The Sunday Mail
We continue chronicling the political life of Cde Jane Ngwenya. This week Cde Ngwenya narrates to our Deputy News Editor Levi Mukarati of her release from Gonakudzingwa Restriction Camp and fleeing Rhodesia upon learning of her inclusion on a hit list by Ian Smith’s security agents
Question: How did you take prison life?
Answer: It was not easy being held up in prison without a release date. I had not killed anyone, I was not a murderer and I had completed my prison sentence, but someone chose to continue detaining me.
I remember we had some women, about five of them who had been imprisoned for various traceable crimes. At least for these ones, it was fair because they knew why they were in jail. But for people like myself, we were paraded as criminals.
I should mention that my stay at Gwelo Female Prison saw me correct a number of things, especially on how we were treated.
Like I mentioned earlier, we had a magistrate visiting every week to check on the conditions in prison and I had raised a complaint over the ill-treatment we were subjected to at the hands of the prison wardens. After the complaint, an office was established for us to undergo routine physical body searches.
Previously, we would strip in a degrading manner in front of everyone. We also started receiving regular allocations of bath soap and sanitary sundries.
But prison will always be a place whose conditions are meant to break you.
Question: We know you were one of the first female nationalists to serve at Gwelo Female Prison and also at Wha Wha, were there other female political prisoners during your time there?
Answer: I mentioned the ‘girls’ from Mutoko and there was also one interesting woman, Mai Mangoma who came while we were at Wha Wha Prison.
She came from Tandi area in Rusape. She was the second female after me to be sent to Wha Wha. Two others were to follow.
What is interesting about Mai Magoma is that she came with her baby girl. She was the first child we saw in prison with her mother.
The child triggered protests in prison and we even incited those who were outside, who would come to see us, to also protest against the detention of the child. I had never seen such level of love for a child from men. The attachment everyone had with this child was unbelievable.
Men were kept away from us, but on the day Mai Mangomo came, we could hear them shouting from the other side of the fence that they have been told a child has come to prison with her mother. All they wanted was to see the child.
They were shouting for us to get out of our cells and lift the baby into the air for them to see her.
I went out with Mai Mangoma and the child. We could see the men lining up behind the fence and full of emotion when they saw Marjory. It was a sad sight and immediately we broke into tears. It was sad to see men broken to such levels. It seems as if the child was reminding them of their children back home.
You could see that the men had been crushed and were thinking of their own children.
But back to your question, women were few in jail during that time.
Men would say if we all get arrested who will cater for the children.
For those like us who were unfortunate to be sent to prison, the white settler regime wanted to set an example and deter other women from engaging in politics. From Wha Wha, I was put in an underground cell at Connemara Prison.
I remember the prison wardens at Wha Wha saying to me; “Jane you are going tomorrow morning.”
The following morning I woke up and prepared myself thinking I was heading for Gonakudzigwa. But that was not so, I was driven to Connemara. There, I was put in an underground dark cell for three weeks. They would say they were waiting for transport to take me to Gonakudzingwa and, imagine, that took three weeks.
In that cell, there was a very small light and I could not see the sun.
The room was poorly ventilated and the food was just a small portion of sadza, a piece of meat and vegetables. In just three weeks I lost significant weight and when I got out it seemed as if I was losing my mind after the solitary confinement.
My confinement was meant to break me to stop all political activities. I remember at one time in that cell, I tried to climb up and peep through a small hole to see the sun. But when I eventually got out of the cell the light intensity was so bright that I fell to the ground.
That is the effect when one is confined to a dark environment for long and suddenly gets exposed to the sun. It actually hurts the eyes. So when I arrived at Gonakudzingwa, I was not feeling well, my head was spinning. I was now used of staying in the dark and my eyes were still having challenges adjusting to the sun.
That is why I say I went through a lot. I could have surrendered long back, but I told myself that it is a do or die and that was the only price to buy Zimbabwe.
I was at Gonakudzingwa between 1970 and 1971. Infact I was sent to jail and detention on several occasions between 1964 and 1971.
As I mentioned earlier, the skirmishes of the Zhii era had seen me end up at Grey Street Prison, but that was not an arrest because there was no charge. We were just held there. When we were released from Gonakudzingwa, there was a list of people who were supposed to disappear and I was on that list. It also included people like Cde Choga.
The list had 13 names of people who were supposed to be killed by Ian Smith’s security agents. We had some people in Smith’s regime who would supply us with information.
So we got the information from a black police officer in the settler government. People should know that not all whites or blacks who worked for Smith were against us.
Zapu was a great party which had so much support and informants and that is how we got to know of the list of persons targeted for elimination.
Question: So which other names were on the hit list?
Answer: The ones I can still remember are myself, Chirongoma, Choga, Moses Guya, Tshuma and Nyathi. Myself and Nyathi decided to skip the country when we learnt that we had been targeted.
It was on 16 November 1971 around 5:30am that we left the country for Francistown Botswana.
The people who arranged my travel to Botswana were the late nationalist Grey Mabhalane Bango and Sivako who was also a businessman here in Bulawayo.
Two days later, the Special Branch was all over my mother’s village in Njanja looking for me.
Choga and Chirima, who were on the list, did not go into hiding and they were abducted by Smith’s security agents. Up to today, their whereabouts is unknown and their remains were never found.
That is how brutal the colonialists were. As for ourselves, we were received by our representative in Francistown.
He took us to the police as was the procedure. They would then report to their superiors that they have one or two of the nationalist leaders from Rhodesia, remember, I was part of the Zapu leadership.
I then met the Botswana Foreign Minister and an official from the President’s Office in Gaborone.
After two weeks, I went to the President’s Office in Gaborone and met President Seretse Khama.
I also saw his son Ian who was to later lead Botswana. Back then Ian was a small boy, I remember joking with him that he had a pointed nose like his mother’s.
The President of Botswana knew that we would rule so it was an honour for me to go meet him and he told me that he wished Zimbabwe good luck and he supported us. My escape to Botswana was so that I could proceed to Zambia to join others who were already there.
At that time I was pregnant. I will not mention the father for now.
At around the same time, we had a problem when the likes of Chikerema and Nyandoro quit Zapu and formed Frolizi so when I got to Zambia the likes of Chikerema and others had established their own Frelimo offices.
I should mention that when I ran away from Rhodesia I had secured a scholarship to study in Canada and I had my papers with me. I was thus caught between travelling to Canada and fighting for the freedom of my country. But it was when I reached Zambia and noticed how our cause was being derailed because of power ambitions that I decided to stay. I told George Silundika and Edward Ndlovu that I was no longer interested in going to Canada.
They tried to persuade me to take the opportunity, but again, I was stubborn and wouldn’t take their advice. At that time my pregnancy was advancing and I could not return home as the security agents were looking everywhere for me. So I had to join others in organising our political activities in Zambia.
Zambia was difficult to manage at that time because the youths were too many. Many people were leaving Rhodesia to prepare to wage a resistance against the settler regime, so the camps were full.
In 1972 I went for a conference in Moscow where I gave birth and left my son, Shingirai, there.
He was in the care of the Soviet Women Committee. I was to collect him after 13 months.
Question: What was this conference about?
Answer: It was one of the many conferences I attended. By the way, I was part of the delegation to the All People’s Conference in 1961, which later gave birth to the Organisation of African Unity.
I had been selected among women from other countries into a committee that fought for the freedom of Africa. I became one of the first female nationalists to travel to Europe to seek support to dislodge the Ian Smith regime.
I was also part of the Cairo, Egypt committee which worked on the constitution of the OAU and also joined other African women in politics to form the Pan African Women Organisation.
So we used to travel a lot for various conferences and it was during one of such events that I met great Major Yuri Gagarin, the first human to journey into outer space.
To be continued next week