Hildegarde The Arena
When the war of liberation started in earnest in the early seventies, it seemed as though it was a men’s affair. But the game changer for Zanu’s military wing Zanla was between 1972 an 1974 when the recruitment of young fighters included girls. In the previous instalment, the writer who is working with Sunday Mail Deputy Editor Munyaradzi Huni and Forget Tsododo of ZBC, revealed some of the challenges women fighters faced. However, 2015 marks the 41st anniversary of the beginning of formal military training for 72 Zanla women combatants at Nachingwea Camp in Tanzania.
The group of mostly teenage girls had been recruited between 1972 and 1973 from different parts of the northeastern region (now Mashonaland Central province). They played a pivotal role that eventually saw thousands of other girls crossing the Zambezi River into Mozambique and Zambia.
Apart from the military instructors training, the role they played in transporting weapons from Chifombo Camp (on the border with Zambia and Mozambique), to the Zambezi River was critical since it ensured a continual supply of ammunition at the war front.
They also created an original pool of women fighters whose expertise on the battlefield was not determined by gender, age, social status and/or educational qualifications. Using current standards of attestation into the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, none of them could have qualified, for some never attended formal school, while the majority had attained primary education.
Theirs is therefore an honour roll that speaks volumes about 72 brave girls (originally 74), for they were the only group of women fighters to receive full military training conducted by qualified instructors from both Zanla and Frelimo of Mozambique.
To date, we have interviewed more than 30 male and female war veterans from the late sixties to the early seventies, 15 of them from the group of 72. Full transcripts of the interviews will be published separately.
These include: Cde Loveness Chidhakwa (Juliet Loveness Nyamhandu-Nyarambi) – recruited November 1972; Cde Pronica Chinyandura Mabhunu (Florence Mudzengerere) – 1973; Cde Mavis Mhlanga (Esnath Seda-Mufoya) – 1972; Cde Lucy Tongai (Rosemary Siyamachira) – 1973; Cde Sophia Ngazviitike (Sophia Tsangu) – 1972; Cde Steria Dube (Esther Munyaradzi) – 1972; Cde Georgina Chakanaka (Georgina Minizhu) – 1972; Cde Letia Kagodo (Veronica Chigora-Chiweshe) – 1972; Cde Theresa Sibanda (Beata Chigwida Chigede) – 1972, although she was not part of the 72; Cde Regina Hondo (Felistas Chigora-Ngoshi) – 1972; Cde Loice Moyo (Loice Chimimba-Chuma, who was among the St Albert’s Mission school students “taken” in 1973; Cde Theresa Mbune (Sarah Gatsi) – 1973; Cde Susan Rutanhire (Emelda Musanhu) – 972; Cde Sarudzai Gomo (Flora Magunje-Mahachi); and Cde Dadirai Wafawanaka (Liuetenant-Colonel Juliet Chitsungo) – 1972.
Some of their comrades-in-arms died during the war, while others passed on during the past 35 years of Independence. These girls were also recruited by the first group of freedom fighters to start operating in the north-eastern region who included Cdes Joseph Chimurenga, Thomas Nhari, James Bond Majaravanda, Ziso, Chitomborwizi, Blackstone, Rex Nhongo, Gurupira, Dzinashe Machingura and Chauya-Chauya, among others.
We have also interviewed their senior instructor, Cde Elias Hondo (Francis Komboni Gondo), and we were interviewing his second-in-command, Cde Joseph Khumalo (Joel Samuel Siyangaphi), at the time of going to press. According to Cde Loveness’ account, when they went to Nachingwea, Cde Mationesa was their commander, deputised by Cde Dadirai.
She was the political commissar and her deputy was Cde Susan Rutanhire; Cde Steria was in charge of security, while their medic was Cde Lucy. Menstruation was key in the first instalment, as those interviewed affirmed that although there were challenges regarding menstrual hygiene, for some, however, menstruation stopped soon after crossing the Zambezi River from Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), after their recruitment.
Apparently, this was not accidental since the occurrence was steeped in Zimbabwe’s spiritual traditions, outside of Christianity. We understand that this was meant to enable the girls to handle the weapons of war they would transport from the rear to the war front.
Cde Dadirai explained the mystery thus: “There are some things that I cannot fully explain that were performed on us by Mbuya Nehanda’s medium. “I don’t know how they mixed the herbs, but there was a time when they prepared for us a dish of chicken mixed with herbs, zvikanzi idyai vasikana chete,” she explained.
There is also the discourse on war, vis-à-vis the “Three Rules of Discipline and the Eight Points of Attention” that resulted in the song, “Kune Nzira Dzamasoja.” Intimate relationships between men and women fighters during this period become an issue when one of the 74 girls had to drop out after it was discovered that she was pregnant.
According to nearly all the combatants spoken to and their instructors, it was Cde Tichahwina, mother to the late General Solomon Mujuru’s eldest daughter, Maidei. The other dropout was Cde Consilia who developed a heart condition.
On relationships, Cde Sophia Ngazviitike said: “Mbuya Nehanda told us not to engage in love affairs, but those who did so during those first days were doing it out of mischief.” Cde Mavis gave another viewpoint: “During that time, people heeded the advice because your mischief could result in the death of other comrades and the people. Zvaiitika panguva yehondo – isusu takange tisati tanyatsopinda mazviri – but comrade kana ukarara naye mugumbeze hapana aibata mumwe. Hondo yatairwa yange iri hondo yemidzimu.”
It also turned out that before he married Cde Teurai Ropa (former Vice President Joice Mujuru), Cde Nhongo also had a child (the late Charity) with Cde Lucy Tongai. Cde Lucy defended the love affair with Cde Nhongo: “It was an open secret that Cde Rex Nhongo and I were in a love relationship, and we had a daughter in 1976 (the late Charity). It was not forbidden, and I was also of age.
“I stayed with (Gen) Mujuru for a long time at Chimoio. Teurai akange aripo achitozviziva kuti ndaidanana navo. Iye akange asati adanana navo . . . It was genuine love, zvisiri zvokumanikidzana,” said Cde Lucy.
These were not the only relationships as the full transcripts of interviews will show that it was impossible to contain contact between the men and women. But, did they compromise the whole objective of the struggle?
Cde Dadirai remarked: “Kubvira pakutanga, zvakanzi hondo yamada iyi, musaite musikanzwa. If you indulge in sexual activities, ndaona vamwe venyu vasingadzoke. Ine mhiko. That was Mbuya Nehanda. All the spirit mediums of the day concurred.”
She also said that two months after their recruitment, Chief of Defence Cde Josiah Tongogara spoke to their group at Chifombo and told them bluntly that they had not come to get married, but to fight and free Zimbabwe: “Zvamasara pano, muri vashoma kwazvo. Pane maCamarada (Frelimo); pane maComrades (Zanla). These are men.
Cde Elias Hondo said he was very proud of the 72: “The group of women recruits came in 1974. Such a big number of women cannot be put under your care without careful consideration. I believe that they thought that the only responsible people for this task was myself and Cde Khumalo.
“This was the first and only group of women to receive this kind of military training, but when you see them today, they are very humble. They don’t brag that they are the pioneer women fighters. Their company was called ‘vespas’ in Portuguese, which means hornet’s nest. Vasikana ivava vakandidadisa, vachifora savanhurume.
“The training lasted four and half months, and was similar to that of men. Even the political orientation was not different from the one we received at Mgagao during our training and their passout parade was attended by Chairman Herbert Chitepo, and Chief of Defence Tongogara. Cde Samora Machel highly commended us.”
After training, Cde Tongogara asked Cde Elias to recommend 12 women to be members of the General Staff-cum-instructors. “Before that, I had written a love letter to one of the girls, but she spurned me and said she had a boyfriend at the front fighting. She was the first one I recommended. The others included Susan Rutanhire, Revai (deceased), Loice, Catherine Garanewako (deceased), Pronica, Loveness and others. These were the first women members of the Zanla General Staff.
“As instructors, they later conducted a three-week training programme at Chimbi-Chimbi, in Lusaka for people like Joice (Cde Teurai Ropa), Rugare Gumbo, Mukudzei Mudzi, Henry Hamadziripi, Kumbirai Kangai, Richard Hove and others. There were no other women who received full military training like these 72.
“They were deployed to perform various tasks, but as their instructors, we are proud of what they did, and to date, they are women with enviable characters considering the challenges they have faced at such a young age,” concluded Cde Elias Hondo.