Janet Banana, the widow of Zimbabwe’s first president Canaan Banana died aged 83 on Thursday, her family announced.

She died at Bulawayo’s Mater Dei Hospital from a kidney ailment, according to her niece Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga.

“She has been battling a kidney ailment for quite some time. She went into the hospital on July 19 and unfortunately we have lost her,” said Misihairabwi-Mushonga.

Born Janet Mbuyazwe in 1938, she trained as a teacher and it was while working at a school that she met a fellow teacher, Canaan Banana. The couple married in 1961. He trained as a minister at a local theological college and by the time their first son was born, the family was moving from post to post in service with the Methodist ministry.

But the wind of change was already blowing through Africa as the continent sought to shake off European colonial rule.

As the independence movement in Rhodesia gained momentum, Canaan became involved in politics, becoming the vice president of the African National Council, a group outlawed by the Ian Smith colonial regime.

As ANC members were arrested and thrown into prison, the net began to close around Banana.

He fled to the United States where Janet and their children joined him.

The family returned to Rhodesia in 1975 with the war still raging.

Banana was arrested on arrival in Salisbury, now Harare.

He was finally released after the Lancaster House talks in London, in 1979, which reached an agreement on a new constitution for the country.

At Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, Canaan became the country’s president, a largely ceremonial position until a constitutional amendment abolished the post in 1987.

Robert Mugabe, who had been prime minister, became executive president.

President Canaan Banana and his wife Janet are seen with Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and his wife Sally in this undated photo

The family endured turmoil when, in 1997, Canaan was arrested and accused of sodomy. The accusations were made during the murder trial of his former bodyguard, Jefta Dube. Dube, a police officer, had shot dead Patrick Mashiri, an officer who had taunted him about being “Banana’s homosexual wife”.

The allegations did not surprise Janet, however. She told The Guardian in 2002: “Before we moved out of the State House, my husband’s bodyguard gave me some startling news. He told me, ‘Canaan is gay.’ I was shocked.

“For a long time, I questioned myself: why, why? Eventually, after searching my soul I began to think, it’s his life – maybe I should accept it.”

Canaan, who fled to South Africa while out on bail before being persuaded to return, served a six-month sentence in an open prison.

The Bananas continued living together, however, and the issue of Canaan’s homosexuality was kept out of the public eye.

In October 2000, friends of Janet in London suggested that she go to Britain for a break.

“Once I was on the plane, I went through all the recent events of my life in my head. I was coming for a holiday, but on reflection, I decided there was no life for me in Zimbabwe,” she said in a 2002 interview, admitting that she had lost touch with her husband who died a year later.

Janet was awarded British citizenship in 2006.

She returned to Zimbabwe in January 2019. She was in and out of the hospital in South Africa and Zimbabwe, battling a kidney ailment.

Janet had four children with the former president. Their son, Michael, died in November last year.

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