Mukwahepo: Woman, Soldier, Mother

Mukwahepo: Woman, Soldier, Mother is an important contribution to Namibian history. It outlines the role of ordinary women in birthing Namibia as we know it today. I applaud Namhila for excavating the voices of those who were there, and yet are too modest to recognise their personal stories as history. Part of the issue is that they were and still are driven by the desire to serve others rather than themselves. Mukwahepo is one of those heroines who should have been hoisted high, not just in Namibia, but in the African continent.

As much as the book is about the story of Mukwahepo a woman, a soldier and a mother; it is also the story of the liberation struggle of Namibia.

The book chronicles a woman’s journey from her rural village to join SWAPO in Tanzania, and her life back in Namibia after independence. After losing her father as a baby, her family is dispossessed of their land, as such she grows up in hardship and never gets an opportunity to go to school. At just 16 she is married off to an older polygamous man who she subsequently leaves. She is later blinded into joining her new fiancé into exile. In the SAWPO camps she struggles as the first and only woman. There are no supplies for women and she suffers from “shyness exposing my monthly female condition…and until I overcame this, I had problems expressing myself”. Although she was trained like her male compatriots, she was deployed on “woman missions” which included looking after laundry, children, the elderly, nutrition, hygiene, etc. She states that “I assumed the role of Nampaafita (giver to cattle herders). I also became a cook, which I was happy to do because in my culture I had been raised to fulfil this role…I was a mother to every motherless person.”

But for me, it is precisely this motherly role that devalued Mukwahepo’s stature amongst her peers and in SWAPO and its history. Whilst the role was important and necessary, because it was and is essentially domestic work, it was devalued. She became the enabler and springboard for others to seize education opportunities and frontline deployment. As such, post-independence she was only “a mother” for the motherless. Even there she laments: “I learnt the hard way that the children I had once considered my own were out of my life for good, and that the relationship I had built up with them belonged to the past”. Secondly, having spent her time mothering others, she came back to Namibia still illiterate, therefore she could not be deployed. So, she became literally destitute. As she puts it “I was a recognised national hero with an empty stomach”.

In the book, Namhila reminds us of where the freedom we now enjoy comes from. She gives a chilling account of Mukwahepo’s journey on foot from Namibia (South West Africa) to Angola to DRC (Congo) to Zimbabwe (Northern Rhodesia) to Tanzania (Nyasalanad). This was a journey pursued through war zones, hostile territories, hunger, disease, where sleep became a survival strategy to escape hunger and boredom. This makes one think when observing how some of the gains of freedom are being wasted.

This book also drives home a theme that has not been adequately addressed, that of children born and raised in exile. These are the children of mobile parents that Mukwahepo mothered. The book also lays bare the trauma that these children harboured (and probably still harbor) as a result of living in constant uncertainty, displacement, abuse and fear. Most of these children also had (and still have) identity problems, and struggles with integration back into the Namibian society that they were never brought up in.

In Mukwahepo: Woman, Soldier, Mother, Namhila succeeds in bringing to the fore the intersection of gender and class as an important determinant of one’s place in post-struggle societies. As she sank deeper and deeper into poverty, Mukwahepo the heroine “waited and waited but nothing happened. I realised that my expectations of independence had been based on false hopes”. Her story raised my curiosity about the many women whose stories deserve a special place in our history books. Perhaps these are the stories that might just prick our national conscience as we slowly forget what it took for us to be here. Writing about British women, Rachel Reeves in her book, Women of Westminster, calls for an “alternative history…through the stories of political women” She argues that “these pioneering women should be part of our history syllabus and national story. We should know their stories…”.

I recommend the book to all young people on the African continent.