Why As African Millennials We Must Re-Debate Colonial Rape

“I experienced a penis penetration when I was eight years old. My sister and I were sexually abused by a police inspector in 1962 in colonial Zimbabwe. My sister fell pregnant from rape.” 

Just a month ago, and 60 years on, a late-60s aunt of ours, an accomplished engineer who now lives in Europe, talked candidly for the first time. Beneath her astute smiles, lies emotional scars of colonial rape staged on her body. 

You might wonder why Africa´s millennials of today, the Tik-Tok generation, would damn care about some forced sex that happened in the '60s and '70s. That boat has sailed surely, isn´t it? Actually, we damn care! For three reasons. First, history vanishes from public books and speeches with time, but personal trauma stalks victims like a plague unless treated. Secondly, in our country of origin (Zimbabwe) some of the ruthless perpetrators of colonial rape are the decision-makers today. They are too feared to be reminded of their past deeds. Thirdly, unless history is examined openly, its sexual crimes are bound to be repeated. (And they repeated today from The Congo to Sudan)

With agonizing words spoken in the twilight of her life, our aunt painfully described what happened to black African women. First at the hands of colonial male administrators, later by male “freedom fighters”. She says it's important to continue talking even 1000 years from now because “A lot of health problems were to come! Moments of sadness, fog-brain, and mental confusion just kept coming without my notice, even today.” So, we will humanize the survivors of colonial rape through our aunt's lived experience, and tie it to a wider societal experience. But first a brief overview.

Our country, Zimbabwe, labored under British colonial rule for nearly 80 years. To subdue black men and coerce them into cheap laborers (cooks, gardeners) for European homes, the colonial regime targeted their black women. “Determined to assert their control, white colonial settlers went around villages shooting blacks, raping their women to make pay tax, forcing them into the white economy,” lamented the late scholar Jock McCulloch in his journal Black Peril, White Virtue: Sexual Crime in Southern Rhodesia, 1902-1935. 

Our aunt personifies this: “I was afraid to resist. My abuser was a powerful policeman in the colonial government, and I was just a girl - she says -The rape continued for three years, until I finally fled to a refugee camp, and ended up in Europe.”

As an anti-colonial bush war heated in the late '70s in Zimbabwe, the coin was flipped. Some black guerillas, armed with terrific guns, engaged in the rape of black women in villages they controlled, as a way of extracting support (actually instilling fear) for their anti-colonial war. “Black liberation guerrilla fighters raped villagers to keep them living in fear,” writes Zimbabwe history professor Jephias Dzimbanhete in the Small Wars Journal. Black rural women were taken away with impunity and expected to cook and entertain black guerillas as "comfort women" when the war entered its final year in 1979. Resisting sexual advances was futile, and interpreted as disloyalty. Growing up, our parents always regaled us with stories of attractive female cousins summoned to spent weekends "pleasing the guerillas" only to become casualties when the colonial airforce bombers swooped over their hideouts.  

Today, in our independent Zimbabwe, a former lawmaker and respected female combatant of the anti-colonial war, Ms. Margaret Dongo, told Noreen Welch, a critical writer, that “The truth of the matter has not yet been told….abuses of female ex-freedom fighters (in 70s) were so high and sophisticated that they deserve to be paid damages.”

Colonial rapes in our country are a hot potato because, white or black, no perpetrator has been punished. 

Still to this day, rape in Zimbabwe continues to deployed as a weapon of political humiliation. Some perpetrators of colonial rape hold important positions in our independent country. We cannot allow their conscience to hide. Finally, as the most digitally and connected generation, our smartphones must be the electronic archives that store the painful trauma of women who encountered colonial rape. We did that with our aunt as a small first step.


Written by Audrey Simango and Nyasha Bhobo

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