Using social media to celebrate women’s voices
4 Jun 2012
Click on www.herzimbabwe.co.zw and you enter an intimate space that is alive with human stories, provocative ideas and sizzling debates about gender.
The innovative website is the brainchild of Fungai Machirori: journalist, poet, blogger and feminist. Since it exploded onto the scene just three months ago, Her Zimbabwe has attracted more than a thousand followers on Facebook alone – and not all of them are women.
Machirori was inspired to start a gender-focused website late last year, when she attended the World Youth Summit Awards in Austria.She was fired up by the “energy of teenagers”, who were using social media to bring about positive transformation in communities all over the world. She was convinced she could do the same.
Returning to her freezing London flat, she took out her laptop and started brainstorming names for the new website with her Bulawayo-based friend, Tafadzwa Dihwa.
“The temperature was minus 3 degrees Celsius. I couldn’t have felt colder in my body, and yet the heat of our collective creative energy was almost tangible,” says Machirori.
A few weeks later, she jumped on a plane and came home to Zimbabwe to turn the dream into a reality. She had no job and no funding. “The road less travelled is always the scariest to pursue,” she recalls.
Friends and colleagues immediately rallied round. Some, like fellow journalist Fungai Tichawangana, offered technical help. In return, Machirori trained staff at his Zimbo Jam project.
“Her Zimbabwe is only alive today because of a range of influences in my life,” says Machirori. “A lot stems from the support that I have received from men who have always believed in me, and refused to keep my potential hidden in the dark.”
For Tichawangana,“gender is not about disempowering men, but about giving all people equal opportunities despite their sex”. The project resonated with him for another reason, too. It reminded him of his late wife, Shingie, and “her belief in giving people a platform to speak their mind, using technology as an empowerment tool”.
It is easy to see why Her Zimbabwe has attracted so many fans. The writing is fresh and vibrant – a kaleidoscope of Zimbabwean voices, both male and female.
Some voices are humorous and irreverent; others are raw and moving. In “My albinism doesn’t define me”, Bonnie Dudzai Mureyi describes her life as an albino woman in Zimbabwe.
“I wish albino women would know that many times, stigma and discrimination begins with them. The world has a tendency to just throw back at you what you emit. Believe in your mind first that you are worth love and respect, and the world will freely give it,” writes Mureyi.
Nyasha Gloria Sengayi’s provocative article, “Whose virginity is it anyway?” generates a flurry of responses from readers.
“Oh wow. It’s as if you walked into my brain and picked my random thoughts on this subject, and pieced them all together” comments one.
Meanwhile, top Zimbabwean comedian, Carl Joshua Ncube, reveals an unexpected side of himself in “From suicide to love”: a powerful account of his battle with depression.
“Carl is a big, funny, alpha male,” says Her Zimbabwe’s public relations co-ordinator, Rutendo Chigudo. “But like all men he is also vulnerable and human. The website is a space where men can express that side of themselves. There are not many places where they can do that.”
But Her Zimbabwe is not without its critics. Some have accused the website of ignoring the needs of rural women who are unable to access the internet, and who therefore miss out on the “conversation”.
“We’d like the women who contribute [to the website] to personally defend their views and opinions, as that is part of the process of empowerment,” explains Machirori. “If we tried to engage [rural] women at this point, we would probably be talking more for them,instead of allowing them to talk for themselves. This is a conundrum that we are trying to work around.”
Chiedza Musengezi, a founder member of the Zimbabwean Women Writers (ZWW), suggests that Machirori and her team shouldn’t worry too much at such an early stage in the process. “Focus on something small, and it will grow,” she advises. “Don’t try to solve every problem at once”.
Musengezi says she is inspired by Her Zimbabwe – especially by the way the initiative uses technology to promote change – something that was not possible in the early days of ZWW.
“It’s safe, and you can talk, reach out and help others,” she says. “The more we can share, the more we will develop tolerance for each other.”