Ph.D. candidate uses his personal experience growing up in Zimbabwe’s Honde Valley to inform his research
Nicholas Nyachega was born in the Honde Valley of Zimbabwe, near the border with Mozambique, during the Mozambican Civil War. Because of his village’s proximity to the fighting, his family moved into Chavhanga Primary school camp, protected by the Zimbabwe military, between 1989 and 1990.
Nyachega grew up hearing about his family’s time in the camp, and about how his village had been transformed into a contested war zone during the Zimbabwe War of Liberation since the late 1970s. These stories stuck with him, and became an entry point to his research as a Ph.D. candidate in African history.
As a master’s student at Rhodes University in South Africa, his research focused on life in Zimbabwe’s Honde Valley borderlands during the Zimbabwe War of Liberation, from 1965-1979, and Mozambican Civil War, from 1977-1992.
“I was really thinking about what can we learn beyond violence or suffering,” Nyachega said. “What was happening beyond killings? What was happening beyond the moment of bombing, the moment of attack?”
Nyachega explained that between 1977 and 1979, many villagers in Zimbabwe were being forced into protected camps known as keeps. While thousands were forced into the keeps, others evaded colonial authorities and crossed the border into Mozambique. Nyachega looked at the everyday life of people on both sides of the border — for example, how were they farming and trading across the border?
“Violence happened. People suffered,” he said. “But my research highlights life. People were not always dying. People were not always burying each other. People were living, people were marrying, people were drinking beer. There were businesses, even during wartime.”
His Ph.D. research on Inyanga and Honde Valley builds on this work, as well as his personal experiences growing up in the Honde Valley.
“I had friends who came from the Mozambican side of the border,” Nyachega said. “I remember going to the Mozambican side, sometimes to hunt or to play with friends or even gather wild fruit. But I didn’t really think about the border at that time — just about seeing my friends.”
His current work examines how access to social services like schools and healthcare is affected by the border and how such everyday experiences can help us think about what nation states mean.
“People did not think about the colonial border when it was delimited and negotiated by the Portuguese and British between 1891 and 1911,” he said. “We have these boundaries that we use today but what are the meanings of these boundaries to the locals? When the border was created, what problems and opportunities emerged?”
Some village chiefs contested the border and its placement, and some cases even went to court. Nyachega is using court cases from the Inyanga and Honde Valley borderlands to show how Africans responded to the border’s creation and to displacement from their ancestral homelands by European settlers.
“Basically, the story is about how borders shape peoples’ struggles, how borders shape people’s lives, and how people protest and exploit these borders in their daily lives,” Nyachega explained.
He highlighted how in the colonial era, Africans were banned from buying land in European areas or from crossing the border without a “native pass” issued by the colonial government. Yet, people found ways around these rules.
“I take that story into the present time, where I can center my lived experience,” Nyachega said.
He cited the example of families who live on the Mozambican side of the border, but have Zimbabwe identity cards.
“How would they navigate their daily lives? To which state do they pay allegiance?” he asked.
Nyachega has received a Beyond Borders dissertation research fellowship (2021-2022) and the Beyond Borders dissertation completion fellowship from the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius Foundation to support his work. He is also a scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC).
“ICGC has been a home to me for the past six years, since I joined the University of Minnesota,” Nyachega said. “I’m very grateful for the funds, but beyond that, I think my scholarship has developed tremendously because of what ICGC has offered me.”
He explained that as a new international student, overwhelmed by all the new things to learn, ICGC was a place he could stop in, grab coffee, meet with friends, and talk about his classes. His conversations there encouraged him to try classes in different departments, and even complete ICGC’s graduate minor, Development Studies and Social Change.
Nyachega also highlighted how ICGC has helped him connect with scholars outside the U.S. He has participated in the Winter School at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, an annual workshop on topics in the humanities held in partnership with the Centre for Humanities Research and ICGC through funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He has also made many friends among ICGC’s visiting scholars.
“Meeting these people from diverse backgrounds, and having them share their experiences with me, has been important in how my scholarship and networks have developed,” he said.