Freedom fighter comes clean

It's easy to ignore janitors, especially if they do a good job. Generally, people don't give a passing glance to the people who clean our dirty toilets. Fewer still strike up conversations with them.

It’s easy to ignore janitors, especially if they do a good job.

Generally, people don’t give a passing glance to the people who clean our dirty toilets. Fewer still strike up conversations with them.

And that’s our loss.

Take, for example, Amutenya Kudumo Ausiku, who for many years was known by his nickname – Lyangurungunda or “fearless warrior.”

Most people in Whitehorse call him David.

Born in Namibia, David helped start a political party to fight apartheid. He was arrested, beaten and nearly killed by white police. He went into exile. He ran a rebel radio program. He wrote many books, including a dictionary.

Now he cleans the Yukon Arts Centre.

David is a gaunt man who looks much younger than his 76 years.

At the library a couple weeks ago, he showed off the different incarnations of his life’s work – a dictionary translating English into his native language of Rukwangali.

David started this dictionary when he was in exile in Angola, as a member of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO).

“I was very, very active,” he said describing his younger years.

“I suffered a lot more than others.”

After the First World War, the League of Nations gave what was then known as South-West Africa, formally a German colony, to Britain. It soon became a de facto fifth province of South Africa.

In 1948, the National Party won elections in South Africa and introduced apartheid legislation. That was bad news for David and the majority black population of Namibia.

“When we used to work, we used to be paid very small,” said David.

“It is not even a quarter of which they paid a white person. It is far from a quarter.”

As a young farmhand, he was paid 25 cents a day.

“So, because of that, we thought we should do something about it.”

David become involved with the Owamboland People’s Organization.

“We managed to organize people to demonstrate or to strike for better pay,” he said.

“Nobody milked, nobody went to look for sheep, nobody cooked in the kitchen or washed dishes, all those things.”

The strike was successful and pay was raised to a range of $1 day or even $50 a week.

But then the white landowners and police began to push back.

In 1956, David was first arrested and jailed for political activism.

He was held in neighbouring Botswana for three weeks and was repeatedly beaten and tortured.

David was detained many times after that. Often police would take him to the bush, beat and torture him, and leave him for dead.

“I don’t know why I didn’t die,” he said.

“Many people would see that I was missing and say, ‘David has been killed.’ When I came back, they thought they were seeing a ghost.”

This happened more times than he can remember.

But he does remember the last time.

It was in 1978. David was abducted during the night, beaten and taken to a clandestine prison in the bush.

The plan was to force him to walk through an old mine field.

What happened next was miraculous, something David attributes to God.

A Christian, David has found much of his strength and inspiration from the Bible. In fact, much of his revolutionary spirit comes from reading the book and comparing his plight to that of the Israelites in Egypt.

“When I read the Bible, I knew that it didn’t go with the laws that were oppressing us – that’s why I was so active in organizing the other fellows,” he said.

“And when I read the story of Jesus, I knew. This guy is the right guy.”

When David was sitting in his cell, waiting to die in the minefield, Jesus came to his rescue, he said.

The soldiers holding him were waiting for an officer to arrive.

However, the officer’s jeep inexplicably broke down along the way. And his radio refused to work.

When this officer failed to show, the other soldiers began to panic, fearing that he’d been attacked by rebel groups in the area.

They went to search for him.

David was left alone with a young, white police officer who had a telephone.

He pleaded with the officer to let him use the phone. David owned a shop at the time, and owed a white wholesaler a lot of money. He didn’t want to die without paying the debt.

He convinced the officer to let him make the call. David told the wholesaler’s wife how to get his car out of the garage, which could be sold to cover the debt.

Confused, the woman asked where David was and what was happening to him.

He replied he was in police custody, and hung up.

By the next day, the superior officer had arrived at the camp. As he was to give the order for David to enter the minefield, the phone rang.

The commander answered, but the call was for David. It was the wholesaler.

The commander said he had the wrong number.

“No, this is the number David called from,” the wholesaler said.

“And if you kill that person, you’ll be exposed.”

David was let go.

Later, he was told there was still a death warrant on his head.

So David fled to Angola, swimming across the river that separates the two countries.

He worked as a radio broadcaster, transmitting into Namibia.

Dispatches would arrive in English, and he translated them into Rukwangali to read on air.

But his English was a little patchy. Whenever he came across a word he didn’t know, he’d write it down in a notebook, eventually finding the Rukwangali translation from his polyglot supervisor.

By the end of his stint at the station, he had five handwritten notebooks filled with words.

In 1986, David began having disagreements with the SWAPO commanders.

The rebel group was becoming as bad as the white leaders they were fighting, and began killing their own people if there was even a rumour that they’d betrayed the cause.

“You see? I am always in trouble,” he said with a lighthearted laugh.

“I got both sides mad at me. So I had to run again.”

David fled to Zambia, and lived in a UN refugee camp for a year while waiting for a country to take him in.

The conditions weren’t good, but it was “better than what I had before,” he said.

Then, in March 1987, Canada accepted David’s refugee claim.

He went to Alberta and attended school, learning how to do roadwork and operate heavy machinery.

But he couldn’t find a job.

“Everyone kept telling me that I was over-qualified,” he said.

“I won’t talk about racism …”.

He decided to leave Alberta, but didn’t know where. He looked at a map of Canada and noticed the Yukon.

It had very few roads. No doubt they’d need someone with his expertise there.

They didn’t.

David couldn’t find any road construction work in the Yukon. But he did find work with the Department of Education as a custodian.

After spending his days cleaning, he’d spend most evenings hunched over a computer, writing and working on his dictionary.

In Canada, David realized how poor his English was.

So he dusted off those old notebooks made at the radio station, and started putting the words into alphabetical order so they’d be easier to find.

When he finished, he realized he’d created a dictionary.

Over the years, he’s added more and more words, printing various editions and phrase books all the way up until 2000.

There’s a huge market for English to Rukwangali dictionaries – both for locals or for the thousands of Canadians and other expats who work in Namibia.

When David took a few copies to Namibia a few years ago they were quickly snatched up.

“I wanted to print them there, because there is a need and the language is going to be lost,” he said.

“But I don’t have the money.”

When asked about his future plans, David’s answer came quickly.

He didn’t want to try to find money to print his dictionaries, phrase books or autobiography (he writes more than a book a year, but so far has only self-published).

David wants to bring political change to the Yukon.

“I want to start an office to help seniors when they get old,” he said, with a bit of that old revolutionary sparkle in his eye.

David’s two Canadian children were raised the African way, and taught to respect their elders.

But many Canadian seniors are being mistreated by their children, he said.

“I am feeling bad about how the old people are mistreated,” he said.

“I want to help them, so that they can enjoy their money instead of their children taking it all, which is just killing me.”

Contact Chris Oke at

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