But I believe that we have, at times, overestimated the power that the so-called ‘elite’, ‘eloquent’ and ‘educated’ (my Three Es) urban-dwelling women actually possess. And in so doing, we have tended to trivialise these women’s issues, making them appear self-indulgent and excessive.
I’ll give you an example here. In February, a woman was gang raped – just after 7pm – across the road from where I live. The area is deserted grassland which is normally fairly safe to walk through; but due to the rainy season, the grass in that area has grown so tall and thick that it is very easy to be lured and trapped within it. In fact, the Adult Rape Clinic in Harare cites the rainy season, due to the abundance of tall maize and grass fields, as one of the rifest periods for rape.
Recently, I was out visiting a friend and began to feel anxious as soon as I noticed the sun setting. As I had to walk past that bush to get home, I was not prepared to stay a moment longer. Our goodbyes were hasty and the walk home was brisk and filled with fear. What would I do, I asked myself, if someone sprung out from the tall grass and gagged me?
Living in fear
I live in fear; in the fear of my body being violated, in the fear of being unable to defend myself against it. My movement, in my own neighbourhood, is curtailed by that fear… and I am the supposedly educated woman who is empowered enough to stand on her own two feet.
I’ll give you yet another example. This past Friday, I was working late and left the office at around 11 pm. I needed to catch a taxi home and was preparing to cross one of Harare city centre’s busy streets to hail one down. That is when the security guard from our building called to me, telling me that he didn’t advise that I do so.
“If the police see you moving around, they will arrest you. Let me go and call the cab for you,” said the security guard.
So much for that same empowerment when you can’t walk the streets of your city unaccompanied after a certain hour.
I have listened to stories of women who drive fancy cars and live in immaculate mansions who are beaten up by their supposedly ‘progressive’ men; I have heard stories about women who can recite human rights legislation in their sleep and yet have lost all their inheritance claims because of their sex and the multiple dynamics of culture.
I have also seen women in the diaspora (through my experiences of living in South Africa and the UK) struggle under the weight of expectation from friends and family back home who are, at times, unforgiving of their newly found independence and altered identity.
But who listens to these narratives and validates them?
In Zimbabwe, women’s empowerment strategies are largely focused on grassroots needs. And that is a most noble and commendable cause. As women afforded access to certain privileges, we the non-grassroots, have a greater range of life options available to us. But it worries me that education and class are seen as the ultimate markers of empowerment; they are not.
But I am more concerned with using women’s stories, merely for the sake of appearing to help them. I am already indebted to the many women whose stories I have documented without actually seeing how such documentation has directly benefited their lives; particularly to a lady called Salamina I met in rural Chiredzi in 2007. Salamina was living in squalor in a dingy single room she shared with her son. She was so despondent, so deflated that even as the choirs of flies buzzed across her face – attracted by the pungent odour of her incessant diarrhoea – she did not raise her arm to swat them away.
To me, Salamina represented defeat. And yet I was there to do a job; I had travelled all that way to her to get her story. And so I took out my camera and began to take pictures; trying to find the angles and expressions that would best convey this girl’s apathy.
I was riddled with immense guilt thereafter. I remember retreating into silence that evening and wondering what writing Salamina’s story would change. Yes, someone might read about her and help her. Yes, someone might be moved into action. But the truth is that most of us aren’t that person. We are simply voyeurs and vultures to other people’s suffering.
Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote about Salamina:
“After we pray for her, I leave the home with the distinct feeling of dejection at having done absolutely nothing to alleviate Salamina’s suffering. Has the constant shuttering of my camera and incessant scribbling of notes seemed more pervasive than helpful? Has she understood the purpose of my presence?
Somehow, I feel wary of becoming a spy.”
To this day, I don’t think Salamina has ever seen the article I wrote about her. And I am not proud of this as I believe that this is exploitation. Every human being’s personal story is full of complexity and myriad facets which aren’t easy to give over to the next person. And this, I feel, is the disservice we do to women in the false belief that we are empowering them; giving them a voice to speak from without the power of feedback, and in forums completely removed from their daily existences and experiences of life.
Taking ownership of communication tools
I am of the belief that women have to take ownership of the tools that they use to tell their stories; they have to know how they work and how they empower them. And hastily explaining what a website is to someone doesn’t do that.
In February, during my data gathering, I visited a flea market hoping to talk to some vendors about their lives. In my presumptuous mind, I thought they would see Her Zimbabwe in the same light that I see it in – a place for women to articulate and celebrate their individual experiences of life; a place to simply be.
But one vendor instantly took on a look of suspicion at my request.
“What will we get from helping you? What will you give us?”
My initial reaction – which was the good old-fashioned defensive route – was to feel offended. ‘Here I am reaching out to you and you are thinking about what else I can give you!’ They were very happy to see the back of me when I politely told them that I couldn’t offer much else but a space online to be heard. I had explained that this space could help boost their visibility or even attract new customers. But they remained sceptical.
Only later, in the comfort of quiet contemplation did I realise that these women were justified in their suspicion and fear. They had to guard their own stories because the profit from it was never going to make up for the cost; a cost made higher and higher by years of strife and despondence.
You can’t put a price on a personal story
I can’t put a price on a personal story. In my view, it’s the most precious thing that every one of us has; a narrative that defines us. I would like, through Her Zimbabwe, that these narratives be given freely and by women who have the right support systems to help them face whatever societal or cultural backlash they may experience.
At Her Zimbabwe, we want to listen to as many women as we can. And we’ve realised that the Internet is not something freely accessible to all of us. This is why we have our SMS line; in case someone out there realises that we could help some women who have no access to new media, but who needs us.
Our other firm conviction is that no one intervention can impact every single woman. If Her Zimbabwe does its part, and other players become more involved in empowering different communities of women, then the collective energy of our efforts will reach far and across the terrain of the mentality that dictates that one size fits all.