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The invisible trauma of women in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle

The narrative of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle focuses on the heroism and exploits of men, largely ignoring the experiences of many young women in liberation camps and the discrimination and abuse they suffered at the hands of male soldiers, says Mako Muzenda

When Flame premiered in 1996, the Zimbabwean government and the Veterans Association of Zimbabwe were less than pleased. The film, a fictional account of two female freedom fighters during the liberation war, was accused of promoting pornography, sending subversive messages and presenting a false narrative of women’s experiences in ZANU and ZAPU camps. Even today, 23 years after the film’s release and 39 years after independence, the story of Zimbabwe’s liberation is still dominated by men and their exploits.

In the pantheon of Zimbabwe’s struggle icons, one woman stands out: Mbuya Nehanda. A powerful spiritual leader of the Shona people and the spirit of the original Nehanda, said to be a princess of the Mutapa Empire, Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana stirred her people into rebellion against an increasing number of British settlers in their territory. So began the First Chimurenga, the first liberation struggle. Before being hanged in 1897 on charges of murdering the Native Commissioner, Nehanda proclaimed that one day her bones “would rise again”.

Fast-forward to the 1960s, when liberation fighters once again took up arms against colonial rule, invoking the spirit and bravery of Mbuya Nehanda. She was the first national hero, a powerful symbol of Zimbabwean resilience, courage and tenacity. Mbuya Nehanda has acquired near mythical status and has been respected and admired for generations. Unfortunately, the same respect and recognition has not been extended to the majority of women who joined the fight for independence.

A gendered war front

Being a woman in liberation camps was hard. It was especially hard for the poor, young rural women who trekked to the camps in Mozambique. Dr Josephine Nhongo-Simbanegavi and Professor Rudo Gaidzanwa have researched and published work on the experiences of young women during the liberation struggle. In her work on politics and masculinity in Zimbabwe, Gaidzanwa writes, “The war front was gendered and the masculinities of the soldiers who commanded the warriors and those who fought in Zimbabwe were the most dominant.”

The women who joined the liberation war were relegated to carrying supplies and munitions for male freedom fighters.

Propaganda from the liberation front presented the idea that women and men fought as equals, with images of women holding guns and doing reconnaissance missions. A collection of essays and interviews published by ZANU states that 25 to 30% of the party’s military wing were women. The struggle for democracy and the struggle for women’s rights were presented as equally important to ZANU’s command. The situation on the ground, however, was different. The women who joined the liberation war were relegated to carrying supplies and munitions for male freedom fighters. Only in the late 1970s, the last few years before independence, were women allowed to go into battle.

Heroes Acre, Zimbabwe. Photo: Cette est l’Afrique

Margaret Dongo is a political figure and the first independent Member of Parliament in Zimbabwe. Tired of the racial discrimination and oppression they experienced, a young Dongo and some of her high-school peers ran away to join the war effort in Mozambique. It was a long, hard journey made on foot, and Dongo was shocked at the reception that awaited them. “When we got to Mozambique, we thought we’d find joy, only to be harassed. They told us, ‘You are those young ladies sent with tubes in their vaginas to kill us’.” The group was forced to undergo examination to prove their innocence. This was a traumatic experience, and it would certainly not be the last.

“The experiences of women in camps is a story that has never really been told. For women, the tragedy was double. So many of us came into those camps knowing nothing about sex. Some of us were as young as 15, and we endured abuse,” says Dongo. There was no sanitary ware, no provision or facilities for pregnant women, and no system for preventing and punishing physical and sexual abuse.

Young, inexperienced women far away from home were sexually assaulted, then shamed for not being virgins. 

Dongo claims that female liberation camps knew the signals for when male guerilla fighters were about to raid them and exactly what would happen to them during those raids. Women who got pregnant were then isolated from everyone else and shamed for being “loose” and immoral. And they could not write home to warn other women who wanted to join them. Although there has been some acknowledgement of women’s experiences in the war, there is still a blanket of silence and dismissal. Flame was originally meant to be a documentary, but the women interviewed were not willing to speak on camera about what had happened in the liberation camps. Ultimately, Ingrid Sinclair, the film’s director, had to resort to presenting a fictionalised story based on the interviews she conducted.

The story of the Second Chimurenga presents it as a national effort to fight for majority rule and democracy; a national effort where everyone was equal. However, there is a dark shadow to this struggle. For Dongo, discrimination was practiced in a movement that fought for equality. “Patriarchy plays its part, no matter the setting. Men didn’t want to accept and reward women accordingly. Women were betrayed in the biggest sense.”

Even 39 years after Zimbabwe gained independence, there still has been no formal acknowledgement of and apology for the abuses that women experienced in liberation camps. The narrative of the struggle is still dominated by men, the business of liberation and nation-building regarded as historically the realm of men. There is no one history, but histories. And as the generations who fought the war get older, it is important to find and read the histories of women who left behind everything they knew to fight for their country.

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