“Mandeya, vhura!” a thunderous knock on our door, followed by a violent kick and growling voice commanding my father to open it. It was past midnight on that fateful night in October, 1975. I have a vivid memory of my mother coming out of the bedroom in a thin, pink nightgown. She must have been breastfeeding my two-week-old little sister, Juliet Chipo Chedenga Chamapihwa. She stood behind the dining room door, hesitating. Then, before she could decide what to do, a white Rhodesian soldier kicked it open with such force it hit my mother in the head. She staggered back, trying to maintain her balance.

Our family was supporting the liberation fighters, the comrades, who were resisting Ian Smith’s white supremacist, procolonialist Rhodesian government which was vehemently opposed to handing over power to Black rulers.

My father was being accused of not only supporting the communist-backed liberation fighters financially and with moral support, but also knowing where their bases were. The same two Rhodesian army officers, Bristol and Stewart, regularly tortured my father, demanding he tell them where they could find the comrades. Sometimes they showed up with other soldiers; sometimes, sadly, Black soldiers were among them.

“Where is your husband?” Bristol barked, lifting the butt of his gun threateningly, impatiently waiting for a response. “He is not here,” Mhamha quietly answered. Bristol struck her in the face with the butt of his gun. Reeling, she hit her head on the wall. The force of the blow took her down.

“Jesu,” she moaned. When she heard the pounding on the door, my mother commanded my father to hide, preferring to take the officers’ blows to seeing her husband killed on the spot. If I close my eyes I can still hear her groaning.

My two older sisters, Tendai, nine, and Elizabeth, seven, and I were sleeping on the floor of what we called our “dining room.” Our house had three rooms. There was a kitchen with a huge Dover stove and a standby gas stove, then the dining room in the middle, and our parents’ bedroom at the end. The store that my father built with his own hands was a stone’s throw away from our house. The piece of land that separated the two buildings is where we used to spread a reed mat and enjoy our heavy breakfast on Saturdays. It was also our playground and sun basking spot. Having a “heavy” breakfast was a reward after a week of none of us having a proper breakfast during the week as the family rushed to work or school. While I don’t remember what day the soldiers came, I took comfort knowing I would have heavy breakfast soon.

Imagine yourself as a little child in dreamland, dreaming of eating great food and then, maybe, chasing butterflies. Now, imagine waking up to the reality of your mother being brutalized. It was horrific to witness. I did not understand why grown men would come not only to interrupt my sleep, but to harm my mother. I hated them.

We had been told to always run and hide under the bed or sofa when we heard the sound of the Rhodesian soldiers’ vehicles. That night there was nowhere to hide. We were sleeping on the floor and the soldiers had pounced, unannounced! “Bury your heads in those blankets and go to sleep now!” a soldier barked. Trembling, we did as we were told.

“What will happen to our Mhamha?” I thought, my heart racing. It felt like it would jump out of my chest as it slammed against my breastbone. Even at five, my head and heart knew that my mother could die. I knew even then that guns kill. I knew violence. Childhood innocence is a luxury reserved for privileged, cushioned children. I knew they were hurting my mother; I was hurting, too. So were my sisters. We all knew none of us could say a word as long as the soldiers were there. We could not cry. I could not dare go out to pass urine, so I wet the blankets, something I had last done when I was three.

Just then my chronic cough punctured the silence. It was a terrible cough that, once it began, regularly unsettled the whole family. I had stayed under the covers as instructed. Unfortunately, I just could not breathe easily. Pain shot through my chest. As I violently coughed, my sisters elbowed me to be quiet but I could not control the cough. I cried out, instinctively throwing off the blankets, gasping for air. Now all of us could see what was going on because we shared the blankets and I was in the middle. I knew the pain of knowing what the soldiers could potentially do; it was killing me. My chest felt like it was in a vise and I could taste the fear that we might lose our mother. I gagged. In my mind’s eye I saw her falling and not being able to get back up.

I was crying for Mhamha as the soldiers beat her. She stole helpless glances at us. We could see her agony on her furrowed brow. Still, she refused to say a word about my father. Such fierce love for him! My mother did not think twice about it. I had seen it many times when the soldiers harassed her for information. She would always protect my father. I had seen it in the many stunts she pulled to fool the soldiers, claiming she had a toothache and tying a scarf around both cheeks, or miming that her voice was gone; that she was too hoarse to talk. All to protect her man—my father.

Political Prisoners and War Orphans

Grayscale photos of a woman and a man side by sideThey say when you truly love someone, you can die for your loved one. Mhamha taught that well. In war, in peace, and until death, she loved my father.

Between sobs and coughs, I saw my father come out of hiding. He cast a glance at me and held up two fists in a sign of defiance and solidarity. He was signaling for us to be strong before turning himself in. My heart sank. They were going to beat Baba again as they had done before. They had already beaten Mhamha. Baba asked them to leave her alone. I am sure it took just a few minutes for Baba to come out, but for me it seemed like an eternity. I desperately wanted it to end. I said a little prayer for the soldiers to just go.

As if possessed by a violent spirit, the white soldier struck my father with his gun on the forehead and he went down hard. As he staggered to stand, Bristol slapped him and threw him against the wall, pinning him there. He laughed, spat at him, and promised him death. My heart was now in my throat. I don’t know what my sisters were doing. I felt like standing up and screaming at them: “Stop hurting my parents!!!” They all looked like monsters. They threatened Baba. “We’re going to kill you, but first don’t lie to us. Mandeya, Upi lo gandanga? (Where are the comrades?)” the soldiers demanded. They spoke Chilapalapa, a language they used for people who did not understand English. He said it in a mocking way.

Another soldier chimed in, “Oh, right, just like your wife didn’t know where you were?” Bristol interjected. “You are going to tell us where they are! We have not even started with you.” My mother stood by, but she was playing with her fingers as if she was doing the Rosary. Maybe she was. My breathing finally normalized when they stopped beating Baba.

The soldiers dragged him to the Land Rover they had parked outside, and bundled him into the back. My mother followed to see what would happen next.

“You too,” Bristol snarled, pointing at my mother.

“I have a baby, and my other children need me,” she appealed. Bristol’s cold stare and furrowed brow was enough of a response. He flared his nostrils as if the pit latrine a few meters away was offending him and snapped, “Go get your monkey and follow your husband. You are always lying that he is not home. Today we found him right here! What do you have to say for yourself?”

My mother quietly went back into the bedroom where my year-and-a-half-year-old baby sister, Tina, and my three-yearold brother, David, were asleep. Mhamha emerged with proper clothes on, carrying my little sister and her nappy bag.

It was like a funeral as we heard them go. Without the soldiers to shut us up, we cried our hearts out as we searched each other’s faces for signs of strength. We had no answers about when or if our parents would come back home. As soon as I tried to sleep, the soldiers’ bright pink, angry red faces kept haunting me as I imagined what they were doing to my parents. The Queen gave them permission to do what they were doing to my parents.

It All Started with Rhodes

When I was 10, our fourth-grade textbook had my classmates and me in stitches. We had read a passage describing Cecil Rhodes (credited with “discovering” our land) waking his friends up in the middle of the night to ask them if they agreed with him that the British were the finest race on earth. Despite having witnessed British brutality, my friends and I laughed convulsively, as did our teacher. (The colonies Rhodes “founded,” Southern and Northern Rhodesia, were renamed Zambia in 1964, and Zimbabwe in 1980.)

Cecil Rhodes depicted as The Rhodes Colossus in 1892, with one foot in the Cape and the other in Cairo.

Cecil Rhodes depicted as The Rhodes Colossus in 1892, with one foot in the Cape and the other in Cairo.

The way the book was written obscured and diluted the impact of Rhodes’ white supremacy. We laughed it off. Decades later, when I came to the Canadian North and met Inuit who regularly confront racism—and readily talk about historical injustices— I knew I was in a place, and with a people, where I had permission to speak my truth without fearing ridicule.

Some people have suggested that there are times that it’s better for the colonizer to come back because at least under colonial rule, “We lived a better life in terms of having most of our basic needs satisfied.” Now I realize how education can present serious issues in persuasive ways aimed at “domesticating” us to accept the status quo. It makes us feel smart when we rationalize such events. We stop people from questioning and dealing with racial injustice because we think we know it all.

The underacknowledged truth about those books is that they all were written by white people from a white supremacist viewpoint. They determined the curriculum. If my father and mother had published those books, we would not have laughed; I know we would have cried.

In my pursuit of liberation, I have come to realize that education is not neutral. I first learned this from the writings of radical educator Paolo Freire (author of the books Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Education for Critical Consciousness). He believed that education either liberates us—and helps us to solve problems—or it domesticates us to the status quo. If we are experiencing injustice we need to question the education we have received. Has it liberated us? If not, why not?

I found that when I began asking myself those questions I started being curious about Dr. David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary and explorer who sought to bring Christianity and “civilization” to Africa. I laughed out loud recalling how even our child’s plays had been infiltrated by white supremacist propaganda. Consider this ditty my playmates and I would thoughtlessly chant: “Christopher Columbus was a great man; he went to America in a saucepan. He went to Umtali, Umtali andie oooverr. Two little sausages in a saucepan, one went plop, and another went bye.”

I learnt that Columbus—who generations have been taught had “discovered” the land that became the US—was not a great man. He was a white supremacist whose only “discovery” was that he had arrived on land that had been long inhabited by Native Americans. I had to pause think about how I had grown up reciting children’s rhymes that sang the praises of a white supremacist.

White people wielded both economic and political power and dictated where Blacks could and could not go. In urban areas, no Blacks were allowed in the central business district. This was not peculiar to my country. All countries in the region created a similar hierarchy. Growing up, I remember my aunt using the terms “colour bar” and “racial discrimination.” Not that I knew what it meant then. In South Africa it would be called apartheid. White people were at the top rung of the race ladder; then Asians; then coloureds; and finally brown-skinned Africans—erroneously referred to as “Blacks.”

Such classifications came with privilege for those at the top rung of the ladder and none for those of us teetering precariously on the bottom. So, it had been intentional, by design, that my parents were subjugated through torture and incarceration and lost all their wealth to the British. White supremacists saw nothing wrong with such dehumanization. My parents were never meant to be successful, to thrive; they certainly were never meant to support the liberation struggle. Blacks were supposed to limit their participation in society to working for white supremacists, abetting them as they accumulated economic wealth and consolidated political power.

Old edition of The Chronicle newspaper with headline "Now we're Zimbabwe"

The birth of Zimbabwe through independence elections, April 1980.

To this day, I have wondered why some former Rhodesians are so unapologetic about the economic disparities we Africans lived under; many are still rude when talking to some of us. They truly believed, like Cecil Rhodes and Ian Smith, the last prime minister (and all those who ruled us in between), that whites were the “finest” race, and they could kill, torture, maim and still be described as “gentlemen.” On the other hand, true freedom fighters, those who sought our liberation, were labeled as “terrorists.”

White men raped Black women as they pleased, a reality that has never been openly confronted by Zimbabweans because the culture of silence around some details of the liberation struggle prevails. The war was bloody, cruel, barbaric and inhumane, justified as a necessary evil to “civilize” us. I bore witness to this process of “civilizing.”

I often wondered why some Africans ended up working for the Rhodesian army. Was it a part of their being “civilized”? I remember hearing the term “call up”—that at age 18 a lot of Africans were “called up” to work for the army. Called up was no doubt a euphemism for being forced into the army. I have been told that Rhodesian officials enticed young recruits with promises of money and a better life. Many were seduced by the so-called glamour surrounding battle.

The fog of war distorts the truth, purporting to only show veterans decorated with medals. My experience of war does not fool me; I do not buy into the belief that war is the best “conflict resolution” tool in this world. In my experience, war produces trauma and untold suffering for so many. Only the well-to-do benefit, thinking only about their bottom line.

Grayscale photo of group of people, some holding guns

Photo credit: Getty Images
Many people took up arms against the white minority supremacist government.

My parents endured multiple abuses: physical, psychological, emotional; like all of their brother and sister survivors, they were told to “let bygones be bygones.” Remarkably, they did. Could they still be able to rebuild their lives?

They reminded me of a plant called mufandichimuka, literally meaning, “I die and then resurrect.” It thrives on hilly or rocky areas. It can appear dry and lifeless but when put in water, it comes back to life; its leaves quickly turn from brown to green. Like the mufandichimuka plant, resilience was in my parents’ genes. They were born to bounce back.

The Return

Shouts and whoops filled the air as I saw two figures, a man and woman, approaching our compound. The woman was holding a baby about three months old. I was not the only one yelling. It must be them! Who else would be crossing into our backyard? Even though Mother looked terrible, her eyes sad and distant, still the corners of her mouth turned up in her signature toothless grin. Her smile was coming back! My father also looked dreadful. He was unusually quiet; the fire that burned in him nearly extinguished. Still, he also smiled. And, with their smiles embers of hope flickered stronger in me. He was fine; or at least I believed in my heart that he would be. I was the girl who looked like her daddy. He was my hero and he was back, albeit not looking heroic. But he was back! She was back! Our parents were home! We had gotten used to the emptiness of being war orphans, but their surprise return made us whole again.

Their hair was uncombed and dirty. Their gaunt, battered bodies were evidence of the suffering they had endured. Even though they almost looked like strangers, we knew it was them! Squealing with excitement, we ran to welcome them. My mother immediately put her hand up, like a cop stopping traffic. They didn’t want us anymore? My little five-year-old heart tugged at me as I looked from one to the other. Then she said, “Inda ne tsikidzi! We are covered with lice and bed bugs. We need to be clean first.”

My baby sister, Juliet Chipo Chedenga Chamapihwa, was so thin you might have thought that even if you hugged her gently she would break. Her eyes were huge and sunken, and her hair was greasy. Despite the torture they had endured while imprisoned, my mother’s humor never left her. My parents and sister had lived in “four in one” confinement barracks where the kitchen, dining room, bedroom and toilet where all in one room. Mhamha told us that she named my sister Tiny because she was not growing well; noticeably malnourished and sickly. She suffered an untreated ear infection while in the prison and Mhamha feared that she had developed hearing problems.

If tears had been harvested that day we would have collected bushels. My siblings and I cried with joy. They were back. They did not die. To be honest, in my brain—and heart—they had been gone for a long time. I still don’t know how long they’d been jailed but it was long enough for my baby sister to come out malnourished.

Grayscale photo of women queuing up to vote in the 1980 Zimbabwe independence elections.

Women queuing up to vote in the 1980 Zimbabwe independence elections.

Mhamha and Baba cut each other’s hair as well as Tiny’s. After they bathed, they burned the clothes they had been wearing. Baba shaved his beard that had grown long like an Apostolic sect member. Soon, these ex-prisoners looked less ghastly, more relaxed and happy.

I do not remember who cooked, but we all sat outside on the reed mat feasting. My mother, a gifted storyteller, moved us to tears with her tales. That day we sang songs of joy. Music always made our family happy. Mhamha could really sing! A long time after she had died, my cousin Rose disclosed that the Rhodesian Broadcast Corporation had aired Mhamha’s and her friend’s performance of a song that had won a music competition. Mhamha never told the story, but judging from her vocal range I was not surprised.

That day, on the reed mat, we sang church and fun songs. Singing brought our family joy, no matter what was happening. Our status as orphans was over—for now. We were grateful. Excerpted from the forthcoming book Searching for Racial Equality: An African Woman’s Urgent Call to Be Antiracist by Francisca Mandeya. Part memoir, part call to action, the book traces the author’s journey from her birth in violent, colonial Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, to emigrating to the Canadian Arctic, a place she now calls home. Mother, activist, educator, coach, Mandeya shares how race struggles have followed and haunted her throughout her life, from southern Africa to northern Canada.


Headshot of a smiling woman wearing a colorful headscarf and earrings.Excerpted from the forthcoming book Searching for Racial Equality: An African Woman’s Urgent Call to Be Antiracist by Francisca Mandeya. Part memoir, part call to action, the book traces the author’s journey from her birth in violent, colonial Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, to emigrating to the Canadian Arctic, a place she now calls home. Mother, activist, educator, coach, Mandeya shares how race struggles have followed and haunted her throughout her life, from southern Africa to northern Canada.