Passionate, independent, headstrong, intellectual …
Bience Gawanas has never learnt to stand back for anyone.
New Era reports.
By Catherine Sasman
Bience Gawanas fails to unlock the front door of her daughter’s house when New Era arrives for an interview that was hastily planned while in Namibia.
She leaves the following morning and her last day in the country is already ‘booked out’.
“Why don’t you go around and come in through the backdoor,” she laughs through the grated door.
This encounter perhaps in a way describes the woman Namibians have come to know and appreciate Gawanas: she appears informal and relaxed, polite, does not have time or patience for the superfluous; stripping an occasion of pointless frills and disguises, she is direct and to the point, no apologies made.
Gawanas has been representing Namibia and the continent on the African Commission as the Commissioner of Social Affairs in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia since 2003, a position she feels honoured to hold, and a position she takes on with all the seriousness and willfulness that it deserves.
“This has been a very empowering experience for me. I have learnt so much and I’ve started to read a lot about Africa because I want to understand where this continent is coming from,” she says after settling into the couch in the living room, cigarette in one hand and a steaming black coffee in the other.
She complains in the same breadth that Namibians are often too parochial, too inward-looking.
“We need to become more outward-looking to understand what is happening in the world. In Namibia the debate is still very much only about Namibia,” she says.
Gawanas has come a long way: from the intrepid schoolgirl, accidental teacher, political activist, unwilling victim of the liberation struggle, lawyer, and leader of the new Namibian society.
Gawanas was born in Windhoek’s Old Location in August 1956 and grew up in a big family of eleven children.
The family was forced to move to Katutura during the second wave of removals from the Old Location in 1968 when their home was finally bulldozed for them to get out after her father, Philemon Gawanab, and mother, Hilde Aebes, stubbornly refused to leave.
“I still remember those days. We used to go to school at St. Andrews in Khomasdal and we ended up being of the last children that walked from the Old Location to get to school,” she says.
In the end, her parents decided that the children should live with an uncle in Katutura, which was a more convenient arrangement to get to school in the morning. Her parents eventually also moved to Katutura.
“That is how Katutura became my new home until I left for Tses,” relates Gawanas.
Having gone to Ella du Plesssis High School in Khomasdal until Standard 7 [Grade 9], Gawanas met learners from Tses that December holiday and there and then decided to go and finish her schooling there. She was then 14 years old.
“I don’t know why I decided to go to Tses,” she laughs. “My friends told me about the Roman Catholic school there and I thought, well, I’ve never been there before.”
After much cajoling, her parents eventually capitulated and let their daughter go to Tses.
“My mother was surprised that I would trade a place I had no notion of with Windhoek, but I got packing and got on a train with a friend originally from Berseba.”
The two arrived at Tses on early morning, waited at the train station for the sun to come up and set off to the Catholic school. They did not apply to the new school, and arriving there only in March, the principal informed them that there was no place for them.
But Gawanas was adamant. She told the principal that there was no way that she could return to Windhoek, saying that she only had a single ticket, no return fare. And so they got accepted at the St. Theresa High School.
When she returned to Tses the following year after having completed her Standard 8 there, the principal again tried to persuade her to rather go back to Windhoek.
“But I told him I was not going to leave; I liked it there but I think I was a bit too active for them,” she says. She was later the only girl to matriculate in 1974. Others had fallen out and had gone to work as nurses in the newly built Katutura Hospital, others repeated a year or so.
“To this day I have such sentimental attachment to Tses. Since my return to Namibia at Independence, I have been there as a guest speaker at a matric farewell, and a reunion. In those days, there was not much going on there, but we kept ourselves busy with our debating society and I always played netball which I am passionate about.”
The Spark of a Lifelong Passion
At the end of her school years, Gawanas wanted to study law. This interest was sparked by an unresolved family tragedy. While still in her matric year, Gawanas received a call from home that her eldest brother, Joseph, had inexplicably disappeared. A few days later, another call from home brought her the sad news that her brother’s mutilated body was found along the Okahandja-Karibib highway.
“Our feeling at the time was that the police was not doing much to investigate what had happened to my brother. They merely claimed that he was run over by a car. But he had a cracked skull, one arm was basically torn off his body, both legs were broken and there were unexplained wounds all over his body as if a hot iron rod was pressed on him,” she recalls.
“By then I was very conscious of the situation in the country but that incident proved to me that as black people, we could never get justice. That is why I decided that I wanted to study law.”
She was also fuelled by her parents’ resolve to never give in, or give up on your dreams. Her father, although never a member of any political party, refused point blankly “to work for any white until the age of 85”.
Her father worked as a self-made mechanic, and hawked basic commodities on farms. When her father was later disallowed from trading and doing business, her mother had to step up as the breadwinner of the house from her wages as a domestic worker.
“I cannot say I was an activist at that time, but I knew what was going on and my brother’s death was the turning point for me,” she says.
Failing to secure financial backing to go to university, Gawanas spent 1975 as an assistant teacher at the A.I. Steenkamp School in Katutura.
In 1976 she got a bursary from the Roman Catholic Church and started her law degree at the University of Western Cape in South Africa.
But ten months later, she was expelled from the university for her involvement in the student boycotts and uprisings of that politically turbulent year.
On her way back home, she met other expelled students in Keetmanshoop and they discussed how to make a difference and their involvement in the anti-Apartheid struggle.
“By then I had already joined SWAPO; we were from the SWAPO Youth League.”
She decided to leave the country the next year, like so many other young Namibians had opted to do.
Because she had a travel permit, she left for Botswana on her own, and first touched down in Gaborone.
“The first thing was that the Botswana Police wanted to know why I was there and how I had entered the country because I did not walk across the border like so many other people had done at the time. The police finally put me in touch with the SWAPO office in Francistown where I spent a couple of days before I boarded a plane to Zambia.”
Life in Exile
After some months in Lusaka, Gawanas was assigned by SWAPO to go to Nyango, the refugee camp for Namibians.
“I was told that I should go and teach there,” she says. “Initially the conditions in the refugee camp were tough on me. I was a city girl and did not even know how to carry water on my head or how to make a fire,” she says.
But what she also remembers from the refugee camp is the “real community spirit, the camaraderie”.
“As a teacher, I was very respected and also became part of the camp council,” she says.
She taught school-aged children in the mornings and adults in the afternoon. She also became involved in the SWAPO women’s council and held regular meetings in the camp to discuss what women’s roles should be in the liberation movement.
“Women were in a Catch 22 situation at the time,” she says. “Then it was a matter of the extent to which we were prepared to put women’s issues on the backburner while fighting as oppressed people understanding that we suffered the triple oppression as women. Within the SWAPO movement there were obviously sexist tendencies and it was important that we keep challenging those tendencies and for us to be seen as equal in our fight for liberation of Namibia.”
What was also important to women, Gawanas says, is that women needed to understand the opportunities available to them to further their studies instead of merely accepting their fate as perpetual refugees.
On entering the refugee camp, she also discovered that she was pregnant.
She later gave birth to a baby daughter in the hospital at Nyango camp.
“I remember waking up in the hospital and someone walked in with a tea set; they made me some tea and when I was released from the hospital, students came and said they could not give me gifts but could assist in washing nappies or drawing water.”
In 1979 Gawanas was assigned to go to Cuba, on the Island of Youth, where she was to teach Namibian students English and Civics [entailing what democracy and capitalism are, how governments work, what the rights and obligations of citizens are, and so on], History and Geology.
It was a year after the Cassinga Massacre, and Gawanas and other Namibian teachers were placed in charge of many of the traumatized victims of the massacre.
“We [the teachers] ended up being social workers, mothers and fathers to these children,” she says. To this day many of these children still call Gawanas ‘mom’.
After two years in Cuba, she was again posted to work as a teacher in Angola at a school in Sumbe.
In 1981, the chance to return to her law studies was afforded her when she was offered a scholarship through the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to do a course in labour matters.
She spent her internship in Geneva and then went to England to do comparative labour law studies offered at post-graduate level.
“After I completed this, I got very good recommendations from my lecturers to SWAPO and the party agreed that I got a scholarship to complete my studies.”
In the UK, and Elsewhere
With her young daughter safely in the care of other ‘comrades’ in the Zambian refugee camp, Gawanas set off to study a four-year law degree at the University of Warrick in Coventry, United Kingdom.
“It was very difficult to leave my daughter behind,” she recalls. “But I used to go back to visit her, and I understood that I could not be with her. There was a general rule that the children had to remain behind when the parents had either gone off to the battlefront or to school.”
During her time in the UK Gawanas blossomed into a public speaker of note. As part of their duties as SWAPO members, they were go do public lectures at schools and colleges or to the general public.
What stands out for her is the time when she had to represent a SWAPO representative at an important African National Congress (ANC) event one 16 December.
“I will never forget that day. I arrived in a khaki pants and a red beret. I don’t think the ANC delegation was very impressed with me. Their speaker was Alfred Nzo, the Secretary-General of the ANC at the time. When I got onto the stage, I noticed delegates from the anti-apartheid movement and other groups. This was my first real public speaking engagement.”
Although she had scribbled notes to help her along, she decided to speak off the cuff and from the heart. At the end of the speech, the hall stood up and cheered.
Always busy and active, Gawanas also supported other people’s struggles, notably the Palestinian and the Irish course. She served as the chairperson of the SWAPO student association at Warrick, the SWAPO cultural group, scripted and performed in a drama called Separation, traveled the UK for more public addresses, and as a result often had to study on trains and busses on her way to the examination halls.
In 1985 Gawanas also took her play to the World Youth Congress in Moscow, where SWAPO President Sam Nujoma and other SWAPO leaders for the first time saw her play and were moved by the plotline or a family caught in the war situation in northern Namibia.
There she was asked to join the Ndilimane Troupe to travel through Scandanavia for about three weeks.
“It was really great; the support we garnered through that was enormous. To this day Ndilimane thinks I am part of them.”
During Namibia’s centenary celebrations in 1994, Jackson Kaujeua went from Angola to perform in the UK. He was late by three hours and because tickets were sold out, Gawanas and Ndilimane had to entertain the audience while waiting for him. When he finally arrived, Gawanas and another woman had to stand in as backing vocalists with mini-skirts, dance routines and all. She later joined Kaujeua on a ten-day tour through the UK as a backing vocalist.
After her four years at Warrick she did her pupilage at a “rebel chamber”, who auspiciously for her, was involved in an internationally high-profile case of the Birmingham Six – six men accuse false of bombing a public space in Birmingham; after numerous appeals they were found not guilty and set free.
“This case added to my sense of fairness and justice and my attitude towards the legal system. I realized justice was not a black-and-white issue; I realized the struggle for fairness and justice was everywhere,” she reminisces. “Justice was not readily available to everyone.”
Detained, Dark Clouds
After completing her studies, Gawanas decided to enroll at the London School of Economics to do International Human Rights Law in 1988. But before it was the end of one school year with three months of holiday in between, she went to Zambia to visit her daughter.
“That was when I got arrested,” she says grimly.
Arriving at the airport in Lusaka, SWAPO security officers picked her up and took her to a house without explaining where her child was or why she was being taken to the house.
“I did not think there was something strange. We were always received by SWAPO officials for clearance because we did not need visas.”
After spending a day at the house, Gawanas says she knew she was being ‘picked up’.
“Since 1981 we heard of fellow refugees and students who have just disappeared. That was the beginning of the SWAPO spy drama. We knew it was happening but it was never openly discussed.”
She was then taken to the airport again to board a flight to Angola. “I had the opportunity to raise hell at the airport and to say that I was not getting on the plane, but I knew …”
Her immediate reaction was anger. Angry for not being given the opportunity to see her daughter [who she later discovered was waiting somewhere else at the airport for her], and angry that she was not told what she was suspected of.
For the next five months Gawanas was held in solitary confinement in Lubango where she was repeatedly interrogated and tortured. She was forced to ‘confess’ that she was indeed a South African spy and under severe mental and physical stress, she did confess.
“What I could not manage was that there was no justice in the whole thing; I was never given the opportunity to speak and the people who detained and accused me who had the burden to prove my guilt, never did,” she says.
Free at Last
But bitterness and hatred is not part of her vocabulary, and when Gawanas was released from Lubango, she returned to work at the SWAPO office in Luanda where she was rejoined by her daughter.
In 1989 she returned to Namibia, and worked at the Legal Assistant Centre.
She was later appointed member of the Public Service Commission and later became Namibia’s Ombudswoman.
“When I returned I felt I have delivered Namibia; I have made my contribution whether it was recognised or not. I know deep down inside that I have fought for this country. I sat down with my family and told them what had happened, and was very fortunate to have had their full support. ”
In parting, says Gawanas, Namibia should not let its hard-won freedom slip through its fingers.
“I think we should put high standards for ourselves and continue to aspire to those standards. Many people have died for this country and we owe it to them to make things work.”