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Vanavevhu and Zimbabwe

November 10, 2009

It was a very nice surprise to walk into Heartland International’s 1st Tuesday discussion and find that the speaker for the day was a friend of mine from Loyola. I always enjoyed talking with Elizabeth Mhangami before our African history class; she has strong convictions on women’s rights and African issues and I learned a lot about her childhood in Zimbabwe. In the time since I saw her last she has followed up on those convictions by pursuing her Master’s in Women’s Studies at DePaul University and founding a non-profit, Vanavevhu – Children of the Soil, that is dedicated to assisting the head of household children left by the AIDS epidemic in Zimbabwe. She is very passionate and engaging and therefore a fantastic person to give more perspective on her native country.

Zimbabwe today, she said, is not the same country that she remembers. When she was growing up in the years after independence from the United Kingdom (granted on April 18, 1980) the country was one of the richest in Africa. The system for universal education had been established and both men and women alike had access to quality education. But in the last 10 years the economy has begun to crumble and any gains that were made by women during the previous decades have been overshadowed by an authoritarian government and the ravages of the AIDS epidemic.

Today, orphaned by AIDS, many young girls have to forgo any hope of an education to take care of their younger siblings. Their situation is compounded by a less than functioning economic system which makes growth practically impossible. As the government in Harare (Zimbabwe’s capital) grows more disconnected from its populace the people “strive to thrive” despite their actions.

One organization mentioned by Elizabeth, which confronts the issues and their impact on women directly is Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). As part of their struggle to improve the conditions of everyday life, WOZA stands against the corruption of the Zimbabwean government. Elizabeth quoted a passage from their website which I now share with you:

WOZA was formed to be a litmus test proving that the power of love can conquer the love of power. ‘Tough Love’ is our secret weapon of mass mobilization. ‘Tough Love’ is the disciplining love of a parent; women practice it to press for and to bring dignity back to Zimbabweans. Tough Love is a ‘people power’ tool that any community can use to press for better governance and social justice, especially for Zimbabweans. Political leaders in Zimbabwe need some discipline; who better to dish it out than mothers!

Zimbabwe is a very young country; only 30 years old as of next year. And as with many post-colonial countries there are deep wounds that seem to be difficult to overcome. I was curious about the possibility of using micro-finance operations as a potential source of help for women at the grassroots level, but she was unsure that such a system would be of any real benefit until there was more economic infrastructure. And it seems that until the current corrupt system of government is changed there will not be room for the people to build that infrastructure.

I will keep an eye on Zimbabwe and Elizabeth’s work there. Understanding the different regions of Africa and how they are working through their post-colonial issues is likely to become more and more important in the coming decades. Right now most Americans do not see the continent as having much of an impact on them or the world, but just as ten years ago where China and India were largely dismissed, there is great potential there that will start to make itself known.

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