By Alex T. Magaisa
Today, I celebrate independence. I always have and always will. The hardships and suffering at the hands of the post-independence government have caused many to doubt the relevance of independence.
Indeed, that there is even a question of comparison between colonial Rhodesia and independent Zimbabwe is a serious indictment on the country’s leadership. That question would never be asked if there weren’t significant doubts over the role and effectiveness of the post-independence government.
Ordinarily, it should be obvious that life is better than under the colonial government, but the fact that some people dare to make a comparison should cause serious embarrassment on the part of the leadership. It suggests a serious betrayal of the dreams of the men and women who made ultimate sacrifice to liberate the nation from colonialism.
Yet these failings and shortcomings of the current government notwithstanding, I still celebrate independence.
I was only a toddler during the last few years of the war of liberation and I do not have a lot of memories of what happened during that dark period. But a few incidents stick out.
One afternoon, a group of young men descended upon our village. They were carrying guns and were all over my grandparents’ compound. I remember holding on very tightly to my mother’s skirt, completely terrified by the experience. One of the men smiled and said, in a very soft voice, “Manje shamwari zvawakabata mai, ko inini vangu vari kupi?” Then he laughed as he said this and the other men joined in the laughter.
They could laugh, too, I thought. This caused me to relax a little. He called me over and we had a conversation, during which he asked for my name and what I wanted to do when I grew up. I said I wanted to be a farmer.
When he asked why, I said it was because I wanted to drive a tractor. This caused a burst of laughter among all the men. I had seen a person driving a tractor and I admired that a man could drive something with such big wheels. When I heard that he was a farmer, I thought it was best to become a farmer so that I could drive a tractor, too. That was my dream. The men laughed again when I finished speaking.
The man then said that he and the other men were vanamukoma, my big brothers, and that they were working hard so that one day I could be a farmer and drive a tractor. He had a plastic bottle strapped onto his waist and he asked me to go and fill it up with water, which I did with much pride.
The men were hungry and thirsty. They wanted something to eat and water to drink. The women were already fetching water from the village well. They had also asked for some clothes and the young men of the village were selecting some old denims and boots to give to the men.
My grandfather was a renowned farmer by the very modest standards of peasant communities crammed on poor land. He had nurtured a healthy and fertile citrus orchard around his compound. There were many citrus fruits at his compound – oranges, mangoes, peaches, guavas and many more.
The men politely asked for some fruit. They were not yet ripe but they didn’t mind. They did not have much time to wait for food to be prepared and they would make do with the semi-ripe fruit, they said.
As they left, they instructed the women to spread finger-millet around the compound. That way, the chickens would run around the compound, picking the grains of finger-millet and in the process cover the many footprints left by the men.
As I learnt later, the wisdom of this was that leaving the footprints would give away the presence of the guerrilla fighters and this would put my grandparents and all the villagers into serious trouble if they were discovered by the colonial government’s forces. If they tried to sweep the compound in the afternoon, it would only raise suspicion that they were trying to cover up something. The chicken prints however, would do a good of covering the footprints without raising too much attention and suspicion. I was rather impressed by this wisdom of the guerrillas and I have never forgotten that incident.
On another occasion, we heard the sound of gunfire across the Save River, which was not far from the village. Shortly afterwards, an emissary from villages near the river brought a message that there was trouble in Wedza, across the river. A fight had erupted between the guerrillas and the government forces. Everyone ran for safety.
We ran for miles, away from the sound of gunfire. All the villagers, the old and the young, ran for their lives. Others hid in bushes while those who were able ran even further. My mother was carrying my young brother on her back and I was holding on to her hand, as we ran in the bushes. Many women and children were running, too.
Later, we got to a village near Kwenda Mission and there, we found sanctuary. However, I was so traumatised by the whole incident that I spent the entire afternoon hiding under a bed. Hours later, we returned to the village. The big boys who had remained near the village came to tell us that the fighting had ended.
A third incident was when some men brought two very healthy cows to the village. All the villagers were assembled at the cattle pen and told that the comrades had brought makabichi (cabbages). I later learnt that these cows had been stolen from the nearby commercial farms in Wedza. They were to be slaughtered and fed to the villagers and the guerrillas.
The men of the village duly slaughtered the cows and the meat was distributed. There was a lot of joy in the villages. This meat was referred to as makabichi to disguise its true nature. If authorities asked people what they were eating, they simply responded that they were eating makabichi (cabbages) and the authorities would not know that makabichi was, in fact, meat.
Over the years, I have heard from older villagers many other stories of events during the war. The war was an ugly experience and many bad things happened during that time. People died. Others were maimed and property was lost. Things were particularly bad in the rural areas, where many of us lived. It was a dangerous period and a time of immense suffering.
When the war ended, people celebrated. The war was over. People could get on with their lives again.
The end of the war also brought independence and with independence came the rights that had eluded many black Africans during the colonial period. There was great cause for celebration. The war had been a terrible and traumatic experience. Everyone wanted it to end.
I wish I could remember more about the war, but I know I was too young. One thing I do know though is that I have enormous respect for the young men and women who sacrificed their lives and time to prosecute the liberation struggle. Many of them never returned home to their families. They died and were buried in the bushes. Some of those who returned were scarred for life, some in physical forms but many more in the mental universe.
Last year, when I was in Harare with my two boys, Ano and Tino, I made it a point to drive them to the National Heroes Acre and there, I showed them the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
It was the main reason I went there, to pay tribute to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice and never returned home to their families. These are the unsung heroes of the struggle for independence.
But I also wanted my boys to have some appreciation of their history and that their people also have heroes to celebrate. My boys are growing up in a society that is different from the one in which I grew up. The history they learn rarely touches on the history of their people. Of late, because they are growing up and beginning to understand the ways of the world, they have begun to ask questions about their country and its people.
I regularly talk to them about the liberation struggle, about independence and the many stories around it. I have books which I give them to read. Their country is sometimes in the international media, but often for the bad reasons. They want to know more about it and I try to give them access to the bigger picture. I play a lot of Zimbabwean music, mostly Simon Chimbetu’s music. After playing a song like Hatikanganwe (We will never forget) many times over, they often ask what it’s all about and I use the opportunity to tell them about the war of independence.
“Kwaiyenda avo vakashinga moyo chete
Kwaikwire makomo avo vakashinga moyo chete
Kwaiyambuka avo vakashinga moyo chete
Musamukanganwe Jojo, Mikairi naMukoma Tanyanyiwa
Vakatorwa moyo nehondo …”
I tell them that the song celebrates the heroes of the liberation war, the young men and women who took the brave decision to go to war. I tell them it is a song that reminds us not to forget the sacrifices of Jojo, Mikairi and Tanyanyiwa, symbolising the many men and women who went to war and perished there.
I know that many fellow Zimbabweans today look back at what has happened since we gained independence in 1980 and question whether all those sacrifices were worth it.
I know that many fellow Zimbabweans are disappointed and feel let down by an arrogant and heartless leadership which has failed to deliver on their basic needs and expectations.
I know that there is a lot of hurt and feelings of betrayal.
I know too, that many fellow Zimbabweans are tired of the empty rhetoric and the corruption.
I know that this has caused many to start questioning the relevance of independence.
It is true that things have not worked out quite as many would have hoped in 1980, when the country got independence. I imagine that the men and women who lost their lives would feel utterly betrayed by their comrades who have become corrupt beyond measure and consigned the majority to a life of penury.
But all the same, this does not diminish the sacrifices made by those men and women. They had dreams and they valiantly fought for them. Many died in the process. It is those men and women that I celebrate and honour on the day of independence. The failings of their surviving comrades does not dilute the importance of these sacrifices. But there is another reason why I still celebrate independence.
Every nation on this earth has its defining and indelible moments of history. These are moments that form the foundation of a nation. The Americans have the War of Independence. The French have the French Revolution. The British have, among other things, the Magna Carta, whose 800th anniversary (yes, 800 years) is currently being celebrated. If you go around the world, almost every country has a defining moment that forms its foundational stone.
For us, the liberation struggle is that defining moment. It is the foundation. It can never be wished away. The failings and transgressions of present-day governors cannot alter this historical fact.
And for this reason, I always celebrate Independence Day and I always remember the sacrifices of the men and women who made it happen, including my own grandparents and fellow villagers who fed, clothed and protected the young men and women who prosecuted the liberation struggle. They are my heroes too. A lot of rubbish has happened since independence. Those who are culpable carry the burden of that nonsense. But this does not diminish the significance of independence. The story of the nation cannot be properly told without the story of liberation and of the attainment of independence.
If we dig deeper and search further, we can still excavate the true meaning of independence and rescue those values and ideals that men and women laid their lives for. Among them are the rule of law, fairness, democracy, respect for human dignity, economic freedom, happiness and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms. We are still some long way from achieving these things but their attainment, with the right, caring and competent leadership, is not impossible.