by GRACE MUTANDWA | Zimbabwe
On a calm, beautiful day in Harare, I got the chance to meet Mithi Aquino-Thomas. As she rose to welcome me into her home I was struck by her flawless and stunning beauty, carried with poise.
Dressed simply but tastefully she was a picture of elegance and looked like she had just taken a break from the catwalk. Despite the sweltering September heat, she looked cool in her beautifully tailored multi-coloured dress.
Mithi Aquino-Thomas is the wife of America’s top diplomat in Harare, Ambassador Harry Thomas. She was born in the Philippines of a military father and a medical doctor mother. As she sits with an air of ease across me, she exudes the confidence of a woman raised to be independent. She also grew up with a girl squad of two sisters – one now a dentist and the other a pharmacist.
Before she met Harry she worked for the Holland America Cruise Lines in charge of customer service in her home country but says she had always wanted to be a model as a young woman. At some point, she also dabbled in fashion design and made her two sisters model her creations.
Laughing heartily at the memory she says; “I gave up on fashion design because I was not happy with the results. The clothes were not good enough.”
Although she describes herself as an ardent lover and follower of fashion she is quick to point out that she is not a slave to fashion trends. She defers to the simpler side of fashion and luxuriates in lively summery bright colours. Looking at her today, in a bright orange coloured dress, one can tell that Mithi is one of those people who looks regal in bold purple, green, gold or vibrant royal blue colours.
Her signature style is simple, no ruffles and above all, comfortable. She strongly believes in the adage, “Less is more”.
While she did not end up as a model, her dream to be one if only for a brief moment did come true recently. She modelled some of her top designer friend John Ablaza’s snazzy creations in New York. Ablaza who works with natural fabrics visited Zimbabwe last year and ran workshops in Harare and Bulawayo for local designers. This opened doors for some of the designers – two of them were featured with Mithi in an Ablaza photo shoot. The Zimbabwean designers showcased Ndebele and Shona culturally influenced designs.
Mithi’s stylish outlook towards life extends to a respect and love of cooking and baking. Named “Chiedza” (loosely translated to; sunshine) by her close Zimbabwean friends, she describes with sensual joy some of her favourite dishes. Speaking in the tones reminiscent of a Chef enamoured of the various exotic foods that she has learnt to cook over the years, she walks me through the preparation of Kare Kare– oxtail cooked in peanut butter sauce, chicken adobo (chicken stew prepared with soy sauce, vinegar and garlic) and also gloriously shares how to prepare dry kapenta.
“There are some similarities to some of the food here and in the Philippines. We eat both dry and fresh kapenta. We are also a rice-eating people. For breakfast, we fry dry kapenta and eat it with garlic rice. The fresh kapenta can be wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in tamarind sauce in a clay pot,” she added.
From mouthwatering dinner dishes, she flirted with my taste buds as she generously shared a melt in the mouth cassava cake recipe.
Her amazing knowledge of the relationship between food and people and warm respect for cultural diversity has served her well in the diplomatic world where entertaining and breaking bread is the hallmark of establishing and nurturing both official and social relationships. She is the woman behind the beautiful and well-appointed tables at United States embassy gatherings in Harare.
She flashed a pearly white smile as she reminisced about the protocol training of ambassadors’ wives in Washington just before her husband was posted to Harare. “It was both insightful and very exciting. I’m grateful I had the training otherwise I would have struggled to get to grips with demands of my role,” she elaborated.
Mithi explained that as wife to the ambassador her role is to support her husband. She personally collects clothes, shoes, books and pens for donation to orphans. Last year she visited Sizalwane village in Matabeleland where she met a grandmother looking after 12 young children.
“The children’s parents left home to look for work in South Africa. The family struggles but they are very welcoming people and they are content with what little they have. It made me really appreciate just how privileged and lucky we are, “she reflected.
Mithi said when she arrived in Harare her main worry was that she would not be able to make new friends.
“But, I was pleasantly surprised by how friendly Zimbabweans are. Today I can comfortably say some of my close friends are Zimbabwean. I have learnt a few Shona words and my role as ambassador’s wife has taught me the importance and art of listening to others,” she said.
To round off her glowingly warm love for what Zimbabwe has to offer, she breaks into an endearingly infectious tale of how her love for superstar Oliver Mtukudzi’s music saw her braving the lengthy wait for him to perform at his 65th birthday party at his Pakare Paye Arts Centre in Norton over a week ago.
“He performed at 1:46 am and I waited for him because I just wanted to hear and see him sing. I don’t understand the lyrics but there is something about Zimbabwean music and Mtukudzi’s music especially that touches and speaks to my heart,” explained Mithi.
Mithi and Harry married three years ago and they have three adult children between them.
She smiled shyly as she related how she met her husband. “I was working for the Holland America Cruise Lines and the first time I met him was aboard the ship. He failed to get my name and contact details that time but we met again at a training centre in the Philippines. He was the ambassador in Manila.
“He asked me for email addresses of all the trainers on the pretext that he wanted to invite them for lunch. I ended up being the only one who received an invitation for dinner from him. Initially, I didn’t take it seriously because I thought my colleagues were playing a prank on me,” said Mithi.
At the time she was also not sure about going out with such a high profile person. She was worried about how some in her community would perceive it but eventually love conquered all her fears. She said they try to spend as much time together as possible. They have a date night where they watch a movie at the theatre if there is a good one or watch something at home on on-demand channels. She has also taken up Harry’s sport of choice – golf – so they can play together.
Mithi plays an active role in the Diplomatic Spouses Association where they host food festivals to raise money for the various charity organisations they support.
And her last words to fellow women is, “Be confident in your abilities as mums, workers, wives and any of the numerous roles you find yourself in.”