Obituary for Mabel Moyo & Retelling Stories of Organising in Zimbabwe

We walk in the footsteps of those who came before us.

What is your theory of change? But is it value for money? These pesky questions have become the bane of many an activist’s life in today’s development and civil society space. Countless hours are often spent writing very convoluted responses to donors’ enquiries. Even more hours are spent retelling the stories of what you did with that donor’s money to an ‘Africa specialist’, academic researcher, who by the time she is done with you, leaves you wondering where the women whose lives you were interested in impacting have disappeared to, as they are reduced into graphs, complex theoretical calculations, and some magical sounding theories of how change happens. Mabel Moyo, Bertha Jambaya, Betty Mtero, Lydia Chikwavaire, Agnes Kanogoiwa, Constance Mabusela, Emma Mahlunge and my late mother, Ediel Mawarire belong to that generation of activists who would be lost in today’s development-speak. Raise your left hand if you had never heard these names till today. Raise both if you had come across them and dismissed them as ‘those knitting and baking traditional women!’ It is ok. Let us help you. The most important thing for you to know, if you are a young feminist in Zimbabwe or any other country for that matter, today, you are walking along paths that were cleared for you by these women and the movements they built over decades. Thank them for where you and I are today, the freedoms we take for granted and the ease with which we claim our rights. Change does not magically happen. There are people, women, who fought hard and gave their whole lives to ensure that you and me, would not experience the hardships they faced.

I woke up to see a post on my Twitter feed that Mabel Moyo is gone. My Aunty Mabel. Our elder ‘sister’, Mrs Moyo, is gone. That smile. That energy. The elegance. That grace. That passion and commitment to supporting other women, is gone. Mabel was, until her death, the Deputy Director for Jekesa Pfungwa/Vulingqondo, (JP/V for short). Together with Bertha Jambaya, (the Director), these two women traversed the length and breadth of Zimbabwe building what still remains as one of the largest women’s movements in the country. Again, you are forgiven if you had never heard of them till now. JP/V was originally the black women’s wing of the white-led Women’s Institute of Rhodesia, (WI). Many of course are familiar with the UK-based WI, out of which the Rhodesian branch grew. Founded on notions of good housewifery, domestic skill building, and how to be an all-round ‘good woman’, the WI taught women skills such as knitting, sewing, baking, home-economics, and later on soap-making, garment making, small business management, marketing, how to form self-help groups etc. At the dawn of Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the black women leaders in WI broke off to set up their own organisation. Initially, the focus was more or less on the same sets of skills, albeit in a new context. The liberation movement government was very strong on women’s empowerment, involvement in decision-making, as well community healthcare. Bertha and Mabel wasted no time in adapting their organisation to the times. The 1980s also saw the passing of new legislation and policies designed to increase women’s economic, social, and political empowerment. JP/V grew to a close 100 000-member strong movement. But this did not come overnight.

I was not a member of JP/V, so I can not tell the full story. My feminist journey coincided with that of JP/V in quite an interesting way, and that is the limited story I can tell. My mother, was a member of WI, and after independence moved with her friends Bertha and Mabel into JP/V.  Interestingly, my mother was also a member of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA-Zimbabwe), a competitor to JP/V, if you come from the scarcity school of thought. But she and many of her generation saw no problem. The two organisations helped meet different needs in their lives. Between 1980 and I would say 1995, it was Bertha, Mabel, and dozens of women whose names I can not even recount here, built their movement, village by village, township by township. A typical JP/V organising trip, which I had the pleasure of witnessing went something like this: travel from Harare to Chimanimani at the crack of dawn. Arrive at the home of one strong village health worker/community organiser/mothers’ union leader, whose name we would have been given by someone who knew her. The host would share whatever food, lodgings she had. Very often the one mismatched set of china plates, or the least chipped Kango (colourful tin painted plates), would come out. The one set of bedsheets, nice blanket, one pillow and not tattered sleeping mat would be rolled out. Next morning, we are introduced to the local power structures; chief, headman, ZANUPF (Zimbabwe National Unity Patriotic Front) chairman, ZANUPF women’s league chairwoman, etc. Everywhere, getting their ‘blessing’, to do ‘development work’, with the women. Without this, you could not even gather the women. But that is a story for another blog. From there, your local host would then gather the small group of women in her community, and over a two- or three-day period, you would have a conversation with the women about the problems they had as women. The things that made them happy. How they are organised. What their needs were. Who else was supporting them in the community? Government? Another NGO? A religious group? You had to come back to the same group of women for three, sometimes five times in one year. Each time, building a group, some projects, some awareness about rights, new practical skills.

I have often heard the work that Mabel Moyo and the women’s movements of the 1980s-90s’ dismissed. Indeed, these women did not base their work on any cleverly thought out theories, or what we now call a theory of change. And yet, when we look back, we can see the real impacts the work had. Let me outline a few:

  • Each woman can proudly show you the things she bought with HER OWN income, that she got after selling some products as taught by JP/V or Association of Women’s clubs, or YWCA; a wardrobe, a set of big pots, three goats which produced seven more goats, a cow – which has since produced 10 more. Their own clothing. A suit for the husband. Blankets!
  • Sending their own children or grandchildren to school. Buying groceries.
  • Travel to South Africa, Botswana, Namibia to sell some handicrafts and came back with a fridge, freezer, and beautiful memories.
  • Travel to conferences, workshops in the next town, the capital city, sleeping in a hotel. Travel to the Beijing conference in 1995, and the memories!
  • Learning to read and write, taking adult literacy classes.
  • Knowledge about contraceptives, introduction to your own body, your sexual health, and reproductive choices.
  • Awareness of legal rights; marriage laws, divorce laws, inheritance laws, child custody, how to claim maintenance for children.
  • Awareness of HIV & AIDS, and how to protect oneself. Where to get antiretrovirals. Diet and nutrition.
  • Participation in campaigns for legal or policy change, national budgets, local governance etc.
  • Some of the women got elected into community-based decision-making structures like Village Development Committees, District Development committees, and much later, many ran for parliamentary seats.

One of the impacts my own mother often talked about is worth recounting. She would say: ‘Just the idea of me leaving your grandparents’ compound, spending the whole day with other women, laughing, learning something new, baking, or just talking was a major thing. Besides going to church on Sundays, or the Mothers’ Union, (which were seen as benign, decent places for a married woman to go), where else would I have gone to get some rest from the pains of being an unwanted daughter in law? Just for those few hours, I was free! Free! No children. No in-laws. No husband. Just me, doing something for me!’ To you and me who are so used to waving goodbye as we stand at the door, or calling from the departure gates at an airport, this was huge for women of that generation and from that context. Some impacts can not be captured in a log-frame.

Another less known story, is about the work JP/V and other so-called grassroots women’s movements did, was around the constitutional change process in the late 1990s. This part deserves to be retold, and the role that Mabel Moyo and women like her played. Before the formation of the National Constitutional Assembly, (the social justice movement, not Lovemore Madhuku’s current political party, please note), most women’s organisations in Zimbabwe focused on educating women about their newly found legal rights. Newer (decidedly self-named feminist organisations), such as Women’s Action Group, (my alma mater), Musasa, and Women and Law in Southern Africa were born out of the need to ensure that women enjoyed the rights that new laws passed in the 80’s and 90s truly benefitted them. An example of this was the Legal Age of Majority Act, which, in summary, conferred majority status on black Zimbabwean women for the first time ever. No sooner had the law been passed than a strong backlash was mounted by some traditionalists and conservative elements, including amongst some of the very legislators who had passed it! The big excuse was that this new law made children, (and women by extension/same difference to some people), wayward. They argued that children and women no longer listened to men. They drank and smoked. Went out too late at night, and they were now breeding all sorts of ills like baby dumping. Similarly, the new Maintenance Act came under attack, with most mass media hysterically running long pieces, talk shows, etc. about how women were abusing the law by collecting maintenance from several men for one child. Dramatic stories of these wayward ‘prostitutes,’ (a word often thrown at any woman who crosses the invisible patriarchal line), who collected thousands of dollars and used the money to drink with yet more lovers and produce yet more babies, were created, retold, and passed on as fact.

The newly set up feminist organisations were very good at policy analysis, legal drafting and doing policy advocacy at national level. Most of us had neither the skills, nor the power of numbers to shift the public conversation. It was to the JP/Vs, the YWCAs, and AWCs (Association for Women’s Clubs) that we looked to talk to women directly, raise their consciousness using the most accurate information, and mobilise them to defend the gains we had on paper. This part of the story, I can tell more eloquently because I was there. Women’s Action Group (WAG), a fairly younger, and smaller, Harare based group was formed to educate women about their legal, sexual, and reproductive health. We produced a popular magazine, Speak Out/Taurai/Khulumani, (in those 3 languages). But we had no direct constituency. Enter Mabel, Bertha and Betty Mtero. We formed a partnership. WAG would produce the magazine as well as other popular education material. The big movements would collect these materials, and we would train community based popular educators, who would take the message to the dozens of clubs, groups who met faithfully each week. Amidst the sewing, knitting, or jam-making, women would be taught about the new laws, how to make use of them and where to go for help. We also dispelled some of the myths brought out by the backlash. One literate woman would read an article, a pamphlet for the others. Later, we partnered with the Federation of African Media Women Zimbabwe, (FAMWZ), to produce what we nowadays call, ‘podcasts’, but in those days it was messages taped onto good old TEDELEX cassettes, and then played over one community radio. The women could write letters in response, or with their own specific problems, and solutions would be provided the following week. Overnight, we had constituencies running into hundreds of thousands of women, who met each week, somewhere under a tree, or in a classroom, and in their own way, made change happen.

This was the infrastructure the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) depended on to mobilise women to define what they wanted in a new Zimbabwean constitution. When the ruling party tried to impose its own version of a new constitution, it was roundly rejected. We owe a great debt to women like Mabel Moyo and her peers, for the organising they did. It breaks my heart that from the early 2000s till now, the story of Zimbabwean civil society organising has been told and seen only through the prism of a very narrowly defined democracy and governance agenda – read that as electoral politics. JP/V, AWCs, the Zimbabwe Women’s Bureau, (ZWB), and YWCA-Zimbabwe, and other broad-based movements were cast aside, because they did not speak that language. And if they did, they were not seen as ‘political enough’. Many a donor agency has been too lazy to look beyond the big, capital city based, and slick sounding names with a fancy website and a social media profile to match, rather than invest time and resources into grassroots movements. I was quite horrified two years ago when a very senior UN staffer told me that she had never heard of JP/V or the other older women’s organisations. But she definitely knew the one person’s outfits who were always at every donor gathering, every CSO consultation, and were referenced in every conversation on Zimbabwean civil society. That too is the story for another blog.

As a result, most of the broad-based grassroots movement type organisations have almost collapsed into oblivion. That JP/V still stands today, is due to Bertha Jambaya and Mabel Moyo’s incredible leadership, personal commitment, and their ability to adapt to the context as well as the foresight they had to buy or build physical infrastructure such as offices and training centres which they often hire out to other organisations. I also know that at the worst of times, the two of them have used their own personal resources to keep the organisation alive. I have no doubt that if you travelled in any direction in Zimbabwe today and found a group of women seated under a tree, and asked how many are members of JP/V or AWC, at least three will raise their hands! They can show you the material goods they acquired thanks to the economic empowerment by JP/V.

As we say a painful farewell to Mabel Moyo in the midst of this pandemic, (which has deprived the thousands of women who should have been there to do so), this is a good moment to answer that pesky question. How does change happen? It happens, when a small group of women come together and decide that they will reach out to a dozen, then a hundred, then thousands of other women, and bring them together to say, ‘enough!’ Change happens when a woman called Mabel, and her friend Bertha have a vision of what social justice for women looks like, and they invest years of their time, financial resources, and their love, to build a formidable movement across a big country, one village, one township at a time. Feminist leadership makes change happen. Yes, that is what we call it, even though the two of them may have never used the F word. It is not a requirement. Hard, slogging work of popular education, consciousness raising, leading to COLLECTIVE action and mobilisation, on the streets, on radio, via SMS messaging, in the community, makes change happen. And most definitely jam-making, baking the most delicious scones and knitting the most beautiful cardigans, or the daintiest doilies, while you discuss the national constitution you want – definitely makes change happen!

Rest in peace Aunty Mabel. Aunty Bertha, we put our arms around you and cherish you and all your peers still with us. Thank you for making the paths that we now walk so confidently, and so proudly.

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