JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
SINCE independence, one name has stood out, yet not much is known about the person behind that name.
Maina Soko’s legacy is immortalised in a military hospital named after her.
Maina Soko Military Hospital was initially a maternity annex for the University Teaching Hospital, built in the 1960s.
Then in 1979, it was converted into a military hospital to take care of military casualties of the liberation war.
When the army was looking for a name for the hospital, Maina Soko was suggested.
To many today, Maina Soko is nothing more than a military hospital located in Woodlands in Lusaka.
This is largely because little is known about Maina Soko; who she really was and what she did, has for four decades been shrouded in intrigue.
After her death decades ago, Maina Soko’s story simply faded and whenever it is told, it lacks distinction with so many grey areas. What remains are questions about her true identity and the role she played in the liberation struggle.
There are different conspiracy theories surrounding Maina Soko.
And perhaps that is what makes her story intriguing.
The Zambia Army portrays Maina Soko as a hero of the liberation war simply because of the way she died.
According to Brigadier-General Evans Malyangu, who is the commandant of Maina Soko Hospital, Maina Soko was a woman who lived in Chiawa in the 1970s.
And on a date unknown, but around the mid-1970s, Maina Soko fell ill and decided to travel from Chiawa to Chirundu to seek medical care.
She was travelling by canoe down the Zambezi River. The canoe was paddled by a male.
But when Southern Rhodesian soldiers spotted the canoe on the river, they fired on it.
“The Rhodesian troops were suspicious of these two people on the river, and therefore they decided to open fire and Maina Soko was hit, but she did not die on the spot,” says Gen. Malyangu.
The male she was with was unhurt and he paddled on until they reached Chirundu.
“Maina Soko was taken to a clinic in Chirundu where she was treated. The incident was reported to the Zambia Army troops who were operating along the border,” he says.
Maina Soko was later repatriated to UTH, where she died of her wounds and was buried at Chingwere cemetery.
But even the general has to admit there is little known about Maina Soko.
“We don’t know much about her because I suppose there was not much written about her, and over the years, we started losing details about Maina Soko,” he says.
“There are quite a number of versions concerning Maina Soko,” says the general.
The Army version of the story, according to the general, is based on information passed from Maina Soko’s cousin about two years ago.
The general says Maina Soko was considered a war hero because of the way she died.
“The government recognised the contribution she made, she was killed because of the liberation war in southern Africa, therefore, she was in actual fact a war hero,” says Gen. Malyangu.
But there are many civilians who were killed as a result of the liberation war for Southern Rhodesia, why Maina Soko was singled out by the government and military for such honours raises questions about who she really was and what she possibly did.
One man who has tried to discover Maina Soko is film-maker Abdon Yezi.
“What led us to start getting interested into this [Maina Soko story], is that apart from the military hospital, there is a lot of symbolism around her,” he says.
A major road in the city of Ndola, a road in Livingstone and Chipata and a council ward in Mufulira are also named after her.
“Whoever was behind raising the name from a civilian to a military establishment had the desire that this name should not go down,” he says.
Mr Yezi raises a fundamental question: “If Maina Soko was a civilian, how does she become much related to a military establishment, particularly the hospital?”
A few years ago, Mr Yezi began researching into Maina Soko, with the aim of making a film titled “The Intrigue of Maina Soko”.
At the beginning of his quest, which took him to Chiawa and Luangwa district, he did not even know whether Maina Soko was male or female.
The film-maker’s version also talks about a shooting incident on the river, corroborating the army version.
“What I didn’t get is whether she died immediately after being shot,” he says.
What he thinks he knows as a fact is that Maina Soko was a middle-aged female who had a disability.
She possibly walked with a limp.
The presence of a disabled woman traveling in a canoe down the river would have hardly alarmed the Rhodesian troops.
He also questions whether Maina Soko was taken advantage of because of her disability and used as a human shield.
There are hardly any written records about Maina Soko, even in the newspapers of that period.
“Unfortunately enough when we get into our archives trying to get a bit more of information, it doesn’t seem to come out. I spent quite some time in the National Archives to try and see whether the Daily Mail or Times or any other media had captured the story, unfortunately I couldn’t trace that,” he says.
Mr Yezi says the only reference he came across was by journalist Robby Makai who had covered the story when he worked for the Times of Zambia in the 1970s.
Lastly, I contacted Maina Soko’s granddaughter, who bears the same name as her grandmother, but she was reluctant to make any comment.
When we finally met, the young lady introduced me to a man called Martin Chipakatanew, and the story of Maina Soko took a new twist.
Martin Chipakata claims to be the custodian of the Maina Soko story.
He has researched into her story and has written a soon-to-be-published book titled “Maina Soko in the Shadow of Kenneth David Kaunda, Belligerence Intelligence”.
According to Mr Chipakata, Maina Soko was a spy who passed information from the British colonial government to Dr Kenneth Kaunda and the freedom fighters before independence.
Mr Chipakata describes Maina Soko as “an invisible spy” who was very good in espionage.
Maina Soko Kaliza was born in Chiawa and got married to a man called Paul Chipalupalu, who worked as a cook for a man called Peter Cliff.
Mr Cliff is described as a right-hand man to Sir Evelyn Hone, the last governor under the colonial government.
Maina Soko is thus believed to have had access to secret information about the colonial government, which she passed on the freedom fighters.
“She could give them precise information which she obtained from her husband and it was very helpful,” he says.
After independence, Maina Soko’s husband was offered a job as a driver by Mr Cliff who had resettled in Southern Rhodesia.
Maina Soko should have joined her husband later, but by then she had also become a target for the colonialists in Southern Rhodesia.
“They knew that if she joined her husband, she would continue passing information,” he says.
Sometime in 1965, Maina Soko is said to have suffered from leprosy and decided to seek medical care at a clinic called Mtendere in Chirundu.
“She went very early in the morning with a kid sometime in April. She was in a boat trying to get to the other side when bullets landed.
Maina Soko died shortly of her wounds and President Kaunda is said to have sent a plane to fetch her body.
Mr Chipakata says Maina was 67-years-old when she died.
He thinks Maina Soko’s death helped to spark the second Chimurenga war, an insurrection against white rule in Southern Rhodesia.
Mr Yezi says the theories of Maina Soko being involved in covert military activities cannot completely be dismissed.
“Maina Soko would be a very good symbol, even with the little information that is there around the role women played particularly in the liberation struggle,” he says.
“We need to start building around that symbolism, whether she was involved in covert activities or not, look at it in terms of what role she played,” he says.
He says since the army has patented the name, they need to raise it up a bit by documenting the story of Maina Soko.
Her granddaughter thinks her grandmother has not been honoured enough for what she did.
And she wants to know where she is buried.
Actually she thinks she is the reincarnation of her grandmother who sees things in the spirit.
JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka