Stalwart nurse reunited with her parents after decades in Tanzania

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Kholeka Tunyiswa’s ashes will be buried in Gqeberha.
Kholeka Tunyiswa’s ashes will be buried in Gqeberha.


All that Kholeka Tunyiswa, a South African nursing stalwart based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, wanted was for her ashes to be buried in the same graveyard as her parents and siblings in Gqeberha, Eastern Cape.

Even though Tunyiswa, who died at the age of 87, went into exile at the age of 25, her niece, Noluthukela Mguca, said her aunt had never forgotten about her roots, as she was always in touch with relatives back home and would sometimes visit her family.

According to the Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa), Tunyiswa left the country with a group of other nurses who were recruited by the South African liberation movement to help revive nursing in the independent state of Tanzania in 1961, at the behest of then president Julius Nyerere, following the departure of many British nurses from that country.

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Sister Kholeka, as Tunyiswa was known to many, passed away on March 5 in Dar es Salaam and was cremated during a private ceremony on March 6.

Her remains arrived at OR Tambo International Airport on Tuesday, as the country celebrated Human Rights Day.

On Wednesday, her ashes were flown to Gqeberha, where she was welcomed by practising and retired members of Denosa, as well as nurses of her generation from her township, Motherwell.

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“I was not yet born when she and my other aunt, Edith, went into exile, but my grandmother used to show us their pictures. She said that she [Tunyiswa] had left South Africa to train as a nurse in exile. I remember back then, police used to come to our home asking about their whereabouts and also wanting to know if there was any communication with the two sisters,” Mguca said.

Once, the liberation struggle comrades even organised for the grandmother to meet with her two children, as she was worried about them.

Mguca said: 

She was very excited when she came back, as she could see that they were still alive. However, after 1994, we were able to communicate freely with them. Aunt Edith came back and was based in Johannesburg, but she sadly passed away in 2021. Meanwhile, aunt Kholeka remained in Tanzania, as she was married and had her own family there. However, she would visit. Sadly, the last time she visited was in 2008 “She always insisted that she wanted to be buried in a grave next to her parents and siblings. I am excited that her last wishes will be fulfilled

Tunyiswa’s daughter, Joyce Shaabani, says her mother always told them that the day would come for her to return home and she would visit all her family members in various parts of the Eastern Cape.

“This finally happened in 1991, after the unbanning of the liberation movements and the return of exiles. She visited her family members at Mount Coke, King William’s Town [now Qonce], Keiskammahoek and Twecu in Middledrift,” Shaabani said.

She described her mother as a loving and caring person who was welcoming to everyone.

“Our home was always full of visitors, young and old, from the then exiled ANC and local friends. She was outspoken and also very strict. She loved her mother tongue, isiXhosa, and taught us about respect and her culture.”

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Denosa national spokesperson Sibongiseni Delihlazo said Nyerere had been propelled to ask then ANC president Oliver Tambo to export South African nurses to revive the east African country’s healthcare system.

“The recruitment of the nurses had to be done as an underground operation since the ANC and other political parties were banned,” said Delihlazo.

Tunyiswa’s memorial service will be held in Gqeberha.

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