Tarivona Asher Mutsengi was born on March 8, 1983, in Bulawayo, a city in southwestern Zimbabwe, the first of five children to Philip Gilbert, a businessman, and his wife, Martha. As a child, Asher, as everyone called him, spent most of his time in the nearby town of Plumtree, where Philip owned a gas station, and the family had enough land to grow watermelons and maize. During holidays, cousins, aunts and uncles would descend on their garden. With his wide smile and quick wit, Asher was always “the centre of attention,” says sister Rumbidzai, naturally assuming the leadership role in childhood games, pretending he was a priest (the family were devout Catholics) or a doctor. Whenever one of the kids had a loose tooth, he insisted that the new one would grow in faster if they let him remove it—which they did. “We believed everything that he told us because he was so convincing,” says Rumbidzai.
In addition to their fields in Plumtree, the family had a farm in Gutu. At the time, they could have afforded to hire farmhands, but “my father preferred us doing it, so that we experienced it,” says Rumbidzai. Philip rewarded his children for good grades, and Asher had no trouble meeting those expectations; he was once given a bicycle for his academic achievements, and would let Rumbidzai ride it—as long as she paid him in chocolate. A member of the debate club, Asher held firm to his convictions. The only time he didn’t make the top spot in his class was on purpose, after an argument with his father. Says Rumbidzai, “He liked stressing his point, even if it was a losing side.”
After high school, Asher went to Bulawayo to study soil management at Solusi University, and worked on farms in the region. At one point, his employers were driven from the land under a controversial program to redistribute white-owned farmland to poor blacks. By then, Zimbabwe was in the grips of an economic crisis, with fuel, food and medical care in short supply. But even when “the shelves were empty,” says Rumbidzai, the family never talked politics. To do so was to risk reprisal from President Robert Mugabe’s secret service; dissenters were known to wind up in prison, or dead. Asher however, “wasn’t afraid of anything,” she says. He sent in opinion pieces to local media outlets and started a blog.
Soon it was illegal in Zimbabwe to publish anything “likely to cause alarm or despondency,” and journalists had to be licensed by the government. But even as reporters were being detained, Asher kept writing pieces under his real name. After the spokesman for the main opposition party died in state custody, Asher wrote that he had “pointed the way for us [to] a land no longer torn asunder with intolerance, tyranny, ethnic strife and poverty.” The land reform remained a sore point; he later wrote: “The new owners, all of them Mugabe’s cronies and supporters, lacked the necessary capital, infrastructure, equipment, seeds and fertilisers.”
Asher kept this work separate from his family, and particularly his father, who “was not so comfortable with his political enthusiasm,” says Rumbidzai. When he was roughed up in 2006 for his criticism of Mugabe, he didn’t divulge much about the incident, but it contributed to his decision to leave Zimbabwe. He went to Texas in April, where his aunt was living, and finished his degree. While overseas, he founded Zimbabwe Metro, a news website intended “to give the diaspora a voice,” says one Metro reporter, who writes under the pseudonym Dave Fish Eagle. To Asher, “voices worked both ways,” says Dave, and comments posted by Mugabe supporters were never deleted.
Later that year, Asher moved to Canada, where he thought it would be easier to get refugee status. He planned to learn more about farming, and when it was safe for him to return to Zimbabwe, bring those skills home. He bounced around the West, earning money for his family in all manner of jobs, even once as an embroiderer.
But he was eager to return to the land, and wanted in particular to experience a Canadian harvest. In April, he got a job on a grain farm in Central Butte, Sask. His personality, and his propensity to break into dance—on one occasion, atop a tractor—made him “instantly lovable,” says Sara Bryan, whose father, Doug Bryan, owned the farm. He spent days in the fields and evenings online, updating his website.
On July 27, Asher was helping Doug unload a bin of grain when the auger stopped flowing. The grain had become stuck high in the bin—a relatively rare occurrence. Doug was going to climb up and shovel it out, but Asher volunteered instead. Somehow, he fell in. The men tried to pull him out, but Asher suffocated in the grain. He was 26.