TODAY is April 14, a mere four days away from yet another 18th April, the day we commemorate our birthday as an independent, sovereign nation.
The year for that momentous event was of course 1980, a year that, read against the pain of a long war of liberation, seemed ungraspable, seemed unreal, quite unattainable.
There is something so enveloping about a war, something so abridging about the life you live under conditions of war, that a day is long enough time, long enough planning horizon. Life gets that basic, that practical, that immediate, that circumscribed, that you hardly vision beyond your little life grinding tragically on, towards an uncharted, uncertain end.
Struggling against challenged masculinity
By time age, I had just broken past boyhood to become some teenager, barely 17. The year before, I had struggled with my chest which threatened to turn me into a woman. My nipples were growing, in fact bulging to great self-mortification.
To achieve greater certainty to my own claim to masculinity, I tackled both nipples with the sharp mubayamhondoro thorn. A weeping opening once established, you then pressed the hard, round tissue inside the nipple, itself the source of all your woes, until it wept itself dry, initially as clean tears, then cloudy white puss-like stuff, and then white stuff discoloured with a bit of blood. You kept pressing until the hard ball softened, collapsed, often to weeping nostrils.
Without realising it, you had bent your neck, your head for far too long, all in a bid to reclaim your masculinity which inevitably faced challenges from your peers, each time you ventured into the school bathroom for a mandatory early morning shower.
In the shadows of Afrikaners
Makumbe, the school I went to, was not very sophisticated. It belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church, a religious sect whose roots lay in the truculent Afrikaner tradition. Strangely, these missionaries of Afrikaner extraction — vanaMuneri — as they were called, had incorporated into the curriculum a spartan element which made schooling quite some endurance.
Makumbe never had a modern bathroom system. I hope it does now. But never in our days which for people in my stream had started at the break of 1976. The bathroom was one long row of peeping shower heads, all of them made from silver, possibly to reduce the maintenance bill. Silver endures rust quite well.
So each morning would see a row of black figures, all nude, standing under these spitting shower heads, towels of various shades, at various stages of time-induced shredding, stretched across wriggling bodies, all aspiring for cleanness. And the guy next door would always steal a glance at you, primarily to establish whether you had ripened to manhood, and then generally to inspect the rest of your mien. The zone around your loins would always set you free from charges of boyhood.
When you got violated
Woe betide if your chest was found adorned with some two cylindrical, or is it conical hills! It was not just derisive laughter that pelted you; you also got fondled, the whole violation legitimised by a sissy name elder boys would have cast on you. Often, the name stuck and girls would soon know which amongst us was breaking from boyhood.
Of course pimples also aided the detection, but mercifully sparing you the agony which a nubial chest always brought onto your humble but runaway person. And since the charge was always led by older boys, there was very little you could do is self-defence. To avoid such comeuppance, you always worked extra hard to “subside” your own womanish chest. You did so during school holidays, away from the madding, mocking school crowd.
Meeting the boys
I said by time-age I was 17 when Independence came. By experience I was much older. Towards the end of 1977, the war had reached the schoolyard, transforming all of us in the process. Madhara Chihombe and his group of heavily armed fighters were the first to arrive, to find the whole school in the cathedral. The group included fighters like Tambaoga, the diminutive Chillus Kadiki, Zvadzudza who carried an LMG, poto yaMbuya Nehanda (Grandma Nehanda’s pot) as it was popularly called. It had earned this name from its round magazine, as opposed to the banana-shaped magazine of an AK.
Zvadzudza impressed me. His whole body was strapped with a charged machine gun belt. The coiled belt emitted a rattle each time Zvadzudza made a footstep, with each rattle adding to our wonderment. And this young guerrilla had the gaiety and poise that gave his whole person a silhouette of formidable people’s power which impressed and reassured all of us. We were safe, very safe. Or so we naively thought, even daring Rhodesians to “start us”.
Laughter in times of war
Zvadzudza walked with a bodily tilt, as if burdened by this precious cargo of liberation, our liberation. Then there was Elmond Wangu, a soft-spoken guerrilla who hardly stitched together a coherent Shona sentence. Clearly he was Ndebele and his broken Shona gave a new mystique to the war and its lingo. Looking back, I think Chihombe Madhara had brought with him a specially assembled unit of fighters for our own purpose.
Later, I would meet a good number of the guerrillas leading different units as section commanders. Later too I would see Madhara as an officer in the then Prime Minister’s Office, this time known as Jonah Chimuka, a veteran from Nyazura. This was after the war when I was already working on my first degree. Tragically he would perish in a car crash, but having tested a few years of our Independence.
Others like Jimmy Mashiriapungana I would meet again well after Independence, serving under the Presidential Guard. This particular comrade had this strange way of mocking death. “Ndipei sadza nenyama maPuruvheya andiwane ndakanuna,” he would say, before falling upon his own portion of sadza with resolute zeal. Those would be lighter moments of a cruel war, rare, treasured moments of grim laughter.
Ugly, ugly war
By mid-1978 most of us had witnessed horrid scenes of war. We had seen dead bodies; we had survived skirmishes; we had carried badly injured comrades like Mukoma Terence who had to be evacuated from the legendary Gwirambira Mountain where he had been shot, evacuated under fire all the way back to the rear.
But we had also witnessed serious and even bloody contradictions and betrayals so common in wars. Including an incident in Masamha Village where differences and rivalry between Cdes Utsinye and Nharo MaGuerrilla cost the latter his dear life. Nharo was addressing us when Utsinye lobbied a grenade at him. His whole bowels just dropped to the ground in an instant, to clear, terminal agony. The grenade had ripped him open, ripped him apart. As he fell he uttered words that haunt me to this day: “MaComrades mandiurayireiko? Pamberi neHondo! Pamberi neHondo!” Before long he expired, a clenched fist in the air.
We buried him to great grief. He was a humble fighter, hugely built, always quiet. Then the hunt for Utsinye followed and after a week on the run, the rogue guerrilla was finally accounted for. He, too, died a very violent death. It could never have been otherwise. The comrades just went crazy at the thought of a fellow guerrilla who dared take the life of musoja wepovho, musoja wenyika. Still I cannot tell which blow, which bayonet stab actually finished him. War can be ugly, very ugly.
The issue we take for granted
Today, four days away from Independence, I accuse tyrannical time of prettifying an ugly war, making us all forgetful of it even. Today we are all guilty of enjoying the plumage of Independence while forgetting the bird that died. Independence has become a fact of life: natural, too natural to be grasped, to be quantified. It is taken for granted and many in our midst are wont to view it as uneventful, as inevitable, as something we were owed by the generation that sacrificed for it. To many of us, it carries no price.
We even taunt that generation which won it, deride it as “O” Veterans. One youthful MP once challenged war veterans to take back Independence to where it once lay tied, to see if the current generation which include him, won’t free it again!
Kudzai who perished
I have given just vignettes of my own experiences as a student-war collaborator. They are gory enough, yet insignificant relative to the experiences of the men and women who actually fought through countless battles, both at the rear and at the front. And there was a deliberate policy to protect students from undue exposures, which is what saved most of us, but never all of us.
I remember the tragic story of Kudzai Mhiripiri from Gutu. She was part of my class — Form Two class of 1977. We parted for holidays, hoping to meet again when schools reopened. We never saw her again, together with her young sisters. They perished in an all-out attack at a “base” not very far from Mupandawana.
A few years ago, the public media re-ran the story of Kudzai and the many girls who perished in that attack. The father of Kudzai provided the narrative of such gripping pathos that memories were stirred.
Horror of re-enactment
Many horrid things happened in the war of our liberation and just this week Alexander Kanengoni gave us a slice of the anguish felt by a guerrilla who witnessed the death of a colleague in that war, but who bore the burden of keeping that tragedy from parents and sisters of the dear departed. Until he could not keep the burden any longer. He broke down uncontrollably.
I have heard many similar stories, including layers and layers of horrid memories that stir and start souls in sleep. Alexander, at least, purges such memories through his eloquent pen. Many can’t. They remain mute, yet haunted. A few find refuge in drink, others in spurts of inexplicable anger. Yet others in raging minds that relive the horrors of a war which a good 32 years later, should have gone quiet, gone cold. This is where time baffles.
To those who find life after 1980, the war happened a long time ago. Why inflict it on us, they opine. Yet to those who participated in, or witnessed it, it is a fresh horror, a horror that won’t go away, a wound that suppurates and will not heal any time soon.
Peace appears to give war an ideal environment for its horrid re-enactment. Much worse for this group, it is a reminder of what might have to be endured yet again if we become too causal about our Independence.
Nations and myths
And there is lots of evidence of that nowadays. Not many of us realise that nations are not made; they are invented. They come about through narratives, whether of woes or of grandeur. Nations rest on the foundation of myths and myth-making. And if we did not have myths, we would have had to invent them to found ourselves as Nations.
And there are what are known as founding myths which shape and form our claim to nationhood. Munhumutapa, Kaguvi, Lobengula; Nehanda, all these have faded in time as personages. But they have been reborn as founding patriarchs and matriarchs. In them we trace our collective being, in them we anchored our struggle against imperialism.
The 1893, 1896 umvukelas/chimurengas, all those became the cornerstone of myths that kept us going. Hondo yemadzinza, the war of ancestors, we called our second Chimurenga, thereby establishing some cognate link between the two wars of resistance.
Cry my beloved history
But we find exactly the same process taking place on the other side, the Rhodesian side. And this is where I cry for my beloved Nation. There is little recognition that we do not build our founding myths on a blank page, unhindered, unchallenged.
This belief that the world shall leave us to rework our own myths and identity, rework our nationhood in our own space, in our own time, at our own pace. That national identity-making is uncontested!
Much worse, that royalty like, Rhodesia software by way of its historiography and other narratives shall pour forth upon us so we select and summon what we need, want, in forging our own identity.
And the Rhodesians have been providing lots of material in our name — Zimbabwe — with us as players. We think they are beneficent, a huge helping hand to our own identity formation. My goodness!
Myths of atrocities
Do we realise that today, 14th April, 2012, we the victors, we the independent, we the sovereign, have no history of our own? Have no narrative of our own? That we are a nobody, a non-people, non-actors whose role in life and history is as mercifully assigned to us by those we defeated? In fact do we realise that the fact of reposing our history in the efforts of Rhodesians who, amazingly, continue to live after they have lost territory, rekindles the old myths of the white man’s civilising mission?
We are stuck in the founding myth of Rhodesia, the myth that the white man makes and interprets history. The Rhodesians are writing about us, have been since before 1890, in the process creating a climate for our conquest and eventual occupation.
Rhodes needed atrocity stories to sway Britain to grant BSAC a Royal Charter. He mobilised missionaries — men of conscience — to supply lurid accounts of Ndebele atrocities against a supine, peace-craving people called the MaShonas.
Listen to the First Superior of the Zambezi Mission, one Henry Depelchin, S J writing to his church superior on 8 October, 1879, 11 years before our colonisation: “As I write these lines, I can see Lobengula’s army passing, 200 yards from our wagon. The soldiers are armed with shields and assegais (lances); and one or two with guns. They are off (one does not know where) to attack some poor tribe, massacring the innocent, making slaves of them and seizing their flocks.
“What brigands they are! These are crimes which cry to heaven for vengeance. When, dear God, will we be able to put a stop to so much cruelty and depravity? When will we be given the strength to overthrow and destroy the work of the devil; to purify in the blood of Jesus this accursed and crime-soiled land and to establish at last, throughout the length of Africa, the glorious kingdom of Jesus Christ? Fiat! Fiat!”
Atrocities myth updated
Read all this against what would follow, namely the conquest of both the Ndebeles and the Shonas alike; their brutal subjugation under company colonial rule, the misappropriation of their land, forced labour, taxation, and you ask yourself whether this was the “glorious kingdom of Jesus Christ” craved for by Father Depelchin for Shonas.
Much worse, ask yourself if this same myth-making has not replayed itself still under the holy auspices of the Church by way of the regrettable conflict of the early 80s which has now been reworked into an elaborate myths we now know as Gukurahundi? If yesterday it was Lobengula and his Ndebeles set against the Shonas, today, a good 25 years after the 80s conflict, it is Mugabe and his Shonas against the Ndebeles. Either way imperialism makes and deploys myths against us as a people. And in such we repose our history?
When white death is an abomination
Or another seemingly hidden myth which has just been reworked. As with the aforementioned one, I trace it back to colonial times. With the Ndebeles up in arms again in 1896 after their initial defeat in 1893, Rhodes whose ill-fated Jameson Raid had exacted a heavy cost on him, was with his Matabililand Relief Force and a Detachment of the Bulawayo Defence Force under then Colonel Plumer, hoping for a nailing blow against the Ndebeles encamped at “Thaba S’ Amamba”. With him was one Vere Stent his chronicler and myth-maker.
In due course, the Ndebeles were routed but not without extracting a heavy price on Rhodes’ force. I defer to Stent for what followed: “At sundown a sad little procession set out, carrying 18 dead. Eighteen white men; good men; men of courage. It cut Rhodes to the heart. Eighteen white men in a country that needed white men so badly. Soldiers of fortune, if you will; having their faults; no plaster saints; 18 men of the legion that never was listed; not too overburdened with human considerations; they asked for no quarter; they probably would have given none.
“But they were the men that Rhodesia wanted to smooth her rugged ways; to break her in. Their lives were the price of victory and the price was heavy . . . There had been a good many natives killed too. But the death of the rebels who had murdered white women and children did not come home to us as the death of these eighteen of our own kind and colour.”
When history never retracts
This is as colour blind, as balanced as the very historiography we repose our whole trust in is. The deep humanity of Rhodes is asserted. The contrasting worth of the two lives is dramatised, in the process commissioning the sanctity of the white man’s life in colonial and post-colonial conflict. Need we wonder then that a whole nation, a whole people, came under crippling sanctions as recompense for the death of six or so white farmers in the Third Chimurenga?
A good 32 years later, we remain a people in history but with no history. We remain suffocatingly coiled in Rhodesian myths from which we derive a negative identity. And these myths are being reworked afresh, redeployed to carry Rhodesia’s current needs. Much worse, to demolish real leaders while ornamenting mediocrity, while tantalising us with a fake leadership of containment paraded as the change we need. We get a false sense of forward movement, in reality a huge leap backward.
It is such gullibility on our part which shall get us to taste another war. Man, know thyself. After all history recurs; it never retracts. Icho!
Nathaniel Manheru is a columnist for the Saturday Herald. E-mail him: firstname.lastname@example.org