From Zimbabwe, One Voice of 'Freedom'

Freedom Nyamubaya

hide captionFreedom Nyamubaya is a poet, farmer, activist and former freedom fighter.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR

Little is heard from political figures in Zimbabwe, beyond President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. But activist and poet Freedom Nyamubaya — a former freedom fighter — recently made her thoughts known.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Coming up, we hear the poetry of a late great of American literature. First, though, a story about a poet NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton met on a recent reporting tour in Zimbabwe. Her name is Freedom Nyamubaya. She's also a farmer, an activist and a former guerilla fighter. Her life has given her much cause for disillusionment. Still, like other Zimbabweans, she persists in pursuing her political dreams. Here's Ofeibea's profile of a poet named Freedom.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: "On the Road Again" is the title of Freedom Nyamubaya's first published book of poems. Much of it was written during the war of liberation in the 1970s against the white regime in what was Rhodesia. That led to the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980. Nyamubaya was a female commander at the war front, but she was also an ordinary Zimbabwean wondering what her new country would be.

Ms. FREEDOM NYAMUBAYA (Poet, Zimbabwe): When we came home, people thought everything ends by just getting independence. I didn't think so. I thought we even had the harder task to go through: to deal with our own selves, because it was easier when we were fighting the Rhodesians because they were Rhodesians, and most of them were white soldiers. So you could see by color. That is murungu, whites(ph).

QUIST-ARCTON: Very soon in the new Zimbabwe, says Nyamubaya, you had to look inwards at yourself and at those around you.

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: Now we're near - with your kith and kin, it may be your own uncle who is doing the wrong thing. And casually, you don't want to tell them, or you are also benefiting from the wrong that he's doing. It's become so complicated. So when I said "On the Road Again," I was talking about myself, and I was also talking about the country in general. And it goes like this:

(Reading) Nine months in the womb, innocent and comfortable. Never again will I rest. Always on the go to nowhere, since I left my mother's womb. I creep, I walk, many times I run, but most of the time I get pushed around. A student in the morning, a teacher in mid-morning, a builder at noon, a slave in the afternoon, a dog at dinner, combat in the rest of my life. Schools have holidays, workers have days off, slaves one hour to eat and rest, but struggles go on and on. Still on the road, an endless journey.

QUIST-ARCTON: With her long, neat, dreadlock hairstyle and a steady gaze, Freedom Nyamubaya talks passionately about how one chapter of her life ended after her liberation struggle, opening up another phase. She set up an organization for rural and urban development, providing technical skills and equipment to farmers.

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: So for me, that was the second stage of the struggle. We had put the guns down. I didn't think that by putting the gun down, everything is done, which is what many people did, and there's a lot of suffering because of that.

QUIST-ARCTON: Freedom Nyamubaya says she feels that what happened during the liberation war partly accounts for some of Zimbabwe's current problems. She had her own traumatic experience.

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: I trained in Mozambique as a guerilla fighter. Actually, I was a female field operational commander at one time until independence.

QUIST-ARCTON: That was later. First came this.

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: I was 15, and I was raped at 15. That was the first time combat(ph) (unintelligible), and that is actually where I got military training. I was lucky I didn't get pregnant, but I was also raped. That was my first experience with a man, at 15 years.

QUIST-ARCTON: Freedom Nyamubaya says in the bush, women fighters were at the mercy of even their military superiors.

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: Some commanders would actually use food to seduce women. They would say, oh, I've got this little bread, and they'd use that to try to sleep with them. And you can see the woman doesn't want, but because this man has access to more food, then they would just sleep with him. So that would be seduction, in a way.

QUIST-ARCTON: Seduction or exploitation?

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: Well, you can call it both, and maybe the command, that's why you're also scared.

QUIST-ARCTON: You could try resisting, said Nyamubaya, but then again you could end up in the lock house.

QUIST-ARCTON: Like me. I went to prison because I refused to sleep with him. And after being raped, I went to prison, and I went to prison six times for refusing to sleep with some chief commander.

QUIST-ARCTON: Or you could be branded a suspect spy, working for the white Rhodesian regime back home, the enemy. And many of the women, like Freedom Nyamubaya, were naive and young.

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: Yeah, you could say no, but you could be like when I arrived. You are still a recruit. And further(ph), I was just 15 years old. I was coming from school.

QUIST-ARCTON: When you talk about these liberation war experiences, how do people feel?

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: They just said, oh, you should forgive and forget. We are now in a new Zimbabwe, and this one and that - and this was the beginning of tolerating things that are inhuman and abusing rights.

QUIST-ARCTON: She said many Zimbabweans confused liberation with freedom, but they're not the same.

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: Independence is being independent from other countries controlling what's happening in your country, but freedom, you're getting to the rights of individuals and also the right to manage the country properly.

QUIST-ARCTON: Even during the struggle for independence, Freedom Nyamubaya said she had an inkling that Zimbabwe was heading for the current political and economic meltdown under President Robert Mugabe. Himself a veteran of the liberation war, he's been in charge for the 27 years since independence from Britain. His critics accuse Mugabe of overseeing the economic collapse of Zimbabwe, coupled with political repression against dissenters.

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: I already predicted what would happen maybe not to this extent, that things would actually go down, slide down instead of going up. But I knew about the people we are dealing with, because they are the same people who would see us being beaten and see us being raped and do nothing about it. So for me, freedom didn't come, and up to now it hasn't come.

QUIST-ARCTON: But Freedom Nyamubaya is not giving up. She wants to set up her own political party and contribute to rebuilding Zimbabwe.

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: This country has a lot of potential, so we are blessed because Zimbabwe is full of natural resources that if properly managed, we are a very strong country and a country to be proud of. We have everything that we need in here. So I'm hopeful. It (Unintelligible) will change, and that's why I'm saying this is the beginning of a new dawn.

(Singing) (Shona spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: Singing in her language, Shona, Freedom Nyamubaya calls on her fellow former freedom fighters to join her in the new struggle.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Harare.

Ms. NYAMUBAYA: (Singing) (Shona spoken).

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