Josina Muthemba Machel, born on August 10th 1945, is one of Mozambique’s most prominent and well-respected political figures, and of one of the pioneers of women’s rights in Southern Africa.
Born in Vilanculos, Inhambane to a family of 5 sisters and 3 brothers, Josina and her twin brother Belmiro were the grand-children of a Presbyterian evangelist who preached Mozambican nationalism and a strong sense of culture and identity amidst a difficult political climate. Her father was a nurse in government hospitals, and he frequently had to move the family to accommodate his job’s requirements. Her father, two sister and two uncles – as well as Josina herself – would be jailed at one time or another for going against the colonial government.
When she was 7, she attended the “Dom João de Castro” primary school in Mocimboa da Praia – it was specifically made for Portuguese and assimilated Mozambican children. Two years later, she transferred (following her father’s reassignment) to “Mouzinho de Albuquerque” in Xai-Xai. Upon completing 4th grade, she moved to the capital of Mozambique, Maputo (though called “Lourenço Marques” at the time) to live with her grandmother.
In 1960, she joined the Mozambican Secondary Students’ Group, an organization encouraging political awareness national identity. Four years later – in March 1964 – she fled the country alongside several students (including current Mozambican President Guebuza), aged only 18. Thus began her struggle for her nation.
Almost 1,300km later, she was caught by the Victoria Falls (then Rhodesia) and handed back to the Portuguese Secret Police, who ruthlessly jailed the young patriot. However, FRELIMO led an international campaign to have her and her fellow nationalists released. 5 months later, she was free – but only as far as the Secret Police would allow her.
However, four months later, she once again escaped the clutches of the Secret Police and managed to flee by car, foot and bus to neighbouring Johannesburg, South Africa – roughly 500km away. She was aided by a FRELIMO-sympathizing priest just before the Portuguese managed to arrest her – no doubt prior to perverse punishment.
Her brave escape led her to Francistown, Botswana. When the British authorities there caught wind of their arrival, they declared them “Undesirable Visitors” and made plans to hand to have them deported to Swaziland and subsequently into the hands of the Portuguese. However, FRELIMO leader and national hero Eduardo Mondlane intervened and managed to convince the British to let go of the youngsters, and young Josina Machel stumbled into Dar-Es-Salaam (Tanzania) weak, under-nourished but victorious. Her 3,200km escape from the colonialists was over, and now her real work would begin. She’d help liberate her nation, but she’d never see her family again.
Only 20, she immediately began working towards independence. She was appointed assistant to the director (Janet Mondlane) of the Mozambique Institute – an educational centre for young Mozambicans. A year later, she turned down a scholarship to Switzerland to join FRELIMO’s brand new Women’s Branch; a unit dedicated to the military and political education and integration of women into the war effort. Mozambicans were tearing down all cultural and social barriers in hopes that their nation would rise up as one in order to take down the colonialist powers, and there would be no space for gender discrimination. Women were a firm and crucial part of the war effort, which contributed a lot to their equality in modern-day Mozambique.
She formed a part of 25 young women who were extensively drilled at Nachingweya, Cabo Delgado under the Director and future President of Mozambique, Samora Machel. She subsequently combined her duties as a soldier in the reserve forces of the movement – guarding supplies and crucial infrastructure – with her role as an educator; teaching Mozambicans about independence, the war effort and how to contribute to the liberation of their country.
During 1968, the movement effectively began to run its own social aid programs. They organized health centres, schools and child care. They repaired homes torn by the war, and brought families destroyed by the colonialists back to their feet. Orphans were given due care, and injured soldiers were given emotional support as well as health-care.
Mid-way through the year, she is sent as a delegate to the 2nd FRELIMO congress, where her strong stance towards gender equality sees her appointed as the head of the Women’s Section in FRELIMO’S International Relations Department. Her duties involved going around the world fighting for women’s rights and using her experience as a FRELIMO combatant to help integrate and emancipate women in society. She publicly supported women’s development at these international conferences, and she made sure her voice – a woman’s voice – was heard.
She was just 24.
In 1969, Josina is appointed head of FRELIMO’s Department of Social Affairs, where she builds child care and health care centers in the liberated parts of the country. Eduardo Mondlane, leader of the revolution, had been assassinated that year – she spent some time at his wife’s house to comfort her.
In May, she married Samora Machel in Southern Tanzania, at an educational facility (Tunduru) that she had developed. Their only son was born in November.
In 1970, she was diagnosed with liver cancer in Moscow, after reporting stomach aches and pain. Rest and recovery were advised, but she would not give up until her country was free. She travelled almost 2 months through the Niassa Province – almost ENTIRELY by foot – to assess the conditions of her division. Everything had to go well, and she would always be sure of that.
In 1971, she travels again (to Cabo Delgado this time) to ensure the social care programs are completely functional. She speaks to over 1,000 people about the push for independence and a better Mozambique, but her body began to give out.
On the 5th of April, the young heroine is admitted into Muhimbili Hospital in Dar-Es-Salaam, Tanzania. Upon crossing the border a few days earlier, she surrendered her pistol to her companions and declared, “Comrades, I can continue no longer. Give this to the military commander of the province so that it may contribute to the salvation of the Mozambican people”.
On the 7th of April 1971, the young champion died, aged 25 and a hero to her people.
She would never see her country become independent, but her struggles for women’s rights and for her nation led to the date of her death being commemorated as Mozambican Women’s Day.
She will go down as one of Mozambique’s greatest women ever, and a true patriot who fought for women, and for her country.