• September 29th, 2020

Through the needle’s eye: Nujoma relives his great escape into exile

Andreas Thomas*

Windhoek - If you are considering making a memorable getaway for a good cause, Sam Nujoma would probably be the right man to show you how to do it right. 

In his heyday, this Namibian liberation hero and statesman was a great escape artist in his own right. 
From the late 1950s, the South African colonial regime ratcheted up its crackdown on pro-independence activists, who were agitating for self-rule in then South West Africa – now Namibia. 

And Nujoma, being one of the anti-apartheid activists through the Owamboland People Organisation (OPO), suffered greatly at the hands of the colonial authorities. And after his leading role in the Old Location mass protest of December 10, 1959, which ended in tragedy, Nujoma became a marked man. He was in and out of jail in Windhoek for his political activism, until he decided to give the colonial authorities a slip. 

Having fended off constant harassment by the colonial police, Nujoma decided to skip the border in 1960. 
As part of his 90th birthday celebration this Sunday (12 May), this writer visited the nonagenarian statesman at his farm, Etunda, in Otjozondjupa Region, where he recalled his great escape from colonial persecution and his incredible journey across Africa to the United Nations in New York to pursue the freedom of his motherland. 

From Botswana to 
Southern Rhodesia

Nujoma became a ‘person of interest’ when he joined Chief Hosea Kutako and many others in petitioning the United Nations against the apartheid regime, and especially his active role in OPO, the forerunner of Swapo.   After his umpteenth arrest by the police, Nujoma decided to join other petitioners in New York. His aim was to go to the United Nations to plead the South West African case against colonial bondage by South Africa, and unbelievably, he managed to traverse Africa by boarding trains and aeroplanes without valid travelling documents.  

“After having been arrested 10 times, I decided to do something to liberate us. I escaped in February 1960 from detention (in Windhoek) into exile. I went through Botswana, then Zimbabwe and Tanzania. When I was in Francistown (Botswana) to go to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I was required to have a British passport, but I did not have that. I used a trick - I bought a second-class train ticket to travel to Southern Rhodesia. Once in the train, I locked the cabin door. I had with me South African newspapers - Cape Times, The Times, and The Daily Mail. So, I laid them nicely on the table. Also, while in Francistown, I bought myself a beautiful pajama [Safari Suit]. So, I was dressed smartly. Now, when the conductor came to my cabin at the Botswana-Southern Rhodesia border, the white colonial officer knocked on the door, and I was just quiet. When he knocked harder, I opened the door so forcefully and yelled: ‘Are you crazy? How can you knock like that?’ Now, when he looked at the newspapers laid out on the table, maybe he thought that he had disturbed this educated black fellow so he  started apologising. ‘Sorry, I am a policeman, I am just checking whether you have a passport and visa to enter the British colonial Southern Rhodesia’. I just snapped at him that ‘but you behaved very badly’ and he left. That’s how I entered Southern Rhodesia.”

From Ndola to 
Dar es Salaam

While in Bulawayo and still with no proper travelling documents, Nujoma managed to travel to Salisbury (now Harare), the capital city of Zimbabwe. There, he boarded a plane to Ndola, in north-central Zambia, an industrial city that lies about 10km near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). 

“When I reached Bulawayo, I made another plan to go to Salisbury and I took a plane from there to Ndola in Zambia. That time, (Kenneth) Kaunda and the (Joshua) Nkomos were also demanding independence from the British. While in Zambia, that was then northern Rhodesia, I succeeded to seek out Kaunda’s party and they said: ‘yes, we are here, we are also fighting for independence’. We even went to Elizabethville (now Lubumbashi) in Congo (DRC), where we met some Congolese, just across the border on the other side. Later, I booked myself a plane to Tanganyika, now Tanzania.  There was this East African Airways travelling every Sunday from Ndola to Mbeya. And after all the passengers were called, I was just quiet. When the announcer said: ‘this is the final call for East African Airways boarding for Mbeya’ that is when I appeared, and I said I am already booked. That’s how I managed to get into the plane to Mbeya. So, when I arrived in Mbeya, the airport was far from the town, and I was the only African in the plane. I was the last person to disembark, and all the other passengers had their passports. Since I could not go with others into the airport, I sneaked out to the other side into nearby bushes. There was no fence around the airport. So, I was now sitting there pretending to be reading a newspaper wondering how I was going to get my bags. Luckily, this Indian taxi driver came to me and asked if I was David Chipinga and whether I would like him to go and get my bags for me. By then I had changed my name to David Chipinga, so I said: ‘yes, please bring’. So, the taxi driver drove me to Mbeya Hotel. While I was booking myself in as David Chipinga, I heard some white people – a man and woman – talking in Afrikaans. 

I was shocked and wondered how did these Boers (Afrikaners) got here. But there was a diamond mining company in the area that belonged to the Consolidated Diamond Mining that was also in Namibia. I was still shocked and when I went to my hotel room, I locked myself inside and started reading my newspapers. I did not want to see anybody because I was worried when I saw those white people speaking in Afrikaans. Around midday, at 11, someone came by serving the guests with tea and some cakes. He asked me that ‘Oh, would you like to have some tea, coffee, some biscuits and cakes?’ I said ‘yes, bring everything’. Of course, I had never been in a hotel before, so he brought everything, and I gave him a tip of one pound. Then at night, and still trying to avoid those two whites, I sneaked out of the hotel to go and see where I could find Africans because I knew the Tanganyika African Union under the leadership of Julius Nyerere was also fighting for independence. So, I went to look for these people, but I didn’t want to just ask anybody. Mbeya Hotel was very far from town, but I followed some roads and came across black children. I gave them some chocolates, and when they became friendly, I asked them where the houses of their teachers were and they directed me to one house. That’s how I found a representative of the Tanganyika African Union. From there we went to other towns, and later by road to Dar es Salaam, where I met Nyerere. And he had just come back from the United Nations where he was petitioning for Tanganyika’s independence.” 

And later the United Nations
From Tanzania, Nujoma continued with his journey to West Africa. From Dar es Salaam he went to Khartoum in Sudan, then to Accra, Ghana, and later Liberia. Liberia was one of the countries that spearheaded international calls for South Africa to grant Namibia independence. Therefore, it was there that Nujoma was assisted to complete his journey to the United Nations. 

“I went to the United Nations under a Nigerian passport. By then I was in a free country and I used my real name – Sam Nujoma,” he recalled. At the United Nations, he joined his countrymen like Professor Mburumba Kerina and Fanuel Kozonguizi, who had been leading the petition in New York. In June 1960, Nujoma, as the leader of SWAPO, presented the South West Africa case before the Sub-Committee of the Fourth Committee of the UN General Assembly – the first Namibian to do so. But after South Africa refused to budge, Nujoma led SWAPO into a long and bitter war of independence until independence on 21 March 1990. 
Nujoma ruled Namibia for the first 15 years of independence. And for his selfless sacrifice, he was declared the ‘Father of the Namibian Nation’. 

*Andreas Thomas served as News Editor of The Southern Times for the past seven years. 

Staff Reporter
2019-05-10 09:34:55 | 1 years ago

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