Nqobile Tshili, Chronicle Reporter
HER great-great-grandfather was part of King Lobengula’s revered Imbizo Regiment which was known for being fearless and participated in the Gadade Battle in Ntabazinduna before defeating the Allan Wilson Patrol in Pupu, Lupane.
Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) Headquarters Bulawayo District Commander, Colonel Ossie Oli Mhandu (61), who is based at Imbizo Barracks is the first woman in the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) to lead a military formation.
She was born Ossie Ngwenya in Godlwayo, Filabusi in 1960.
A widow and mother of seven, she was elevated to become a commander in 2018, having been in the ZNA since December 1, 1980.
She is a veteran of the liberation struggle who was married to a decorated soldier, Retired Brigadier-General Kimmy Mhandu, who passed on in 2016.
Col Mhandu believes that her rise in the military is directly connected to her forefather’s military background.
At 17, she was already a military instructor during the war of independence while in Zambia. Col Mhandu survived the Mkushi Camp massacre after the Ian Smith regime bombed the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (Zipra) female camp, where about 500 youthful freedom fighters perished.
A Chronicle news crew yesterday caught up with Col Mhandu at Imbizo Barracks where she took the crew through her life journey and historic rise in a male-dominated field.
She narrated how she was recruited into joining the war by Umzingwane MP, Retired Brigadier-General Levi Mayihlome when she was just a Form Three pupil at Ihlathi Secondary School in Sizinda, Bulawayo in 1977.
She left a note under a pillow alerting her sister that she was joining the war.
The commander said had she told her sister about her plans face-to-face, she was going to be blocked as she was still a child. Her sister, who was in her 30s, was her guardian as both her parents had died.
Col Mhandu, was born in Filabusi and did her primary education at Mbawulo Primary School in the same area, before moving to Bulawayo in 1975.
In Zambia she ended up rising to become a camp instructor and then became a commander with the rank of a deputy brigadier.
In some pictures taken during the liberation struggle, she can be seen with the likes of Retired Colonel Tshinga Dube, whom she described as a close friend.
“To tell you about my journey to the struggle I have to take you back so that you can appreciate my background. The reason I’m here, I feel could be connected to my great great grandfather. My great grandfather was Maphongwana, he was an Imbizo Regiment warrior fighting under King Mzilikazi and served under King Lobengula as well. He is part of the warriors that fought the Gadade Battle. He led Yingena troops under the Imbizo Regiment. I believe this background led me to join the liberation struggle,” said Col Mhandu.
She said after joining the liberation struggle in May 9, 1977, she trained for six months and the journey has been long: surviving the war, being attested into the ZNA in 1980 and rising through the ranks to her current post.
“My appointment is historic in the sense that I’m the first female commander to lead a formation in the Zimbabwe Defence Forces. I’m paving a way for others to follow suit. Some say I’m the first in Africa but I’m not sure if I’m the first in Africa. What I know is that I’m the first female commander to command a formation here in Zimbabwe,” she said.
She said her elevation confirms that ZNA recognises and respects gender equality.
Col Mhandu said while her promotion is historic, it is a result of discipline, loyalty and determination in the military and for any soldier to rise, they need to have those qualities.
She said in 1997 she was the first woman in the military to be promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer Class 1 and has been rising ever since.
She said, however, as a female commander she has to be firmer as some men do not believe that a woman can lead.
“Men in general don’t want to accept that women can command in the military. They don’t want to be commanded by a woman but as a woman you have to be bold. Even in making decisions, you have to be firm, there is no time of being apologetic when you take a decision; stand by it and they will respect you for that. So, I don’t have a challenge with my soldiers, not even with my commanders because they know that I can work without an incident,” she said.
“No one can come and try to challenge me and if someone tries use his masculinity, if I suspect that you are trying to disrespect me you will be in for it. If you make a slight mistake, ngiyakijumpisa kuphela so that you realise that I am a commander and something of similar nature does not happen again. Because if you show weakness, they can easily try to take advantage.”
Col Mhandu said the Mkushi Camp bombing has shaped who she is and her promotion in the military is linked to how she emerged during the war.
“That bombing made me to be fearless and being fearless is what has led me to rise to the position that I’m holding today in the ZNA, to be very strong soldier. A man cannot simply challenge me because I can tell some of them that they don’t have the stamina, they have not experienced what I have gone through,” she said as she briefly giggled.
Col Mhandu said she lost two of her best friends during the Mkushi attack, stating that it was only through God’s grace that she survived.
“God intervenes when He wants you to survive. It was a sudden attack and in such an attack you just see yourself having survived. So, I just used tactics but most people died during that attack. A sudden attack is difficult to prepare even though we were on high alert as we had already learnt that Freedom Camp had been bombed,” said Col Mhandu.
“So, we were just on standby but we not expecting it, we just thought who would bomb a women’s camp leaving men. So, being vigilant helps; that is what helped most of us during that attack. Most of the recruits died during the attack as they entered pits that we had dug.
There was the next camp which had trained cadres, so the helicopters were hitting our camp before hitting another camp which was just a kilometre away. Most of the cadres drowned as they tried to escape by plunging into a river.”
She said after coming back home, she was married just after independence.
As a parting shot, Col Mhandu encouraged women to aim higher saying it was possible to have a female general, especially if men are supportive.
“It’s very possible to have a female commander, because if I was younger, I would have aimed to get there but I’m towards retirement where we have to leave some of these positions for younger generations. I want to encourage other females in Africa and the world at large not to look down upon themselves. There is much need for females to aim high and display their capabilities as I have done. I have tried and I hope there can copy from what I’ve done; maybe it can assist them. They need to have role models to look up to, I also had them,” said Col [email protected]