patients in the ward may to omit details or add tidbits to their gruesome tales.
“They do that when they meet strangers. There is an element of denial but mostly they do so for sympathy,” said Ms Chimbindi.
Years after the courts ruled that he belongs to mental institution rather than a prison cell, Mtangadura is a haunted and lonely man.
Although he claims his son visits him regularly, this truth is that his family washed its hands off him after his brief but unforgettable reign of terror.
“The whole family doesn’t want to see him. His wife is still there. She remained in their homestead and never visits. His children have grown but they also don’t visit. Last time there was a guy who was forced to come but he just observed him and then went away without saying a thing.
“There is someone who comes from that area who used to carry letters to his family but they told him to never bring letters to them again,” said Ms Chimbindi.
While he is exiled from a family that does not want anything to do with him, Mtangadura’s isolation from his victims’ families is even more severe. While the courts might have absolved him of the gruesome deeds, the scars still live deep in the minds of those that lost loved ones at his hands.
“If you kill someone from the community then that community hears that whoever killed that someone is back they’re not going to take kindly to it. We once had a patient who killed someone in Plumtree and when he was released the chief in his area wrote to us and said they don’t want him back. He was escorted back to us by the chief’s security staff,” said the hospital’s clinical director Dr Wellington Ranga.
When he burst into his adversary’s homestead back in 2003 and ended the lives of old woman and a child she was sheltering, Mtangadura turned a new leaf in his life. It is a bloodstained page that he wants to close now as old age gets the better of him. 72 years of age and shackled by his troublesome legs to a wheelchair, Mtangadura prays for closure.
“I have been here since 2003 and I’m tired. My father passed away in 2003. My mother passed away in 2004 and I’m left with an elder brother. I’m tired now and I want to go home.
“I paid ten herds of cattle to the family that I wronged but I can’t say sorry while I’m in here” he said.
According to Dr Ranga however, relocating patients to their former homes is no easy task.
Families dissociate themselves from those that killed community members. Fear of the wrath of Ngozi or avenging spirits is enough to make families reject their own kin.
In some instances, fear of reprisals from a victim’s family members is also a real threat as the release of a patient like Mtangadura reopens old wounds that even time could not heal. Given the cold shoulder by both family and community, such patients are usually driven back to the welcoming embrace of Mambo Ward.
“We readmit them forever. We make the relatives sign an affidavit giving us permission to keep that person. Remember it’s also for their security. If people think you’re a murderer they probably want to kill you before you kill them,” said Dr Ranga.
One such patient is Ishmael Marimba. While Mtangadura is the quiet observer, Marimba is not afraid to join in the fray during discussions.
During the session in which patients complain about everything from the lack of beef in their diet to constipation, Marimba sits with his arms folded in front of him, wearing a blue uniform that has clearly seen better days.
“My main complainant is that my family only visits me in January and December. When they come to visit I pack everything that I have here and prepare to go but they refuse to take me with them. It’s so painful and it hurts me deeply.
So my request to you is to ask them to take me with them whenever they come again in January or December. Please beg them for me,” said Marimba.
Marimba, whose mother was also a mental patient at the hospital at the institution before she passed away, tried to hack off his sister’s arm after she admonished for his petulant behavior when he got jealous that their youngest sister had got a school trunk as a gift.
Unlike other patients whose families abandoned them after they were admitted to Ingutsheni, Marimba’s family had remained hopeful of his rehabilitation. The flame of hope was however, extinguished by his behaviour later on.
“They used to come and see him but his behaviour drove them away. Despite the fact that he was violent towards her his sister continued visiting him. But when they would visit he gets angry and say he was here because of her,” said Chimbindi.
Like other patients Marimba is having a hard time reconciling with his past actions. During the health education session another patient, an amputee, also spoke out. With his movements restricted by his condition, he asked for an artificial leg.
“This one is from Harare. He is a rape case. There are no relatives to look after him. When he came from Harare to Bulawayo he was squatting near the National Railways’ of Zimbabwe’s main office. He was using a wheelchair. He claims that he didn’t rape the woman but the wheelchair went on top of her and she then accused him of rape,” said Chimbindi.
Like Marimba, the unidentified patient is in denial of his past actions. Even after rehabilitation, many find it hard to take the blame for their deeds.
As mental health professionals try to repair their damaged minds and give them a bit of redemption within the confines of an underfunded mental hospital, Chimbindi believes that those outside could also do with a few lessons.
If education of the wider public is not prioritized, Marimba and others will remain modern day lepers, cast out of society despite the court’s decision that they were not in control of their actions when they committed chilling acts of violence.
“Stigma is the devil. This is all because if you kill it becomes a problem. When we had better health education in communities it was better. You would have psychiatric nurses educating everyone from the chief going downwards. If you get a whole community saying so and so’s child did this, the minute they see that person in their community it becomes a big issue,” said Ms Chimbindi.