Unsung: Ellen Namhila

By By Michael Tambo
August 2011
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Contrary to the popular belief that heroes are those buried at the national shrines, there are people who are living and equally qualify to carry the tag because of the roles they played in the same struggle and cause.

Ellen Ndeshi Namhila is one typical example and was among a group of women in Namibia who was driven by the desire to fight for the liberation of the country from apartheid rule at the tender age of 13.

She narrated how one Sunday morning in April 1976, she decided to leave her uncle’s home to go to Angola and join thousand of other people who had gone to fight for the liberation of the country.

According to Namhila, the journey to Angola was long, tiring and full of anxiety and frustrating in some episodes. She said the fighting spirit was driven by hunger and the quest for freedom, for an independent Namibia where people would not be discriminated by their race or colour. She wanted to be part of women who would bring meaningful changes and contribute to the economic prosperity of her motherland.

At the age of 12, Namhila had been shot by police on her hand and on the leg for walking around after 6pm. She had seen her teachers being harassed in front of school children by the South African Police and had witnessed her uncle being beaten half to death. It was memories of these atrocities inflicted on innocent people at her village that haunted her till the day she took the bold step to go and join the freedom fighters in Angola.

Whilst in Angola, Namhila was recruited for training as a nurse, due to the urgent need for nurses as well as Angolans who sought medical treatment. Eight months after her recruitment, she was sent to Lubango for further training and six months later, she was deployed to the war zone. Namhila was fourteen when she was put in charge of a clinic at Efitu camp where she stayed for nearly a year.

As a nurse in charge, her duties included making sure there were enough medical supplies in the camp. “This meant that I had to travel regularly to the headquarters at Ohaipeto or Kassinga to fetch medicines for our camp. Kassinga was attacked on 4 May 1978 while I was there to fetch medicines,” says Namhila.

Ellen was born in November 1963 in the Omukunda (ward) of Etope of Ondonga district and grew up at Eisembidi and Enghadja, near the village of Ondobe in the present-day Ohangwena district. At the age of five, she was sent to live with her uncle who had just got married as part of the Oshiwambo culture where it is normal to lend a child to a newly married couple or grandparents so that this child can keep them company and help with chores.

Namhila also chronicles the tragic experience as a survivor of the Kassinga massacre, in her biography, in her book, Tears of Courage, “Hell just broke loose. There was total confusion; people were running in all directions. Some were screaming in terror for help while others shouted orders. Some people were running with blood streaming from their bodies, others were carrying the injured. Most people at the rally never made it to safety. They were coldly murdered there.

“The next morning I went back into Kassinga. I was horrified. What had been a camp bustling with life just hours before was now just a memory. The camp had been burnt to the ground; trees, the clinic, the office and the food store burned down. There were corpses everywhere, some burned, and others with gaping wounds. Even my training as a nurse had not prepared me for what I saw. For several weeks I could not eat, I had lost my appetite. We spent a week living on donated biscuits and water from Cuban and Angolan soldiers delivered by helicopters. These helicopters also ferried casualties to hospitals in Luanda and evacuated the survivors.”

Twenty one years after independence; Namhila is happily married and a mother of three. She is currently a Librarian at the University of Namibia where she has held positions of Researcher/Librarian at the Social Sciences Division of Unam, from 1993-1995, as Deputy Director: Research, Information and Library Services at the Parliament Namibia, (1995-1999), while her stint with Ministry of Education spanning from 1999-2007 was Director of Namibia Library and Archives Service. Namhila has also authored The Price of Freedom, which was published in Windhoek, in 1997: her biography, Kahumba Kandola Man and Myth: the Biography of a Barefoot Soldier published in Baseline 2005. Namhila says with triumph that 99% of what she went to war for has been met.

“We now have the freedom to speak. I have freedom to write my books and have them published without anyone censoring me. I have the right even to occupy an office I mean right now I am a librarian at the University of Namibia. During apartheid, forget it; a woman could not occupy such an important office. We now have peace and people in the rural areas were living under threat from the defence forces of South Africa.”

But Ellen says she is not happy with the conditions under which some of the women who took part in the liberation struggle are living, especially those in the rural areas because they do not have enough money to look after their families.

“I am not happy because some of the women who took part in the liberation struggle came out too old to get back to formal work. There was no criterion and a reward for people who took part in the liberation struggle. When we were fighting for independence we did not make a clause in the Swapo constitution that after independence, those who fought to liberate this country should be rewarded. Some of them did not get what they fought for and they continue to live in poverty that they lived during the liberation struggle.”

She also claims that some people who were rewarded during Apartheid are the very same ones who are also rewarded post independence. “Some people who suffered during Apartheid are still suffering but those who were rewarded by the Boers because they were working on their side, when independence came, they are still the ones who are enjoying the fruits of independence,” she adds.

“These are simple ladies and all they need is some basic allowance to make ends meet so that when there is drought they can buy mealie-meal and can also hire a tractor to plough their mahangu. They do not want to be fed or to be given any special treatment. They are too old to engage into projects and some of them did not manage go to school and cannot write project proposals and all this English,” Namhila says with passion.

She also recalls a personal visit that she paid to one of the heroines from the liberation struggle and how happy she was to be recognised for her contribution in the liberation struggle because she thought Namhila’s visit was a Government assignment. Namhila was gathering information for her book, Tears of Courage.

“One of the ladies when I visited her was very happy, so happy that finally, the government had recognized her. She thought that my mere visit that I paid to her village was recognition from the above and that is the recognition she has always waited for many years and if she is to die today, she can die a happy woman. I think it is even enough to say the words ‘Thank You’ for those people to feel that they are appreciated for what they did.”

Namhila schooled in Angola, Zambia, Gambia and finally Finland where she obtained a M.Sc. in Library and Information Science at the University of Tampere. She believes that, “History only repeats itself because we hide the truth. It must not repeat itself.”

“I do not have spare time. If I have spare time, I am writing or I am transcribing or I am going to the gym to spend part of my leisure life. In fact that is my new life now. I have two hours in my life for exercising daily.

If I am travelling even on a flight I knit. If I am tired, I read. I just cannot seat and do nothing. This was because when I was a child I had no time to seat because there were many things to do: we collected firewood, fetch water and cooked mahangu which we pounded with our hands. I shedder to think what will happen to me in my old age,” concludes Namhila. PF