Thu. May 13th, 2021

The Untold Story of the 20 Nightingales: A Contribution Never To Be Forgotten.

As Aunt Edith Thunyiswa is laid to rest today, it is time to reflect on the role that she and her colleagues played in the post-independence nursing crisis in Tanzania.

When Tanganyika (subsequently referred to as Tanzania) obtained independence on 9 December 1961, it immediately faced a problem of British nurses who began to resign, preferring to return to Britain rather than work under a black government.

In early 1962, President Julius Nyerere approached OR Tambo who was in Dar, to help recruit nurses from South Africa to fill that gap. OR Tambo relayed the message to the leadership back home. Besides, black nurses were also disgruntled by a new Nurses Act, which provided for separate training of nurses according to their racial group.

The leadership put a system in place to source the nurses. Albertina Sisulu who was a qualified nurse herself, was tasked to recruit in the Transvaal. Johnny Makhathini was tasked to recruit in Natal, and Govan Mbeki was to recruit in the Eastern Cape.

A group of 20 nurses were identified. Edith Thunyiswa was part of the group. Other members included her sister, Kholeka Thunyiswa.
The Group of 20 Nurses:

  1. Edith Thunyiswa
  2. Kholeka Thunyiswa
  3. Edith Ncwana
  4. Edna Miya
  5. Celia Khuzwayo,
  6. Georginah Masusu
  7. Mavis Motha
  8. Mary-Jane Socenywa 9. Nomava Ndamase
  9. Fine Lukhe
  10. Sina Jali
  11. Edna Mgabaza
  12. Mary Mwandla
  13. Natalie Msimang
  14. Hilda Fonqo
  15. Victoria Magodla
  16. Nosipho Mshumpela
  17. Neo Ratladi
  18. Nicolene Legodi
  19. Mini Sekgatle

    The nurses travelled from Johannesburg to Bechuanaland in a bus driven by a white student from Wits University, disguised as a priest.

    At the border, the ‘priest’ told immigration officials that he was taking the nurses to Bechuanaland to attend a funeral of one of their colleagues. They crossed successfully. He dropped them at Fish Keitsing’s house in Lobatse. Keitsing was involved with the ANC underground.

    After waiting for a month, they were picked up by a chartered flight sent by the Tanzanian government.

    Upon arrival in Tanzania, they were placed in Dar es Salaam and Mwanza. Edith Thunyiswa was placed at a regional government hospital at Mbeya, where she treated patients, trained and supervised local nurses. This was done by all the nurses of SA to upgrade their Tanzanian colleagues to the level of registered nurses. They also encouraged them to form the Tanganyika Nursing Association similar to the South African Nursing Association.

    Edith Thunyiswa also used her stay in Mbeya to help many ANC activists who were in transit to Dar es Salaam. She used her meagre salary to provide exiles with accommodation, food and money for transport to their final destination. She was to look after the health of various generations in the movement, through the decades.

    1.Edith ThunyiswaThis episode was arguably and uniquely the first of its kind, where a Liberation Movement would assist to solve problems of an independent country.

    Edith Thunyiswa and Kholeka Thunyiswa had an ancestral home in Middledrift, EC. As the nurses were maturing in age, they also had to attend to their personal lives. Kholeka Thunyiswa is still married to her Tanzanian husband in Dar es Salaam.

    Edith Thunyiswa married a member of the Luthuli Detachment, Aaron Pemba (MK: Ben Bella or Uncle B. B). He had been a trade unionist of note in Port Elizabeth in the 1950’s.

    Nomava Ndamase married Vusi Africa Shangase in 1963. They left for studies in the USSR. Thus, the original Nursing Sister, Nomava Ndamase, became Dr Nomava Shangase. She was a camp doctor of the June 16 Detachment at Novo Catengue, Benguela Province, Southern Angola in 1977. There was also Dr Peter Mfelang in the camp.
    Dr Nomava, as she was popularly known, moved with us to Quibaxe in 1978. She rescued me from my first bout of Malaria. Sadly, she lost her life in a car accident in Angola in 1981.

    Other nurses settled in Zambia and various parts of Europe. Victoria Magodla and Nosipho Mshumpela settled in Kenya.

    Edith Thunyiswa continued her good work as a caring professional, within the Health Team of the ANC in Dar es Salaam and Lusaka, over many years. He continued her good work with the ANC Health Team at the dawn of democracy.

    She passed away at 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria, on 4 January 2021.
    Her sister, Kholeka Thunyiswa, was my neighbor at Magomeni in Dar es Salaam in 1991/92. She lamented the fact that we were going back home without the film documentary they were once promised ever happening. The story of the 20 Nightingales needs to be comprehensively documented in the movement’s archives. Their contribution must never be forgotten.

    May Aunt Edith’s Soul Rest In Peace.

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