Political detainees and the liberation struggle: Part Three …a look at Sikombela and Wha Wha detention centres

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LAST week I visited Sikombela and Wha Wha to get a first hand glimpse of how our nationalists and fallen national heroes coped in such harsh environments and terrains. Sikombela Restriction Camp was situated in a thickly wooded country in Gokwe District, some five kilometres to the northwest of the once Rhodesian town of Que Que now Kwekwe. Here too, rainfall was low and temperatures very high for human habitation. The nearest road about 1, 5 kilometres away from the camp, is the road from Kwekwe to the Gokwe District office. Most visitors get lost. Those who come by bus are dropped off a further 1, 7 kilometres away. When they arrive, some have had to spend the night in the bush. Others have given up before getting here. It is hot; the vegetation is dominated by that sign of dryness, the Mopani tree. The eastern side teams with zebra; and other wild animals. Reports of elephants visiting occasionally have been said. The nearest homestead is about two kilometers away and outside the detention area. The National Museum and Monument of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) declared the camp a national monument. In the near future, plans are underway to come up with a management plan of the site like any other heritage sites. The Sikombela Restriction Camp falls under the liberation heritage site. It was nominated on the basis of its historical values. However, it took over three decades to recognise the significance of the camp, as the focus was on bigger sites in the period soon after independence. In its nomination dossier, the NMMZ states that Sikombela cannot be taken for granted as it is a place with very strong and glowing memories of how the hard-won independence was gained through the sacrifices of the country’s nationalists. Now what remains at Sikombela Restriction Camp consists of six distinct rectangle barrack floors of concrete measuring approximately four by eight metres in size each. The barrack floors are in two rows which are about 38 metres apart in each row and the floors are 15 metres apart.
Sikombela Restriction Camp dates back to the Second Chimurenga when the struggle for independence and the call for a black government intensified in colonial Zimbabwe. Like Gonakudzingwa, at Sikombela there was initially minimal surveillance of detainees. Informants recall that prior to November 1965, Rhodesian police only visited the detention camp once or twice a week to deliver food rations and perform roll-calls. There was less need for constant supervision because, like Gonakudzingwa, no detainee would dare to escape via the jungle with dangerous animals. Mordikai Hamutyinei, one of the first Sikombela detainees recalled in his vernacular Shona autobiography, Zvakange Zvakaoma muZimbabwe (Gwelo, Zimbabwe: Mambo Press, 1984), that upon arriving at Sikombela, “I was surprised by the extreme heat at this place. “We were just dumped there, and later we realised that we were in an unforgiving rimuka (jungle) with no signs of human habitation. “We noticed very big trees that appeared to have been uprooted and broken by elephants. “There were just three barracks.” On the day that Hamutyinei and other detainees were left at Sikombela, they were stunned to notice that Rhodesian authorities had abandoned them in a jungle in which everyone was easily disoriented. The additional detention centre, Wha Wha, was the least remote, since it was close to the main (Salisbury-Gwelo) road and railway, and was near the Rhodesian town of Gwelo. Nevertheless, like Gonakudzingwa and Sikombela, Wha Wha was also in the bush. Because it too was an ad hoc detention camp that was established in an area that was formerly a rehabilitation camp for ‘vagrants’, vast expanses of bushy areas had to be cleared in order to accommodate the hundreds of detainees who were sent there, starting in February 1964. The late Edgar Tekere, who spent time at Wha Wha as a detainee recalled that, “At Wha Wha, the detention camps were unlike conventional prisons: they had no walls, no bars, but were located right in the bush. “We knew that anyone who tried to walk away would not survive the journey. “We named the place ‘Snake Park’ because of the number of snakes infesting the camp.” So for purposes of isolative detention, Wha Wha too was remote enough for Rhodesian authorities to dump African political offenders. In terms of the built environment at all three detention camps, the Rhodesian government had constructed makeshift barracks and huts with minimal amenities for survival. At Wha Wha, for example, there were two types of accommodation: barracks that measured 15 metres by three meters and varying other sizes for the accommodation of sixteen people, and huts, which accommodated two to three people. Both the barracks and huts were made of galvanised iron sheets, which is the worst building material for human habitation because that material traps heat (in summer and during the day) and cold (in winter and at night) inside the living rooms. Detainees at Wha Wha described these barracks and huts as, “ovens in the day and refrigerators at night.” Archival records noted that, Mathew Mukarati, a detainee at Wha Wha recalled that, “During very hot summers, it was better to sleep outside than in those ‘ovens’ as they called them. “We were literally cooked alive in the tin barracks. “The choice, therefore, was to either be ‘cooked’ inside the tin barracks or to sleep outside while mosquitoes fed on you. “Many chose to sleep outside. “During winter and some nights it was by God’s grace that we did not freeze to death.” At Wha Wha, detainees complained that over time, in addition to the bad accommodation, barracks and huts became overcrowded as more political offenders were detained. Michael Mawema, who arrived at Wha Wha in April 1965, said that that, “Wha Wha was a very poorly organised place in terms of facilities for detainees. “There were three corrugated iron blocks and about half a dozen rondavels (huts) made out of corrugated iron with dust floors, barely enough to accommodate us.” Barracks that were supposed to house 16 people ended up accommodating up to 25 people. In order to solve the accommodation woes at Wha Wha, detainees actually built their own pole and dagga/clay huts which had the dual advantage of being insulated against heat and cold, and of providing private quarters for those who did not favor sleeping in barracks. Inside the sleeping barracks for detainees, blankets were in short supply at most detention centres. The official bedding allowance for detainees was four blankets per person at Wha Wha and Sikombela, and three at Gonakudzingwa. These official allowances were barely adhered to, particularly during those years when the detention centres held more detainees that they were originally intended to hold. With limited provisions for blankets and the absence of beds, detainees had to sleep on hard concrete or dusty floors in poorly constructed barracks.A Wha Wha detainee wrote in archived records about his sleeping conditions in 1965: “the old and dirty blankets, torn in most cases and fur-like (sleeping) mat we use as the bed are far from being a normal bed. “The bedding is so hard that our bodies are painful. “Most of us are not accustomed to such type of bedding. “The floors are of brick covered by a layer of dusting smelting so that in addition to poor blankets, lack of sheets, etc. we breathe dust right through. “The floors are not smooth and that makes it more painful to sleep on such a floor.” Detainees in all three detention centres also faced daily struggles to feed themselves. Since the Rhodesian government’s strict personnel were spread thin across the colony’s many prisons, detainees had to organise themselves to cook their own food. All the authorities did was to deliver food to the three detention centres in bulk, either once every week or every few days.

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