Zimbabwe: It Wasn't an Easy Road to Independence - War Vet

15 April 2021

Fungai Lupande — In 1974, Cde Richard Chirongwe was a teenage boy who had just completed his Ordinary Level and was waiting for a chance to proceed to Advanced Level but when he witnessed a black vendor being shot at point blank by a Rhodesian white police officer, that event changed his life.

Rhodesian police officers chased after the witness, 15-year-old Chirongwe and he ran as fast as he could across houses in Highfield and jumping fences.

He knew there and then that his life was about to change.

Afraid that the Rhodesian police might look for him at his parents' home in Highfield, Cde Chirongwe packed a few belongings and went to Ardbennie suburb to stay with his grandfather.

The stay was short-lived as Cde Chirongwe who was now on the police wanted list, decided to leave the country and join the liberation struggle.

Cde Chirongwe was born in 1959 to Mebo Richards of Indian descent and Peter Chirongwe, a famous photographer in Rhodesia.

"My father was a photographer and he worked with King George. He had studios in Highfield, Stodart Hall and along Cameroon Street. He took pictures and developed films for nationalists like the late Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe," he said.

"Most of the pictures in history books were taken by my father. I started Grade One at Ardbennie Primary School before my parents moved to Highfield. At Nyandoro Primary School in Highfield I was made to skip classes from Sub A to Standard 1.

"During the first term in Standard 1, I skipped grades again to Standard 3. I did my secondary education at St Ignatius College and I wanted to do my Advanced Level in Harare.

"Life in Harare was tough and the police occasionally carried out inspections. All visitors were required to report to the police and specify days they were staying. The police would then carry out inspections of those who overstayed and they would be rounded up and forced to do manual labour.

"Suburbs were separated into low density areas for whites only and Africans areas. My grandfather was coloured and he was an entertainment manager for Thomas Meikles. He had a house in Ardbennie."

Cde Chirongwe said he used the name Kenny Richards to be able to stay in Ardbennie and write his A Level through Central Correspondence College.

Describing the fateful day, Cde Chirongwe said: "One day, a police van arrived at Machipisa shopping centre and people who were selling different vegetables started running away. However, one man who was selling tomatoes was unmoved," said Cde Chirongwe.

"The police asked him why he was not running away and the man said he was not doing anything wrong because he was not selling his wares in a whites-only area. A white police officer instructed his black colleague to shoot the man but he refused. The white police officer drew his gun and shot the vendor.

"It all happened before my eyes and upon realising that I had witnessed the event, they started chasing after me. With the police in hot pursuit, I had to run as fast as I could. I went home, packed my things and went to my grandfather's house in Ardbennie.

"I went to Mutare and later joined Covers Maosa and one Rex to cross into Mozambique to join the liberation struggle. We went past Chimanimani on foot and crossed into Mozambique. We stayed at Katandika and moved to Chimoio where other Zimbabweans started coming to join us.

"We moved to Zhunda camp and another group consisting of the former late President Mugabe, Edgar Tekere, Moses Mvenge who was coming from Katandika joined us."

Cde Chirongwe and others moved to Nyadzonia to set up a camp in the bush from scratch.

"We started building small huts called 'poshto' along Pungwe River. We started to organise ourselves as more people came to join us. We started clearing roads and building bridges using logs so that 30 tonne trucks could cross with food," he said.

"We divided ourselves and worked in unison. It was good. We built barracks and storerooms. We also built beds using logs. I was in company D and I started as a platoon commander before being promoted to company commander.

"I was together with Justice Chiweshe and we built a bunk bed using logs. At one point we spent two weeks without food during the rainy season because vehicles failed to reach us. People resorted to eating wild fruits. Hunger forced us to develop skills and we could catch fish using sticks or stones."

He became a battalion commander and briefly stayed at Ndodo camp, by this time Frelimo had attained its Independence on June 25, 1975.

He was among a group of 700 people who left for Dar es Salam, Tanzania in a huge ship named Mapinduzi.

They went to Mgagao for military training for a year and during that time Cde Chirongwe was selected to be the librarian, an opportunity he used to read extensively.

From Mgagao, he went to Mbeya and Nachingwea where he was training fellow Zimbabweans on guerrilla warfare and ideology.

"It was important for masses to know why we were fighting and our grievances against the Rhodesian Government. We were outnumbered and we didn't have sophisticated weapons and we needed the masses to support us," he said.

"We went back to Mozambique and I went to Syria and later Lebanon for further training. I also went to Romania for structural engineering training. I met the late Cde Josiah Tongogara and he asked me to look for him when I got back to Mozambique.

"Cde Tongo instructed me to work together with the Tanzanian People Defence Forces (TPDF) and assemble a team to defend our camps. My mission was to survey air bases and how they could be attacked using long range weaponry."

Equipped with weapons, Cde Chirongwe and Tenson Sithole led their group into Zimbabwe through Chipinge, he was now faced with the war.

"At Chikwekweti, we sat down and ate for the journey. We walked for days and we were travelling with specialists who could demine landmines. We would wait for them to demine and we used the holes as our path for a clear passage," he said.

"In the Devure Range we walked for three days non-stop without food or water. Shoes were torn and it didn't matter if we wore different types. We were 25 and some would ask fellow comrades to kill them because they were tired.

"We decided to leave behind one after he failed to cope. Before we went far he found water and shouted for us to come back. We found a spring and everyone drank water. Luckily our comrade recovered and we continued with him.

"Villagers gave us a place to sleep and we left in the morning. The Rhodesian army arrested them in the morning and upon hearing this we came back to rescue them. When we entered a groundnut field we saw them force marching the villagers and a battle started.

"We attacked them and their vehicles. The villagers fled and after the clash we continued with our journey to Gutu and Zimuto. The Rhodesian army was waylaying us on a train. We never stayed long at one base because we knew they were looking for us.

"Another group of freedom fighters was caught in the crossfire and we blew the railway line. While crossing the Masvingo highway we met another group of Rhodesian army officers and we fought them. We didn't lose any of our comrades."

Cde Chirongwe said they made use of war collaborators to relay information about movement of the enemy.

"We placed them on hilltops with flags of different colours representing codes for enemy, vehicle and civilian. They raised the flag to communicate. We also used passwords for identification. We fought several battles in Chirumanzu," he said.

"The mass placed their lives at risk to protect us. Some business people helped us to move our weapons. We crossed into Nhema and at Tokwe River the Rhodesian army was waylaying us at the bridge.

"We entered into the water and shot two soldiers who were at the bridge. They called for reinforcement but they couldn't find us, we hid under the water."

Post-independence Cde Chirongwe was attested into the Air Force of Zimbabwe.

Full article on www.herald.co.zw

He left the Air Force of Zimbabwe and went back to Romania. In 1981 he joined the Ministry of Local Government.

"I had keen interest in seeing the improvement of people's livelihood. I started Kanhukamwe irrigation scheme, roads development and housing development at Kawanzaruwa area in Nzvimbo. We started Transcorp Bank and agriculture projects," he said.

"I pioneered the War Veterans Association and went to India from 1998 to 2000 and when I came back I started the Memories of the Zimbabwe Armed Struggle Trust. In 2008 I became MP for Mazowe West."

He is the chairperson for the War Veterans League recently launched in Mashonaland Central.

"The (Zimbabwe National Liberation) War Veterans Association is a welfare organisation and its members are trained war vets. It is different from the War Veteran's League which is a wing of the Zanu PF party. War collaborators and detainees cannot fit into the War Vets Association but we can accommodate them in the league," he said.

"The league discusses policy issues and forward them to the party, something that cannot be done by the association because it is outside the party. You must have a voting right to be able to put across your issues which are subject to debate.

"Most of our comrades are living in sheer poverty. Some were maimed and are failing to access medication or send children to school. Our cemeteries are not being maintained and we want to make sure all comrades scattered across the country or in Mozambique are given proper burial.

"We are writing our own history and telling our story. We want to recognise everyone and every country that assisted during the liberation struggle. We want our children to understand how we attained our independence.

"We want to assist the leadership to do programmes that benefit ordinary people so that they see the direction of the party."

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