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Silent waves

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Thursday, June 25th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

One evening after a great day, I sent an SMS message to a friend.  ZESA is not my friend tonight, I typed with my thumbs.   This was my way to whine about a power cut at my flat.  As anyone in Zimbabwe would do, my friend replied with empathy for my predicament.  She encouraged me to find something to do that did not require electricity.  She made many viable suggestions.  I remained firm in my anger and refused to take up any of her suggestions.  I just sat there in the dark.  As we continued exchanging SMS’s, I noticed that the sounds emanating from my cell phone were the only sounds I could hear.  Otherwise, I was contained by a silent space.  Made ever the more silent by darkness.  I was sitting in a hollow respite, that damn ZESA muted my evening.

The silence was a departure from the loudness of my day.  A day which had been inspiring with its many voices, movements, interactions, and images.  The day had been like a series of waves, which hit and inspired me.  Like when at the beach.  You first see waves in the distance.  Watch them take shape and gain strength as they move forward.  Then the waves hit.  You feel enthralled and energized by the way the water feels on your skin and by the uplifting power the waves possess.   Before you know it, waves make their way to shore; they crash and peacefully blend into the sand with a sound of accomplishment.   Many more waves follow this same path.  Waves almost never stop.  Throughout my busy and loud day it was like being in the waves.   Then in the evening it was like all waves were gone, blended into the sand, but creating only silences.

I’m thinking this contradiction of my day­loud waves and silent spaces­lends insight into understanding Zimbabwe.  This combination, however contradictory it is, also is not.  The fight to be heard is at one point loud and at other points silent.   Zimbabwe is a place of silent waves.  In sight are Zimbabwean waves forming paths toward visibility and weight.  However, uncontrollable forces drive the waves astray.  You are absorbed by the certitude of Zimbabwean waves, one that incisively convey the problems which bedevil the country.   But so much renders these waves into a world of what is explained away as the new norm.  The body feels and experiences the forward moving momentum of Zimbabwean waves.  Yet these waves have a way of retreating, without crash or sound, into the sand.   Zimbabwean waves persist, but they seem to follow a dual path.  In bringing the contradiction full circle, at once Zimbabwean waves persist in both their loudness and in their silence.

Sisters and brothers

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Thursday, June 11th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

Over the course of two years I attended nearly one hundred events in Harare where I intently listened to the incisive words of poets, fiction writers, spoken word artists, musicians­artistes if you like.  My ears and my mind soaked in poignant ideas thoughtfully assembled into analysis.  I felt the ways these engagements facilitate deeper understandings of both the beauty and pain which is Zimbabwe.

There was also something else that caught my ear.  Once performers have microphone in hand, so often they are all about their sisters and brothers.   And in all the possible combinations.  Women thank their brothers for supporting them.  Men praise the work of their sisters.  To express gratitude in these ways perhaps signals a sense of camaraderie, belief in the power of collective voice.   In fact, comrade was used almost as often as brother or sister.    My comrade, my sister, your words make me think.

Sister and brother usage also extends beyond opening salutations.  Often a piece is dedicated to a brother or a sister.   This is for my brothers out there in the diaspora who want to come home.  This is for my sisters struggling to get by.   The dedication again speaks to a connection.  To say I understand what challenges you face, my brother, my sister.  And I want my work, and what I say, to be part of what helps to overcome these challenges together.

Proceeding into the work, sisters and brothers are again everywhere.  Words trace and piece together what brothers and sisters experience.  Hardships, aspirations, successes, and a life course bound up in so much.  To lay bare the unfolding stories, ideas and individual experiences are made known by presenting sisters and brothers in dialogue.  Sometimes the conversation is to question the actions of another.  My comrade, my brother, I am a sister who sees the hypocrisy of your ways.  Other times, the conversation is to reflect and inform.  My comrade, my sister, I am a brother seeking freedom.

What I find interesting is that these are references to brothers and sisters who are simultaneously factual and fictional.  Or more there’s a play with words leading to emotive loss being expressed.  The sister and brother and the hardships they experience exist (fact).   Space free of suffering for the brother and sister does not (fiction).    It might seem that I’m reading too deeply into common speak, use of brother and sister.  I mean is there anything significant in how often people say:  Hey, how are you?  But no.  I think there is something much deeper going on with all the factual and fictional brothers and sisters floating around in the intellectual and creative airwaves.

I was telling someone the other day that collective organizing is untenable in Zimbabwe.  So what choice is there, but the individual.  To be one.  And to focus on them.  A brother.  A sister.  Each one a factual marker of the challenges so many individual people actually experience.   Each one continually thanked, referenced, and written about.   Each one central to expressing the hope that facts become fictions.   A yearning for factual markers to not represent spaces of suffering.  Spaces which today are largely fictional.   It’s a factual/fictional play on words expressing an extreme sense of loss of what used to be.  A time where one didn’t have to speak of their sisters and brothers in pain.  A time where the collective had more voice and more power. An attempt to commandeer words (brother and sister) in an effort to turn reality around.  To hope for and make suffering, not factual, but rather fictional.

Ok maybe this sounds like a wacky line of thought.  But listen carefully, not only to how much brother and sister are used, but also consider what emotions are going on when used.

Betwixt and between The State

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Monday, March 16th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

Anybody and everybody knows that Zimbabwe’s GNU has a great many problems to deal with.  They are problems which cut across all sectors of society (education, health, agriculture, arts & culture, economics, etc.).  Some are optimistic about the future.  Some are skeptical.  Many are in the middle, or flat out uncertain about what the future holds.  One thing is for sure.  Zimbabweans are tired.  Their fight for democracy has been long and exhausting.  The pains have been both physical and emotional.  Which makes it all the more painful to suggest that the fight is far from over.  Even if the GNU could instantly fix everything and Zimbabwe became the world-renowned utopia north of the Limpopo, my stance remains the same.  I would still say that fighting for and sustainably implementing democratic practices of governance are permanent endeavors.  For any and every nation.  Citizens have an important role to play in the check and balances of democracy.  That role involves a balanced approach of working with and supporting the individuals and institutions charged with implementing democratic practices along with identifying and taking action when there are transgressions from democracy.

I’ve been thinking about all that in the context of an excellent article I read by Everjoice Win entitled:  When sharing female identity is not enough: coalition building in the midst of political polarization in Zimbabwe.  Win does not state what I will proceed to suggest in these exact terms, but subtly this line of thinking is within Win’s adept analysis.   The women’s movement in Zimbabwe has never really rebounded from Operation Clean Up of 1983. During this operation, The State violated the rights of ordinary citizens by arresting thousands of women for the “crime” of being on the street alone.  This came out of ill-conceived belief on the part of The State that no woman would be on the street alone unless a prostitute.   The ensuing advocacy led to the formation of the Women’s Action Group (WAG).   These moments are historicised as the birth of the post-independence women’s movement in Zimbabwe; in many respects, an accurate historisation.

However, these moments also signal a second birth.  That of challenging The State.  I am purposively using capital T and capital S to make clear that by “The State” I don’t just mean government.  Rather, I mean the political ideology of authoritarian rule and in turn, the masculine ideology of using The State as an avenue to control, not only women themselves, but also to control definitions of the concept of woman.  WAG emerged as an organisation which put front and center an agenda of challenging The State.   A great many women’s organizations came onto the scene once WAG was operational.   Some followed suit with WAG and challenged The State.  Others took more depoliticized paths.  Some were co-opted by The State.  Through all of this, the issue of challenging The State or working with The State remained a sticking point within the overall women’s movement.   As Win notes, “political and ideological differences were concealed by the language of gender and development, with its depoliticized messages associated with national development.”

In 1999, this dynamic played out again, in relation to the founding of the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), the Constitutional Commission (CC), and the Women’s Coalition (WC).   With interest in ensuring women’s rights were part of the constitutional review process, the WC had to choose a path:  The NCA (Civil Society) or The CC (The State).   The formation of Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) this same year complicated the terrain even more.  The ‘which path to choose’ dilemma existed, not only for the WC, but also for all development or issue-related movements and organisations.  Of course, it’s not neatly an either or choice; there are ways to make strategic and selective linkages.  And many issue-specific organizations did and continue to do this well.  But still.  Somehow, I think this dilemma around The State has been particularly troublesome for the broader coalition of women’s organisations.   In summarizing the terrain around this time Win notes, “The crisis has left the women’s movement in disarray…  A major blockage for the WC is its lack of a clear position on its relationship with the State.”  Win’s article was published in 2004, so perhaps the WC has cleared the blockage.   However, I have a sneaking suspicion the WC, to this day, remains problematically betwixt and between this issue of relating to The State.

Thus, to connect the dots begs the question:   As the GNU (hopefully not a new The State) comes to fruition and hopefully succeeds as a democracy, is a women’s movement ready to take on the need for discussions about The State, which have been, to some degree, relegated to the sidelines for 26 years?  Perhaps what is needed is, not a GNU, but rather, some WUGU (Women United Government United).

For the record, research to examine sex

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Thursday, February 19th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

Back in November, I organized and was part of a discussion forum that explored the topic of sexual vulnerabilities as well as some of the challenges associated with conducting research concerning sex/sexuality. I provided introductory comments from the perspective of being an anthropologist interested in the ways HIV/AIDS has transformed spaces to understand and speak about sex. Emphasizing that in most African countries, HIV transmission happens through sex; thus, for nearly 30 years knowledge generated about HIV and AIDS is also knowledge about sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, sexual identities, sexual subjectivities, and sexual vulnerabilities.

Six distinct, yet related, concepts interwoven into human sexual potential. A potential which extends beyond the act of sex and serves as a path through which individuals embody, express, and experience sexual desires and sexual selves. Like most human attributes, sex is such that societal dynamics and life experiences, both pleasurable and painful, shape the ways sexual potential is embraced – as individuals, in perceptions of others, and in relationships with others.

With this background, each of the panelists spoke about projects they are working on. Through poetry, fiction, and qualitative social science research methods, the panelists highlighted the ways sexualities – how they are understood and practiced as well as emotionally lived and dynamically not static – contain layered sets of meanings and complications. Following the presentations, the audience engaged in a lively discussion. Repeatedly people commented that there are not enough spaces for people to speak about sex. Yet also, noting that on the ground experience, through for example, NGO programming, family counseling, or field-based research, indicates that Zimbabweans are eager and searching for opportunities to speak about sex.

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Empathy and admiration

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Thursday, January 15th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

The other day a friend asked what I knew about the recent elections in Ghana.   Happens often, because I’ve lived in one African country, people think this translates into knowledge about the entire continent.   I told my friend I knew nothing about the elections in Ghana, but commented knowing nothing was potentially a good sign.  Means that the elections didn’t make major headlines.  Wasn’t like in Zimbabwe where CNN and BBC provided around the clock coverage including frequent conversations with Bright Matonga who always had something so outlandish to say that it became entertaining. And the New York Times had above the fold cover stories day after day. Not even knowing an election happened in Ghana probably means it went off peacefully, or at least not unpeacefully enough to make the news.

This got me thinking about how the news is oriented toward reporting on the ills of the world.  The crisis’s, violence, devastation, deaths, scandals, suffering, bombs, murders, angst, corruption, and on it goes.  This is what makes the headlines. The happy stuff is rarely in the headlines.  Zimbabwe is a good example.  All the average consumer of news sees are stories about what a mess things are in Zimbabwe.

I have a folder of 516 ZWNEWS’ dating from late 2006 to the present.  When I did a word search for violence, 324 of the ZWNEWS daily email newsletters had at least one article where the word violence was used.  With arrested the total was 348, death 243, and beaten 192.  A word search on celebration came out to 49. And likely that word was used to describe Mugabe’s lavish birthdays.  Hardly shocking that news out of Zimbabwe is harsh, not celebratory; and I’m not meaning to diminish the importance of covering these realities. Being a reader of harsh news, however, drums up a range of emotions, one of which is empathy for the real people in each of the stories and empathy about the broader context in which they live.

It’s curious the concept of empathy.  To feel it means you are a caring and compassionate person.  You recognize the brave ways people fight against insurmountable odds.  But I wonder too when feeling empathy dangerously limits the power to feel things which are peacefully pure and good.  I started thinking about people I admire.  As the list grew, I was having a hard time identifying admiration that didn’t also involve empathy.  Try it.  Make a list of who you admire and I bet at least half the people on the list you admire because you empathize with their struggle and what they are fighting for.  Can’t help but imagine a better world, one where admiration does not necessarily also involve empathy.

To do lists

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Tuesday, January 6th, 2009 by Susan Pietrzyk

Last month my to do list was long like there’s no tomorrow.  It was full of errands mostly associated with preparing to pack up and relocate myself back in the US.   In Zimbabwe, seemingly simple to do items like get cash, pay bills, get mixers for cocktails, etc. can take amounts of time which are unfathomable.  At least (after the frustration and exhaustion) some humor can be found.  Like how I nearly had a temporary Zimbabwean husband, for the purpose of getting Tel One to accept a third party cheque as payment.

And sometimes it’s not so much humor.  More that it can be enlightening, the little nuances of how moving through a to do list plays out.   After completing a to do item in Eastgate Mall, I found myself frozen amidst people bustling this way and that way.  I was wanting to follow the Eastgate routine I had established.   An exit route geared toward stopping in specific shops to see what was on the shelves and/or if there were good deals.  But, no reason for the routine because it’s not like I needed to fill my suitcase with basic goods as part of returning to the US.  My frozenness lasted a good many minutes.  Then the strangest thing happened.  There was a magnetic force which sucked me into the shopping routine.  Nothing good at Chipos Supermarket or the zhing zhong shops.  But in Clicks, my gosh good golly, they had more shampoo, conditioner, and liquid bath soap than I had ever seen on a single Zimbabwean shelf.  Fairly priced to boot!  A gold mine!  Without skipping a beat I was strategizing how much I needed to buy and which scents would be the most soothing.   Once I realized buying was not needed, I thought to myself:   Shame I’m leaving Zimbabwe with all these good bath products available.  A different kind of humor playing out here.  Humorous that I became so well trained with my shopping routines and strategies.  And curious that I found it easier to be emotional about leaving behind a gold mine of bath products and much harder to express my feelings about leaving behind my work, colleagues, friends and all the ways living in Harare enriched my mind and my heart.

One more thought about to do lists.   Seems that Mugabe started 2008 with a small voice which got bigger and bigger as he moved through a carefully calculated set of to do items.   A few of the items that got ticked off the to do list include:  manipulate voters roll, ignore elections if not victorious, blame problems on west, use herald as mouthpiece, eliminate opposition, take grace shopping, ignore agreements, brainwash youth, keep all power, pay military, dictate.  Me and a whole lot of millions of other people are ticked off about what Mugabe’s 2008 to do list included.  Looking for a fresh list for 2009 with items such as:  share, play fairly, food aid for all, return to rule of law, downsize motorcade, get kids back in school, admit cholera is problem, pay civil servants fair wages, be realistic about hyperinflation, enforce one person one farm policy, involve all in constitutional revisions, take foreign aid yet remain sovereign, fade into distance, transition to peace.