I Learned Resistance at my Mother’s Feet

Hellen Matsvisi

For young Zimbabwean feminist writer Hellen Matsvisi, there is something truly powerful about telling women’s stories that celebrate “rebellion” or “crossing the line” in their daily lives. Hellen is the author of What They Call Love, a manuscript where she tells the story of how she witnessed her own mother stepping away from a violently abusive relationship.  

"When I tell my mother’s story, I tell it with power and courage, not from the point of view of a sobbing, helpless and defeated being. She is a role model and an inspiration. But most importantly, she is the hero of her own story and not just a victim."

Hellen’s mother, Constance*, spent more than two decades trapped in an abusive marriage to a man who later infected her with HIV. Life was hard for her and for Hellen who watched on, unable to do anything to intervene. The turning point came when Constance found the way to walk away from her husband’s abusive grip and find a job as a domestic worker. Alone, she raised Hellen and her brother. For Hellen, this act of defiance—even as many members in Constance’s family pressured her to stay with her husband—is exactly what’s called the “power within.”

"This novel is all about patriarchy and power, and the story is based on a true life story of my mum; a deliberate celebration of the courage of all women who find power within themselves to change their lives when confronted with similar situations. What patriarchy calls love is when a woman silently endures abuse, when she can’t even name her pain or the source of it until that pain sends her to the grave. My mother’s resilience inspires me to write more stories of women's resistance of androcentric or male-centred models of power."

As a “vagina warrior”, Hellen has volunteered with JASS partner, Katswe Sistahood since 2011. Katswe is a growing movement of young women dedicated to deconstructing the taboos and stigmas surrounding sex, sexuality and women’s bodies—what they call “the sacred cows.” For Hellen and for Katswe, creating space for young women to mobilise against violence and for sexual and reproductive health, and rights from the community-level is important.

Hellen points to Katswe’s “pachotos” or “fireside chats” as pivotal in her journey as a feminist. Before she joined Katswe, she was fighting for her chance to pursue her education and gain independence by getting a job. Her older brother felt that the “safest place for her was at home.” But Hellen was not content with this vision of her future: “I wanted my education and I knew it was the only thing that could give me permanent freedom. Every day I was dying to go to university to further my studies. I decided to sneak out of the house to find myself a part-time job. When I came back in the evening my brother was very angry with me for even just stepping out and beat me to a pulp.”

Hellen felt paralysed. She knew that she had to do something but felt that her chances of breaking free from her toxic home environment were limited. One day, she saw a group of young women entering the apartment next door to where she lived with her brother and his family. “The young women looked vibrant and happy and I got curious,” she says of her first impression of Katswe Sistahood.

It was at the pachotos that Hellen’s activist spirit ignited. In Hellen’s own words:

I started attending Katswe meetings at their office, and one day they took me to a nearby high-density suburb to attend one of their pachotos, spaces where young women get together to strengthen themselves, learn and share, and just come as they are. Here I saw a diverse group of women; women from both urban and rural Zimbabwe, educated and uneducated, young women who were not ashamed to identify themselves as sex workers, and women of different sexual orientations. I marvelled at how the women respected each other’s beliefs, and how they took turns to tell their life experiences and share stories of resilience and success in the face of restrictive patriarchy. I benefitted most from the feminist discussions facilitated by young vibrant women from the Katswe. I learned a lot about women’s rights, and the Katswe women put me in touch with organisations that could help me. When I shared my story about the problems I was having with my brother, I realised fully that what he was doing to me was wrong and that I have a right to freedom. It wasn’t right for my brother to abuse me and to claim that I had no right to work, and that I should just stay in the home wasting away. Through my involvement with Katswe, I found strength and courage to register at the Women’s University in Africa (WUWA) where I’m doing my degree in Gender Studies.

Hellen attended JASS Southern Africa’s Feminist Movement Builders’ School in Harare (October 2013) where her feminist politics crystallised even more. For Hellen, feminism is about reclaiming our power as women and using that power for the benefit of everyone else around us.

I learnt that we all live in the Master’s House, and that Master’s House is patriarchy. We broke down power so that I could see how visible, hidden and invisible power structures work together to oppress women. Another thing I learned is that feminism is not only about power over others but about power within the individual to initiate change through personal action, and also about using that personal power together with others to build strong movements against oppression. One of my favourite parts of the workshop was feminist popular education which is so different from the ways we are taught to learn in school. It’s more participatory, practical and reflective instead of mainstream education which can be more one-sided. I now believe that there is power in numbers, and together as feminists we can effect change. JASS is the pot of knowledge all women need to develop their lives.

Women’s stories of resistance and rebellion are what fuel Hellen’s creativity and her dream that women’s voices can find new and exciting platforms to learn and share knowledge and experience.

Picture caption: Hellen on the far left with her Katswe sisters