Death was this close: Amb. Monica Nashandi

If the enemy had his way, Namibia would not have been independent today.

On the other hand, had it not been for the fierce dare-devil courage, determination and perseverance of men and women who fought bravely both on the warfront and on the negotiating table to counter, break and uproot the deeply entrenched resistance, nothing would have come out right.

In that spirit, Ambassador Monica Nashandi, the divisional Manager for Strategy, Corporate Communication and Electrification at the power utility company, NamPower, takes us down memory lane, on how she participated in the liberation struggle.

It is only through powers beyond this universe that she and others survived the wrath of the enemy with death starring them on their faces, day by day.

The politically charged atmosphere for the call for independence permeated every facet of the society at that time. Ambassador Nashandi found herself and others leaving Oshigambo High School in pursuit of the liberation struggle despite the heavily garrisoned school, which was situated just a few meters from the South African military base, as the South African soldiers were on the outlook for any form of resistance.

Ambassador Nashandi, one day, took a lift with others headed for Outapi. They then spent the night at the then Reverend and now Bishop Josephat Shankala’s homestead. The Bishop held a sermon, prayed and blessed them before they crossed over into Angola the next day.

As soon as they left the homestead, they were met by the combatants who directed them onto a long and tedious journey through the jungle until they got to what was known as the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN)’s rear base where they met more combatants.

They spent one or two days at the rear base until they were delivered at Vietnam Camp, which was the transit point for people arriving from Namibia. Some were sent to Cassinga, some were sent to school while others were sent for military training.

While waiting for their turn to be allocated their tasks, Nashandi and some of her comrades were given the responsibility to do clerical work in the camp as their eloquence in English worked to their advantage. As fate would have it, Vietnam was attacked the afternoon of the Cassinga massacre.

“I was seated with my best friend, Olivia Shigwedha, having lunch under a tree when I suddenly heard a bang. Confused, I ran towards the trenches as had been instructed by our leaders. Unfortunately, when I got there, the trenches were all full,” she recalls.

While all this was happening, helicopters descended and sprayed bullets on everyone who was in the trenches and later, the infantry bayoneted those who were still alive.

“That brave lady, Hilma Tweya (the first female commissioner in the Namibian Police), survived by pretending she was dead, otherwise, she could have been killed,” she relates.

With her entire body soaked in fresh blood, Nashandi ran to the nearest tree. Before getting there, a shell was dropped only to find herself in a hot ditch. She continued running and disappeared into the nearest mahangu fields surrounding the homesteads near the camp.

Tired and drugged by the teargas, she passed out. When she woke up, she found herself surrounded by an armoured carrier with about six tall white soldiers in it. She stood up fast and started running away in panic. The soldiers obviously opened fire on her and as luck would have it, she escaped most of the bullets as she kept falling from the pumpkin stems that tripped her.

Mystified, she ran to a nearest homestead and hid under a bed - she had been told by her political commissar, Philemon Malima, that a liberation fighter should not allow themselves to be captured alive for fear of torture and disclosure of vital information. At that time, the white soldiers began to pass by the house in which she was hiding. She positioned a spear so close to her throat that should they have entered the room, she would have slit her throat and killed herself (the scar left by the spear is still visible to this day).

“This scar reminds me of a lot of things. It is all I have left in memory of death and freedom. I know the definition of death and the definition of freedom,” she says.

She eventually got out of the house and determined not to be caught, she continued running. She came across a young man whose stomach had been split into two. He was still alive and screaming for help. She could not do anything to help him so she ran further.

Although she is hydrophobic, she had no choice but to jump into the water. It was only then that she realised she had been shot on the thigh.

She managed to cross over and met other comrades. She relates that this was a terrible sight, seeing people badly injured and groaning in pain. It was then that commanders started to assess and take care of the situation. They had a responsibility to do so.

When calmness returned to the camp, it was a sorry sight for someone who was yet to receive military training and more so, not accustomed to the sight of blood and dead human bodies.

“What made me strong were the words of Philemon Malima who had constantly told us that even if we had not received military training, we were already soldiers. I put myself together and got more determined to fight on,” she sighs.

After this attack, the enemy went back to Oshigambo and read out all the names of people whom (they thought) had died and Ambassador Nashandi was counted among the dead.

Her family even undertook the rituals to mourn her. It was only later that they learnt through Bishop Cleopas Dumeni - a close friend of her dad’s who had once visited Luanda - that she was alive.

The whole process of regrouping after the massacre took close to a month. After this, they were taken to a town called Xangongo by FAPLA; the Angolan army. At Xangongo, people began coming from all directions; Vietam and Cassinga. The place was so cold and hunger took it to an extent that people were forced to feed on rotten groundnuts. This was due to the attack, which had literary paralysed all logistical systems.

From there, they were transported to Lubango, which had then become a new Swapo refugee camp in which she and others stayed for a while. This is when Nashandi was selected for military training with two other young women; Commissioner Hilma Tweya and Martha Kamati who tragically died in a car accident in the early 90s. A prominent figure who also went through this training was Joel Kaapanda - the current Minister of Information and Technology.

“It was a very tough training but I saw it through,” says Nashandi.

After the training, she was deployed to the North Eastern Front, which was under the commandership of Matias Ndakolo (Mbulunganga) whom she describes as one of her liberation heroes. This is where she met brave commanders of the armed struggle, among them, Charles Ndaxu Namholoh (Ho-Chi Minh), Martin Shalli, Martin Nashandi, Jason Isack Shikongo, (Pondo Lya Nangombe), Danger Ashipala, David Mbandeka, Sunny Amwaalwa (Shikololo) and others. She operated under the direct commandership of a brave old man called Kawaya ka Nangombe who was probably already in his late 40s and who believed that a successful battle should end with the capture of the enemy or his combatant ammunition.

“After the Cassinga attack, the enemy became very aggressive but we had to be strong. As a guerilla, you are always on the move; there is not even time to sleep as you can be bombed any time.”

Desperate and frustrated that they could not find the PLAN fighters at times, the enemy would just bomb the jungle randomly hoping that in the process, they could hit their targets.

She stayed at the warfront until the end of 1979 (from 1978) and then she was sent to Luanda for a two-year programme to study Portuguese at the Angolan National Institute of Languages. While studying, she started working for the Secretariat of the Swapo Youth League and was then elected to the SPYL Central Committee. She worked very close with Tuli Hiveluah who was the secretary of the Youth Wing at the time as well as with Selma Ashipala; another very dedicated comrade.

While studying, she also did translation for Dr Sam Nuuyoma whenever he held discussions with President Jose Eduardo dos Santos. She was selected to attend a one-year Commonwealth diploma course in Youth and Development at the University of Zambia (Unza)

SPYL had a mandate to popularise the struggle as well as mobilise resources all over the world, especially education material for the refugee camps and this, eventually, turned Nashandi into an international personality.

“This was the beginning of a new chapter in my life - in the diplomatic world - and I am really grateful for that opportunity,” says Nashandi.

Her assignments saw her criss-crossing the globe in meetings and negotiations for the cause of the liberation. She describes her experience as rewarding as she learnt a lot of things including interacting with different cultures.

In 1987, Swapo sent her to New York to the United Nations headquarters to deputise Helmut Angula at its Observer Mission together with Hinyangerwa Asheeke. She describes this as the beginning task of independence during which tough negotiations with South Africa intensified; she was in her late 20s.

While in New York, she met a lot of people including Vicky ya Toivo, wife to stalwart, Andimba Toivo ya Toivo, who was among the American people who were deeply engrossed in championing the liberation of Namibia.

She was among the people who worked tirelessly in seeing the UN Security Council Resolution 435 on the independence of Namibia, would be implemented despite the taxing setbacks.

She was a part of the first group of exiled Namibians who came back to Namibia headed by Dr Hage Geingob. The transitional arrangement began in earnest and eventually, a smooth transition behind the taxing demands.

As independence settled in, Nashandi was among the former Swapo representatives who established the Ministry of Foreign Affairs headed by Theo Ben Gurirab. After that, Nashandi was sent to a foreign mission, first to Sweden to serve the Nordic countries and later to the UK and Ireland. This time, it was no longer about the struggle but on an investment drive to achieve economic development and growth. While in the UK, she did a two-year Masters programme in Diplomatic Studies at the University of Westminster, majoring in Diplomacy and Management.

Ambassador Nashandi believes that the Government of the Republic of Namibia has done well in improving the quality of life of its citizenry despite the many challenges the country faces. She also believes that a time has come for Namibia to groom the young leaders, “We need to give the young people a chance to take the lead while our elders can still monitor and give their indispensable pieces of advice and wisdom,” she concludes. PF