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Tears of Courage: Five Mothers, Five Stories, One Victory: Ellen Namhila saves women's stories of the liberation struggle in a new book.

Tears of Courage: Five Mothers, Five Stories, One Victory was published by the Archives of Anti-Colonial Resistance and the Liberation Struggle in 2009. It is part of a project set up by the Namibian Government with the assistance of the German and (more recently) Finnish governments to collect, record, document and repatriate Namibian historical records to Namibia's National Archives.


Appropriately, it was on 8 March 2010, International Women's Day, that I wrote this review of an important new book, compiled and written by Namibian author Ellen Ndeshi Namhila. It tells about the contribution to the liberation struggle of five ordinary but extraordinary women, who lived with their families in northern Namibia in the mid-1960s.

The early armed struggle

In 1965, the first group of six trained members of the liberation movement SWAPO returned to Namibia. They set up a camp at Omugulugwoombashe to train more fighters, and were soon engaged in clashes with the South African police and military. They relied on the assistance of the local population to feed, cloth, assist, nurse them and inform them of the movements of the South African forces. Tears of Courage tells the stories of five women who supported them in these ways.

Most of these early freedom fighters were captured by the South African forces, tried in Pretoria in the notorious Terrorism Trial of 1967, and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment on Robben Island. Their names and stories are well known. The names of the women who provided invaluable support to them are, however, not well known. Their stories have waited forty years to be told. Tears of Courage does this, and Ellen Namhila is to be congratulated for compiling and commemorating them.

Stories carried by wounded souls

Over more than five years, Namhila uncovered many layers of memory and pain. 'Where have you been?' Meme Aili said in 2005, when Namhila went to interview her. 'The country got independence long, long ago and you are coming only now.' No one had spoken to Meme Aili about her husband's brutal death at the hands of the South African forces since the police had interrogated her in 1969.

'I felt I had a responsibility to share these stories with the general public,' says Namhila in her Introduction. 'I felt that they would contribute to national reconciliation. These stories are carried by wounded souls that still need healing. They are mirroring our society, crying out for peace and reconciliation.'

It was their traditional roles within the family that first and foremost led these women to feed and shelter the freedom fighters who were their husbands and brothers, and Namhila draws the reader into their cultural reality. 'The men I cooked for were my mother's children,' Meme Drothea testified at the 1967 Terrorism Trial in Pretoria, when she was accused of giving food to the fighters. 'They were my brothers. They arrived at my house with a lot of hunger in their bellies, so I cooked for them ... This is a cultural requirement for every well-brought up and well-mannered Owambo woman.'

But it is clear from their stories that these women understood what the men were fighting for and supported the cause of freedom and independence. Indeed, although their husbands and brothers did not share with them direct information about what they were doing or where they were going, the women showed remarkable insight into the situation.

Arrests and imprisonment

Nor did they just offer material support. They were beaten, detained and harassed by the South African police. Their children were whipped. Their homesteads were damaged or destroyed. Their stores of mahangu grain were overturned and spoiled. Two of them--Drothea Nikodemus and Justina Amwaalwa--were arrested and taken to prison in Pretoria as well. Meme Justina gave birth to her son while she was imprisoned there.

The women's voices come through strongly because their stories are told in the first person. Namhila's numerous interviews with them in Oshiwambo were transcribed, translated into English and returned to the women for their them to review, with the assistance of relatives and friends who could speak English. Namhila also conducted other interviews and did documentary research to corroborate the stories.

Tears of Courage shows us the early days of the armed liberation struggle: freedom fighters hiding bags of guns and bullets; exercising in the mahangu fields before dawn; training in the forest; South African helicopter gunships flying overhead to attack the base at Omugulugwoombashe; Swapo's subsequent attack on the border post at Oshikango; the hunt for Swapo fighters; and the exciting escape of Lungada Patrick lyambo.

The struggle is not over

Critically, though, the book shows the struggle of these five women to survive the hardships they suffered because of the political involvement of their families, and their efforts to provide for and raise their children while their husbands and brothers were in prison. They make it plain, as well, that their struggle to survive is not over. They feel that they have been forgotten and their role has not been acknowledged. 'The country is independent,' says Meme Drothea. 'We are free from harassment by the apartheid police, but poverty is our worst nightmare.' As Advocate Gawanas points out in the book: 'As long as the voices [of these women] remain unheard and their pain is still felt, the freedom that we all fought for and won remains an illusion.'

Ellen Namhila, the author

Writing the book was a painful reminder for Ellen Namhila of her own story. She herself left Namibia in 1976 when she was twelve years old, walking across the Angolan border into exile, to escape the South African military presence in villages and schools. Her first husband died during the liberation struggle. Namhila's autobiography The Price of Freedom, was published in 1997 by New Namibia Books.

Namhila is a librarian by training, now the Librarian at the University of Namibia, and has a deep-rooted interest in documenting and recording societal knowledge. She says in the Introduction that she cannot run away from her passion for recording the past because she cannot run away from her own 'shadow'. 'The struggle was the process by which many of us forged our identity. If the history of the struggle gets lost, we will have nothing to help us understand who we really are.'
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Author:Katjavivi, Jane
Publication:Sister Namibia
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2010
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