Remembering, celebrating the power of our mothers

International Women’s Day is a day set aside in honour of the struggles and achievements of women

International Women’s Day is a day set aside in honour of the struggles and achievements of women

Dr Sekai Nzenza on Wednesday

As the world remembers and celebrates International Women’s Day, we must still speak about injustice to women and girls. But we must also reclaim and celebrate the wisdom of African women in their various roles as mothers, grandmothers, spirit mediums, the historians and custodians of knowledge.

“On the 8th of March, every year, the world celebrates International women’s day,” I told my cousin Piri. We were relaxing in the village on Sunday afternoon. The rains were gathered in the east and there was a cool breeze blowing around us. In the village courtyard, the chickens and the turkeys walked around aimlessly looking for anything they could pick on from the ground. The big red rooster was giving the hens a good run across the fields and under the granary. Our neighbours, Jemba and Bokina, sat on the village bench, enjoying a plastic container of scud or chibuku, the commercial type village brew.

Piri casually asked what International Women’s day was all about. I explained that it was the day in honour of the struggles and achievements of women.

“What is the matter with you? You call yourself a woman and you do not know that there are days in the year set aside to celebrate women, children, the disabled, the environment, water, animal rights and many other important causes,” said Bokina. Unlike other village guys around here, Bokina, the former trainee priest who did not complete his studies in Zambia is an avid reader of papers and books.

I told them that at one time, I had been a keynote speaker at International Women’s Day in Australia. I spoke about the hardships and suffering of African women. I had all the statistics. Besides, I had done studies in women and development. At that time, I had learnt so much about Western feminism and was fighting hard for the right to be equal with men, even though, when I look back, I realise that I did not know what the meaning of equality with men meant.

I was applauded when I told the audience that African women were silent victims of male oppression and colonialism. Even after independence, African women still lived in bondage. That is what I told the audience in Australia, a few years ago.

“They should also set aside a day to mourn the end of power for women,” said Piri. “There was a time when women were so strong in this village.” She said so with a wistful and also sad expression.

“What do you mean? How has that power ended for women? Are you not listening to what your sister is saying? She was among women who have been fighting men for equal rights for a long time. These days’ women have power I tell you. They wear the trousers. Yet they still want more power. Every day you hear something new about women wanting more power,” Jemba said. As usual, he was rolling yet another cigarette using newspapers he had not read.

“They want the power that was taken away from them when the white man came with Christianity,” said Bokina. “Piri is right. We should mourn the end of power for women. Remember how our grandmothers used to teach us so much and told us stories about the past? Remember how they would command these villages at ceremonies?”

My thoughts went back to the time when we were young and growing up in the village homestead, long before independence. In those days, my grandmother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa, used to rule this village. Mbuya was a tall and formidable woman, the daughter of Chief Kwenda. With her back bent a little, she often walked with hands clasped behind her back. Her face had a deep dark brown colour. Imposing and bare foot, she walked around the village compound, inspecting and examining everything with her sharp eagle eyes. On each of her cheek bones were two small black tattoo lines, nyora, and the traditional marks of beauty. Her whole stomach was covered with these various patterns of beautiful nyora. During the days of Mbuya’s youth, a girl without nyora all over her stomach was not considered beautiful.

Mbuya VaMandirowesa and her elderly women friends used to sit under the mutondo tree drinking village beer, taking snuff, talking and laughing all day during the dry season. Sometimes we sneaked behind the granary near the mutondo tree and listened to their conversations. They often gossiped and talked about other people’s sex lives. But we understood nothing when they spoke in tsumo nemadimikira, riddles and metaphors.

During ceremonies, these powerful old women sang songs in praise of the ancestors.

In those days, everything we learnt about our history and culture came from my mother, Mbuya VaMandirowesa, uncles and aunts and the whole community at large. There were many dark nights when we sat around the fire and Mbuya told us stories about the mischievous Tsuro the Hare and Gudo the baboon. Each story had a moral lesson to it. We also learnt about our past and developed a sense of who we were through storytelling, riddles, sayings, proverbs, metaphors, songs, ceremonies, rituals, games, dances and performances.

During bira, the traditional religious ceremonies to praise and appease the spirits of our great ancestors, we would dance along among the elders until svikiro; the sprit medium was possessed by the spirit of Mbiru, the family great ancestor of the VaHera clan.

We were told that, long before the white man came, Mbiru had migrated from Chishanga, to a place called Chiwashira, near present day Chivhu. They said Chishanga was the original home of our people, the VaHera clan. The ancestor spirit of Mbiru wanted recognition in the living. He could dwell in the physical image of a woman.

One time I saw Mbiru’s svikiro arrive and possess Tete VaHwedemwe, my aunt. Before Mbiru arrived to possess her, Tete had fallen ill when she was in her husband’s village. She could not move at all. The traditional healer was called and he said that Tete’s grandfather, Mbiru, wanted to possess her. Tete came back to our village. Mbiru, the bull named after the great ancestor was killed.

A ceremony to welcome the spirit of Mbiru was held. Late at night, before dawn, they played more mbira and started singing the song calling the people to make tracks back to Chishanga saying, “Hwirira Chishanga kwawakabva”. Tete slowly went into a trance and became possessed with Mbiru. She sat like a man. In a deep male voice she spoke to the elders, giving them guidance and answering questions about troubling family matters.

“We must mourn the power of women that has been lost with the coming of Christianity and rapid Westernisation. Gone are the powerful svikiros, rain makers and other spirit mediums,” said Bokina.

Bokina reminisced more about the days when mothers and grandmothers were strong and powerful. “Not anymore,” he said, shaking his hands. “Poverty has made women poor and powerless.” He then told us about his journey to the donor food distribution centre with his 75-year-old mother the previous day.

The donor wanted widows, the elderly and the most vulnerable poor village people. Bokina said his mother waited in line, under the hot sun, silent and hungry. Her name was called out by a young man. “Raina Mutsvenguri!” said the young man. Bokina’s mother lifted her hand. She was rushed to the front, past the children and others, to receive a 10kg bag of beans and another 10kg of rice.

“Poverty does not remember the past nor does it have the knowledge to respect the elderly,” Bokina said. We agreed. Times have continued to change as power shifts from the village women to elsewhere.

As the world remembers and celebrates International Women’s Day, we must still speak about injustice to women and girls. But we must also reclaim and celebrate the wisdom of African women in their various roles as mothers, grandmothers, spirit mediums, the historians and custodians of knowledge.

Dr Sekai Nzenza is a writer and cultural critic.

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