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The heroines of our struggle

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Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011 by Delta Ndou

A while ago, I came across a definition of feminism that said feminism was a declaration of the “presence of our (women) absence” and though I did not give it much thought at the time – recent events have made me mull over the sentiment.

The death of Thenjiwe Virginia Lesabe came as a shock to me; I admired the woman and had always secretly harboured hopes of meeting her one day; then writing a biography of her life. She’s not the only one, in fact, the book already has a title – “The heroines of our struggle” and it is my desire to preserve the unvarnished truth of women’s overwhelming contribution towards the liberation of this country.

I want to write about the female freedom fighters; about their courage and sacrifice about their lives and perhaps about those who died for this country.

I want to pen a book that speaks of women like Thenjiwe Virginia Lesabe but her untimely death now robs me of a story that I feel desperately needed to be told – to future generations, to present generations and also more importantly to proclaim that there were women in the frontlines of war too.

Increasingly the history of the struggle for liberation has become a story about men; it is a story about how certain men lived in exile, how they were imprisoned, how they sat at negotiating tables, how they fought and how they won the war.

It is a story that tells us nothing of the women who lived exiled besides these men, nothing of how these women were imprisoned as well, nothing of how these women fought too or how they also won the war. Of course it says nothing about how the women sat at negotiation tables; and why should it – the women weren’t there anyway.

The manner in which the story of the country’s liberation has been told, the narrations in textbooks, in interviews, in TV coverage of that era and the present day resoundingly declares the absence of women from the hard won achievement of gaining independence.

A case in point is how we’ve named streets only after male freedom fighters as if women had nothing to do with the liberation struggle. I stand to be corrected but as far as I know, the only woman who has a street named after her is Mbuya Nehanda and while she was an iconic figure during the colonial period – she hardly ranks as a ‘foot soldier’ – her contribution lies largely in her astounding role of the defiant spirit medium whose death galvanized many to take up arms and fight.

Not to diminish her role in anyway – I don’t think she ever fired an AK47 or took part in any form of combat but her luminous place in the history of our country’s struggle is well-earned. Now if the street names are anything to go by – does that mean Mbuya Nehanda is the only woman who merits mention when it comes to honouring those who immensely contributed to the liberation of this country?

I am not saying every single hero or heroine has to be made mention of because they are far too many to mention but I am wondering in the years to come – who will remember the other women – the silent unsung heroines of our struggle?

Who will even notice the presence of their absence in the annals of history?

Who will stop to rack their brain and state even one woman who fired a shot during the war or brought down an aircraft?

Where there no such women? In naming streets after heroic liberation figures; we immortalize their names and we guarantee that their names do not sink into oblivion. Not a day goes by when the name of Jason Ziyaphapha Moyo goes unmentioned because people make appointments to meet at a street named after him; George Silundika’s name remains on the lips of the public because they pass on addresses of buildings that are located on a street named after him.

In every city and town the same roll call of names is there – sealing forever in our minds and lips the great men who fought and died for the liberation of this country.

We have Herbert Chitepo, Josiah Tongogara, Samuel Parirenyatwa among many other fallen heroes honoured through streets, schools, hospitals, airports and so many other geographical features, structures and localities – but where are the women’s names?

Even in history books the omission goes un-noted. The presence of an absence goes un-captured. I recall using the text book, “People making history” in my secondary education over a decade ago and Mbuya Nehanda was the only prominent women whose name was mentioned in the pages.

I wonder now whether the authors should have not just titled the book “Men making history” because it is very misleading to have a narrative that is almost exclusively about men and their supposed “single-handed” liberation war exploits being masqueraded as a representation of “people” when it ignores the contributions and sacrifices of women.

30 years into an independent Zimbabwe and the presence of that absence has still gone un-remedied.

Every year, Heroes’ Day is commemorated and the media is awash with the same tedious video clips of men winning the war (without women) and of men being interviewed about events that occurred during that era (as if there were no women present) and at the end of the day it seems like the whole event is about celebrating the exploits of men.

When I heard of the death of Thenjiwe Virginia Lesabe; the woman who was instrumental in the creation of the Ministry of Gender, Women Affairs and Community Development and subsequently the first person to hold the post of Minister in that portfolio, I was devastated. Her death robs us of the chance to learn about the life, times and experiences of one of Zimbabwe’s most prominent female ex-combatants and sadly; a chapter goes missing in the unheralded tales of the heroines of our struggle.

Why women fight over men

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Tuesday, November 16th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

The reason women fight over men is simple – lack.

To many women, a single man can represent a roof over their head, food in their belly, clothes on their back and most importantly – a pride in their bearing.

And quite frankly, I don’t know of many people who wouldn’t fight to protect an “investment” that guarantees them most of life’s basic necessities.

I know that I would fight anyone who tried to take my shelter away, grab my food from me and snatch the sweet out of my mouth.

I would fight anyone who made the mistake of trying to leave me nude by pulling the clothes off my back or even worse, expose me to public ridicule by making me an object of pity.

I would fight any one.

The problem though is not that we want to fight for these things or indeed that we desire to have and keep them.

The problem is that not many of us (women) exert ourselves to pursuing these things for our benefit because we have been raised in a society where having a man equates to having all of the above – shelter, food, clothing and “respectability”.

So women fight other women because they fear to remain homeless, hungry, naked and ‘ashamed’.

I know many women who fight to have shelter, to have food, to have clothing by working damn hard to earn those things and whose sense of purpose gives them all the dignity they require – these are the empowered women; clawing their way to the top; understanding that they can succeed on their own.

I know many women; and I am one of them, who don’t summarize other human beings (read men) into shelter, food, clothes and status.

I find it irksome when women who have the potential to accomplish whatever they want in life opt to take a “short cut” by just getting a man to provide all the things they need and because they have chosen this dependency they make themselves vulnerable to abuse from their benefactor (read man).

Not only that, they find themselves obsessed with chasing off other women who will have had the same idea as they did, which is, “Let me find a man to take care of me.”

It seems clever, especially to the young 24 year old involved with a married older man; because she gets what she wants faster and easier than her age-mates who may make the sensible choice of just working hard and slowly attaining the things they wish to have.

Sweat or tears.

Many women prefer to pay through tears; they prefer life’s billing system to charge them through tears of pain, suffering, abuse, rejection and misery as long as they get to drive around in flashy cars they don’t own, live in houses on whose title deeds their names don’t appear; eat food their money didn’t pay for and wear clothes they didn’t lose a cent to buy.

But men are raised differently; they are raised to expect life’s billing system to charge them in the currency called sweat; they sweat to work, to achieve because they have been told that they have to expect to “keep” someone else, to provide a shelter, food, clothing and ‘protection’ to a woman – they can even marry her so that in return she’ll wash, cook, clean and have babies.

Seems like a reasonable arrangement, right?

Well I don’t think so, I think it is unfair to expect another adult who happens to be male to carry the weight of responsibility for another adult who happens to be female by giving him the sole obligation to sweat all life-long while the role of the woman could just be to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

It seems to be such a parasitic arrangement to me.

One way or the other, we’re gonna pay – women need to start deciding whether they want to keep settling life’s bills through tears because as long as the culture of looking for a man to “take care” of you remains, violence against women will remain a vicious cycle.

This level of one-sided dependence is unhealthy, parasitic and creates a fertile environment for women to be abused and to resort to violence when they feel their relationships are being threatened by other women.

So women fight over men because it is matter of survival for them; it is a matter of lack, of defending a relationship that guarantees the basics they desperately need – shelter, food, clothing (and because of society’s skewed patriarchal thinking) some semblance of human dignity – but this “dignity” aspect is fodder for another article.

I know of some men who abuse women and tell them “you’re nothing without me” – the sad reality is; many women truly HAVE nothing unless a man grants it to them.

Parting shot: Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds (Marcus Garvey)

This article is part of series written ahead of and in cognizance of the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence

When I write – who can shut me up?

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Tuesday, August 24th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

In Africa, a woman writer is a revolutionary. In writing, the woman writer abdicates the role of being the silent spectator and dares to speak.

In patriarchal Africa, a woman speaking up or speaking at all is a revolutionary, going against the grain, intruding into the space otherwise reserved for her male counterparts – the space to define reality, to critique what is, to celebrate or to denigrate, to demand an audience where one would otherwise be denied.

For every woman who writes, presumes that she has an audience and that in itself – is a radical idea. A woman writer presumes that what she has to say is important, that her view and her voice matters and in writing she claims this space – the space to both speak and to be heard.

So when I write, who is going to shut me up?

The act of writing requires audacity, tenacity and above all, a commitment to one’s work, passion and destination.

To many; writing is an end in itself but to me, writing is a tool, a weapon I wield in a world that does not ordinarily afford women a voice. So of necessity, my writing is mostly protest.

In fact, I believe that my work is more political than it is artistic. It is political in the sense that it challenges the status quo. It is political in the sense that it interrogates social stratification.

It is political in the sense that it examines the power relations that obtain within society – relations that are largely determined by who has resources and who lacks them.

It is political in the sense that it scrutinizes who has choices and who has none, who has options and who has none, who has a voice and who is denied one.

So I write to protest. I write to disagree.

I write to simply state that I think otherwise. I write to flip to the other side of the coin.

In my writing I identify myself as a feminist. I do not make apologies for it. Because feminism as an ideological position reaffirming what I identify with – the pursuit for social justice for women in a world where patriarchy legitimizes the conditions of our subjugation.

A woman’s place is in politics

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Thursday, August 12th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

I used to be one of those women who would turn her nose up whenever politics was brought up thinking, “what a waste of time, I’ll focus on gender issues and advancing the interests of women.”

I have had occasion to change my mind about politics and the discourses of governance and decision-making in the highest echelons of power.

In fact, I would go so far as to say I have set my mind firmly on pursuing politics as an overarching goal in my activism career.

Once I realized the influence that politics has on my life and its bearing on the choices availed to me as a woman, as a youth and as an African, I became convinced that being a woman must of necessity require one to be a politician.

I figure if politics determines what I can afford to eat, what kind of bed I can sleep on, what kind of shelter I can call home, what kind of lifestyle I can lead (power-cuts, water-rationing and all) – if politics can impact on what kind of clothes I can afford to wear or the kind of educational and career opportunities availed to me – then clearly politics is exactly where my head needs to be and precisely where my heart should set its sights.

If politics determine what kind of future my children will have or the kind of road I must travel on daily and the texture of my journeys (bumpy dusty roads, potholes and all) then I figure politics is exactly where I need to be.

If politics will determine which embassy will shut its door in my face, if politics can deny me the chance to see the world beyond the borders of my nation, if politics has the power to detain me within the confines of my continent – then to change the narrative of my life and to exceed the limitations imposed by my nationality (tainted by bad governance, skewed politics and all); I must delve into politics.

If politics determine what laws will govern my conduct and which laws will legitimize my oppression – then by all means I must become a politician to change the status quo from within and not from without.

If politics can give immense power to a minority and perpetuate the discrimination and marginalization of certain sects of society – then I should be a politician to use the same vehicle to turn the tide of social injustice.

If politics can determine the quality of my life and my fate when I ail (no drugs in hospitals and no health personnel and all) as well as the kind of burial I am likely to get from my well-meaning but financially stunted nearest and dearest – then politics is my business.

If politics determines my diet, keeping the best brands just out of my reach so that I have to be content with the ‘no-name’ average products (with local industry struggling and all) then clearly, politics is where I need to be.

If politics influence the kind of security afforded to me and my property as a citizen (with underpaid cops and corruption being the order of the day) then I have to be a politician or be doomed to a life lived according to the dictates of others.

If politics gives one the voice, to speak on behalf of others then politics is my kind of brew – for no one speaks for me; I will speak for myself and if need be, I will speak for those on the receiving end of life’s endless tragedies and political intrigues.

A woman’s place is in politics. A woman’s business is to shape a tomorrow brighter than our own past and greater than our present circumstance.

So I sold my soul to the ‘dirty’ game of politics for if it is a game then I refuse to be a casualty, a pawn and a bystander caught in the middle and paying the price for decisions made without my consent or footing the bill for events sanctioned without my permission.

So hear me when I say, politics is my business for I would rather pay the price of being one than suffer the penalty of standing on the sidelines while others recklessly play God with my life.

We’re here and we’re not going anywhere

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Wednesday, August 11th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

I feel patriotic these days. And before the feeling wanes and recedes into the indifference that often informs the limited involvement of young people in anything important in this country- I think I should speak up.

For in keeping silent I perpetuate a grave injustice to those of my kind – the youth of Zimbabwe.

Combined with these patriotic sentiments are the sentiments of Deborah Meier that I happened across the other day. She wrote, “There’s a radical – and wonderful – new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.  It’s an idea with revolutionary implications.  If we take it seriously.”

I can trace my blossoming patriotic sentiment to the three weeks I spent cooped up at the University of Ghana with two and a half dozen young women from 21 African countries and to the fact that in nearly deliberation Zimbabwe was used as a reference point for one bad thing or another.

It is one thing to daily hear Zimbabweans speak negatively of their own country, to listen to them and join them in denigrating their own country but quite another to listen to outsiders take similar liberties.

Indeed it is the one thing that will make you defend your country without stopping to examine your reaction but simply because it is your country, your home and ultimately it is who you are – Zimbabwean. It is also what will force you to scrutinize the condition of your country and how other people have come to perceive you as a people.

By omission or by commission every Zimbabwean is responsible for the leadership we have and for the mess we’re in.

Whether through indifference, greed or fear – we’re all guilty of allowing this great land to sink to its knees.

I have joined on occasion, when I could muster the breathe, in the mud-slinging, bad-mouthing, finger-pointing and hurling of insults directed at those in power and those aspiring to be in power. I say on occasion because for the greater part, I simply have been too nonchalant to even care.

Perhaps, that is the real problem for me and the youth, we have believed that we are too weak, too young to be of any consequence and in believing this fallacy we have sought refuge in nonchalance.

It doesn’t help too that there is so much romanticising about the past that we always feel that our unavailability to be drafted into the liberation struggle automatically makes us less qualified to have a say in the running of our country.

I mean if there is one thing ZANU PF has perfected it is the art of using its formidable credentials as a revolutionary party to bring the Zimbabwean electorate and youth to heel with a cocktail of nostalgia, sentimentality and the incessant reminder of the insurmountable debt of gratitude owed to them by every citizen who lives in a free Zimbabwe.

The MDC, on the other hand; wisely discerning that they cannot do much to beat the revolutionary party card that ZANU PF loves to draw – have made it a point to totally ignore the liberation struggle and by doing so attempt to rule Zimbabwe and its people outside the contexts of our history rendering them rather superficial.

I will not strain self trying to untangle the relevance (or lack thereof) of the splinter factions that are now a ZAPU pulled out of ZANU and an MDC pulled out of an MDC-T; too much ink has been spilled de-bunking these political specimens.

However, if the youth hope their participation in the nation’s politics to be meaningful; this is the political menu of parties that is availed to them.

One that is stuck in the past and bogged down by its distrust of young people and new ideas then another with a vibrant youth visibility but suffering from the acute deficiency of denial and a tragic refusal to own Zimbabwe’s liberation history (without which they would not enjoy the very autonomy that allows them to aspire for political power).

I have opinions about Zimbabwe, I have thoughts about the conditions of Zimbabwe, I have theories and hypotheses about what is wrong with this country and about why we are where we are today.

I have no idea how long I have held these views but they must have been simmering in me, stewing for a long time because when I was in Ghana I said, for the very first time, in a lecture room full of strangers what I thought.

And I was surprised by the vehemence with which I leapt to defend my beloved country, astonished by the passion with which I narrated the course of events that had brought us to this present miserable condition and even more shocked by the utter convictions with which I spoke.

I was amazed that I cared that much about Zimbabwe; surprised that I cared at all for over the years the pretence of at indifference has become second nature to me such that I began to believe that it was normal.

How dare we sit, fold our hands and watch the demise of our country as if we had another spare Zimbabwe stashed somewhere to live in as soon as this one folds up and inexorably crumbles?

For in the years to come, many who hold the reins of power will succumb to the inevitability of death and we shall inherit nothing but the shell of what once was.

I believe that Zimbabwean youths have been sidelined for too long and that perhaps we must come to a definitive age-range of what it means to be a youth in this country.

It bothers me no end that a person on the wrong side of 30 should strut around as a youth leader or presume to speak on behalf of young people in this country.

Moreover it bugs me terribly that young people have been willing to be used as arse wipes by those who aspire for political office only to be discarded after the elections and flushed into oblivion.

But I want to believe that the tide is turning. That the youth will be reckoned with, that we will be ignored no more, sidelined no longer and never again patronized.

As we enter the UN International Year of Youth running under the theme “Promoting Dialogue and Mutual Understanding” – I fervently hope that the would-be election candidates of 2011 and beyond will get off their high horses and engage young people as equals because we are not going anywhere.

The International Year of Youth is our chance to declare categorically that as Zimbabwean youths, we are here and we are not going anywhere. This is our country of birth and we have as much right to live and prosper in it as anyone else.

Standing on great shoulders

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Tuesday, July 27th, 2010 by Delta Ndou

The day I met Samia Nkrumah, I was awestruck – by her humility, her grace and the dignity with which she carried herself.

It was a moment I proudly splashed on my Facebook, and squeezed into the 120 characters of a tweet.

I was convinced at that moment that I was well on my way to greatness, for in some journeys – there has to be some turning point – and that was it for me.

Having been identified among some of Africa’s most extraordinary emerging women leaders; the enormity of it had not yet sunk in and I arrived in Accra for the 3 week fellowship training feeling considerably daunted.

From over 800 applicants from all over the continent and the African diaspora, I was picked in the final 25 and with this selection came the honour of being a MILEAD Fellow by the Moremi Initiative for women’s leadership and development in Africa.

I set foot on West African soil determined to make the most of the experience.

My arrival coincided with the opening ceremony for the fellowship and in attendance was none other than Zimbabwe’s ambassador to Ghana, Mrs Pavelyn Musaka, the South African ambassador to Ghana, Mrs Jessica Ndhlovu and the Nigerian ambassador to Ghana, Alhaji Issifu Baba Kamara.

And they treated us as equals and deferred to our opinions as if we were their peers – and it was refreshing to not be patronized but to be engaged with as a group of leaders who have what it takes to impact the world positively.

It was also humbling to note that the Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs, Ms Joyce Aryee took time from her parliamentary session to share some insights on what it takes to be a leader in Africa, more-so a woman leader.

“They will tell you it cannot be done, well I am here today to tell you that not only can it be done, it is has been done and it is still being done. You owe it to yourselves to never give up and never ever walk away from a fellow sister in need. In this journey to becoming the next generation of African women leaders, you will need to help, support, encourage and work with each other,” she said adding that she had been called names and insulted in the media during smear campaigns so she had learned to just be tough.

Since the leadership institute commenced, I have had the honour of visiting Ghana’s parliament which occasioned my encounter with Samia.

Then the opportunity to meet with Betty Mould-Iddrisu who is Ghana’s Attorney General and Minister of Justice, the first woman to ever hold these posts since Ghana’s independence in 1957.

“I will tell you one thing. You must work hard and you must never, never forget where you come from. Never forget. Never let yourself forget,” she stressed urging us to be humble even as we pursue our most lofty ambitions.

We were inspired.

Soon after this meeting, we were shuttled to the Accra Holiday Inn Hotel where we had the honour of spending an hour with Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, a member of the Council of Elders, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the founder of Realizing Rights.

She shared her experiences on working in Africa and some of the most pressing problems faced by the continent.

“If we can isolate one of the most pressing challenges in Africa, it would be the use of religion and tradition to oppress women. The efforts to realize gender equality and to elevate the status of women are significantly hampered by this,” said Mary Robinson.

It was an enlightening session, coming hot on the heels of a group outing that saw us visiting the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) headquarters where we were hosted by some of the most successful women in funding on the continent.

AWDF has over the past decade funded women’s organisations all over the continent and propelled the women’s movement by facilitating the necessary financial resources to ensure that organisations continue the all important work of elevating the status of African women. And I find myself increasingly recalling the sentiments of Bernard of Chartres who used to say that, “we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.” For a great deal has been achieved by those women leaders who have gone ahead of us and with each generation the load becomes lighter but the complexity of the challenges we are up against remains.

May we be found worthy of the mantle of leadership when the day comes to pass on the torch?