Women speak back to the gods

Elliot Ziwira,At the Bookstore

For people to sustain livelihoods, there is need for societies to go beyond providing them with fish through policy frameworks that teach them how to fish.

As women seek “livelihood trajectories” (Hebrink and Lent, 2007) through their ancestral heritage — the land, there is need to explore how agrarian and mining reforms clash on the symbolic red soils of black people’s struggles.

According to Bernstein (1995) cited in Mutero (2016:13), a livelihood is a means of “gaining a living through adequate stocks and flows of food and cash to meet basic needs of people.”

In the case of mining, as Sitshengisiwe Ndlovu advocates in “Red Soils” (2016), there is need for people to be conscientised on the impermanence of natural resources, the significance of culture in maintaining spiritual connectedness and the preservation of the ecosystem.

Women play a crucial role in the heritage matrices that sustain livelihoods; whether agrarian or mining, in urban or rural areas.

Hinton, Veiga and Beinhoff (2003) point out that 30 percent of the globe’s artisanal miners are women, with their roles differing from men’s.

As is the case in the novel, women are projected as part-time gold panners and informal traders who may also double up as sex workers.

Female characters like Tshanda and Derby, are initially depicted as seductresses, who rely on deceit to get their way.

Derby’s appearance on the Shamba-Shamba mining landscape is marked by her gambling escapades with legs spread out and without underwear. Such an image denotes her as a “prostitute” with nothing else to offer except her body. The portrayal of women as immoral, dangerous and treacherous is rooted in the patriarchal view of the female body.

Frank (1987), notes that women are “defined by their relationships to men: someone’s daughter or wife or mother” falling into stereotypical categories as men’s “appendages, prostitutes” or “courtesans” (cited in Uwah, 1993: 127).

The depiction of both the rural and urban woman in terms of her relationship with men inhibits her from mapping out her own destiny by seeking opportunities in new spaces opening up elsewhere.

Gender roles, as Hinton et al (2003) argue, are as fluid as time itself, thus, they can shift over time and space. Societal expectations and assignment of gender roles for boys and girls, men and women change with time due to global, local economic and cultural paradigm shifts (Mukumbira, 2002 cited in Mutero, 2016).

In “Red Soils” Derby and Tshanda are depicted as having the agency to capitalise on socio-cultural swings and escape through other vents created by the land reform programme, outside agrarian sites.

Shamba-Shamba offers prospects to young women with the eye to see beyond the restrictions of agrarian spaces.

However, Derby and Tshanda’s situation gets complicated as they move into previously  male-dominated spaces.

The nomadic nature of gold panning seem to favour men, who can leave their homes and families in search for economic promises, whereas women are expected to remain home and look after “the children, doing subsistence farming and caring for sickly or elderly relatives” (Dreschler, 2001:27). Thus, women who disrupt such linear cultural roles are regarded with suspicion and often get the brunt of sexually oriented slurs.

As is the case with most women, Tshanda is “moulded by the hardships she faced”, she refuses to let them subdue her.

The Shamba-Shamba gold sites open up more economic activities for women, besides panning. They can sell meat and other foodstuffs, open tuck shops and shebeens and engage in sex work (Mukumbira, 2002; Mupedziswa and Gumbo, 2000).

In that way women defy societal restrictions that allow men, as human deities, to be in control of wealth, and limit them to gendered roles. Through their agency, women can become their own masters (Ndhlovu, 2002), and remodel intra-family relationships from an economic leverage that gives them a voice in decision-making.

Despite the brickbats thrown her way, Tshanda authors her own new story that positions women in the novel within trajectories that the land reform offers.

However, she has to be mindful of the cultural locale that determines who she is.

Naturally, the environment she is thrown into is both exploitative and stifling, especially when she has to go against set cultural  values

Cultural considerations of heritage also impede on her aspirations, as men do not take lightly to women who bring more income to the marital base, particularly when she is thought to be working for her relatives, as they stand to benefit after her death.

However, empowering women economically works in favour of the family unit because they are more thrift than men. This rationale comes out clearly when Tshanda’s dreams and how she works to realise them, are scrutinised against Jabu and Major’s infantile and gadabout nature.

Tshanda’s survival strategy lies in her ability to reject the culturally informed material deficiency of the rural set-up by physically and mentally freeing herself from it. She also debunks both the colonial and patriarchal depictions of the city woman, which makes it possible for her to send her siblings to school and also finish her education. This shows that she is aware of the other spaces that education can open up for women.

Defying the odds, she builds a house and fashions a new meaning to what constitutes home for her family; and helps Bonisiwe to find her bearings again. Tshanda exhibits the motherly instinct for survival that prioritises familial and communal cohesion.

Unlike her male counterparts, she uses her mining profits as a security for the transformation, not only of her family, but the society at large.

Like Mother Nature, embodied in land in the African perspective, she is both caring and nurturing to her family, siblings and the community at large.

Ndlovu allows Tshanda to successfully straddle urban spaces that call for a competitive edge, and the rural cosmoses, without sacrificing her business and the cultural dictates that define her as an African woman. Ndlovu neither paints the rural landscape as a romantic abode, nor project the Shamba-Shamba as diseased and devoid of hope, like what Musaemura Zimunya does in “Country Dawns and City Lights” (1985).

Both landscapes have lows of their own, but as Magosvongwe and Nyamende, (2016:127) aver, Africans “ingeniously wrestle for meaningful and sustainable transformative change where it is necessary” (cited in Mandizvidza, 2018).

Ndlovu avoids falling into a trap, and pull women along with her, where the rural landscape becomes a romantic space and the urban cosmos revolting. Such an undertaking would snare women within agrarian economies that are not as rewarding as other spaces offered in mining. This fluidity of roles can be explored through Gogo, Tshanda and Derby.

Though Gogo creates her niche in the rural areas, Tshanda comes back home after making it at the Shamba-Shamba, and Derby straddles both agrarian and mining spaces to provide for her family.

Disavowing the existence of safety nets allows women to venture into supposedly dangerous, and yet more rewarding occupations, traditionally considered male realms.

Derby and Tinashe remain hopeful that if their land application were to be approved, it would help improve their chances of sustenance, although they would still complement their farming activities with mining. However, gold panning goes beyond material considerations.

Land reforms, though noble in ascertaining livelihoods and mitigating poverty through correction of historical inequalities in ownership, should take into consideration the intangible outcomes of contestations over heritage.

Droughts can impact negatively on livelihoods, particularly on those relying on agrarian activities.

Gold panning comes with challenges of its own. Mawere (2011), argues that the benefits accrued through gold panning are outweighed by the harm on humans, animals and the environment. Ndlovu also raises the same issue, indicating that those who flock to Shamba-Shamba are no better off than they were when they came, and that the disturbed ecosystem would never be restored.

All is not lost though, as Ndlovu proposes that with the support of men, women can reclaim the land and ensure its survival. Reminiscent of Mother Nature, women have the qualities to preserve the environment.

It is Derby who halts Tinashe’s plundering tendencies, thus preserving the woodland.

Derby and Mfokazana’s wife cooperate with other women in the community to encourage them to effectively work on the land without destroying it. Women suffer more from the effects of mercury poisoning, as mothers, providers and wives.

Therefore, as custodians of the environment, they have the capacity to keep society intact through preservation of tangibles and intangibles of heritage for the good of the present and future generations.

Like nature, women are dominated and subordinated. Hence, they share an association termed ecofeminism (Francoise d’ Eaubonne, 1974), which is a link between ecology/environment and women.

African women have always had an affinity with the land which made it possible for them to provide for their families. As oracles, they understood the spiritual connection between humanity and the land, which they celebrated through the change of seasons.

A return to that past where women’s roles were defined in the obtaining cultural spaces that gave them a say in issues to do with the land, and its link to human struggles, is what Ndlovu yearns for.

Women are capable of changing the fortunes of their societies. Derby, for instance, reads into the folly of the Shamba-Shamba, with its shifting fortunes, hence, her quest to link womanhood to nature so as to change outcomes for the community.

As Alan Paton opines in “Cry, the Beloved Country” (1948), the land becomes sick if it is neglected, and it dies if no remedial action to resuscitate it is taken. It is men’s way to plunder, pillage and mutilate the land to sustain the here and now, without establishing a relationship with it that will make it produce more (Warren, 1997).

On the contrary, it is women’s nature to befriend the environment, and make the land produce more for their families. An investment in land is an investment in love. It is a reciprocal relationship that only women, as mothers, can understand. Angering the gods of the land, equates to destruction of livelihoods; and it is this link that women appreciate as depicted in “Red Soils”.

The red soils can both be provident sources of livelihoods, or death-traps, where red connotes both life and death; the blood that gives life, and the blood that takes it, for the land is a metaphysical space (Lan, 1985; Zhuwarara, 2001).

Derby is conscious that “the act of giving engages a metaphysical process totally congruent with our knowledge that the universe is responsive” (Redfield, 1997, cited in Wane and Chandler, 2002: 90).

Indeed, “the universe is responsive”. Denga rinoona; it accepts and gives as well. It is not the way of the universe to take without giving, or give without taking.

Derby knows that her child must be saved, and for that to happen, she has to give back to the universe; in response, the universe gives life to the community through her. By defying stereotypical definitions of women’s roles, Tshanda and Derby occupy the “dissident space” (Daymond et al., 2003 cited in Mandizvidza, 2018), that allow them to circumvent the limitations of traditional male stratums of control, be they at familial, communal and national platforms.

However, dissident strategies, though effecting gender transformations, should not engender women who go against cultural beliefs, values and spirituality. The spiritual aspects of heritage are as valid as material gains, and culture plays a crucial role in striking a balance.

There is need for a shift in policy parameters and mindsets, where land reforms go beyond allocation of agrarian and mining spaces to also capture the spiritual, cultural and ecological endowments of heritage.

Though women are able to circumvent their suffering through deft navigation of spaces either in the rural locale or urban setting, they are prone to the moral morass that comes with such efforts. Prostitution remains prostitution, no matter how euphemistically it is referred to.

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