It is on a dim winter’s afternoon in Massachusetts that I finally decide to give up on Her Zimbabwe.
And so to make it official, I Skype a close friend to inform her of what I am about to do; which is put up a notice on the Her Zimbabwe site stating that the project is coming to an end on its first anniversary, the 13th of March.
My friend listens intently to my words but the unease is palpable across her face; her brow furrows slightly and her lips are parted in a lingering half “Oh!” minutes after the disbelieving sound has escaped her mouth.
“As your friend, I will support you in whatever decision you make, Fungi,” she eventually responds, “But I am very sad that this is happening.”
Over almost a year of implementation of what remains a deep passion of mine, I had partaken in Her Zimbabwe’s great successes, but also experienced the extreme challenges that a project of this magnitude can bring; along with all the accolades and adulation came the exhaustion, the hard lessons to learn about personal shortcomings and the strained relationships.
A combination of these elements had led to my developing serious migraines which stabbed their relentless reminders throughout my head, day and night, and for which I had begun to rely on medication to alleviate. Sleep was not restful and each morning, I awoke feeling tight from the stresses I had failed to surrender the night before.
And so, for the sake of my sanity, I had decided to let it all go.
Overlooking The Complexities Of Women’s Organising
The quiet hours just after making my announcement to my friend are pensive. As I plough through the North American snow, leaving the tracks of my boots and thoughts, I wonder what everyone who has supported me will think, feel, do, say.
I don’t want to disappoint them, or myself; and yet, I can see no other way to keep going with my body seemingly unable to, and my emotions confused by everything I have learnt, and am experiencing.
Naively, I had overlooked a lot of the complexities of women’s organising in initiating Her Zimbabwe the year before. “All it takes,” I had glibly thought, “is alternative space and alternative revolutionary voices.”
But what I had failed to appreciate was the environment in which Her Zimbabwe and many other projects operate; an environment dominated by inert rhetoric and superficial introspection around women’s organising.
And I had failed to appreciate that this environment is not an external phenomenon; not one you sit on the sidelines of, and observe and critique objectively. I had failed to realise that I was part of it by virtue of interacting with it and working within it.
Young women’s activism is often offered as the hope of organising around gender in Zimbabwe. It is fresh, unbridled, uncensored, real. And a lot of us young women are good at offering our criticism of our foremothers’ ‘machinations’ against us; it’s because of their PHD (pull her down) syndrome, because they don’t won’t to let us in, because funders won’t give us any money because they work with the ‘old guard’.
While this critique is often correct, I think we also need to be wary of how we might be perpetuating the cycles that we have unconsciously adopted.
Most of us involved in women’s organising come from this system. Therefore, we have been socialised in certain ways to think about things – some ways that we have resisted, and others that we have subconsciously accepted. And those ways do not simply vanish by virtue of getting out. From my humble perspective, I feel that young women’s organising runs the risk of becoming just as splintered and disconnected to itself as the ‘old guard’ is to many of us.
And as young women, we need to move from our standpoint and discourse of victimhood – and yes we are victims of more powerful systems – into discussions about where we too may be getting things wrong, and how we can come together in some substantive and diversified manner. Either that, or we shall wake up one day and realise that we have become the full embodiment of that which we most fear.
What Next After Discussion?
As I walk, I also think about the discussions that I have been involved in via Her Zimbabwe’s social media networks. Strings of 100 to 200 comments develop from some conversations and there is plenty of food for thought to be savoured. But, I kept questioning, how does this change things? What comes next?
In a way, I felt like I was marshalling people through a space of a deep reflection which, however, didn’t yield action. For instance, we could talk all we wanted about the sovereignty of women’s bodies, but that wouldn’t stop the kombi touts from abusing the woman in a mini skirt, or the police from sending us in for a booking for merely walking around, unaccompanied, after dark. The other half of the people who really needed to be in the conversations weren’t in our Facebook discussions. And when they were, they were the type of commenters who called us evil, who said we were “playing the gender card”, who cast us aside as “those westernised and cultureless feminists”.
After fighting too many of these idiotic and archaic analyses of issues, my system was simply unable to cope. My emotions went through a cycle of extreme anger and then disinterest; an inability to feel, perhaps a self-preservation tactic.
An questions had begun to swell within my mind. Was I the right person for the position? On what authority did I present myself as an opinion leader and shaper? Did I want to be in that position?
A lot of reading through literature as well as some reflective writing had ensued, activities which helped me understand how I had acquired a lot of the labels that were used to described me and my work – ‘activist’ and ‘feminist’, chief among them.
I realised that these were not claimed identities, but more identities assigned to me, bestowed upon me like kingship to an heir, identities that I was still trying to make sense of for myself, and therefore own. If I wanted to own them.
I yearned to go back to the heart of the work that I loved doing – documentation through my words and the eye of my beloved camera – and yet because of the dearth of discursive spaces for women in Zimbabwe, Her Zimbabwe was trying, quite lethally, to be everything for everyone; an ‘expert’ on gender issues in Zimbabwe, on feminism in Zimbabwe, on young women’s organising in Zimbabwe, on women and social media in Zimbabwe.
What Makes YOU Happy
“Do what makes you happy Fungai. If someone identifies a gap in what you cover, it’s their job to fill it, not yours.”
The words of another friend come to me as I dig my gloved hands into my jacket pockets. It is just after 4pm and the streetlights are aglow, casting reflections over the coat of varnish – melted snow – that makes the tarred roads glisten. It is already nighttime before it has been day and I still have to get on a bus to the mall to inquire after my damaged laptop; another headache I don’t really need.
After a seven-month-long absence, I would be back in Zimbabwe in just over three weeks; the thought made me apprehensive.
The last time I had returned – after a year’s stay in the UK – I had come back with great excitement which had soon been snuffed out by the vagaries of Zimbabwean living; general apathy, a lack of structural support for innovation and the daily hustle for survival.
“Do what makes you happy Fungai.”
Upon presenting my dilemmas to friends, I hadn’t heard much said about making myself happy. I was often advised – and in a well-meant way – that my work “wasn’t about me, but about the women I serve”, that it was work for the greater good of womanhood and that I had to put aside whatever differences I had with anyone about it.
In many ways, this was absolutely true. Which is why when someone sat me down and told me to do what made me happy, it sounded like the most scandalous thing… and yet something I couldn’t help but feel relief at hearing being said.
Her Zimbabwe was changing. But it was changing in a way that I frightfully recognised; Her Zimbabwe was becoming a creature of its inert environment; in many ways rigid and un-complex amid its seeming dynamism.
Being a creative who thrives on change and exploration, I was feeling encumbered by political correctness sometimes, therefore, discussing issues out of obligation rather than the essentiality of doing so, rather than from the need for something new and constructive and dynamic to be said.
But if it was what people needed, who was I not to oblige? Who was I, but a faithful and self-sacrificing servant of the people? Her Zimbabwe was not about me, after all.
And yet this is not quite true. In fact, I believe it is such mantras that become one of the many nooses that women tie so tightly around their necks, choking their identities to death for the sake of the causes they serve. Her Zimbabwe is not a self-sustaining organism that nourishes and grows itself. It is grown by people and their ideas, by its following and by those who feed it.
If any of those resources become depleted, then Her Zimbabwe, there entire entity, suffers. And so, in many important ways, all projects are about the people behind them, their motivations and aspirations. And one must always work to find balance with the motivations and aspirations of those whom an initiative serves.
Do what makes me happy! What freedom!
It’s easier imagined than actioned.
After all, no one operates in a silo. What if what makes you happy does not make anyone else happy? Is such ‘selfishness’ even acceptable within women’s work?
I was struggling to come to terms with the idea of it, for even in the worst of my migraines, I was online – like clockwork – fulfilling my duties, having perfected a dangerous sleeping pattern that saw me awake all night to as early as six in the morning, just to keep to Zimbabwe time from halfway across the world.
What About My Grandmother In Binga?
The other part of my friend’s comment had been coursing through my mind for a time, perhaps most significantly since I gave a radio interview on a diaspora radio station about Her Zimbabwe.
While I had tried to explain as best I could what the work was about, I continually had a question, which become a source of irritation, returned to me.
“But what are you doing for my grandmother in Binga?”
Her Zimbabwe could not, cannot, does not try to reach every woman in Zimbabwe because it can not, could not, would not; because different women levitate to different issues, because Internet penetration and uptake remains patterned around privilege in our nation, because Her Zimbabwe is meant as just one platform with the hope that others will follow suit and develop complementary spaces.
Somehow, these points had failed to convince my interviewers who insisted on returning to interrogating how I was helping their grandmothers in Binga, who mind you, were not part of the target age group of the population we were trying to reach, though we would welcome them with wide arms if they entered the space.
But it was in such moments that I have felt like having an idea in Zimbabwe seems to present more opportunity for some people to foist their unrealised aspirations upon you, than get to doing something about things themselves. Because you have acted, you have to do everything including open up a hotline for domestic violence survivors, start radio listener clubs for women in rural areas, print your content and distribute it as a magazine to the world, and everything else in between just so that no one is left out.
I do not see these as unconstructive ideas at all, but they would be more useful – and realistic – if their initiators came to you with a budget to roll an idea out, or a conceptualisation of what said project might look like, or an offer of their time for the task of figuring it out. In the absence of this, many ideas are simply unrealisable.
More Zimbabweans really need to put their money where their mouths are and not insist on using other people’s agency as the grease to oil their grievances. I strongly believe we could do much more if we got out of that habit. By this I do not meet getting out of honest and progressive critique (this is lacking and much needed in Zimbabwe), but I do mean getting out of spirited, yet actionless criticism.
I Already Know
My dreamy cellphone ringtone vibrates into my thigh as I search the right pocket of my jeans for its source. I have managed to pass a couple of hours at the mall where I have been told that fixing my laptop’s cracked screen will cost a cool $600; more than double what it cost me when I bought it. I am now on my way back home on a bus crammed with workers returning from their day’s investments of time and effort.
My friend, the one I Skyped with just a few hours previously, is calling. I don’t give myself time to think why and automatically answer.
“Hello. Listen Fungi. I can’t let you give up on this. Because of other people’s expectations or grievances? No! You came up with this idea. I saw the passion you had for it. I just can’t let you give up. If you told me you were giving up because you didn’t want this anymore, I would understand. But you can’t give up because of anyone else but you!”
The unease has gone from her tone. Her emotions, it seems, have morphed into righteous ferocity; the protection of a friend.
She is right. Every last word of it. She is right. And I know it.
I am being a coward. I am letting things get the better of me, afraid to fail and therefore overextending myself, desiring to please everyone without feeling fully centred, not saying what I really want to because it seems profane to state the things that are going through my mind.
I have to reclaim what I have started. Go back to the beginning and remember what that version of myself felt on the day when a spark lit up in my mind and I stayed up all night, its luminance guiding my hand as I typed away thoughts and ideas.
What did I see, want, envision?
I envisioned a media platform that would show Zimbabweans thinking constructively and progressively. I saw other women – and men – being challenged by what they read. I wanted to create a space that would match any other reputable site in terms of quality and uniqueness of content. I envisioned a constantly evolving platform that would showcase Zimbabwean women’s ability to critique, and participate in, the worlds within and around their selves.
We are still on the phone call, my friend and I. I alight from the bus at my stop, thanking the driver as I return to the dead cold of the night. I walk carefully as the melted snow on the pavement has refrozen into sheets of slippery glass. Just a few more weeks and it will be back to sunny Harare where layers and gloves are not needed, at least in the physical sense.
My friend completes her message and tells me to sleep on her words. That she will still be fine with what I decide regardless. But that she had to have her say first.
I assure her that I will be in touch the next day. And I already know that I don’t need a night’s sleep to think about her words.
I know there is much to learn about this work, about myself, about other people. I also know there is still so much to be said and thought and done and shared; that there is still so much revolution, so much evolution to be documented.
Before I arrive home, my breath unfurling halos into the dead night, I am once more resolved.
What seemed an end, a sad end of defeat, is simply the beginning. The beginning of an ongoing revolution within.
Her Zimbabwe is here to stay.
The friend I refer to will recognise herself in these words. I thank her, and so many others for their unfaltering belief in this work, and in myself. There are too many people to thank. You each know yourselves. I am greatly indebted to you for your wisdom and warmth.