Uncovering Josina Machel from obscurity Pt 1

Josina Mutemba Machel was a revolutionary Mozambican fighter for FRELIMO who like thousands of women fought for independence for her country until she died at the tender age of 25. 7th April marks the day she died – a day celebrated as National Women’s Day in Mozambique. It occasions a celebration of her exemplary short life

HIS story (otherwise commonly known as history), continues to tell narratives and accounts of the past from a male perspective. Dismissive accounts may mention African female warriors, priestesses, and queens as footnotes or in passing and then move on to focus on the “great men of history,” for ingrained in many is the notion that men make history, and our notion of leaders is unconsciously and unquestioningly male. As we continue to live in a patriarchcal world, the values, attitudes and beliefs that enshrine male thinking, priorities and approaches have become internalised by all – women included. Whilst African women are politically represented in large numbers in a few African parliaments such as in South Africa, Rwanda, Mozambique and Uganda, out of 55 African states, the dismal reality is that there only three female heads of states (in Liberia, Malawi and the Central African Republic). Similarly fields such as architecture, engineering, the sciences, philosophy, political science and history remain male dominated, particularly on the African continent.

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The role of African women in the myriad nationalist movements, whether the Rassemblement Democratique African (RDA) of the former Francophone countries, or the women’s wings of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) of Ghana or the Kenya African National Union (KANU) of Kenya – these histories and the women involved in these women’s wings, that were often appendages of the nationalist parties, need to be popularly known. The names of women in these movements remain in the background, or wholly unknown, whilst the male names of Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Jomo Kenyatta, Patrice Lumumba and many others have become household names. It still remains the case that apart from Yaa Asantewaa, the great warrior woman of Ghana, or Queen Nzinga of Angola or Nehanda of Zimbabwe, the names of African women who made history are relatively unknown or do not come readily to mind as those of male heroes. Yet, they are there. Among them is the life and contribution of Josina Abiathar Muthemba who tragically died on 7 April 1971 at the very young age of 25. This year marks 79 years since her birth on 10 August 1945.

I stumbled across Josina Abiathar Muthemba whilst surfing the net some three years ago. It made me reflect on why I had not heard about her when I was doing my first degree in African Studies back in the early 1980s, nor when I became active in the London based Black Action for the Liberation of Southern Africa (BALSA). The question: Why isn’t she known outside of Mozambique? became a quest to make her known to the rest of Africa and global humanity.

Her inspirational life is perhaps representative of the thousands of female combatants who joined not only the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) after it was formed in June 1962, but also the Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA) of Angola , the Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) of Guinea Bissau, or the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African Political Union (ZAPU) who should not become forgotten in the annals of Pan-African history. Their names, voices, memories, experiences and deeds have almost been erased and silenced out of patriarchal history. It is only in the last 30 years or so, that is, since the 1980s, academic studies have begun to unearth the lives of African women. However, such studies often remain within ivory towers, for the challenge is to disseminate knowledge and awareness of our history to the greater majority of African people across the African continent and in the Diaspora.

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Josina Abiathar Muthemba was born in Vilanculos, Inhambane, in the southern part of the country, into a family committed to anti-colonial activism. Her grandfather was a Presbyterian lay preacher who like several African clergy across the continent was virulently opposed to colonial rule; her father was a nurse in Gaza province. Unlike the majority of young Mozambican girls she was privileged in being able to go to primary school for ‘assimilados’ at the age of 7 in Mociboa da Praia, a port town in northern Mozambique. Thereafter she moved to the capital, Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) to live with her grandmother in order to pursue her education. Her family was considered part of the ‘assimilados’ (Portuguese for assimilated) who were granted the honorary status of whiteness by the colonial Portuguese authorities as opposed to being ‘indigena’ or ‘native.’ ‘Assimilados’ could include Asians and individuals of dual heritage i.e. one parent being European and the other being African. Eduardo Mondlane describes in his book ‘The Struggle for Mozambique’ the abysmal system of education in Mozambique, pointing out that ‘although nearly 98 per cent of the population of Mozambique is composed of black Africans, only a small proportion of children attending primary school are African, while the number of Africans in secondary school is almost negligible.’  Josina was one of the very few African girls who was fortunate to receive technical secondary education. She remarks:

‘My parents made a great many sacrifices to send me to school. I went to commercial school for five years. My parents had to save on food and clothes. At the primary school there were only about twenty of us Africans to about a hundred Portuguese. At the commercial school there were about fifty Africans to several hundred Portuguese.’

An astute student, Josina was fully aware of the objectives of colonialist education. She observed:

‘The colonialists wanted to deceive us with their teaching; they taught us only the history of Portugal, the geography of Portugal; they wanted to form in us a passive mentality, to make us resigned to their domination. We couldn’t react openly, but we were aware of their lie; we knew that what they said was false; that we were Mozambicans and we could never be Portuguese.’

At the age of 13 whilst at school she became active in the organisation Núcleo dos Estudantes Africanos Secundários de Mocambique (NESAM) that Eduardo Mondlane (later to become the first President of FRELIMO) had helped establish in 1949. This organisation encouraged, under cover, a positive sense of cultural identity and political education among Mozambican students. It was small in membership and closely monitored by the Portuguese police. As Mondlane remarks, it was crucial in disseminating nationalist sentiments, asserting a national culture, and ‘provided the only opportunity to study and discuss Mozambique in its own right and not as an appendage of Portugal’s.’

At the age of 18, the politicised Josina fled the country with other students in order to join FRELIMO in Tanzania. Among her comrades were the future President of Mozambique, Armando Guebuza, and seven others (both young men and women). They failed in their endeavours for after a journey of 800 miles they were arrested at Victoria Falls in Northern Rhodesia and returned to the brutal hands of the Portuguese authorities in Lourenco Marques. A six month stint in prison in which she was not sentenced or condemned was ended by the campaign for her release by FRELIMO that led to her release shortly before her 19th birthday. She was now under surveillance by the Portuguese police.

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Wholly undeterred, the courageous Josina made another attempt to flee with fellow students. They endured a period of time in refugee camps in Swaziland and Zambia; dodged the Portuguese security police and betrayal by informants. In Botswana the British colonial authorities sought to deport them but again the intervention of the adept FRELIMO leader, Eduardo Mondlane and campaigning by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and UN ensured the group of 18 students were allowed to enter Tanzania and then Zambia and finally Dar es Salaam. This tortuous journey of 2000 miles, that is from Mozambique to Tanzania – via several neighboring countries - is a testament to the will of Josina and her commitment to seeking an end to Portuguese domination of her country.

To be cont ....

Written by Dr Ama Biney

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