Phyllis Kachere Deputy News Editor (Convergence)
The word first was probably coined for her!
First woman Base Adjutant, first woman to be sent to attend a Command Staff Course outside the country, first woman Directing Staff, first woman to be appointed Director Civil Military Relations, first woman Deputy Commandant, and first woman Air Vice Marshal of the Air Force of Zimbabwe (AFZ).
Could it be coincidence, or a question of being at the right place at the right time?
This is the story of Zimbabwe’s first female Air Vice Marshal Winnie Mandeya.
She is one of the few military women who have literally broken the ground, opened doors and made the choice of a military career easier for women following after her.
Born on July 14, 1960 in Rusape to Erica (nee Manuwa) and Eric Mandeya as the second child out of six children, young Winnie went to Arnoldine Mission in Headlands for her primary education.
In 1975, she enrolled at Mutambara Mission for her secondary education.
On May 29, 1975, just after schools had opened for the second term, young Winnie’s friend, now late, Monica Masaiti, invited her to accompany her somewhere.
“Monica had no idea where she wanted us to go. I assumed that she wanted us to go to the nearby tuck-shop to buy some provisions. But we passed the tuck-shop, and still, Monica would not tell me where we were going. Soon, we joined a group that included our Science teacher, Mr Nezira,” said the soft-spoken AVM Mandeya.
For the 15-year-olds — Winnie and Monica — the journey to fight for Zimbabwe’s liberation had begun.
For Winnie, her journey into the military had also started.
Courageous, like Queen Amanirenas, who led an army of 30 000 and successfully captured three Roman-ruled cities, young Winnie, along with her group, walked long distances until they reached a Frelimo Camp where they were vetted and sent to Villa Manica near the Tsetsera Hills.
According to the HISTORY website, Queen Amanirenas, who is recognised as one of Africa’s most powerful female military leaders, ruled the Kingdom of Kush from 40 BC to 10 BC in the Nubian region, now modern day Sudan.
“We were moved to Junta Trintante until President Samora Machel approved the construction of the barracks at Nyadzonia,” AVM Mandeya continued.
“I was among the comrades who participated in the construction of those barracks along the Nyadzonia River. Soon after construction, we moved to Nyadzonia.”
She had then assumed Chimurenga nom-de guerre Cde Cabby Rujekorwehondo.
She was there when Nyadzonia Camp was attacked by Rhodesian forces, led by Nyathi. Earlier on, ZANLA freedom fighters had attacked and run over a Rhodesian military base at Ruda in Honde Valley.
In revenge, the Rhodesians set up an attack plan codenamed Operation Eland.
Operation Eland involved a cross border raid by 84 Selous Scouts under Captain Rob Warraker against a concentration of guerrillas located at a training camp on the Nyadzonia River, in Mozambique.
As recorded in “The Rhodesian War: A Military History”, the attacking column comprised four Ferret armoured vehicles, seven UNIMOGS, also armoured, two of which were armed with 20mm Hispano cannons.
“The vehicles were disguised to make them look like they belonged to Frelimo, while the men wore uniforms to match. Among the soldiers was a turned former ZANLA commander by the name Morrison Nyathi who led the attackers to the camp,” reads “The Rhodesian War: A Military History”.
“The attacking party was able to bluff its way past the gate guards and drive into the very heart of the camp. Nyathi blew a whistle, which was the emergency signal for the guerrillas to muster on the parade ground.”
AVM Mandeya recalled the day the camp was attacked.
“It was early in the morning, and as usual, I was carrying out my allocated duty in the kitchen, which was on a slope overlooking the Nyadzonia River with other comrades,” she narrated, her voice lowered, almost to a whisper.
“Then, Nyadzonia housed about 5 000 people who included refugees, recruits awaiting military training, the sick, everyone.
“When we heard the whistle blowing, we knew there was an emergency, and we all rushed to the parade ground as was the norm. “We were met with raining bullets, with Nyathi shouting orders to the attackers to aim for lower ground as we were taking cover, laying on the ground.
“I lost my comrades; some were shot dead, while others drowned in the crocodile-infested Nyadzonia River as they tried to escape. I do not even know how I survived.”
She said survivors, herself included, were later moved to Villa Perry.
“In 1976/77, I was sent to Nachingweya, Tanzania for military training. We had Tanzanian instructors and upon graduation, I was deployed to the Gaza Province, at Xai Xai Base. Gaza included areas like Masvingo Province, Chiredzi, Chikombedzi, and Rutenga.”
At Xai Xai Base, AVM Mandeya said she was selected to join the medical corps where they were trained by Dr Sydney Sekeramayi, Brigadier Felix Muchemwa and Dr Herbert Ushewokunze in basic medical care and nursing.
“I was mostly interested in midwifery and provided nursing care to injured fighters,” she said.
At ceasefire in 1979, AVM Mandeya remained with other comrades in Mozambique and only came back to a new Zimbabwe in August 1980, along with the last group of patients. She stayed at an assembly point in Goromonzi/Arcturus.
“I had left my parents at Inyati Mine, and I was not even sure if they had survived the war. I wrote a letter and sent it there. Unfortunately, my family had moved to Mupururu Village in Headlands,” she said.
She said luckily, her mother’s sister who still stayed in the area received the letter. Her aunt wondered who it could be who did not know that the family had moved to Headlands.
“My aunt, my mother’s sister, Clara Manuwa, kept the letter, and eventually opened it only to learn that it was from me and I was alive. The family had given up on finding me alive as everybody had returned earlier on, with me coming back long after independence!”
Aunt Clara soon after, made the journey to Mupururu Village to share the good news. Thereafter, Cde Cabby’s mother visited her at the assembly point.
“I will never forget the moment when I saw my mother for the first time after five years in the bush. I remember her first words when we met—‘Uri mupenyu mwanangu!’ We hugged and cried.
“She told me the family’s fears that I probably had died as I did not return when everyone else did,” she said.
After demobilisation, armed with a Grade Seven certificate and a Form One first term education, AVM Mandeya joined the job hunt.
“I joined the Demobilisation Directorate, but left to join the Ministry of Defence as a civilian in the Registry department. I quickly realised that I needed to improve my educational qualifications. The remaining whites who still dominated the Government offices never made it easy for us ex-combatants. I immediately enrolled for long distance learning with Rapid Results College,” she reflected.
She studied and now holds several diplomas in Library and Information Science, Personnel Management, Human Resources Management, Project Management and Occupational Safety Health and Environmental Management.
AVM Mandeya said during the early years of independence, integration of the defence forces was the biggest challenge as the three protagonists (ZANLA, ZIPRA and the Rhodesian forces) had to unite and form a consolidated defence unit.
“Mistrust was rampant. Remember, we were coming from a protracted war that had left all sides bruised and wounded. We all meant to defend Zimbabwe, although we were coming from different orientations. Eventually, sense prevailed. Today, I serve in a united Defence Force,” she said.
She attained her Junior Certificate (JC), then embarked on attaining a full Ordinary Level certificate, which she did in two sittings.
“I enrolled for Advanced Level, but could not sit for my exams. By then, I had moved from the civilian to uniformed side. It is then that I joined the Air Force of Zimbabwe as a corporal. I went for training at Field Air Base in Chegutu and emerged as the second best recruit,” she said.
In 1994, AVM Mandeya was one of 63 female candidates chosen for the officers’ selection board and only three of the 63 females made it.
“Penelope Chitiyo, Tambudzai Gunguwo and I made it, and we then became commissioned officers!”
She was deployed to Manyame Air Base as the first female principal administrator, marking her streak in pioneering in previously male dominated jobs.
As Wing Commander, AVM Mandeya became the first female candidate to be seconded outside the country for a Command Staff Course in Zambia.
She later became Directing Staff at the Zimbabwe Staff College, another first for a female. Next, she was appointed Director Civil Military Relations, a first time for the position to be held by a woman, again.
When she became Deputy Commandant at the Zimbabwe Staff College, it was a first for the position to be occupied by a woman.
Her promotion as Air Commodore-Director General Service Personnel was another first position awarded to a female.
“Each rank in the Defence Forces is accompanied by a course which you have to pass to attain it. I have passed all my courses commensurate with my ranks. I have served the nation with diligence, loyalty and dignity. I have delivered on all the tasks I have been tasked to do,” said the mother of an only child, Munyaradzi, who is now 41 years old.
She narrated how she received news of her promotion to the Air Vice Marshal rank.
“I was at home when I received a call that I should report to the Chief of Staff Service Personnel’s office. In the military, you don’t question what it is in connection with. You simply do as per order. I did not expect a promotion. I anticipated a new task, so I went,” she said.
“I was shocked when the Chief of Staff broke the good news. I could not believe it. Having served in defending my country all my life, I can safely say, this promotion now confirms my loyalty to authority, and to this country that I fought for.
“You don’t just get promoted. You are not attested by one person. There are boards that sit and decide on your suitability. You are never told when these boards are sitting. When you have made it, you are then promoted.”
She said during her service, she has maintained loyalty and never been brought before a disciplinary hearing, court martialed or appeared in a civilian court.
“I have maintained a high sense of discipline and loyalty, and I have delivered on all assigned tasks during my service. This promotion is testimony that my commanders vanonditemba.”
There were times, she said, when she came across challenges of working as a mother and a soldier.
“Multi-tasking is common among women. And, we can handle it without problems. I learnt during my early days to stick to the rules and regulations of service. Where I was not sure, I would consult my seniors. Sometimes you meet unsupportive bosses, but you learn to manage them and continue to do your work,” she said.
AVM Mandeya, who is also a grandmother to two lovely grandchildren, said although she is still waiting to be allocated a farm, she was doing horticulture at a small plot.
“The Government has reserved 20 percent of land allocations for war veterans. I am hopeful that I will be allocated a farm. I have made applications, and they are with the Ministry of Lands. Government policy is clear, I am sure the problem is on the implementation side.
“The people on the ground are letting the Government down. But I hope all war veterans will get their pieces of land. It will be ironic that those who fought for land don’t get allocated pieces of land. I am a farmer. But I am on a very small plot that I had to buy after I realised it was taking too long to be allocated a farm,” said AVM Mandeya.
Her parting shots to females in the workplace, particularly young ones was: improve on your educational and professional qualifications, be disciplined and excel.
“Be disciplined. In a work environment, some men will always try to distract you. Remain focused and deliver on your allocated tasks. Work hard and excel,” she said.