Who am I ?
Before he was assassinated by book bomb in 1969, Eduardo Mondlane, Janet’s grandfather, was trying to force the colonial Portuguese government out of Portuguese East Africa. (Today, we call it Mozambique.) After seven years at the head of Frente de Libertação Moçambique (better known by the acronym FRELIMO), Mondlane controlled a formidable guerrilla army and was courting aid from both the capitalist West and the communist East. His daughter, Chude
Mondlane, is Janet’s mother.
Eduardo was born in 1920 in the country he would not live to see liberated. His father was a tribal chief, and his mother was one of six wives. Chude Mondlane says that her father was a goatherd for the first 12 years of his life: “The soles of his feet were thick as cows’ hides. I was fascinated by them as a little girl.” Offered an education in a religious school run by Swiss missionaries, Eduardo eventually left for America and Oberlin College in central Ohio. It was 1951. Thirty-one years old, six feet tall, and imposing in stature, Eduardo stood out among the freshman class.
There, Eduardo pursued a degree in anthropology and sociology. Simultaneously, he was pursued by Janet Rae Johnson. The pair had met at a Christian summer camp and began a five-year courtship. Both prolific writers, they penned hundreds of letters to one another. “My mother was a white, Presbyterian girl from the Midwest,” Chude recalls. “My father was being trained to return to Mozambique as a religious leader. She was 17, and she fell madly in love with him. He just happened to have the future of a nation on his shoulders.” After Oberlin, Eduardo began graduate work at Northwestern University. (When Johnson joined him there as an undergraduate, her incensed mother told the provost that his daughter was emotionally unstable for wanting to be with a black man, and refused to pay her tuition.) After attaining his Master’s in anthropology, he became the first black Mozambican to earn a doctorate degree.
In the late 1950s, a job with the United Nations brought him back to Portuguese East Africa, where he found his home in the throes of political unrest. He returned to the States to teach at Syracuse University, but by 1963, his country—and its fight for freedom—beckoned. Eduardo had moved his family to the newly independent Tanzania, and there, in Dar es Salaam, FRELIMO was founded. With overwhelming popular support, Eduardo was elected its first leader.
The period was a dangerous one. Eduardo quickly became one of the most recognizable—and thus carefully monitored—revolutionaries in Africa. In an iconic photo, he wears a soldier’s patrol cap; his gaze looks pensive, his broad features almost anguished. In another, he and the Argentinean guerrilla Che Guevara sit at a table in animated discussion.
He was killed when Chude was 11. Independence was still six years away. But his bloodlines carry his legacy. “He had an amazing, charismatic personality. You felt like the only person in the whole world when he was talking to you. I think I see some of that in Janet,” says Chude. “She brings people into her world, but at the same time, she’s willing to walk into any world. She’s the granddaughter of great African leaders,” Chude continues, “and the great-granddaughter of a tribal chief. She can’t separate that from herself.”