Orfalea Center Thematic Research Cluster

Resistance, Autonomy, Liberation

Chimurenga from the Village Base

Categories of the interviewees, and some key findings:

  1. Trained ex-fighters. Conversations with ex-fighters included two women, one originally from Manicaland, and the other from Mashonaland Central, who both trained in Mozambique, at Tembwe and Chimoio Training Camps, aged 62 and 61, respectively. The one who trained at Chimoio later went for further training in medicine at Morogoro in Tanzania. She survived Rhodesia’s massacre of thousands of Zimbabwean fighters, trainees, and refugees in the Chimoio massacre of November 1977, and she served as a medical specialist until the end of the war in late 1979. Both former fighters shared their memories of hardship in the training camps that included what they called zvirwere zvehondo, war epidemics. One male ex-fighter, 72 at the time of the interview, originally lived in Mberengwa. He narrated his odyssey to Chimoio in 1976 and his experiences there, which included struggles with rampant starvation that was common in these training camps. He also sustained injuries from the Chimoio bombings, the physical and emotional scars of which he still carries today. Towards the end of the war he, together with his wife who was a chimbwido–guerrilla helper–then operated in Centenary, mobilizing communities for mapungwe gatherings at village bases. However, they discarded the mapungwe strategy in Centenary because they did not work very well there. Follow-up interviews will be conducted with former fighters whose names dominated the experiences in Mhondoro.
  1. VanaMujibha were male, young war helpers in the communities. Five of them aged between 58-73 were interviewed. Three of them operated from Masofa Base, one at Zimbabwe Base, and the other one at Green Base and several other bases. All of them narrated how they were moved from base to base following instructions from their superiors, the fighters. They were the experts in local community knowledge and social relations, and also in local geography. They knew how to purvey information from point A to B without compromising operations. They all pointed out that village bases were important institutions where the communities received fundamental political education concerning the purpose of fighting against the colonial regime, how to stay safe from reprisals from the colonial system, teachings about the need to provide food to the fighters, and the need to provide clothing and other basics to sustain the lives of the fighters, among other things. They also emphasized that village bases were key centres to discuss and safeguard against risky behaviours by local community members. Village bases also provided entertainment and morale boosting through music, dance and food, among other things. It was also at these village bases that spirit mediums guided fighters and protected them against the colonial regime. Spirit mediums provided the crucial insight into what was to come and instructed communities and fighters on what to do to mitigate dangers. During mapungwe, vanamujibha constituted security networks to protect people at the village bases, alerting the fighters if Rhodesian forces were encroaching, and they also participated in battles together with the guerrillas whenever necessary. It was also the task of these mujibha to make sure that parents in the villages provided the fighters with basic necessities. They did the collections, running errands to shops and raiding white farms for cattle for meat.

One mujibha, aged 58, narrated how he served as a medical specialist at Zimbabwe Base. Those fighters and villagers who got injured during battles were brought to him for treatment. He utilized both western pharmaceuticals and indigenous medicine from the local environment in his practice. This implies that village bases, apart from serving as points of mobilisation of the villagers, also functioned as clinics that administered guerrilla health.

  1. VanaChimbwido were female, young war helpers who worked alongside vanaMujibha. Three vanaChimbwido participated in the research. The first, aged 58, is a wife to the 72 years old ex-fighter earlier mentioned. Together with her would-be husband, she operated in Centenary where they appreciated the purpose of bases in the liberation struggle. She acknowledged how she witnessed spirit mediums protecting local people throughout the war. This was a point that other vanaChimbwido also emphasized. For instance, another Chimbwido who operated at Green Base narrated how she survived death twice at this village base and, according to her, that on its own explains the impact of village bases as institutions that provided security against the colonial regime and its war of counterinsurgency. She also indicated that the bases served as a source for food provision to the freedom fighters. These on-the-ground operatives also emphasised how the institution worked to ensure unity of purpose in the fight for the common cause. There, they prepared meals collected from local communities but also confiscated from identified sell outs who had run away abandoning their homesteads. All of them emphasised that village bases were key to keep the war going.
  1. MaSabhuku, village heads. Four male village heads aged 61-80 together with a widow to a deceased village head who is an acting village head aged 78 were interviewed. As the first level of local village authority, they were the point people for guerrilla operations, working closely with the village bases. They emphasized the usefulness of village bases in the prosecution of the liberation struggle. In fact, the female acting village head was the owner of a homestead that was turned into Magwavha Base before the fighters subsequently abandoned it to form Masofa Base at a neighboring homestead. According to her, Masofa Base provided better security than Magwavha because of its location and well-built structures. However, another interviewee insinuated that the guerrillas suspected that the nice homestead may have been built with the help of the colonial regime, hence they made it a base partly to monitor the family. In fact, this seemed a common guerrilla strategy in the setting up of bases.

A pattern emerged in the interviews that when the freedom fighters came to Mhondoro for the first time, they targeted village heads in order to ease community mobilization. An 80-year-old retired agricultural extension worker and son of a village head who lived on the same plot with his father indicated that his home was the first to be visited in the area, and he later realised that this was partly because the fighters wanted a map of Mhondoro from him since he was an Agricultural Officer. He helped them identify places of interest and suitable sites for laying the network of co-ordinated bases in Mhondoro, a vast area that he traversed on his motorbike. His social capital, knowledge of map reading and mobility came handy. However, his father would fall victim to the fighters, who killed him publicly at Masofa Base after he was suspected of being a sell out. The fighters had apparently proven true fellow villagers’ allegations that he was making money parcelling out and selling communal land like a colonist. The case gave weight to the theory that the guerrillas sometimes set up village bases strategically as observatories to check on certain people’s suspicious behaviors. All the village leaders also indicated that the guerrillas held them responsible for their followers’ failure to comply with the precepts of Chimurenga. The need to utilize this pre-existing structure of communal administration was one reason for the establishment of village bases near village leaders’ homesteads. Like chiefs, village heads were therefore often at the center of the struggle, mostly working in the interests of Chimurenga but also quite vulnerable to reprisals by both the guerrillas and the colonial regime.

  1. Village elders. Village elders, both male and female, were also central to the struggle as parents–vabereki. Village elders interviewed explained that village bases were an important institution because this is where they were taught the politics and precepts of Chimurenga. To them, the space provided a concrete foundation for community unity. They also pointed out that from this institution, it became easy to mobilise inhabitants of the community contributing in different ways thereby making the sustenance of freedom fighters possible. The guerrillas regarded the village elders as their parents, whose support reinforced the function of the village bases, mobilizing provisions, alerting each other to lurking danger and watching each other to weed out suspicious behaviour, such as consortment with Rhodesian police, army personnel and white farmers. The mutual suspicions that often overlaid pre-existing local struggles resulted in the occasional death of alleged sell outs, many times at the bases. Such incidents gave salutary lessons to the witnessing and participating communities.

According to village elders, guerrillas also identified and killed suspected witches at village bases because they were public enemies whose alleged nefarious activities militated against the people’s freedom. The guerrillas treated them in the same way they treated colonists. Mapungwe also displaced such entrenched community cultures like attending church services, because the guerrillas condemned Christianity as the colonizer’s religion. As such, many villagers threw away or buried their bibles and church uniforms in the same way that missionaries had forced them to discard or bury their mbira, ngoma and other material symbols of indigenous spirituality. Spirit mediums took center stage at certain madandaro, where mbira music was performed while guerrillas received advice on operations.  Mapungwe thus became spaces for knowledge and information production and dissemination. Villagers listened to ZANLA Chimurenga broadcasts from Maputo, which blasted militant war songs and preached the same gospel of unity emphasized at village bases that every Zimbabwean needed to unite in the fight against Rhodesia.

  1. Young villagers. In this category falls those participants who were still at a tender age but could still observe events that happened around them. One such an observer was a 7-year-old boy in 1979, when guerrillas turned his parents’ home into Rukudzo Base. There, his father played a leading role in procuring and preparing food and clothing for the fighters. A total of 14 mapungwe were conducted at his home, with some of his sisters participating as vanaChimbwido.

A few key points emerged about village bases:

  • Located within the theatre of war, they were a key space for mobilizing and marshalling Chimurenga.
  • They were crucial for the safety of both fighters and communities, structures for provisioning and sustenance of the struggle.
  • They were a crucial military structure that remade communities of struggle, equipping villagers for information production, management and dissemination.
  • They were sites for the production of the spirit of patriotism, marked by self-sacrifice, killing of accused sell outs and witches.
  • They fostered close, deliberate social interaction for purposes of discharging the agenda of Chimurenga.
  • They are key spaces for reconstructing and interpreting the events of the liberation struggle from the perspective of the participants and witnesses.

Village bases are an enduring legacy of the liberation struggle. Their names and structures have survived more than 40 years on, and they are now used in coordinating different projects of both a political and socio-economic nature. The bases are sites of memories of war, both good and bad, heroism, pain and loss. Ruins and graves of both fighters and villagers dot the terrain to form crucial landscapes of Chimurenga. Similarly, the names of the key operatives–guerrillas and their runners–continue to constitute community lore beyond the podiums of national political rhetoric.

Next steps

This part of the research was one step in a larger research program. We intend to continue the research by conducting a similar number of interviews still in Mhondoro, particularly by trekking down some of the surviving former fighters whose names came up in virtually every interview. We will then move to the northern and eastern regions of Zimbabwe, which were the first to experience fighting more than a decade before it came to Mhondoro. Those regions are close to the rear bases where the guerrillas trained, that is, Mozambique and Zambia. The fighters therefore had less need for village bases as they could easily slip back and forth through the porous colonial borders. Similarly, the regions were relatively more thickly wooded. Nonetheless, villagers fed and supported them with other crucial provisions as in Mhondoro. The colonial regime set up concentration camps (makipi–keeps) to destroy these structures of mutual support, separating the fighters from the interned villagers. Research there will therefore center on Chimurenga in and around makipi, which were never fool proof.

Created by Mhoze Chikowero and Global South Researcher Takudzwa Dazzie Tavanhira

This report not to be circulated. It is part of an on-going, larger project.      


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