THIS week Zimbabwe Today salutes the women who were brave enough to stand up to be counted when need arose. Their experiences as women are unique, just as they remain unique in an independent Zimbabwe.
When they left on the journey best described in Shona as “Kumazivandadzoka” they did so through various means, and with some, although they came back in 1980, their families had given them names like “Muchemwandigere” (the mourned one).
How many said goodbye and to whom?
What was the last thing they did?
Did they understand that they were embarking on a “mission impossible”?
Did they also understand that this was a journey that could possibly end tragically?
One such person is Cde Oppah Chamunorwa Muchinguri, Zanu-PF Secretary for Women’s Affairs, who together with six other teenagers left their rural home in Mutasa district to take part in the liberation struggle. In April they will be commemorating that day when they set out for Mozambique after an all-night prayer session at St James Anglican Church.
Recently, Hildegarde (H) caught up with Cde Muchinguri (OM) to talk to her about her personal experiences in the liberation struggle.
H: It’s my pleasure Cde Muchinguri to interview you. We want to know who Oppah Muchinguri is. Who is she and when did she go to the liberation struggle, and why did she decide to join the liberation struggle?
OM: Well, I left for Mozambique in 1975 . . .
H: Do you remember the month?
OM: It was April, and prior to our departure, there was a church evening prayer at St James. That’s my home area. And, we prayed the whole night. People didn’t suspect anything.
H: Which church was that?
OM: Anglican! I am an Anglican. So, the whole night really was to appeal to the Almighty to protect us — to guide us in our long journey to Mozambique. We left . . .
H: How many of you?
OM: There were seven of us.
H: The seven were?
OM: (They included) Vivian Mwashita, because we grew up together. We took off on a Sunday. Having prayed the whole night, from there we picked up our pieces and we walked through Muchena communal areas.
From there we crossed the border . . . But I think some people had got wind of what we were going to do. Because we didn’t know that there was security, so for us it was quite an expedition.
And we walked, and when we got to Meikles farm, plantation, I think somebody tipped the police that we were leaving for Mozambique. And, helicopters and security forces tried to apprehend us, but we hid in the plantation. We could hear dogs (and) the helicopters flying. But, we managed to sneak (away).
Then we discovered that there was a long road. I’m sure there were some mines so that those who tried to cross would be shot at or may trample on landmines, as a way of deterring people from going to the liberation struggle.
H: How old were you and . . .?
OM: I was 16 and a half.
H: And, what form where you in at school?
OM: Form Four at St Joseph’s in Mutare. Both my father and mother were rural schoolteachers. They are all late. But, my father whose name was Justin was a politician. He was a very strong member of Zanu-PF. He really is the one who inspired me to go to Mozambique.
And, also, we have relatives in Mozambique who had served in Frelimo, and they were really an inspiration because from nowhere, they had been sent to Moscow.
Some of them had become doctors. Some had trained in administration. So, each time they visited us in Zimbabwe, they would narrate some stories of how it started and what they had become.
So, from that, to me, it was an opportunity for me to go to Mozambique, join the struggle, maybe with the hope of furthering my education. So, it was really an expedition; an exploration. I didn’t know (that) I was going to end up in the bush. Bush, bush, bush!
H: You had thought it was . . .!
OM: What then I was confronted with was a completely different situation. So, when we arrived at Manica . . .
H: Manica Bridge?
OM: Not Manica Bridge, but Manica army base . . . But before that, there was an encounter at the border. There was exchange of fire between the Rhodesian Forces and Frelimo because the Rhodesians were pursuing us.
The Mozambique Defence Forces accommodated us . . . Then we were taken out to Manica military base. From Manica, we were eventually taken to Chimoio junta. That’s where most of the refugees went. There we met President Robert Mugabe. From there, we were taken to Nyadzonia.
I escaped the Nyadzonia attack because I was moved to Chimoio a week before. Then at Chimoio, I got my military training, and I was appointed Secretary to the High Command, which was an honour.
But it was not an easy job because in most instances, I was working with General Tongogara, right in the bush where there were trained forces ready to be deployed into Zimbabwe.
And I was the only woman at that base. The only woman at a base where there were 5 000 men. That was the nature of my job. I did the most dangerous job. You can imagine, carrying a typewriter with me all the time.
I even inherited a name “Kabhegi” because I was carrying money all the time. I was like an administration secretary and also writing reports. All the reports researchers are using to write about the struggle, you will meet me there.
One of the critical roles I played in the struggle was to make sure that documents were secure. When we were attacked at Chimoio, I had some documents in my small hut. I had to burn the hut to make sure that the documents were also destroyed, just to destroy the evidence.
H: That was at Chimoio?
OM: I did that at Chimoio. We also hid some documents at a house outside Chimoio, which was used by us the Secretariat, to protect our documents. So when the enemy came to attack Chimoio, I quickly rushed to make sure I secured the documents. I hid them. We had over the years dug a pit where we could throw all our documents. You can imagine when the enemy was busy bombing; we were busy ensuring that the documents were secure. I hardly speak about the role that I played, because you can’t tell, you can’t share the story for no one will understand.
As a woman living with 5 000 men, you can imagine the danger of something or me maybe being raped. Where could I sleep without men watching me?
(Cde Muchinguri narrated the special sleeping arrangements that were devised by the leadership to ensure her safety. She also recounted an incident when one of the freedom fighters (name supplied) proposed love to her, and she reported the matter to General Tongogara).
OM: Tongogara said to him, “You think we are not men here? You are the only man? If you now want a woman, get your gun and go home. Women are in Zimbabwe, not this one . . .
I forgot I was a woman. I got names like “Kabhegi” and “Rough Rider”. You would see me with my bandoleer, eight bandoleers, my sub-machinegun and my pistol. Ask Charles Ndhlovu (a.k.a Cde Webster Shamu), Sekeremayi, etc. They will tell you, “we did not know that she was beautiful. We only saw a man”. No one saw a woman in me. I was never allowed to stay in Maputo. No! They said if she stays in Maputo, she would be impregnated. So, my whole life was in the bush. That was my life, Tendai. At Nyadzonia, you know Nyathi . . .
H: The one who sold out?
OM: Yes! You know, he used to abuse young girls, 12 to 14- year-olds, and for us because we were 16, we were considered adults, but . . .
(At this point Cde Muchinguri gave a detailed account of how Nyathi devised a plan. She told the late national hero Cde Zororo Duri and he advised her that Nyathi was armed, and if she refused his advances, and he killed her, then he (Cde Duri) would return to Zimbabwe and tell her family that their daughter had been killed by Nyathi for refusing to sleep with him. She then went into hiding, and when they discovered that she was missing they started searching for her, while others branded her an infiltrator. Seeing how emotionally charged people were, she came out of her hiding place, and she was severely reprimanded).
H: Apart from the pain, what did you feel about the incident? Was it worthwhile staying on?
OM: That encounter made me strong. However, it will take me time (to forget), although it helped me because I became even stronger.
But looking back now, I imagine what those young women went through. But you know, I was saved. So when you talk about domestic violence, when you talk about violence against women, I went through that (after the Nyathi incident). And when I talk about it, I talk about it from experience. I was never raped, but when I refused I was severely punished for refusing.
H: Thirty years on, what should be done to rehabilitate women combatants and there families? Is it possible?
OM: All these women (who participated in the struggle), they should be compensated one way or the other: psychologically, physically. They suffered. The way women and men suffered, their experiences are different. So for the women, I think that they needed some counselling. Some of us have overcome these problems, but others have not.
You also know that when Tongogara died I was with him?
H: Yes I know!