We are many even when we are alone…
This article has been a long time coming; if I had had the nerve I would have written it as far back as 2010 but I did not feel that I had the necessary credentials to make such a critique. Sometimes people do not care what is being said until they know who is saying it and whether the person saying it is worth paying any attention to. I am not afraid of being criticized or resented for my views – I am afraid only of being utterly ignored. Who does not know that the most disheartening thing that can happen to a person is to be given a voice and told they are free to speak but others are free to not listen.
Every journey must have a beginning, or at least the semblance of one. To write about what I consider a grave omission made by the women’s movement; I must contextualize it within the narrative of my own journey and the solitariness of my own little battles. I began to identify as feminist in my final year at the University of Zimbabwe but I had always harboured resentment at the patriarchal status quo from a young age; the glaring social injustices that went unchallenged grated my keen sense of fairness. Until that final year, I had not known that there was a name for what I felt, a word for the things I thought and an ideology that encapsulated my feelings of hostility towards certain aspects of tradition and specifically toward the system that legitimized the subordination of women and authenticated male dominance.
As I read feminist literature and critiqued novels by feminists, I was shocked that there were other people who thought the way I thought and I was relieved that I wasn’t the only one who saw how unfair the status quo was. From the insightful interrogation of polygamy and the consequences of plural marriage traditions in Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, to the intersection between women and class struggle in Ousmane Sembene’s God’s Bits of Wood and to the spirited struggle by women to be heard in a world that aggressively sought to silence and control them in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions – I found universal complaints that resonated with my own dissatisfaction.
Within those pages, I discovered a profound truth; that when you write no one can shut you up. And so I began to write.
My first notable effort was a 2003 collaboration between myself and Bhekilizwe Bernard Ndlovu who at the time was a household name having been an actor in several Amakhosi Theatre TV productions. I was 19 years old at the time – young and burning to have my say. With hindsight, I realize how my-partner-in-writing indulged me because I took the script outline he’d provided and then went in an entirely different direction with it. The saving grace was that I wrote very well and also, I think, what I had to say was worth saying. The product of that collaboration became a TV drama that was aired by the national broadcaster two years later at which time I was a second year student at the University of Zimbabwe.
The screening of that drama series nationwide coincided with a period of introspection because at 21, I became preoccupied with trying to ‘fix’ myself being cognizant of how my thoughts, ideas, convictions and feelings were at such odds with the norms. I felt like an oddity and genuinely thought repairs were in order.
But there were all these writers, all these books that said the exact same things I thought, felt and believed. In this internal battle of trying to self-define, to conform, to fit in and to tailor my thoughts into the conventional mode – my keen sense of fairness remained unyielding and so in the end I remained unyielding. If something was not fair, it was not fair. If women were treated like second class citizens, it was not fair. I could not reconcile the social status of women to any idea or concept of fairness. It was not fair, and I would say so – at least in writing. Through reading; I discovered that there were many of us ~ people who cared and that even if I felt alone: there were others.
Wielding words where silence resides…
In 2008, I was identified as one of the top 10 emerging and innovative youths in Zimbabwe following a nationwide search by ZTV that had drawn hundreds of applications from young people. The 10 of us would vie for the honour of representing Zimbabwe in a pan-African Reality TV show called Imagine Afrika. The innovation that secured me a place among the final top 3 was a column that I had been writing for a national weekly newspaper – titled “Bone of Contention” but better known as the “Heartbreaks” column. I still write the column to this day, despite the fact that I am now studying and living in the United Kingdom.
The column became a platform where I challenged culture, patriarchy, religion, tradition and the law as and when I perceived these institutions being employed to oppress, marginalize and discriminate against women. The militancy of my ideas, the conviction I held regarding the fairness of elevating the status of women and the fervency of idealistic youth combined to create a powder keg writing persona in which I represented controversy in a society of staid conservatism.
The backlash was immediate and vicious with some readers writing to the paper and threatening to boycott it if they kept publishing my articles. I became labelled a home-wrecker and divisive force whose writing created domestic tension and incited women to be disrespectful rebels. The flipside of this negative retaliation was that I became a mouthpiece airing the long-held and long-concealed grievances women had.
I was saying the things they had been dying to say for years, challenging the ideas they had been desperate to point out and reject – it was the beginning of numerous social conversations that continue to this day. The column became a premise to raise difficult topics, to discuss taboo issues and to converse frankly about sexuality, marriage, culture, HIV and AIDS with insistence on personal scrutiny about the choices people made and the ideologies that informed those choices. If nothing else, I hold the conviction that people – especially women – have a right to choose (wisely or foolishly) the course of their own lives and the column was an assertion of this stance. Words became my weapon of choice to wield in an otherwise unyielding patriarchal society.
The platforms, places and people that made a difference
In 2009, I was invited to South Africa by GenderLinks to present a paper on the role the media had played in disempowering women politicians during a media workshop on the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. The invitation was extended by Colleen Lowe Morna; the GenderLinks Executive Director who had happened to hear me speak during a NUST workshop on gender and concluded I had something worthwhile to say.
It was ironic to me that the platform to engage would emanate from Johannesburg when the vibrant women’s movement in Harare remained inaccessible to me – for often strict invites were given to a select few. To the best of my knowledge; I was (and I still remain) at the margins of the mainstream efforts to advance the women’s rights agenda. Although some of the women’s organizations had sub-offices in Bulawayo (often manned by a skeletal staff and the odd intern) – it was evident that the power rested in Harare.
Had I needed external motivation to fan the flames of my passionate and enthusiastic crusading; I could not have looked to the mainstream Harare-based (and often Harare-focused) women’s organizations for mentorship. There was a dearth of viable and accessible female role models one could emulate if they entertained hopes of being part of the women’s rights agenda.
I remembered a workshop I had attended in Harare focusing on the CEDAW shadow reports that had brought in representatives across the length and breadth of the women’s movement where one of the major concerns raised was that of a lack of cohesion within the movement – the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing. At the time I was a student volunteering at the New Hope Foundation in 2007 and had been assigned to represent the organization as Information Officer.
I saw, for the first time, at close range the iconic personalities that I had admired from afar – Netsai Mushonga, Emilia Muchawa, Edinah Masiyiwa, Netty Musanhu– among many others. But that was in Harare. In Bulawayo, where I resided, such gatherings were rare and when they occurred they did not attract the presence or attendance of these big names.
In 2010, the esteemed Mary Robinson former President of Ireland paid a visit to the country and I desperately wished to be part of whatever dialogue she would be engaging with the women’s movement about. I was not successful in my attempts to score an invite, and not being in Harare, I did not enjoy the benefit of having the social networking capital to leverage in making such a request.
In short, I was an unknown. And I was excluded (like so many others).
Writing my way out of oblivion
I realized that my inability to physically access or be proximal to the mainstream women’s movement head-quartered in Harare did not have to incapacitate me from speaking with one voice with them. I started to blog. I began to write and take part in national discourses surrounding various topics and was grateful when The Kubatana Trust published them effectively disseminating my ideas to a cyber-audience of nearly one million people.
I became accustomed to the satisfying experience of stumbling across my opinion pieces in various online and print publications – all lifted from my Kubatana Blog. Through writing, I was joining a conversation that I felt required the inclusion of as many voices and perspectives as possible – a conversation about elevating the status of women in Zimbabwe.
Inspired by a dear friend and one of Zimbabwe’s most successful, pioneering and internationally acclaimed bloggers – Fungai Rufaro Machirori – I started my own personal blog. When I started the blog; it was my way of processing events and issues affecting women. However, the blog became my saving grace – pulling me out of my obscurity and capturing the attention of a global audience.
Months after failing to meet Mary Robinson, fate intervened. My fervent hope of meeting and interacting with Mary Robinson was realized in Accra, Ghana. I had been identified among Africa’s top 25 emerging and extraordinary (their words not mine) young women leaders by the Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa (MILEAD) and invited to attend a 3-week intensive Leadership Institute in Ghana. My attendance to that Leadership Institute was secured by the generous sponsorship of The Kubatana Trust who felt I merited investing in; and to this day I am grateful. I can not escape the irony that I have never laid eyes on The 'girls' at Kubatana and that they only know me through my writing but we would unwittingly pass each other were we to meet on a street.
As a MILEAD Fellow, I had the opportunity to dialogue with Mary Robinson over afternoon tea and over a wide range of topics affecting Africa and young people. I was struck once more by the irony of gaining access to notable people only when I travelled out of Zimbabwe, because I knew that back home – such a meeting would have been inconceivable. In Ghana, I had the opportunity to meet various female MPs who availed themselves to engage with young women on a number of issues, the Attorney General of Ghana at the time was one such woman who candidly shared her own struggle to get into and stay in politics.
Samia Nkrumah, the daughter of Kwame Nkrumah was another political luminary who squeezed our group of 25 into her busy schedule and graciously submitted to our questions about African leadership, women in politics and its pitfalls. It was exciting to be afforded an audience especially for someone like me who was painfully aware that such accessibility of powerful and influential women was rare in my country (even as a journalist or maybe as a result of being one – I don’t know). I would later write about that experience of standing on great shoulders.
One of the most engaging conversations I had was with former Ghanaian President John Kafuor who hosted us at his residence for an entire afternoon and permitted us to ask him about the priorities of the AU in terms of advancing the interests of women on the continent. I specifically probed him on his thoughts regarding the relevance (or lack thereof) of the SADC intervention attempts in Zimbabwe during his tenure as Chairman of the AU.
Having received a rather unsatisfactory response; I remember pelting him with more questions intent on drawing him out that he looked at me quizzically and asked what profession I was in. When I told him I was a journalist, he laughed and said, “Oh, you should be a lawyer”. Again I marvelled at how such access was granted with such ease. Through blogging – I had literally written my way into the home of a former State President. And for a Venda girl born in the obscurity of rural Beitbridge; it was and remains a big deal.
Don’t drop the baton stick – pass it on
What I have been concerned with is the inaccessibility of the role models and women at the forefront of the women’s movement to young women such as myself who have much to learn from them. I believe that the women’s movement in Zimbabwe needs to make a deliberate effort and take specific measures to bring aspiring activists into the fold and mentor them rather than remaining oblivious to the emerging enthusiastic cadres. For if these women who have been at the helm of the movement do not invest in training the next generation; transferring skills, knowledge, wisdom and fostering a culture of continuity – what will become of the fruits of their earnest labour?
There will be those such as myself – who will fall and flounder alone if need be – regardless of whether they are part of the mainstream or not because they are driven by deeply held convictions. But then there will be many others whose desire and potential to positively impact the movement will not be realized because of this divide between the older generation and the emerging women’s rights activists.
I was particularly appalled last year, when a group of female politicians reportedly walked out of a meeting convened to deliberate on how to address the pressing concerns of women. The reason for them storming out was that they had taken exception at the fact that one moderator had not addressed them using the honorific political title ‘Honorable MPs’. I thought to myself – who are these “divas” and whose interests do they serve and how does a mere title become a thing so important that it should supersede addressing the needs of Zimbabwean women? I cannot reconcile that kind of petulance with an appreciation by those women leaders in politics of how much faith and trust has been placed in them by Zimbabwe’s women. It remains a sore point with me.
In many ways, that incident made me realize that sometimes you can have people looking to you for an example to emulate and you let them down horribly because you assume – wrongly – that no one is watching. We are watching you. We are watching you as you struggle and as you triumph. We are rooting for you as you champion our cause and seek to secure a better Zimbabwe where the rights of women and girls are recognized, respected and protected. We are watching in awe and in appreciation. And at times we are watching in anxiety because it seems that this women’s movement is ‘your thing’ alone and that we (your daughters) have no ownership of it.
Remember you will not always run this race, at some point you will have to pass on the baton stick and if you exclude us; you will have no choice but to leave the baton stick lying on the ground where your hard work will benefit no one and your legacy will be forgotten. Please be careful not to lead the women’s movement into oblivion.
Brushing shoulders with the ‘greats’
These concerns around continuity within the women’s movement in Zimbabwe were further heightened when I accepted an invitation to speak at the 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York last year. I was invited as a MILEAD Fellow at the recommendation of the Moremi Initiative who had been impressed by my level of insightful engagement (I think) and my passion for the condition of African women (okay I am making assumptions here but I am sure it was not my looks that scored me that invite!).
I had the chance of interviewing several female politicians in New York and I suspect access was granted because I was the only UN accredited Zimbabwean journalist who was at the CSW and although I had not even travelled to engage in journalistic work, the opportunity was just too good to miss.
I had lunch with the Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, Dr Olivia Muchena and had one of the most eye-opening conversations with her around women’s contribution to the liberation struggle (prior to this I had never actually had an opportunity to speak to a woman who had been in the war); the need to elevate their social status and the strides that have been made towards achieving this.
She also opened up about the challenges of protecting the rights of women in a country where customary law often supersedes statutory law. I was proud when she got a standing ovation for her speech and I will not forget the words of encouragement she gave me later on. I am certain she has forgotten me and that is okay because I got from her the ounce of insightful wisdom, I would not have otherwise acquired.
I then had the opportunity of spending an afternoon with Deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khupe; who shared her passion for advancing the agenda of maternal healthcare for Zimbabwean women, expressed concern at the slow progress being made in securing the enjoyment of equal rights for Zimbabwean women and the need to have more women in parliament. It was an enlightening encounter, shedding light on the magnitude of the work still to be done in terms of advancing the interests of women and more than anything it reaffirmed the need for constant lobbying, vigilance and collective commitment.
I interacted with Deputy Minister of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development, Jessie Majome; met the esteemed Secretary General of the YWCA worldwide, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda; witnessed the remarkable UN Women Chief of Africa Division, Letty Chiwara present a speech to thunderous applause; met the Executive Director of the Women’s Action Group (WAG), Edinah Masiyiwa and spent time in the company of Sophia Nyamudeza, the Deputy Permanent Representative of the Zimbabwean Permanent Mission to the United Nations.
In short I met some of the most powerful women in the global women’s movement – and found out that they were Zimbabweans; celebrated globally and most were relatively unknown locally.
Arvonne Fraser in her article, “Becoming Human: The Origins and Development of Women’s Human Rights” notes how women’s history has been deliberately ignored over the centuries as a means of keeping women subordinate, and is only now beginning to be recaptured as there are simply not enough available records that exist detailing women’s struggles or achievements.
Had I not attended that UN Commission; I would have remained ignorant of the contribution that Zimbabwean women have made towards the global agenda of recognizing women’s rights because I ordinarily would not have access to such women and more tragically, I would not have access to any stories about them.
Stories we need to hear and stories we need to tell…
The women’s movement in Zimbabwe needs to begin a story-telling tradition; to celebrate the triumphs of those who laid the foundations for what it is today and to acknowledge the personal sacrifices of those women who are at the frontlines and most importantly to inspire the next generation and provide viable role models we can aspire to emulate.
Perhaps I put too much stock into writing things down because I am a writer but I believe there is no better way to bridge the gap between the younger generation of emerging activists and feminists with the older vanguard of the women’s movement.
In 2011, I returned from New York to the humbling news that I had been selected among the top 10 Most Influential women in Bulawayo and at an event held to commemorate the International Women’s Day; I received an award for being the Most Influential Woman in Media and using the media to defend the rights of women.
It was an uncomfortable honour to receive against the background of the amazing women with whom I had been rubbing shoulders at the CSW – I felt I had not done enough to deserve the accolade and these feelings were only heightened by the fact that of the 10 women being honoured – I was the youngest of them all.
I remember seeing Word of Life co-Founder and Senior Pastor, Maureen B. Shana – an iconic figure in Bulawayo and beyond whose visionary ministry Woman Unlimited has transformed lives across the length and breadth of southern Africa – and wondering how I qualified to be mentioned in the same breath as her.
My ill ease did not derive from any attempt to display false humility but rather from the foreignness of the whole concept – from the fact that I had never seen any women being celebrated, honoured, appreciated or having their contribution publicly acknowledged. Even narratives of the war of liberation don’t give women prominence; even street signs we have across Zimbabwe honouring the fallen liberation heroes make no mention of the liberation heroines – I had gotten used to the absence of applause for women’s efforts. I have voiced my disgruntlement about this horrendous omission in my blog The Heroines of Our Struggle.
It seemed unnatural therefore to be part of a gathering that sought to celebrate women and even more unsettling to find that I was deemed worthy of celebrating. It was the lack of precedence that had thrown me off, and puzzled I had asked Musa Sibindi the Matabeleland AIDS Council (MAC) organizer why I had been chosen and indeed how my name had come to be ‘misplaced’ in such a fashion as to feature in that illustrious list. She said that I deserved it and I took her word for it.
More recently though, an acquaintance began a 2012 blog narrative titled The Feminist Chronicles in which she identifies and profiles the achievements of 30 eminent women that have contributed to the women’s movement over the years and some who have simply been inspirational figures.
Some of the personalities she profiled include Professor Rudo Gaidzanwa; Justice Rita Makarau; Captain Emilia Njovana (the first female and black commercial pilot in Zimbabwe); Vice President Joyce Mujuru; the 2011 Caine Prize African Writing Award winner, NoViolet Mkha Bulawayo; Lutanga Shaba (Executive Director of the Women’s Trust); internationally acclaimed blogger Fungai Rufaro Machirori; Betty Makoni (Founder of Girl Child Network) as well as Emilia Muchawa and Dr Amy Tsanga among many others.
I later discovered, to my utter shock, that she had profiled me as well! Again that sense of inappropriateness engulfed me – what business did I have being mentioned in the same breath as these incredibly accomplished women, all of whom (with the exception of two) were much older than I was.
No doubt, this honourable mention would have rested more comfortably on my person had it been a list of young activists or feminists as this would place me among my own peers whom, I would not squirm at being equated to.
However the sense of ‘wrongness’ I felt at the MAC award and at this more recent mention among great women has been replaced by a conviction that it is okay for such narratives to begin. That in fact these are stories we should have been hearing all along and more importantly that these are stories we should always be telling.
Stories of Zimbabwean women – of their struggles and triumphs; of their achievements and the insurmountable challenges they have overcome; of their resilience and their passion; of their diversity and also of their common aspirations.
One should not have to go to Johannesburg, travel to Accra, stand on a podium in New York before they can appreciate that they are part of something larger than themselves; that they are part of a greater narrative of remarkable Zimbabwean women. In the years to come I hope to meet some of the women I have admired immensely including the likes of Everjoice Win, Janah Ncube, Dr. Khanyisela Moyo, Dr Fareda Banda, Lois Chingandu among others.
Meanwhile, I will celebrate those women who have been accessible, encouraging and holding my hand all along; the likes of Ruby Thandeka Magosvongwe, Josephine Sithole-Muganiwa who were my lecturers at the University of Zimbabwe; Naome Chimbetete, Lifaqane Nare, Koliwe Nyoni, Skha Masunda and the late Yvonne Vera’s mother – Ericah Gwetai. And I must also extend appreciation to the Padare Enkundleni (Men's Forum on Gender) for their own tireless efforts in advocating for gender equality.
As it is not always possible to physically access those who inspire us; allow us to tell their stories and allow us to hear their stories – this is my humble request to the women’s movement in Zimbabwe.
Delta Milayo Ndou