The Herald (Harare)

24 January 2013

Zimbabwe: Survival, Gender and Peace

THEY had been listening to birds singing melodies, weird sounds of the forest for three or so hours and baboons could be heard screaming in the valley before them. Suddenly they were on the edge of the trough and the sentinel shouted for others to run.

Females picked their babies onto their backs and stomachs and quietly trooped into the forest, while the big male remained behind to shield all others from potential danger. This was a place of relative peace and safety because baboons seldom relaxed in areas of possible danger from them.

They stopped at the creek on the bottom of the trough, deep in the womb of the forest and middle of nowhere, for water to drink and refill their gourd. This was clean fresh water whispering down the slope over which were thick bushy trees.

They sat down under the umbrella of the acacias tree and had their meal of rapoko porridge mixed with honey and dry meat immersed in groundnut butter which had been prepared the previous night.

Meanwhile, the mother suckled the crying baby to sleep and ensured that the young boy also got his fill. They communicated only through signs and low voices.

The path they were using was faint through lack of use and they frequently missed it following animal tracks. The two men took turns in carrying the luggage and the older boy when tired. The mother carried the baby on her back and a basket of food on her head. One man always led and walked at a distance upfront taking his bearings from the tips of mountains.

As they emerged from the groove, they were approaching near the end of the brown grass patch where there were two grey ant-hills jutting out of the ground and rising high to touch the lush green leaves of a fig tree.

They were walking close to each other, talking louder and louder feeling safe because just beyond the brow of the hill before them lay Nyamandwe Village, their destination.

About a hundred metres away in front of them the princess of the veld snarled in a controlled voice as if reporting to someone. She stood majestically facing them while standing on the very path they were to use. About two metres from the path where she stood, and in front of the anthill, was the lion eating a buck.

The lion was unmoved, feared nothing as if it had seen nor heard nothing and continued eating. In the animal world survival comes first, and he who ensures it gets the greatest respect, food. Hence, the lioness could wait for her turn to eat the leftovers.

Suddenly, the air was frozen and the three adults shivered with fear. Out of instinct, they started walking backwards and out of sight of the lioness. They took a detour on the windward side of the two animals. This time one of the men walked in front with arrows and bow, spear and throwing stick. The woman walked in the middle carrying the entire luggage, one child on her back and another walking on her side. The other man faced backwards and walked at the back with similar weapons.

This technique was used because predators tended to shy away from direct eye contact with their victims. Some good distance was allowed between the men in case one got attacked, the other would come to help giving enough time of assessing the situation.

The children seemed to sense the trouble or share the survival instinct that none of them cried in spite of the pushing and shoving which went on. In fact, the little boy clasped his mother's dress with his little crocked hands and trotted briskly, as if on a leash, beside her towering mother covering the long strides. Each time the little boy looked at the faces of the elders, each face told one unspoken and clear message, "survive".

Such was the display of what role a man, woman and child played as defined by their biological and social orientations. The male assumed a fighting and protective role and like the male lion which ate first to remain fit for security, equally the man ate first and more food than the woman as he dutifully put his life on the line in order to ensure the security of the family. Peace and security have always determined gender roles for the survival of any species and could never be compromised.

When the lion was at peace the man was not and when the man was at peace the baboon was not. If other animals were to be included it will be noticed that jungle life was brutish and offered only relative peace. In many animal species, there has been a tendency for males to live dangerously and fight against intruders or wars in which females were not killed but simply moved over to the dominant male, hence many of the species always had more females than males among them.

Many civilisations have come and gone changing the human species to be decisively superior to other animal species and moving from the stage of survival to that of living. The Western world went through so many epochs of change and as recently as the 19th century was the Victorian Age.

The Victorian Age was characterised by a culture of reverence given to the British gentleman and lady ahead of the commoner accompanied by respective etiquette which still put the woman into a junior partnership to man relative to the level of security which existed. Luckily, this Victorian culture has since outlived its purpose even in the Western world and has been discarded but not without leaving its footprints, especially in colonies like Zimbabwe.

In colonial Zimbabwe, the white man created economic and social classes thereby forming a ladder with the white man at the top then white woman, Coloured or Asian male, Coloured or Asian woman, black male who also covered for slave labour and last of them all black women.

This gradation was based on colour of the skin which was used to determine the production and distribution of economic resources. The political system was sustained because, except for the black woman, everybody on the socio-economic ladder was in the comfort zone of being superior to someone below. The black woman ended up under the heap of all on the social ladder and as an appendage to the man thereby making a complete distortion of gender in our culture.

My father remembered his life in Chief Muchena's small village where they remained in clusters of huts in order to defend themselves from wildlife as well the Matabele impis who frequently raided them.

As a little boy he was taught swimming and many games by older girls before he graduated to play with big boys and engaged in war games as well as hunting.

On many occasions he used to remain at home with two siblings while his mother went to work in far away fields leaving him to manage the home.

It was at this age that he accumulated many survival skills. At the age of 85 my father could easily prepare a plate of sadza, balance a clay pot of water on his head with ease, pound grain, beat great tunes on drums, dance, etc. These were skills my father learnt and perfected from an early age. He never felt embarrassed to do the work often done by women when the need arose.

My father also ensured that my sister got the same life chances that I got especially in education. I remember my father refusing a herd of cattle as lobola and preferred that she went to school instead. Many men then laughed at him for refusing an opportunity to increase his herd of cattle. His unique choice for what was good for his family was paramount and the community failed to impose its will on him.

My mother always had her area of influence which my father respected but when it came to security, he always made sure that his will prevailed because any wrong decision could have ended his life. The woman could still move on without being harmed and make a new life elsewhere.

Gender is a situational, time specific/bound scenario and tends to be stable through evolvement rather than imposition. Gender roles are finally determined by the level of peace or security that is now a function of fulfilling basic needs. Where the culture of peace has taken root, gender has tended to evolve as in the Western World, women openly compete for political posts of minister, governor, etc.

In Africa, the world is watching Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Malawi where women are highly represented in Parliament more than in the United States of America as well as many Western democracies. How will the quality of decisions improve! Perhaps, it marks the beginning of the end of gender debate. Most important of all, will it ensure peace?

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