By Elliott Siamonga
ZIMBABWE celebrates its 38th Independence Anniversary from British colonisation.
The independence was achieved after a protracted liberation war.
This is the day our nation sings; this is the day we are reminded of who we are, where we came from.
We remember those who perished for the independence we enjoy, which some, sadly, take for granted.
However, as we remember this important day, there are other silent fighters who contributed to the struggle; they might not talk to us but they played a big role in the attainment of our independence.
These silent fighters come in the form of wild animals, birds, insects, reptiles and our natural environment.
Certain tubers, animals, insects, birds and reptiles as well as the observance of certain taboos protected the freedom fighters.
While some people believe that taboos are useless superstitions or pagan beliefs, the freedom fighters used them as a control measure in managing the war.
Taboos and the elements of nature have not only been used in the country but in other African countries that waged liberation wars.
Societies far away from Africa, such as in North and South America, have their own taboo systems which have sustained them.
Among the wild animals and birds that played a role in assisting and guiding the fighter are monkeys, lions, leopards, eland, pangolins, cicadas (nyenze), bees, honey birds, hawks, hippos and elephants.
Snakes such as pythons, puff adders and others also helped in charting the direction of the struggle.
Freedom fighters desisted from eating certain foodstuffs as these were believed to compromise the war.
In one of my articles in this newspaper, I wrote on how the liberation war fighters practiced what is called mimicry.
By mimicking things they were not, the fighters gained an edge in the struggle to survive.
According to some former liberation war fighters, the most common mimicry was done by light-skinned fighters who were encouraged to smear mud on their faces so that they could blend well with their backgrounds; it was also common to see white-skinned Rhodesian fighters smeared in mud.
In another form of mimicry common during the struggle, guerillas would appear to be people they were not in-order to attack the enemy; they acted in effect like wolves in sheep’s skin and were involved in a prey-predator interaction that scientists call aggressive mimicry.
For example, some liberation war fighters disguised themselves as herd boys or villagers in order to attack the enemy.
In nature, the same tactic is used by a praying mantis which can disguise itself as a dead leaf.
The mantis surprises and eats unsuspecting insects that fail to detect the disguise.
The guerillas behaved similarly and improved deception by attaching small bits of vegetation on their bodies in order to fool the enemy.
Mimicry also occurred in detention centres like Gonakudzingwa, Sikombela and Wha Wha where some liberation war icons were detained.
They blended well with their environment in order to survive attacks by wild animals and other predators.
Rhodesians thought by putting them in detention areas, such as Gonakudzingwa, they would be killed by wild animals but the detainees mimicked their environment to stay alive.
In the mid-1960s, Rhodesian authorities unveiled new areas that were specially established to restrict and detain ‘subversive’ persons who, in the opinion of the Rhodesian Minister of Law and Order, ‘presented a threat to the maintenance of law and order’.
Before 1963, Rhodesian authorities only focused on detaining leaders of African political formations in existing prisons using laws such as the Unlawful Organisations Act (1959) or the Preventive Detention (Temporary Provisions) Act (1959), and there was no need to establish new detention areas.
Because of arrests of hundreds of African political activists in 1964, newer centres of detention had to be established.
In addition to detention provisions in the Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA), the 1966 Emergency Powers (Maintenance of Law and Order) Regulations generated an enormous number of Africans detained for political reasons.
The purpose of detention, according to a Rhodesia’s Minister of Law and Order, was to cut off African political activists from circulation in their communities.
Whereas, previously, Rhodesian authorities could restrict political activists from entering or exiting certain areas in Rhodesia, newer and repressively sweeping security laws gave Rhodesian authorities the power to round up as many political activists as they could and detain them in specially designated detention centres.
The sheer number of Africans detained as a result of these laws was exacerbated by the fact that political detainees’ length of stay in detention centres was usually ‘indefinite’, meaning that, upon the expiration of a ‘Detention Order’, Rhodesian authorities could simply impose another order of detention.
To accommodate the increased upsurge in African political detainees, Rhodesian authorities established three major centres of detention: Wha Wha Detention Centre in February 1964, Gonakudzingwa Camp in April 1964 and Sikombela Camp in June 1965.
The geographical location of these detention centres was striking because they were all established in remote and inaccessible parts of the country, but through mimicry, the detentions were rendered useless as the political activists still survived.
For many detainees, the wild animals were there to ‘guard’ them rather than prevent them from running away. The only police supervision at Gonakudzingwa was from a little frontier police post on the Rhodesia/Mozambique Railway Line called Villa Salazar and from another Portuguese-Mozambique police outpost called Malvernia.
In his autobiography, The Story of My Life, Joshua Nkomo writes, with humour, of incidents of detainees’ encounters with dangerous animals.
He recalls, for example, how his two friends, Joseph Msika and Stanislas Marembo, had developed a habit of taking early morning walks around the Gonakudzingwa detention area.
“One morning they met a lion,” recalled Nkomo, “a big male lion on the path but it could not attack them.”
This confirms how they had mimicked their wild environment and blended well with the animals.
Nkomo later remarked that: “The animals (that lived around Gonakudzingwa) were dangerous, but not hostile by intent…”
Many detainees at Gonakudzingwa also opted to construct their own accommodation to blend well with their environment.