The role of women during Namibia’s armed struggle

By Aaron Nambadi

LIBERATING a country is not an easy task and the women of Kavango really contributed and participated in the struggle immensely.

It can be argued that without the enormous logistical support provided by people living inside Namibia, the armed struggle would have failed.

Women used to shoulder the responsibility of regularly preparing food for combatants. The South Africa Defense Force (SADF) used to conduct patrols at all times of the day and night in search of People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN) fighters. As it was known that local people were providing supplies to PLAN fighters they were constantly questioning local residents to try and obtain intelligence about the movements and plans of the guerillas.

Due to the impact of both the migrant labour system and the movement of men into exile to join the struggle, it was often women who were heading households in the region.  Women were, therefore, the ones who were involved in the logistics of supplying food to guerillas and had to deal with the questioning that provided the intelligence that both sides relied upon.

Women’s Role in the Logistics of the Struggle

A number of women in Kavango risked their lives to support SWAPO, by cooking for the combatants, sending their children into the woods to collect firewood, make fire, cook and give food. There are many stories of women and their children cutting tree branches and destroying the footprints of the fighters. While they used to be abused physically by Koevoet, these women did not disclose any information relating to the movements of PLAN fighters in their vicinity. Many related to the fact that they assisted because one or two people they knew had gone into exile.  The political education, diplomacy and lobbying by the PLAN fighters motivated civilians to support them.

Many women in Kavango remember how they prepared mahangu porridge (yisima) and slaughtered chicken for the SWAPO guerrillas. How the fighters ate and how the women gave them mahangu flour, live chicken, traditional soft drink (sikundu).  Preparing food for the guerillas became a daily routine for them and this was the way they used to survive.  Analysing some of the narratives, one can conclude that it was mostly women who assisted as most men had left on contract. Women also provided the fighters with basic resources such as soap, lotion and medicine.

The life of a guerrilla in any liberation struggle depended on the assistance rendered by the local civilians. Civilians mobilised resources, used their own money to buy basic humanitarian needs like toothpaste, tins of fish, corned beef or even Bibles for the Namibians fighting to liberate their country. Other assistance provided by civilians such as hiding guerillas in the mahangu grain storage baskets saved the lives of many PLAN fighters.

Food Poisoning

Many women have related how they were given poison by the Koeveot soldiers, which they were asked to put into the food [they prepared for the guerillas]. The Koevoet members gave clear instructions as to how the poison was to be used.  However, most women defied this and instead informed and cautioned the PLAN fighters to be vigilant and on the lookout for poisoned food.  Some women suggested that should anyone in the Kavango area offer food to PLAN Fighters, then that person should first taste or eat the food, to determine if it was poisoned.

Many PLAN fighters that operated in Kavango were convinced that the success of PLAN fighters’ operations in the Kavango was mainly made possible by the determination and bravery of women who rendered enormous support in terms of provision of shelter, food, information and medicines. The humanitarian assistance provided by the civilians gave the PLAN fighters the opportunity to execute their guerrilla operations effectively.  The mutual respect and cooperation, which developed between the fighters and the civilians, allowed the fighters to get support in Kavango.

Women in Supporting the Operations

The establishment of another war front in the Kavango, was aimed to create a new zone through which the PLAN fighters could infiltrate and operate.  The aim was to try and reach the interior of Namibia through areas such as Mangetti, Otavi and Otjiwarongo with the hope that units might even reach as far as Windhoek. Soldiers sometimes walked from Luanda in Angola to Owamboland. The route was difficult, as the journey was long and the packs were heavy as soldiers had to carry all their food and equipment. The journey was also dangerous because the fighters sometimes did not have enough information about the route and this could expose the fighters to the threat of attack by the enemy or animal predators.

As it was not possible for combat units to carry all the food that they would require during an operation, assistance from locals was crucial for their survival.   Soldiers needed food, but also information about the strength and location of the enemy. In some cases, when PLAN fighters were wounded or sick, there would be a need for access to medication, medical assistance and temporary shelter. In extreme cases, fighters were hidden by the local people for weeks.

As a fighter in a guerrilla war, one had to be prepared to engage community members and as such faced many problems and challenges in executing one’s military activities.  One major problem highlighted by the fighter was ensuring personal safety during the night. This clearly indicates that operating in Kavango required a lot of local knowledge, inside assistance and diplomacy to enable the PLAN fighters to operate effectively in the region.

The women, who assisted, needed to be comfortable with the fighters, before they would offer humanitarian and logistical support. This space was, however, well created by the fighters as they were trained on how to interact with the locals. However, interaction became a challenge when they went into an unknown or new homestead, especially when it was often unclear who the owners of that homestead supported.

Nurses took medicine secretly from hospitals and gave it to PLAN fighters for treatment of themselves and other fellow PLAN fighters injured in combat. Many injured fighters were provided with horses for transport from one village to the other while seeking medical assistance, medical supplies and nurses for treatment.  It should be understood that during this period, if one was caught rendering this service it was a serious crime.

Family politics

Women, as mothers, wives and daughters had (like men) to negotiate the complex family politics of the struggle where political views and personal relationships might not always coincide.  The nature of the warfare also meant that military targets and civilians were not always distinct.  For example, when a camp of ‘special constables’ was attacked with rifle grenades and automatic weapons at Katwitwi in Western Kavango in March 1983 it was three women and three children (who were family members of the special constables) who were killed.

The point is that the war in the region involved women on both sides and that no account of the conflict would be complete without including women’s’ perspectives. The absence of the voices of women from the Kavango region is a loud silence. This brief aims to provoke more women from the land to record their own memories of the conflict.

-Aaron Nambadi is a PhD candidate with the University of Namibia. He writes in his personal capacity and this piece is extracted from the book entitled ‘Resistance on the Banks of the Kavango River’

March 2017
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