The Iroko is a large proverbial ancient tree that grows on the west coast of Africa, in countries like Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria. Durable, strong, and rot resistant, Iroko has many uses, including for constructing homes and making furniture. Birds build nests and raise hatchlings on its broad, accommodating branches. Animals feed on its leaves. Humans rest under its shade.
An Iroko tree rarely falls. When it does, the impact is massive. The bird nests are shattered, with many young birds dying or left at the mercy of foxes and other wild animals. It shakes the foundation of nearby homes. The amplitude of the seismic waves it produces would likely cause the needle on the Richter magnitude scale to flutter. When an Iroko tree falls, something big and painful has happened.
Dewa’s passing on December 4, 2021, was painful for so many. His life was spent as if he knew he had a limited time to make his mark. He appeared to be in a hurry to fit as many tasks as possible into the time he had. He was extremely generous with his time, talent, and resources. He was humble, never promoting himself, always on the lookout for others.
Like he did shortly before he died as he sought emergency support for three activists in Zimbabwe. “I am currently in Zimbabwe where I have interviewed all three activists over their security situation and the recent threats they are facing,” he wrote in a November 15 email. “During our previous research mission to Zimbabwe in October 2019, Tunde met and interviewed one of them, following his abduction and torture.”
Twenty days later, he was gone. It was the last thing I read from my friend who referred to me as “Chief.”
One of the three activists was a student, targeted and threatened by state agents. Dewa, as a former student union leader at the University of Zimbabwe, had firsthand experience advocating for the rights of students in an environment where dissent was not tolerated.
We drove around that university campus together in October 2021, and for several minutes he excitedly pointed out various iconic places, while regaling me with tales of how students ran rings around secret service agents in those days.
Dewa had plans. Lots of plans. To write a book in his native Shona language. To study for a PhD. To raise funds for various worthy causes in Zimbabwe, the nation he loved passionately. To pamper his dogs.
Dewa, your passing was like an early setting of the sun. Or moonlight being covered by a cloud. Or an Iroko tree falling.
Human Rights Watch is both mourning the passing and celebrating the life of Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director, on February 18, 2022. Mavhinga, a beloved colleague to many activists across the human rights movement, passed away on December 4, 2021.