When I was nominated for an Award

Activism, Human Rights, Sexual Violence, Transitional Justice, Violence Against Women, Women, Zimbabwe


A lot has been going on in my life. You must be thinking that I have been too busy to write. Although you are right in thinking so, you are probably wrong in why you think I have been busy. Of course, I meant no disrespect to you and your appreciation of my writing. I just had to devote my time to my new project, The Law Hub. When you pay the site a visit, I hope you will forgive me for my long absence.

While I was away, I was nominated for an Award. I was to be voted “Humanitarian of the Year.” At first, I was excited to have been nominated so I shared with my friends, asked colleagues and family to vote for me, ran around like a headless chicken to ensure every person who could vote for me voted. I even took the banner that the organisers of the Award Ceremony created and made it my Facebook Cover photo and profile Picture on Twitter and Linked in. Vote! Vote! Vote! I urged.

Then I sat back and reflected a bit more. It was and still is a tremendous honour to have my passion awarded the recognition that it has received through this nomination. It is even more exciting to see women creating an initiative to recognise the hard work that other women are doing. However, when I reflected on the reason I had been nominated, I felt like a fraud. I became wary of what actually winning such an award would mean. Do I really deserve an award? Should I even be the one nominated for this award, any award for that matter for the work that I do?

I thought of the several women I interviewed, documenting their horrific stories of gang rape for merely exercising their choice via the ballot. Yes I may have built dossiers for criminal prosecution and yes some of the perpetrators will face prosecution, but I still wonder how these women, the victims would feel about my nomination.

I pictured the many child brides I talked to, and whose stories I documented, whose stolen innocence will never be recovered and whose future is as bleak now as it was when the choice to marry was foisted on them. Yes I may have tried very hard to push for new legislation that criminalises child marriage, but even then the fact that the big red-eyed monster that made them vulnerable –that monster called patriarchy-is still alive and strong makes me feel like I haven’t helped them much.

I remembered Mai Mpenyu (not her real name).  I remembered the scars on her back, the fear in her eyes, the hopelessness and dejection as she talked about those who assaulted her, burnt her home and destroyed her barn of tobacco. I remembered Abby, and her tale of loss-she will never be able to hold a baby in her arms because someone decided to step on her stomach when she was pregnant, caused her miscarriage and damaged her beyond repair. The reason for all this; she was fighting for a new constitution. Doesn’t she deserve the award?

I thought of the poor woman I met in Pretoria; a refugee, driven from her home and comfort, rendered an orphan, forced to be a mother to a child whose father she knows not, rendered stateless and an outcast in one blow. I wrote about her many years ago, and I said,

A woman came to the hotel where I stayed. She had heard about the survey and wanted to tell her story. The hotel would not let her onto their premises so I had to meet her on the street. The sight of her broke my heart. Her clothes were tattered. Her skin was a black-grey colour- a sign that she had not bathed in days. The baby on her back was crying incessantly. “She is hungry,” she explained, “She has not had anything to eat for days.” As she spoke I found myself struggling to hold back my tears.

I could not interview her in the hotel. “She will cause discomfort for the other guests,” the hotel manager informed me. The street was not an option either, with the baby incessantly crying and the car horns blaring. She insisted she wanted her story to be heard. We walked together and at the sight of a fruit stall I stopped to buy her a few bananas and oranges so she could feed her baby. The child quieted down and the woman began her story.

Several young men had come to her home at night in one of the rural towns of Zimbabwe. Her father was perceived to belong to the wrong political party. These men tied up her mother and father and set their hut ablaze, burning them alive. They dragged her into the forest where they raped her, one after the other then left her for dead. She had no idea which one of them was the father of her baby. She had run away from home, walked miles on foot, and begged for passage aboard any vehicle heading for South Africa. She was smuggled across the border because she did not possess valid travel documents. With no money the only thing she could give was her body; more abuse. She had believed she would be safe but in South Africa all she found was more victimisation, hunger, poverty, loneliness and pain; “I had a home. I had a family. I am educated, you know. I wanted to be a nurse.”

All I could give her were a few bananas and contacts of organisations that might help her. I wish I could have done more.

Her name and her story sits in a pile of documents, created to be used at a time when there is political will to address the past injustices committed against my people. I still remember her today. I do not know if she is still alive. Maybe the cold winter nights, or the windy rainy days had their toll on her frail frame and she gave in. I wondered about her and asked myself if she would think I deserve this nomination.

I recalled the woman in Gweru. Her child was gone. They put the baby in a sack and hit it to the ground. “This one goes with your vote,” they said. “When you vote right, the right child will come.” The baby cried until her voice got hoarse, until her cries died out, until she cried no more. They took her from her mother’s arms, a bubbly bundle of joy and returned her cold as stone, blood and froth around her mouth. I remembered the grief, in that mother’s eyes. I told her, transitional justice would take care of it. When a figment of transitional justice came, those in charge only wanted to reconcile and smoke pipe (kuputidzana fodya). She never got her justice, her baby is gone. Someday, her story shall be told but for now grief and pain, loss and despair reign. How would she feel to hear I am up for an award?

Nowadays, I sit and adjudicate-case upon case. Each one different from the previous one, but ultimately the same. Governments turning on their own people. Africans against Africans. Displaced people, tortured people, assaulted people, unlawfully arrested people, detained people, jailed for demanding their rights, some disappeared, never to be seen again. All of them denied dignity- human dignity. Faceless names, drops in an ocean of never-ending injustice. How will my contribution end their suffering, if at all it succeeds in abating it.

I have seen horror, pain, loss, dejection. I have tried to empathise. I have made promises to myself that justice will be done for all these victims, yet so much more remains to be done. I want justice done, the justice that each and every one of these victims desires and deserves. Should I consider myself a humanitarian? I only did what I could do, and continue to do as much as I can- what my circumstances enable me to although I still feel I should do more. I am pretty sure I do not deserve an award; for what is my humanity if I do not seek to have the human-ness in those around me recognised, respected and protected. Surely working to see that happen should not be outstanding; it must be the norm.

Njengoba ubaba njalo wangitshela , umuntu ungumuntu ngenxa abantu!

As my father always told me, a person is a person because of people!

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.”