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Interview with ZPRA Instructor Thoriso Moyo

09 Jul 2020 at 15:20hrs | Views
This week on the Big Interview, we have Toriso Moyo, a freedom fighter  and military instructor with the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), a Mgagao attack survivor, and one of the first female fighters to undergo military training and one of the first two women to be a ZIPRA instructor.

This interview has been abridged in order not to take away from the upcoming biography that is being written. More details about the life and struggles of this freedom fighter and her colleagues and her vision for the country would thus be saved for the book.

Q1:    Thank you very much mama for your time. I know that you are one of the first ZIPRA fighters, but we will get to the details later on. Let us start with the most basic question, who is Thoriso?

A:    My name is Thoriso Moyo, the last born in a family of fighters. I was born on 12 December 1959 at Manama in Gwanda area. I grew up in an area called Shashe. Because of the distance between schools at that time you could not go to school until you were old enough to touch your ear with your opposite arm going over the top of your head. They did not worry about your age but only your ability to tough your ear with the opposite arm. Once you did that, you were then allowed to start schooling which had a lot of racial limitations.
In 1970, at 10 years of age, I was declared old enough to go to school and did my primary education at Shashe Primary School.  I attended the school between 1970 and 1974 when, at 15 years of age, I left the country to join the liberation struggle.  
Today when I look at the school it pains me that the school I went to has not developed any better than what it was during colonial times. In fact, it is a total embarrassment that a school that produced people like me, liberation war fighters, is in such a state. Lack of development is not limited to the school only, but extends to the whole area there. If we had anything we were going to develop the area but we are impoverished to do that. It is embarrassing that we went to war to fight the colonial government, but the area was far better developed then than now. Sadly, it appears we removed a white colonial oppressor and replaced them with black oppressors who do not care about developing our areas. This is very painful.

Q2:    How did you come to join the liberation struggle at such a tender age?

A:    One day in 1974 when I returned from school, I was doing Grade 5 then, my mother told me that my brother, Kenneth, after whom I come had disappeared. We feared that something bad might have happened to him. You know in rural areas in those days when a person disappeared you immediately thought of witchcraft and something like that. Days passed and nothing about his whereabouts was heard of. No friend or relative had seen him. He had just vanished into thin air. Others suspected he might have crossed into Botswana to joined the liberation struggle. But even that left no trail whatsoever. Fortunately, he had indeed crossed over to Botswana, with my paternal uncle, Mzenzi, to join the armed struggle. My brother's non de guerre was Simonga Ndebele. I do not remember Mzenzi's war name now from my head.

We continued going to school while looking for my brother. At that time my elder sister, Jane Moyo, who was in ZAPU youth and married to a police officer known as Lamola who worked at Tuli Camp, was a good source of information. She would get the information from police officers and pass it on to ZAPU people. Black police officers were a very important source of information for ZAPU. It is them who would tell ZAPU people when a raid or arrest was going to happen. They would give them tip offs on everything. There were occasional raids that would take place now and then targeting the most able bodied who were suspected to be persons from whom ZAPU would recruit fighters. We were also targeted and my sister picked that up.

Just about that time a police officer took a Jeep and filled it up with prisoners and drove across into Botswana to join the liberation struggle. He is also stole some guns. It was then decided that a crackdown would be launched to pre-empt young people likely to join the struggle. Then around that time one afternoon my sister arrived home and told my mother that we were going to cross over into Botswana to join our brother Kenneth that my sister said was already in Zambia. They waited for me to come back from school and when I came back I was not aware that something of that nature had been planned. I only found a number of people gathered there, about 10 or so of them. As usual, I came back, removed my uniform, ate my dried vegetables (umfushwa) and sat on my mother's lap. Everything continued as if nothing was going to happen. My mother asked me the usual questions about school and nothing suspicious occurred to me.  Later during our usual mother and daughter conversations, my mother broke the story to me. She said, like a sophisticated politician she was, your sister has said you are going together with these people (pointing to the people gathered there) to sleep there (pointing to the lights across the border) at a camp where my maternal cousin worked. I was not sure what to make of the news but I suspect that we were on our way to the liberation struggle. The news of the liberation struggle had gotten to people as young as I was. Aside the usual concerns you would expect from a young girl being told that she would spend a night away from her mother, there was nothing to talk about beyond that. I was determined to go.
We left just when darkness had fallen. After walking for some time we got to a river and I panicked and ran back home. My sister and others continued walking not aware that I had returned home. I feared the river like nobody's business. When I arrived home, my mother took me by hand and accompanied me to rejoin the group. We ran and called until we caught up with them. After some bit of discussion, my mother returned back home. I only realised it after that we exposed her to the danger of wild animals that night. It was not safe that time.

Q3:    Just there. It is very rare for a parent, let alone a mother, to send their children to war all too well knowing that they might die. Your mother here is actively sending you off to war. The question is, at that time were your parents active in ZAPU and did you know it?

A:    No, I did not I know that they were very active but they were. As a young child their activities were hidden from me. All along I did not realise that my parents were politicians and activists under ZAPU. They were very sophisticated and they could hide their operations through religious and social activities. I remember in those days the community built a church, I think it should be the Lutheran Church. Under the guise of religious activities many political gatherings were organised right under the nose of the oppressors. Reverend Masiane, who believed in justice and equal rights, facilitated the disguise. Those days children were couriers of political news and information in most cases not even aware of it. As a child coming from school you could be given a letter to pass on to your parents and you would never open it until when instructed to do so by parents. Upon opening the letter you will be asked to read it loud. Remember some of our parents could not read and write at the time. So you would be asked to read the letter, only to be shocked that the letter you were carrying had such information. We respected our parents. So as I said, I did not know that my parents were so heavily involved in politics. I suppose if you are committed to the struggle you recruit your family members first and put them in the line of fire. You cannot want to sacrifice other people and spare your children in the fight for justice.  They too must participate.

Q4:     Back to your journey into Botswana. What happened when you rejoined the group?

A:     We walked across the border and got to the camp. The white people there were very supportive. My cousin who worked in the camp took good care of us. Early in the morning we walk up and proceeded with our journey. We did not walk by night since there were lots of elephants in the region. The journey was long and painful. There were small children that we carried and we would assist each other carry them. Two of them were 4-year olds. One of them, Tiso, belonged to my sister who had died in 1972 when the baby was 2 years old. You could not tell then that the child was an orphan as we took care of him very well. We were a sizeable crowd but not too big to attract unnecessary attention. Among others was myself, my two sisters, Alice, Constance, Costa and Oscar, also from the extended family. The majority of people were women as you can tell by now. We proceeded until we got to the homestead of a prophet known as Sibhebhisa. We were quickly and nicely received and straight away hidden as they feared that we might have been followed by regime security forces. We later picked that indeed we had been followed. I do not know where they had picked information that we had crossed into Botswana. Meanwhile, food was prepared for us. We ate amanyunyumane (fat cookies) and drank some tea while hiding, and again proceeded with our journey. We were assisted to proceed and our tracks were erased using car wheels. The journey was long and very difficult. We ate what we had and walked and walked. Hunger and swollen feet were our greatest enemies. Locals were not readily available to help us. They feared Rhodesians a lot. When they saw us they would say these Rhodesians would get us into trouble with Rhodesia. When you narrate it today it is like a painful tale.

We proceeded until we got to an area called Gobojango. There we were met by a ZIPRA representative whose name I have forgotten. When he came and saw that we were majority women he was surprised but quipped that it meant the war was now in full gear. He then told us that we were not the only women who had arrived to join the liberation struggle. Among those who had crossed ahead of us were Belinda, Grace Noko, Gladys and Tebogo. The ZIPRA representative then took us to Selibe-Phikwe where we were detained in the cells for our security.  When we got there life was completely different. Everything, including eating and bathing, was on timetable. On our first day at the Selibe-Phikwe Prison, we were kept in the cells and there were no blankets. Lice had a field day. We were later transferred to a more spacious camp where we stayed for something like two weeks if I am not mistaken. Throughout our stay in the camp we were kept like prisoners so that in the event there is an informant of Rhodesians they would find it difficult to pick that we were Rhodesians en route to war.

Q5:    Now you are in Selibe-Phikwe, did you stay there until you left for Zambia or you were transferred to somewhere else?

A:    At Selibe-Phikwe we did not stay long. One day during our short stay we were told to bath and change into our other clothes. Remember all this time we wore prisoner gabs. We were picked by bus with two men, one known as Makoni and the other, Normal, and transported us to Francistown.  This time we were not taken to camp but to a ZAPU holding house. Along the way and in the holding house we were well taken care of. Now it was many of us, men and women, and it again became clear to me that we were going to war. Once there, after some days, some comrades, I suspected were from ZIPRA, came and took men and boys for training in Zambia and left all of us women and children. At that time society clearly had a stereotyped understanding of a woman. To them a woman was not fit for war and could not fight a war. Now it is 1975.

While still in Botswana, we were told that there had been clashes in Mboroma and Nampundwe following the death Hebert Chitepo. The situation was tense and potentially dangerous for new arrivals. So we were told to wait. We waited for something like 3 to 4 months, if I am not mistaken.  Some months down the line, still in 1975, we were told to get ready to proceed to Zambia. All of us were extremely excited. When the time to leave came, my elder sister together with children was left behind to take care of girls who were expected to come after us seeking to join the liberation struggle. We flew to Lusaka, Zambia, and upon arrival we were thoroughly interviewed. This was done from camp to camp, at least for all persons arriving to join the liberation struggle. In Lusaka, as we were going through interviews we listened to broadcasts by Jane Ngwenya and John Mbedzi, speaking in our many languages urging people to join the liberation struggle. They made it look easy as if you will get there and pick up your gun and come back home without the trouble of tough training. They were very good in what they were doing. Hearing a woman urging people to war was additional inspiration for us as women. It galvanised us into a commitment to liberate our country.

Q6:    Now you have arrived in Zambia, where did you go next?

A:    After our first interviews later that evening we were driven off in Zambian trucks to Nampundwe Transit Camp. We got into those tall trucks, the Giraffes, by ladders. We were told we were going for training. We only knew that it was Nampundwe when we got there. Information was kept very secret. When we got to Nampundwe things changed. No ladder was provided, instead we were told to jump down from the trucks. It was clear to me that this was a changed environment. Upon arrival we were given our war names. You did not choose, instead they just gave you a name. I was to be known as Bvundzai Tawona.  Some of the names we did not like, you can imagine. There we were also given trousers to wear. Imagine we had never done this before. We had not seen a women wearing a trousers.
We then started our physical training. We were distributed into companies. This was the company you would train with. Later I was appointed a section commander with responsibilities in assembly and other things. I was also now responsible for my section as we waited for our instructors. I also got to meet my brother Kenneth who had left for war earlier there at Nampundwe. We ended up training together. As women, Grace and myself and others were determined to do everything that men would be doing. We were soldiers and not women. We ran, trained, did judo and every other thing men were doing. I remember there was a girl, Clara Moyo (not her war name) who was good in running. She was powerful but we also were good in judo and other things.

It is at Nampundwe also where we met the late Stanley Gagisa Nleya. He had the presence of a commander. He was there shouting orders, jump guerrilla, jump guerrilla, jump guerrilla. Fall in, the rest fall in behind. Stretch your hands, follow, and so forth and so forth. What a good instructor he was! Other instructors included Eddie Sigoge and Tshile Nleya.

Q7:    When did military training with weapons begin?

A:    We started with physical training but before long our instructors thought the recruits had ripened for military training with weapons and live ammunition. But not everybody qualified for the next stage. We were told by one of the instructors that only men were going to go and train with weapons. I think this might have come from the late Vice President Joshua Nkomo. We protested and made our case for military training and instructors soon realised that we were determined. At that time we had also been joined by another girl Jane Ndlovu (Ratidzo). So, 9 of us were then allowed to go and do training with men. After some 3 months in Nampundwe we were transferred to Mwembeshi for thorough military training. Out of 800 or so recruits, only 9 were women and I was part of them as I said. This included Grace, Ratidzo, Tebogo, Gladys and Alice.

We trained for 3 months in Mwembeshi and it was hard. Remember we were training with men. Fortunately we were both physically ready and mental prepared for the training. We did not make any excuses.  There we received training in judo, karate, map reading and gun battle itself. We were thoroughly drilled for war.  

At that time there was this idea of a joint army of ZANLA and ZIPRA. For that reason we were then transferred to Mgagao where a joint unit of ZIPRA and ZANLA known as ZIPA was going to be training to complete the rest of our training. We spent days on the way to Mgagao. The distance was very long and physically draining. We would stop occasional for some food and then proceed. We got there and began the training. We had additional instructors, including, among others, Ambrose Mutinhiri, Jack Mpofu, Stanely Gagisa Nleya, and Lenny. Tension between ZIPRA and ZANLA was very apparent even as we arrived. I remember one day Joshua Nkomo distributed some boots and he also gave some  to ZANLA people who were walking on bare foot. But even before Nkomo left the base the ZANLA guys were already singing songs against him even as they were wearing his donation. Nkomo gently blushed all this aside. He loved his country and was committed to its liberation and unity. He did not see tribe but just one people. We continued our training. Each time there were demonstrations of competency ZIPRA always came tops. Remember when we got to Mgagao we were given Chinese-made AK47s. Until then we had been using the Russian made AK47s for our training. But even with the Chinese AKs we were also better than ZANLA.  Our ZIPRA training was very high and so it was easy for us strip and reassemble our guns and do all the related, fast and with extreme competence.

Q8:    Now that you have touched on Mgagao, the name has become synonymous with ZANLA attack on ZIPRA. Was it at this time that ZANLA attacked you?

A:    Yes indeed, this is the time. One day ZANLA guys woke up earlier than us and did their preparations. They clearly had a plan for the day and were assisted by some countries. This is the day they were going to attack us. We went for training and returned for breakfast. The arrangement was that after morning training you would assemble at parade and go to the kitchen in companies.  When the first company went to the kitchen they found literally nothing for us. ZANLA had "eaten" everything. There was no meat and no rice. Only potatoes were left and very little of that. This was a culmination of a long attempt to starve ZIPRA to death. As ZIPRA comrades were getting the little food that was left, some ZANLA guys started to provoke ZIPRA comrades telling them that ZIPRA was going to starve to death. As this is happening we as women are bathing, because we did so each time before going to parade after morning training. There was commotion that attracted the attention of Instructors Lenny and Ndumba who then went to check in the kitchen what was the matter with food while other comrades were in the parade area.  Just as instructors left the kitchen the attacks began. Instructor Lenny killed on the spot. ZANLA seized the armoury as per their plan. Attacks spread from the kitchen where it all began to anywhere they could see a ZIPRA cadre, in and outside the camp. It was a vicious and well-planned attack on unarmed comrades. Some ZIPRA guys managed to get to the armoury and when they got there, there was no ammunition. The fighting continued in close combat, using rifle butts, bamboos and whatever you could lay your hands on. Grenades were lobbied. They clearly were not prepared to work with us, and they had outside assistance as I said. Some ZIPRA comrades fought, ran, fought, hid and reappeared, and fought again so as to find space to save their lives. I and others got into the river, dived into water. All this time bullets were flying everywhere. When ZANLA attackers saw us women they shouted that they did not want to kill us but would take us for wives. This was extremely provocative and demeaning. We were not there to be their wives, but were in the war to liberate our people. We were not women anymore, but soldiers.

In the middle of the attacks, I met my brother and we crawled together, took cover, changed positions and hid whenever the situation required. Can you imagine a brother and a sister in the same cross hairs of AK47s? It was very bad. Fortunately, we both survived and made it back home after independence.

Some comrades retreated to a Gathering Point and others went to Iringa for further decision. It was very far from Mgagao. We walked until our feet were swollen. We indeed later regrouped. Comrades were counted to see how many were there. Our instructors were not sure, however, whether those who had not made it to Iringa were captured, killed, wounded or lost their way to the gathering point. So they, Stanley Gagisa Nleya and others, went back to check along the way. All in all in the attack we lost 48 or so comrades, if I am not mistaken. These comrades had come to train and go back to liberate their country, only to be slaughtered just like that. Each time I relive it, it makes me angry.

Now, we stayed in Iringa for some time because we could not proceed due to swollen feet. Iringa was far from Mgagao as I said. Later we again proceeded to Morogoro. Some of our comrades were taken to Dar es slaam for treatment, while others were taken to Morogoro town. Upon our arrival at Morogoro we found that the attacks had also happened there but ZIPRA has driven out ZANLA. That police officer I told you about earlier who had fled with prisoners across the border was part of the Morogoro contingent that drove out ZANLA. ZANLA took over Mgagao and we took over Morogoro.

Q9:     Now you are in Morogoro, what happened next?

A:    At Morogoro we resumed our training. After training, some were deployed to the front and others we deployed to our various bases. I, with other women, remained for a short time before I and Grace Noko were appointed instructors. Our appointment made us the first female ZIPRA military instructors. We then deployed to Mwembeshi where we started training about 300 recruits, the majority of whom were men. I would say around 248 or so out of 300. This means we had around 52 women.  At first some men could not handle that they had women as their instructors but had to adjust because we were tough and up to the task. This where I met Hazel, a retired police officer. She was likable and committed. I like that girl. She never changed throughout. Even as she rose to be a very senior police officer, she still recognised us as commanders.

Later we were transferred to Victory Camp, which was a new transit camp for women, still as instructors. This was at a stage when women were flooding into the armed struggle. Grace and others went for further military training in Cuba. I was later to be Camp Commander at Mutendere which housed women and girls. Again I was moved, now to Kafue Camp which was doing agriculture and that acted as a typing training school. This is where I met Thandiwe Nkomo, the daughter to Joshua Nkomo.   At that time we heard that there were going to be talks at Lancaster House, in Britain. These are the talks that led to the elections and to independence. The bombings that took place in our bases found me in at Victory Camp. Our base was not attacked. Instead, they attacked the neighbouring Workers Camp, JZ Camp, Mkushi and other camps. Jane and Audrey died in the bombings at Mkushi. This is how far this country was sacrificed for.

Q10: What happened after 1980?

A:    The 1980s is the saddest part of my life. After so much sacrifice in the war of liberation, I did not expect that I would again, together with other comrades, be fighting for survival in a post-independence setting. We arrived from Zambia in 1980 in high hopes for the country even if we were saddened at the news of the election outcome. The arrival point was Luveve from where we were encouraged to temporarily go back to our homes so that our relatives would know that we were still alive. I took the leave and went home. It was an exciting time meeting friends and relatives after a long time. But even as I celebrated I was very much aware that many people, including very close colleagues, had died in the war. I was later to be transferred to Sierra Assembly Point from which I was demobilised while others were integrated.

Little did we know, however, that the joy of return and the celebrations of independence were going to be short-lived. During the integration and demobilisation time, treatment was bad for most of the people from the ZIPRA side. They were persecuted and marginalised from positions they deserved. We saw unprovoked attacks at Entumbane and other areas against ex-ZIPRA combatants. Before long, we saw Gukurahundi slaughtering innocent people in the name of looking for dissidents. The same ZANLA was now attacking us from our homes as they had done at Morogoro and Mgagao. Thousands of people were killed and even many more tortured. This was to be our introduction to the post-independence Zimbabwe.

In many places during the Gukurahundi atrocities I was saved by my war name, Bvundzai Tawona. This said  lot. Also very important to note is the fact that some of the members of 5 Brigade that I saw with my own eyes were the same people who had attacked us at Mgagao. Some even recognised me as having been with them at Mgagao. These facts  are critical to know in order to create a proper and complete narrative of the Gukurahundi atrocities.  

Q11:    What would you consider as the way forward for the country?

A:    The best way forward starts with going back to the principles of the liberation struggle which were about putting the welfare of the people first and above personal interest. What we have today is very different from what we fought for. Oppression of one group by another continues, black people have replaced white people as the oppressor.

What we need now is to first focus on returning the country to some normalcy. This requires us to establish an inclusive government or a transitional authority that would be tasked with fixing the economy and addressing outstanding reforms. We need unity like yesterday. Zanu PF, ZAPU, MDC and others should work together to fix the country under a transitional setting.

Secondly, we need true federalism or devolution of power which would enable regions like Matebeleland to govern themselves. Cultures and the economy flourish better in an environment where people make decisions where the problem is. Currently, devolution of power is a mere slogan and does not exist on the ground.

The state of the economy requires urgent attention. People are suffering and you ask yourself what was the benefit of the liberation struggle if after it people are poorer than before we went to fight. What kind of liberation brings poverty to people? This cannot be liberation. That is why we should establish a transitional mechanism to fix the problems.  

If we can get a few people of the character in the mould of the likes of Joshua Nkomo, Dumiso Dabengwa, Nikita Mangena, Stanley Gagisa Nleya, Moffat Hadebe and others, it would easy to fix this country. Just a few of people of this calibre would be enough. Some died suffering and others are alive and suffering but there were and are men of great character and leadership. Youngsters today should anchor their struggle in the struggles of yesterday. I am not saying they should just duplicate us but that they should pay attention to learn from us. Every century has its own challenges and each generation has its own perspective of the struggle but even that cannot mean you completely ignore what your forefathers did. On our part, we built on the struggles that were fought in the 1890s under King Lobhengula and others. We took lessons. Culture also plays a very important role in organising society. It is sad that young people discard it as useless. We cannot succeed if we do not embrace our culture in directing our struggle. We love what young people are doing but they must not forget where we came from.

Source - The Phutheho News
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