Feminist Chronicles: Diary 27: Catherine Makoni

One of the words I have decided to make part of my permanent vocabulary is ubuntu. This word which refers to the same thing though spoken to in many cultures and languages across the African continent is about our humanity, the notion that as human beings we should relate to each other with dignity and respect. One of the first things that drew me to Catherine is her conclusion that Zimbabweans have lost their UBUNTU. I agree with her.

 I know fellow Zimbabweans that I look at and frown upon. No I am not being judgemental or maybe I am but here is what I see in them and if after you have read this you do not frown upon their behaviour too then I guess you are not judgemental. They think every commercial sex worker is a prostitute and that they do it because they are possessed by a demonic spirit of prostitution or because they just want it. What about the victims of trafficking? What about the woman who had no choice? Of course because we always have a choice we always assume every individual has a choice, right? I frown upon Zimbabweans who make fun of the women’s movement and how the quest for gender equality is un-African and ungodly. How would they feel if they had to live in an environment in which they were considered incapable because they are women, in which they did not have choices about where they live, where they work and what they do because they are women, an environment in which they had to work twice as hard to prove their capabilities, where they are used and discarded because that is how society is structured. I frown upon people who think simply because their life is perfect then they need not worry about other people’s welfare. In Ndebele they say Indoda iyazibonela, in Shona Nhamo yeumwe hairambirwi sadza, and in English Each man for himself and God for us all. Is that our humanity?

Catherine speaks to these issues in a much more articulate manner than I am doing here. Speaking to the strife and trouble that wrecked Zimbabweans’ lives in the article We have lost our ubuntu  she said,

“We all know what’s wrong and what’s right but no one is willing to do what it takes for the common good. The shelves are empty, but as long as I am managing to put food on my family’s table, who cares that my neighbour’s children are going to bed hungry? As long as I can access cash through various means, who cares that someone has been spending days and nights outside the bank waiting to withdraw their paltry money. We look at them, we feel sorry, we despair but we are relieved that it is not us standing in the baking sun as we go about our business. We do not intervene. We do not speak out when we should. Hatisisina hunhu. We have lost our ubuntu; that which makes us members of the human family.”

Cover to the Book in which Catherine's story: Letters to my cousin was published.

She is a champion for women’s rights.  One of the most interesting articles written by her is Women as vectors of disease: The problem with ill-thought campaigns . In this article, she criticises the reference to and lumping together of divorced women, single women, commercial sex workers, mistresses (known as small houses in Zimbabwe) as mahure (whores). She also frowns upon HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns that depict women as the problem, with a woman portrayed as the jar of honey into which many men want to dip their fingers but instead they get out of it infected. She criticises the portrayal of women as the problem and asserts that the spread of HIV/AIDS is a problem perpetuated by the societal expectation of what women can do and can’t do which men can do such as engaging in unprotected sex with multiple partners what she terms ‘toxic masculinities.’  She makes the apt point that the spread of HIV/AIDS is not the fault of women who do not conform to the cultural practise that is perceived to be acceptable and ‘normal.’ I agree with Catherine completely when she states that blaming women for men’s immorality only stigmatises women whose lifestyles differ from the promoted cultural and religious hegemonic norm. Indeed the expectation for women to remain virgins while single and remain faithful after marriages will only work if men do the same, otherwise as things stand where men are expected to dally in all sorts of sexual adventures while single and comfortably boast of a small house after marriage is a recipe for the continuation of the spread of the disease.

 She has written on how women are abused in a bid to silence them and silence their voices in the political arena. In her article If your only tool is a hammer, all your problems will look like nails  she describes Rutendo  a woman who, “knows the pain of displacement only too well. At 64, she had to suffer the pain and humiliation of being gang-raped by boys young enough to be her grandsons. The trauma of that experience lives with her still. None of her close relatives know about her ordeal. She never went back home after that night. Now she goes from relative to relative, living from day to day, wondering when she will die. She wonders if she could be infected but she has not been able to go for tests. It’s a lot for her just to wake up and go about the business of living. Rape is not an event. It lasts a lifetime.”

She has also addressed the question of why Zimbabwe had to enact a Domestic violence Act,  which she says was necessary to address violence in the private sphere which before 2006 no other act regulated yet it contributed to the death, injury and maiming of many women. In that article she challenged the notion that the dressing of some women invites upon their selves attacks from men. Catherine’s challenge of the notion of decency struck me as one of the most well argued positions about African women’s dressing, a point that I have always made but never had the authority to quote (which I now do).

She says “Notions of decency are notoriously difficult to define. Who gets the privilege of setting the standards for decency for society? Allow me to explain. During Victorian England, the exposure of a woman’s legs was considered indecent exposure in much of the western world. Around about that time, in Africa, most of us were still in our animal skins. Exposure of women’s legs was par for the course. There was nothing indecent about it. The settlers who came to Africa were coming from Victorian England and they imposed Victorian notions of decency. Gone were the animal skins, in came the voluminous dresses and skirts (totally inappropriate for the weather, one might add!) So successful was this process of inculturation that a lot of people (Mr Namate included it seems) are still advocating for this mode of dressing, long after its chief proponents have realised its folly and moved on!!”

She is a critic of the high levels of corruption within the government in Zimbabwe and has boldly challenged the source of the President’s vast wealth collections in Zimbabwe and around the world. Following the announcement of the increase in the President’s salary from $400 to $1750 in 2010 she boldly stated in her article Now we know his salary, perhaps he can disclose the full extent of his wealth,

Good to know the president got a salary increase from $400 to $1750. Good percentage increase for himself there. Wonder how many people would get an increase of +400% in this environment? Not many l would wager. Anyway now that we know how much he earns officially perhaps we can have another front page disclosure of how much he earns from other perhaps “unofficial sources of income”? It would be interesting to know how the family could afford to send the first daughter to school in Hong Kong on a $400 salary.  Maybe she benefited from the Presidential Scholarship Fund?

I also fell in love with her analysis of how the Constitution and matters of the Constitution impact women. Her point that most of the women in the women’s movement think once matters of personal are addressed in Section 23 of the Constitution then women’s issues are fully addressed and all is well in our little newly created paradise on earth. Indeed that is a falsehood because the lives of Zimbabwean women are more than just about abuse, inheritance, maintenance, custody, divorce and division of matrimonial property. The women in industry and commerce, business, agriculture, mining, politics, tourism, aviation, medicine and many other fields are affected in some ways similar to the men in those fields but in some instances in unique ways too hence a holistic approach to their constitutional rights must go beyond the personal issues to address the public day to day life as well.

Catherine has previously worked with the Women in Politics Support Unit and now is  Regional Programme Officer : Justice and Peace for the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD). A lawyer by profession, a civil society actor and a writer Catherine has published many articles. In her story : Letters to my cousin which was published in the collection African Women Writing Resistance An Anthology of Contemporary Voices and published under the section on Young Women on Sexuality. The short story is presented in the form of letters in which an older and mature cousin advises her younger cousin Jane who is in a relationship with a man 10 years older than her to be wary and make informed decision about where she takes her relationship. Jane is advised to be careful not to let the older man use his financial and emotional maturity to influence her into doing things she does not want and to insist on using a condom should she want to have sex with him.

Here are some tidibits from that story. The rest you can read for yourself:

“That eleven year age gap has implications Jane. You will always be unequal”

“When I asked if he was married you said you did not know. You didn’t think to ask because you assumed he wasn’t, otherwise he would not be asking you out. Sometimes I forget your naiveté and the sheltered upbringing that you have had”

 “Not everyone is nice and honest. Thee are men who will prey on young girls.”

4 thoughts on “Feminist Chronicles: Diary 27: Catherine Makoni

  1. Well, interesting story there. I am however not sure about this “ubuntu” thing, considering we are constantly pushed by a neo-liberal, individual oriented culture which puts individual interests first. I just wonder how compatible this “ubuntu” is with the incessant drive for individual success that capitalist ethos espouse. I think this individualism has actually been worsened by the socio-political and economic environment, which has made it difficult to care for one another, especially with the caliber of greedy politician our African leaders always turn to be.

    1. Indeed we have been pushed by individualistic tendencies and we have lost all sense of community and communalism and we have also gone beyond just living our individual lives for ourselves but we even meddle in others ‘ lives. The rich feed off the poor and the poor feed off the women. We live in a selfish, self centred community and I have no idea what will take us back if ever to those days when an invitation to sit down to eat was heartfelt, when offering someone a place to sleep was not tantamount to housing burglars and when neighbours knew each other and supported each other during the good and bad times. Sadly that age is gone and all we have left is what we have;;; a hollow, empty society where people attend a wedding to gossip about the size of the cake and a funeral to gossip about the size of the casket.

    1. Hi there. The concept is very interesting. I have written more about it in one of my posts https://madubesbrainpot.wordpress.com/2011/08/15/democracy-is-african-too/ where I said “Surely that cannot be said to be un-African when several African cultures embrace the concept of humanity recognizing that ‘to be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognizing the humanity in others.’ We call it ‘hunhu’ in Shona in Zimbabwe. They call it ‘ubuntu’ in Zulu in South Africa and ‘Rundi’ in Rwanda and Burundi, ‘botho’ in Botswana, ‘obuntu’ in Uganda and Tanzania, ‘umundu’ in Kikuyu in Kenya, ‘vumuntu’ in ShiTsonga in Mozambique and ‘bomoto’ in Bobangi in DRC , ‘insenniya’ in Egyptian.

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