COLUMN | Stories from Dangamvura | The young people who crossed to fight, and how the war changed them

1980: ZANLA fighters at the Foxtrot ceasefire assembly plant (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

In this installment of his column, ‘Stories from Dangamvura’, Chris Kabwato remembers the young people who left the township to fight in the liberation war, and how the war changed them


It was a word that was whispered with apprehension: He crossed. She crossed. Aka-crossa. The three years of 1976 to 1978 were an anxious time for our parents in the township of Dangamvura.

Young people were disappearing from boarding schools and homes during the night without leaving any messages. If they were boarders, all that their parents would receive was the student’s trunk from the headmaster and a visit from the police.

Our neighbours had a son, Jabulani Kundhlande.

One night, Jabu together with other young men from our street – Charles Mazikana, Whitey Mpingo and Todd Musere – disappeared into the night. When this happened, there was no wailing. Neighbours trooped to the house of the disappeared and sat quietly. Consoling. Tears could bring bad luck, so the silence was a stoic one, anxieties concealed in the bland faces and averted eyes.

The Sigauke family, our relatives at Bezel Bridge (Bocha) – a hotbed of the war – whispered to us that they had seen Jabu at a pungwe and had pretended not to recognise him. The pain of our parents was that this could not be communicated to Mai Jabu as it could compromise her son’s security and that of other people.  

In our house, we had our own collective heart attack when one day my brother Gibson could not be accounted for. He had disappeared one morning and did not come back that night. The whisper was everywhere: “Gibby a-krossa”.

You can only imagine our relief, and irritation, when Gibson turned up the next day. He had gone with a friend to Odzi (some 60 kilometres away) in a neighbour’s lorry to fetch building sand. They had delayed and seeing it was late, had decided to put up for the night.

Death of innocence – when the war came knocking

The war was at first something rather remote. In 1975, I transferred to Zimunya Primary school some ten kilometres away, temporarily abandoning my beloved “D’vat”, as we called Dangamvura. But by mid-1978, I was back – running away from the war.

One night, guerillas had swarmed into Zimunya township and fired rockets at the District Administrator’s office, burning it to the ground. One rocket missed and hit our Grade 4 – 7 classroom block, destroying it. All I could think of was my yellow Eversharp ballpoint pen and art book that I had left in my desk. This was quite astonishing as I had never been able to draw.

With Zimunya Primary School reduced to ashes, it was time to return to Dangamvura, a not unhappy prospect given that there was no electricity in Zimunya Township.

Guerillas outside a Commonwealth meeting point in 1980 (Photo: PIERRE HASKI/AFP via Getty Images)

No escape from the Alcatraz of war

But the war, with the persistence of a pigeon that will not be sold, followed.

The mountains surrounding Dangamvura proved a great cover for the comrades. Around 11pm at night, you would first hear something that sounded like a loud whistle and then the menacing deliberate din of the bazooka. That would be followed by the popcorn sound of a machine gun.

The very first time we heard this choir of guns, there had been a music show going on at the Dangamvura Hall. According to another boy, Nomatter Mpingo (he could spin a yarn that one), a band called The Storm was playing a song called Zarura Musiwo Tipinde when the first rocket was fired.

Maybe that was an urban legend, but what was not fiction was the sight of scattered platform shoes outside the hall the next morning – evidence of how the revellers had chosen life over material items in the face of danger.

We were taught a new drill by our parents. Scramble under the bed (it was the beds with iron legs and way raised above the floor) and do not make a sound. But the Rhodesian soldiers seemed to have given up. They would not engage in a fight at night but would come out the next day for a show of force. Up in the sky would be a little spy plane with a square shape at the back doing some reconnaissance.

Years later, I would know this plane as the Cessna 337 which Rhodesians nicknamed The Lynx. But back then we simply called it “ka-makuhwa”. A helicopter or two might come hovering at a low level, shaking our asbestos roofs, and raising a whirlwind of dust. Stupidly, in typical boys’ fashion, we would take out broom sticks and point at the planes as if engaging in combat.

When liberation fighters attacked, Rhodesian forces retaliated on civilians (Photo: Paul Harris/Getty Images)

Each to their cup of propaganda

In those years, you would catch adults whispering as they stood at the fence, furtively turn their heads. The walls had ears – no one wanted to fall on the wrong side. In our house, we often crawled under the bed with the small wireless crackling and listen to Radio Zimbabwe broadcast from Mozambique. Radio was so alive and your goosebumps real as that Gary Tichatonga voice threatened to step out and walk into the room.

Rather precociously, in Grade 3 I had started reading my father’s daily copy of the Rhodesia Herald. I asked about “assault”, injuries” and “terrorists”. Two years later, I would help myself to the free newspaper called The African Times which was available on a counter outside the Superintendent’s office.

Beside the radio, we relied on information from relatives in the rural areas of the country. We knew clearly who the enemy was…The matter was, excuse the pun, black and white.

The boys are back in town…

With the declaration of the ceasefire in 1979, our joy was unbridled. The Rhodesians were on the backfoot taking the gap down south in what they termed the “chicken run”. An attempt to put in a puppet black prime minister in the name of Bishop Abel Muzorewa had failed dismally. That much we knew, and we called Muzorewa Gunguwo (Crow) for his clergy collar and sang songs about his betrayal and physical stature.

Jabu Kundhlande came visiting one day with another comrade who was driving a massive light-grey Scania with a long nose. They had moved from their operational area of “Gazaland” to Foxtrot Assembly Point (Dzapasi). The adults thronged Mai Jabu’s house, moved out the sofas, cried, ululated, and sang:

ZANU yati kwete

ZANU yati kwete

Tamirira kutonga nyika

Zimbabwe yababa

Samora and Nyerere were invoked in another song and thanked for their support. The hand clapping was frantic coupled with the dancing and mujibha kicks: Mujibha!

One of our neighbours was an ardent supporter of Bishop Abel Muzorewa and this homecoming jubilation could not have sat well with them.

The young men who had returned had gone away as boys. Now they were mature and quieter. They smoked a lot and had a contemplative air about them. They never spoke about the war. The closest was when Jabu told us about the death of Josef Tito in May 1980 and how he was loved by his people. He said even the birds had cried at the death of this leader. We looked up, imagining how amazing this Tito must have been.

After the elections and independence celebrations, the young men followed different careers. Jabu Kundhlande got into nursing, Todd Musere became a teacher and Charles Mazikana joined security staff at the Harare International Airport.

Surviving the war and illusions of peace

Not all stories of the young men who returned had a happy ending. Kenny crossed, fought, and survived. On his return he went to the University of Zimbabwe and studied for a Bachelor of Arts in History. Upon graduation, he taught at Mutambara High School in Chimanimani.

Like many young men, Kenny drank and smoked heavily. But in 1985, there were signs that something was coming apart.

He would dance frantically at disco shows and people would encircle him, clapping. Soon he stopped teaching completely. His appearance began to change to being unkempt, his clothes dirty and unwashed. We watched him slowly disintegrate as he wandered the streets of Dangamvura wearing a blank stare. Finally, he moved into a bush in the T Section reserved for car mechanics and dug himself a bunker of sorts which became his home.

I do not recall any attempts by authorities to assist him. Kenny died in the bush where the guns had long been silenced.