Long before I had a dream of setting up Her Zimbabwe, I worked in different HIV NGO jobs which allowed people to assign me the title of ‘activist’, or rather, ‘gender activist’ because of my overt stance on gender issues and their interrelationship with HIV, AIDS, sex and sexuality.
It is true that I carried out my work – largely documenting cases and stories – with passion and diligence. Having been aware of gender injustice growing up in a single mother household, the issues were not altogether new to me. But still, I had never wanted for food, clothes, education, good health or any other fundamental resource, even given my mother’s single salary support stream.
I distinctly remember the first time that I was confronted by the urgency of the atrocities that women in Zimbabwe suffer. It was 2006 at the public hearing of the then Domestic Violence Bill (it was soon passed into law) and woman upon woman came up to the podium at the Rainbow Towers in Harare to recount her excruciating story of physical violence suffered at the hands of men and patriarchy. Some of the women even came with blood-soiled T-shirts still bearing the brutal memories of the violence they had suffered.
Just into my 20s, my sheltered world was shaken up and my naivety upended by these all too real encounters.
Once, I did an in-depth interview with a woman living with HIV who recounted a story so personal and painful to bear, that even the pen in my hand felt intrusive for committing her story to words and paper. At one point, she took off her blouse to show me the endless sea of warts populating her back, a result of HIV denialism peddled by her husband who refused to allow her to get onto ARVs for such a long time, that opportunistic infections began to ravage her body.
She wore a bright red summery shade of lipstick and 1980s style chunky monochrome earrings. She looked like she had it together, but in that tiny room, she revealed to me what she had kept so well-hidden from public scrutiny and then broke down in tears, pleading for my help.
Another time, I visited a rural village in Chiredzi where seven women had been infected with HIV by their philandering husband (he admitted to his ways when we interviewed him). The man, now sick and unable to walk further than a few paces, sat outside his village hut all day looking into space almost ruefully. Most of his wives were now dead, and two had run away with their children, probably into South Africa.
Only one wife remained. His first wife. Bitter. Sick. But resilient.
She was left to care for her husband when the others had fled. She was also left to care for some of his dead wives’ children. Many had died and some had been taken in by relatives.
As we sat in this woman’s hut, she told us how her marriage had always been abusive and how her husband had flaunted his new wives in front of her, diminishing her self-esteem to nothing. She told us that she only looked after him because he was sick and that all the other women had left her this responsibility; that he and the wives who had died had refused to take ARVs, but that she had heeded the words of the home-based care centre in the area and enrolled onto the programme at the local hospital.
The one thing that stood out for me remains the meal she served us. This was 2008 when all manner of food shortage was prevalent all across Zimbabwe, when the delight of tea with milk, sugar and bread and jam was a fantasy for 99% of the population. And yet here was this woman serving us samp, rich tomato and onion stew and tea with powdered milk and sugar.
Someone had gone to South Africa and with the little money she had, she had sent her to get her a tin of powdered milk , tea bags, cooking oil and some sugar, among other things. The samp and stew ingredients were from her fields.
As she served the tea, she made sure to cover up her kitchen door. Stealthily, she crept to one side of the hut and unearthed the sugar and powdered milk from a cloth behind the rack she used to store her pots.
“I only take care of my children and myself. That man has hurt me too much in this life. God help me, but I am done with taking care of him. Let him drink black tea!”
This is a small glimpse into the sort of work that I began doing seven years ago, work that – by virtue of being a documentalist – has earned me the title of ‘gender activist’, a debatable issue that I will discuss later in this article. I must add that I didn’t choose this work; the supervisors at my university used their discretion to assign students to internship programmes. This placement was the doing of influences beyond my control.
And so it was that without reflection or much choice, I became known as an activist.
But the term always sat uneasily with me. What was I doing that was changing lives beyond documenting them? What did each of these women substantively gain from my efforts to write them into being? Did society change for the better? Did their gendered issues get the immediate recourse to justice that they required?
Moreover, I began to look at all the other people around me who, by virtue of working in NGOs or women’s organisations, were labelled activists. Sometimes all they seemed to do was attend conferences and workshops, give Powerpoint presentations, give out business cards and speak the language of ‘mainstreaming’, ‘sensitisation’, ‘gender budgeting’ and ‘rights-based approaches’. To me, it seemed activism was a suited, manicured business that took place in luxurious hotels.
The challenges became harder for me when I began to earn a salary from my work. For the first year of my foray into this world, I was an unpaid intern provided a transport fee to go to work and return home. And so I could rest assured that when I stayed back on some evenings, or made my way to the office on weekends, it was because I really wanted to; I had nothing to gain (well, a good reputation as a hard worker never killed anyone!) and more to lose (my time and rest!).
But money. Money corrupts everything.
You learn that someone who you think doesn’t have as much gusto gets paid four times your salary. You realise that your benefits are half a drop in the ocean compared to some other ‘favoured’ people in your office’s pay bracket. At once you remain passionate, but yet at the same time frustrated that you aren’t earning what you think your work is worth. What is your work worth anyway if it’s passion-based? Is passion quantifiable and remunerable?
You become resentful.
You wonder if you have become the office rag because you will show up when everyone else says they can’t and yet you earn but a fraction of what they do. “They are wiping the floor with me!” you grunt under your breath.
With your ego wounded, you decide that the only solution is to curb your enthusiasm. Do only what your job specs demand, not all the other unpaid work that someone else is gaining from. You decide that you won’t bring all your ideas to the table anymore, leave the office in good time and repossess your unpaid weekend time. You know that women’s stories still need telling, but you aren’t going to break your back doing it for someone else’s glory.
Let’s be honest here; money is a well-known inflator and deflator of motivation and effort.
It is upon making these simple and real deductions that I then ask; should activism be paid work? Given the challenges that I have already put forward about internal conflicts that one endures, money only serves to exacerbate the complexities.
At this point, you may be calling for me to first define activism so it’s certain that we are all on the same page. I really don’t wish to define it for you because my romanticism leads me to believe that , “Once you know, you know.”
Sounds corny but I think it also opens people to seeing activism in another light that is as a deeply personal, consciousness-meets-emotion-meets-spirituality experience and not as is narrowly defined or understood as people marching on the street with megaphones chanting. That’s activism too, but it’s not the sum total of it.
All manner of work can be seen as activism. Some think it is only work in social sciences or humanities that qualifies but think of the medical student who decides to study oncology because there aren’t enough doctors tackling the growing rates of cancer in his or her country. Think of the fashion designer who holds top brass events every so often where all proceeds go to a social cause. An academic studying film theory recently told me that she sees her work as activism because it documents the theory upon which action and change is premised.
Activism or corporate social responsibility? Are they two different things? We can have another discussion some other time.
And then there is what I call ‘latent activism’, the activism you don’t even know you are carrying on. I remember once telling a young woman that she had to check herself about going out with the married man who she fallen for. She seemed so entrapped by his wiles that I didn’t think I was getting through to her. But a month or so later, she called to tell me that she had ended the relationship after our long discussion, and that she was now going to think about continuing her studies.
Did I think she would leave him when we spoke? I hoped she would, but it seemed improbable. What was the activism component of this all, you ask? The fact that she left a man who kept her under thumb with money and power… the fact that she took herself back from him. Isn’t this what the protests and megaphones are towards bringing about?
With all of this to think through, one needs to look at oneself and ask; “Is my activism a form of work, or is it something I would do given no personal security, financial or otherwise? Should it be something that I do with no safety net to break potential falls?”
Writer and womanist, Alice Walker, once stated that activism is the rent we pay for being on this planet. So if it is our rent, surely it should pay the bills too?
So how do we value activism equitably, especially for the activist? Can the roles and functions of activism be outlined in a job description, a strategic plan, an organogram or call for applications?
Given that activism is volatile (as the situation changes, the needs or strategies change) and exposes the activist to emotional, verbal, psychological, sometimes even physical, harm – how can such work ever be equitably costed and remunerated? Should we have budget lines for mental and emotional care (activists, by the nature of what and who they are, internalise their work)? How should an activist’s working hours and days be structured to show a conscious understanding of their needs? Where and how is self and communal care factored into the work environments and conditions they work under?
Is change the pay off? And since change is never complete – and sometimes never happens – what then becomes the pay off?
Activism has become all too easy a word to bandy around, and I realise that the examples that I have offered make it all the easier for anyone to claim to be an activist. I guess the difference is that where one act may be a once-off thing, activism is about consistency, constant introspection and retrospection, the moral inability to disconnect from a circumstance and to act – through the means that one can best employ – to be a part of effecting change around the circumstance.
There! You have made me define activism though I didn’t want to!
I wrote this piece because ‘activist’ is an uneasy title I have worn for almost a decade of my life. It has taken me to places far and wide that I never imagined; my body has lined the beds of luxuriant five star hotels, I have visited four continents of this earth, I have been in the presence of noted dignitaries and have won accolades and adulation alike.
And yet is rare that I have seen ‘a fire in the eyes’ to tell me that there is a real conviction for change happening around me. All too often, it is sanitised work in which activism has largely become about power and a self-interested status quo that thrives on the powerless’s plight.
When activism gains a monetary measure, the lines become blurred. Bureaucracy and self-preservation take over. The ego interferes. And yet when no such measure exists, the fact that you know what should be done but have no money to do it, or to survive, means that nothing gets done. Either that, or you are forced at some point to compromise so as to be able to get things running and have enough to eat from your work.
And once you eat, gluttony is the risk that you expose yourself to.
My friend, Koketso Moeti, wrote a piece about clicktivism which I urge you to read. In it, she discusses how activism has become, for too many, a simple click of a button to send/ share / like/ sign. She asks activists to search themselves to find answers to the following questions;
– Am I doing this to create a certain perception of myself?
– Am I doing this to ease my guilt?
– Am I doing this to prove my superiority?
– Am I doing this to market myself and create a brand that’s about me?
– Do I expect a pat on the back for doing this?
– What are my expectations of those I am assisting and are those expectations fair?
– If at any stage my presence threatens the existence of the project, am I willing to step back from it?
– Who really am I doing it for?
Food for thought indeed for us all who call ourselves activists, or have been given the mantle.