Transnational Military Training in Boma, Eastern Angola

From mid-1977 to 1979, over 6,000 soldiers of the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZPRA) were trained by Cuban and Soviet instructors at Luena (previously Vila Luso) and – primarily – in nearby Boma, a former mission station that was expanded with row upon row of ‘barracks’ that took the shape of long, hammock-filled, open-sided sheds. These men, trained sequentially in groups of 2,000 for six months each, would constitute close to a third of ZPRA’s trained men by the end of the war. They played a vital role in the introduction of conventional tactics to what had largely been a guerrilla war. Despite its significance, Boma barely merits a footnote in histories of the global Cold War, of ZPRA and the Zimbabwean liberation struggle,or of Rhodesian counterinsurgency. Our research focused on the life stories of the ZPRA trainees. Some 40 years had passed since their Boma training, but these men retained vivid memories of their experience and a lasting attachment to the military identity summed up in the Spanish cry ‘Adelante!’ (Forward!).

The ZPRA men who made the perilous journey by truck from Zambia to Boma were not blank slates: they brought ideas about race and exploitation rooted in Rhodesian history; they were already engaged in nationalist politics;and they had had an at times brutal induction to the mentality of the soldier in ZPRA’s Zambian camps. This latter had stressed physical fortitude and bodily, emotional and political discipline amidst difficult material conditions, Rhodesian bombings and attacks, and divisive rumours. Boma by contrast was isolated, hierarchical and orderly. But it also presented new challenges. One vividly and universally recalled shock was the notoriously meagre rations of rice and beans, served in a tin. The Angolan-trained men’s nickname – ‘bafana we gapha’ (the boys of the tins) – was owed to this regime. But this was not an entirely negative memory as it was associated with pride in bodily endurance and a thin physique and came to be seen as a necessary preparation for war. ZPRA veterans depicted the Cubans as acting in their interests in this and other respects, for example in the medical treatment they offered and in the response (alongside that of their Angolan hosts, the MPLA government) to the Rhodesian bombing of the camp in 1979. These actions were interpreted as real, material solidarity, expressed as bodily care.

Boma’s military training proper was remembered in a similar light of international solidarity, but with particular features produced by the interactions with Cuban and Soviet military culture and history. Adelante! was a war cry, an attitude, a politics and a strategy. It described a feeling for war that transformed men from the hit-and-run guerrilla to the hit-and-advance conventional soldier, a shift that required inculcating confidence and relations of trust. These latter were built on tales of the military successes of the Cubans in the defence of Luanda in 1975 and in the Cuban revolution itself; they were reinforced through shared histories of slavery and racial oppression as well as a socialist internationalism that trumped race, as evidenced most powerfully by the presence of Russian advisers. Cuban instructors also communicated an attitude of masculine arrogance and ambition, embodied in Fidel Castro and Che Guevara,that fired the imaginations of these young men and challenged in particular Rhodesian ideas about racial superiority and deference. All this was backed up by the awesome power of Soviet weaponry in use at the camp and mythologised in heroic tales of battles alongside the MPLA against the might of Apartheid South Africa’s military. High morale was further bolstered by the Cuban stress on live ammunition training. Our informants emphasised that this method had effectively prepared them to face the well-armed Rhodesian enemy. 

Boma was thus a productive, important site in which Cubans and Zimbabweans came together in a common pursuit of military capacity and high morale, expressed in the war cry Adelante!, embodied in the wiry physiques of the bafana we gapha, and enabled by the mastery of Soviet weaponry. ZPRA veterans described themselves as transformed by Boma’s regime. They felt able to match a conventional opponent and were motivated by the internationalist imaginary formed in the camp. The subsequent integration of these men into ZPRA’s hierarchies and strategy on their return to the movement’s rear bases in Zambia was not smooth – their distinctive military identity at times put them at odds with those trained elsewhere and differently – but they would have a significant impact on the remainder of Zimbabwe’s war.

This story is already fascinating but will benefit from further accounts from the Soviet and Cuban instructors, translators and advisors who were at Luena and Boma, and from additional photographic and other records. For a start, see the images of Boma under the ‘images of solidarity’ section. We hope to find some. For further on Boma, see J. Alexander and J. McGregor, ‘Adelante! Military Imaginaries, the Cold War, and Southern Africa’s Liberation Armies’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 62, 3 (2020), 619-50

Jocelyn Alexander