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The heroines of our struggle

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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.

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