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« on: April 04, 2014, 02:59:58 PM »

Uncovering Josina Machel from obscurity

African women hidden in his-story


By Ama Biney
2014-04-03, Issue 672

Josina Mutemba Machel was a revolutionary Mozambican fighter for FRELIMO who like thousands of women fought for independence for her country until she died at the tender age of 25. 7 April marks the day she died – a day celebrated as National Women’s Day in Mozambique. It occasions a celebration of her exemplary short life.

HIS story (otherwise commonly known as history), continues to tell narratives and accounts of the past from a male perspective. Dismissive accounts may mention African female warriors, priestesses, and queens as footnotes or in passing and then move on to focus on the “great men of history,” for ingrained in many is the notion that men make history, and our notion of leaders is unconsciously and unquestioningly male. As we continue to live in a patriarchcal world, the values, attitudes and beliefs that enshrine male thinking, priorities and approaches have become internalised by all – women included. Whilst African women are politically represented in large numbers in a few African parliaments such as in South Africa, Rwanda, Mozambique and Uganda, out of 55 African states, the dismal reality is that there only three female heads of states (in Liberia, Malawi and the Central African Republic). Similarly fields such as architecture, engineering, the sciences, philosophy, political science and history remain male dominated, particularly on the African continent.


The role of African women in the myriad nationalist movements, whether the Rassemblement Democratique African (RDA) of the former Francophone countries, or the women’s wings of the Convention People’s Party (CPP) of Ghana or the Kenya African National Union (KANU) of Kenya – these histories and the women involved in these women’s wings, that were often appendages of the nationalist parties, need to be popularly known. The names of women in these movements remain in the background, or wholly unknown, whilst the male names of Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral, Frantz Fanon, Jomo Kenyatta, Patrice Lumumba and many others have become household names. It still remains the case that apart from Yaa Asantewaa, the great warrior woman of Ghana, or Queen Nzinga of Angola or Nehanda of Zimbabwe, the names of African women who made history are relatively unknown or do not come readily to mind as those of male heroes. Yet, they are there. Among them is the life and contribution of Josina Abiathar Muthemba who tragically died on 7 April 1971 at the very young age of 25. This year marks 79 years since her birth on 10 August 1945.

I stumbled across Josina Abiathar Muthemba whilst surfing the net some three years ago. It made me reflect on why I had not heard about her when I was doing my first degree in African Studies back in the early 1980s, nor when I became active in the London based Black Action for the Liberation of Southern Africa (BALSA). The question: Why isn’t she known outside of Mozambique? became a quest to make her known to the rest of Africa and global humanity.

Her inspirational life is perhaps representative of the thousands of female combatants who joined not only the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) after it was formed in June 1962, but also the Movimento Popular de Libertacao de Angola (MPLA) of Angola , the Partido Africano da Independencia da Guine e Cabo Verde (PAIGC) of Guinea Bissau, or the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African Political Union (ZAPU) who should not become forgotten in the annals of Pan-African history. Their names, voices, memories, experiences and deeds have almost been erased and silenced out of patriarchal history. It is only in the last 30 years or so, that is, since the 1980s, academic studies have begun to unearth the lives of African women. However, such studies often remain within ivory towers, for the challenge is to disseminate knowledge and awareness of our history to the greater majority of African people across the African continent and in the Diaspora.


Josina Abiathar Muthemba was born in Vilanculos, Inhambane, in the southern part of the country, into a family committed to anti-colonial activism. Her grandfather was a Presbyterian lay preacher who like several African clergy across the continent was virulently opposed to colonial rule; her father was a nurse in Gaza province. Unlike the majority of young Mozambican girls she was privileged in being able to go to primary school for ‘assimilados’ at the age of 7 in Mociboa da Praia, a port town in northern Mozambique. Thereafter she moved to the capital, Lourenco Marques (now Maputo) to live with her grandmother in order to pursue her education. Her family was considered part of the ‘assimilados’ (Portuguese for assimilated) who were granted the honorary status of whiteness by the colonial Portuguese authorities as opposed to being ‘indigena’ or ‘native.’ ‘Assimilados’ could include Asians and individuals of dual heritage i.e. one parent being European and the other being African. Eduardo Mondlane describes in his book ‘The Struggle for Mozambique’ the abysmal system of education in Mozambique, pointing out that ‘although nearly 98 per cent of the population of Mozambique is composed of black Africans, only a small proportion of children attending primary school are African, while the number of Africans in secondary school is almost negligible.’ [1] Josina was one of the very few African girls who were fortunate to receive technical secondary education. She remarks:

‘My parents made a great many sacrifices to send me to school. I went to commercial school for five years. My parents had to save on food and clothes. At the primary school there were only about twenty of us Africans to about a hundred Portuguese. At the commercial school there were about fifty Africans to several hundred Portuguese.’ [2]

An astute student, Josina was fully aware of the objectives of colonialist education. She observed:

‘The colonialists wanted to deceive us with their teaching; they taught us only the history of Portugal, the geography of Portugal; they wanted to form in us a passive mentality, to make us resigned to their domination. We couldn’t react openly, but we were aware of their lie; we knew that what they said was false; that we were Mozambicans and we could never be Portuguese.’ [3]

At the age of 13 whilst at school she became active in the organisation Núcleo dos Estudantes Africanos Secundários de Mocambique (NESAM) that Eduardo Mondlane (later to become the first President of FRELIMO) had helped establish in 1949. [4] This organisation encouraged, under cover, a positive sense of cultural identity and political education among Mozambican students. It was small in membership and closely monitored by the Portuguese police. As Mondlane remarks, it was crucial in disseminating nationalist sentiments, asserting a national culture, and ‘provided the only opportunity to study and discuss Mozambique in its own right and not as an appendage of Portugal’s.’ [5]

At the age of 18, the politicised Josina fled the country with other students in order to join FRELIMO in Tanzania. Among her comrades were the future President of Mozambique, Armando Guebuza, and seven others (both young men and women). They failed in their endeavours for after a journey of 800 miles they were arrested at Victoria Falls in Northern Rhodesia and returned to the brutal hands of the Portuguese authorities in Lourenco Marques. A six month stint in prison in which she was not sentenced or condemned [6] was ended by the campaign for her release by FRELIMO that led to her release shortly before her 19th birthday. She was now under surveillance by the Portuguese police.

Wholly undeterred, the courageous Josina made another attempt to flee with fellow students. They endured a period of time in refugee camps in Swaziland and Zambia; dodged the Portuguese security police and betrayal by informants. In Botswana the British colonial authorities sought to deport them but again the intervention of the adept FRELIMO leader, Eduardo Mondlane and campaigning by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and UN ensured the group of 18 students were allowed to enter Tanzania and then Zambia and finally Dar es Salaam. This tortuous journey of 2000 miles, that is from Mozambique to Tanzania – via several neighbouring countries - is a testament to the will of Josina and her commitment to seeking an end to Portuguese domination of her country.


Immediately, the young Josina – at the age of 20 - took up post as assistant to the director of the Mozambique Institute in Dar-es-Salaam. The director, was no other than, Janet Mondlane, the American wife of the leader of FRELIMO. The two became close friends.

As Stephanie Urdang writes, it is Josina who ‘is credited for being the driving force and vision behind the establishment of the Women’s Detachment (Destacamento Feminino) in 1967.’ [7] In the words of Josina:

‘At first this [i.e. the Women’s Detachment] was merely an experiment to discover just what contribution women could make to the revolution – how they would use their initiative, whether they were in fact capable of fulfilling certain tasks. The ‘experiment’ proved highly successful and this first group of women became the founder members of the Women’s Detachment and were scattered in throughout the interior, each with her specific assignment. It was soon discovered that they would play a very important role in both the military and political fields but especially the latter.’ [8]

In African societies, women overstepping their traditionally prescribed roles as homemakers and rearers of children, threatened the patriarchal status quo. However, there was also the reality that some men were fearful of joining the national liberation struggle and fighting on the battle field. Josina remarked that: ‘The presence of emancipated women bearing arms often shames [men] into taking more positive actions.’ [9]

The Women’s Detachment remained small and was more successful in mobilising young women, particularly women without children, than the general population of women. It was opposed by conservative elements within the Central Committee of FRELIMO as the first batch of women, including Josina went to Nachingwea, the name of the military training camp in southern Tanzania for training in 1967. [10]

It was in the liberated area of Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique, where Josina trained that she met Samora Machel. He was director of the training center in the province.

With other women combatants Josina not only engaged with the local population in the liberated areas in describing and clarifying the role of FRELIMO, its objectives, its history in order to win hearts and mind to the revolutionary cause, but she and others guarded supplies and organised the community.

It is in 1968 that Josina identified the need for organised health centers, schools and child care provision within the liberated zones, to address the needs of the wounded and traumatised victims and soldiers of war as well as the children who had become orphans. In short, a social program commenced which is attributable to the visionary perspicacity of Josina. In July 1968 she was nominated a delegate to the Second FRELIMO Congress held in Niassa province and she made an uncompromising stand for the full participation of women in the struggle for the liberation of Mozambican society and its transformation. As Mondlane observes:

‘Here for the first time in our history Mozambicans from all over the country were gathered, to discuss together the problems of the whole nation and take decisions which will affect its future. Delegates were from different tribes and the different religious groups, and there were women participating as well as men.’ [11] This was a major achievement in the years since the founding of FRELIMO in Tanzania back in 1962. A number of radical resolutions were made at this Congress on the armed struggle; administration of the liberation zones; national reconstruction; social affairs and on foreign policy. [12]

Josina was made head of the Women’s Section in FRELIMO’s Department of International Relations at the age of 24. This post required her to travel outside the country to international gatherings relating to women’s rights and she spoke on the experiences and realities of Mozambican women and people from her own first-hand knowledge. She consistently advocated for women’s equal participation in political, economic and social life.

The year 1969 was an eventful year in her life for in May 1969 she married Samora Machel in southern Tanzania. In November of that year they had a son, named Samito. As Sarah LeFanu writes: ‘electricity sparked between them’ and can be visually seen in photographs of the two. [13]

She was also appointed head of FRELIMO’s Department of Social Affairs and she continued to develop child care and educational centers for children in the north of the country. She encouraged girls to attend school, which was one of the resolutions passed at the Second Congress. Despite giving birth, the indefatigable Josina resumed work almost immediately in the provinces of Niassa and Cabo Delgado whilst their son was looked after in Dar es Salaam. Meanwhile, her health declined rapidly. LeFanu writes: ‘It’s not clear – versions differ – whether Josina was suffering from liver cancer or from leukaemia. Either would have been fatal.’ She died in Dar es Salaam on 7 April 1971, aged 25. The impact of her death on her ideological partner, Samora, was profound. In a new film on Samora Machel, Graca Machel (future wife of Samora) describe Josina as ‘the love of his life.’ [14] A year after Josina’s death when Oscar Monteiro gave a speech in 1972 at a FRELIMO Central Committee meeting, Monteiro recalled how when Marcelino dos Santos spoke Josina’s name in the list of the fallen camaradas, Samora broke down and wept and it was necessary to adjourn the meeting. [15]

In honour of Josina’s memory, Samora Machel wrote a beautiful poem entitled ‘Josina, you are not dead.’ Part of it reads:

‘Thus more than wife, you were to me sister, friend and comrade-in-arms.
How can we mourn a comrade but holding the fallen gun and continuing the combat.
My tears will flow from the same source that gave birth to our love, our will and our revolutionary life.
Thus these tears are both a token and a vow of combat.
The flowers which fall from the tree are to prepare the land for new and more beautiful flowers to bloom in the next season.
Your life continues in those who continue the Revolution.’

If Josina had not married the great Machel she would have remained a revolutionary icon for Mozambican women for her life was remarkable for someone tremendously committed to a revolutionary cause and who died so young when she had a phenomenal capacity to give far more and do much more in building a new society of new moral men and women. To put it differently Josina was a political activist in her own right; with a mind and agency that she determined and put in the service of the betterment of her society.


An assiduous reconstruction of African history – that is, what happened in our past and why - needs to rescue from historical obscurity, to remember and document, the women who contributed significantly to the liberation of their societies. Not only do our youth need to know the contributions of those who went before us, but often the adults are equally unknowing and need to be educated. Continental Africans and people of African descent outside of the continent need to immerse themselves in a deep knowledge and awareness of their past that encompasses a Pan-African historical understanding.

The great Walter Rodney said: ‘A people’s consciousness is heightened by knowledge of the dignity and determination of their fore parents.’ For if our fore parents could realise their dreams in struggle - why can’t we today? This is the powerful weapon of history that the ruling class seek to keep hidden from ordinary people, for if the masses had a genuine awareness and knowledge of their history it would empower them to begin to change the realities confronting them.

One of the tragedies of African people is that enslavement and colonialism disconnected us from history; a sense of where we came from; our own accomplishments; our own ethics, morality, culture and systems in the past. Our psyches and mind-sets have been altered and disfigured by this interaction and intrusion into our history. One of the many challenges for Africans is to know ourselves and our past; heal and repair ourselves from the spiritual and psychological damage and lack of knowing as we reconstruct our continent and its resources to meet the primary needs of the majority of our people rather than outsiders. Among the challenges of Africans is overhauling our colonial mind set or emancipating ourselves from mental slavery.

Perhaps future African film makers and documentary makers in the tradition of Sembene Ousmane will use film as a powerful medium to capture the minds and hearts of African people by portraying the lives of Josina Machel and the other plethora of hidden sheroes and heroes of African history. That would be an inspiring way to continue the revolution Josina took part in. Film makers could educate a new generation of the life and historical context of this important revolutionary figure.

*Ama Biney (Dr) is a scholar-activist and Acting Editor in Chief of Pambazuka News.

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