Elizabeth Vimbai Mhangami
It is with great pleasure and a heart bursting with pride that I introduce to you Our July Young African Woman of Note.
Elizabeth happens to be my youngest sister and so writing this piece is at once easy but daunting a task. Elizabeth was born and raised in Zimbabwe. She is someone we in Zimbabwe refer to as a “born free” because she was born after the birth of Republic of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe was declared an independent state in April of 1980 and Elizabeth Vimbai graced the world with her arrival in November of that year.
Vimbi as we know her did her primary and secondary school education in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and later went to the United States, where she studied political science and women’s studies at Loyola University, Chicago.
After working for a brief period in the United States, Vimbi made a decision to set up a not-for profit organization in Bulawayo in order to assist AIDS orphans. However her idea of assistance was to look at ways in which she could provide assistance without breeding aid dependency, which is a huge problem in Zimbabwe and the African continent. In her own words in an interview in the New York Times, 2011: “You start having conversations with yourself about aid and dependency what is the most effective way of helping that would do the least amount of harm?”
Catha, a child head
Vimbai works with youth as opposed to young orphans. These you are heads of households and this basically means that after the death of both parents to HIV/AIDS, these young people have the sole responsibility of taking care of their younger siblings. They are responsible for their food, clothing and school attendance. This means that they have had to drop out of school in order to generate income for their siblings to survive and also they are responsible for cooking cleaning and all the activities that come with parenting. Many of the youth were about 9-12 when they were left as child heads of households but they were in their teens when Vimbai started working with them.
A child head and her family
Vimbai is the founder and executive director of Vanavevhu, a Shona word meaning “children of the soil.” Through Vanavevhu the youth and their siblings are able to get food, shelter, basic necessities and healthcare and this has freed the youth to attend the program which Vanavevhu offers them. The program teaches entrepreneurial skills and this is paired with bee keeping, candle making and market gardening. These ventures are generating profit for the youth and a sense of financial security that they have never had.
Clearing the garden
Vanavevhu started out with ten families, supporting 32 children in total in 2010. To date another twenty families have been added bringing together over 90 children and seniors benefiting from Vanavevhu support.
In the classroom
With their teacher Vimbai
Arrival of Vanavevhu chickens
Vimbai is fierce about protecting her youth and has an amazing understanding of the issues that they face. She brings to her program a very youthful vibe and they can relate to her easily because in so many ways she is one of them. Her keen perception of what typical teenagers need to go through, gives her youth space to be themselves, make mistakes and to move on. She deals with resilient young people, who in so many ways have had to grow up very quickly in order to fill the role of parents for their siblings. Many of them were vendors, selling candy cookies and matches in order to make a living. Read their amazing stories and be absolutely inspired here.
When I ask Vimbai what challenges she faces with her work she talks about the fact that the youth are the forgotten ones in most of the development discourse. Her age group is not a targeted “vulnerable” population by large donor agencies and so very often she cannot apply for big grant funding for her program. She therefore works tirelessly to raise fund herself by holding speaking engagements back to back when she comes to the United States for board meetings. In a way this is to her advantage because she is not bound by donor agency rules and regulations, which are not always compatible with what she is doing on the ground. She therefore relies on the support of individuals or organizations that are at liberty to fund any program they wish to.
Another challenge which she so articulately describes here is the vulnerability of young women to men who prey on them because they are wealthy. She describes the allure of the promise of clothes, a cell phone, and money and how a young 15 year old may be hard pressed to resist this and abandon the program, which offers long term benefits as opposed to short term gratification. Vimbai works hard to assist and counsel the young women into making good choices in order to spare them exchanging sex for money, so that they can avoid diseases and having to depend on a man who may at any point abandon them. As a feminist this is a very important part of her work, and she hopes to impart some of her knowledge to the young women in her program. As a feminist she works with the young men also, so that they understand the inexcusability of physical violence towards women and she insists on mutual respect and equitable allocation of chores and duties in a gender-neutral fashion.
I have often questioned Vimbai on how it is that she can do what she does in such a challenging environment where there are incessant power outages, a tough political climate, isolation from family (we are all in the US and she is in Zimbabwe), lack of a vibrant cosmopolitan social life such as the one she had in Chicago, her response is simple: ‘these young people are the future of Zimbabwe. Whether we like it or not, those who can leave are leaving and probably not coming back. Those with well to do parents are all gone and what is left is these AIDS orphans who no one even thinks about. Not government or even NGOs. If we truly are serious about the future of Zimbabwe then these are the young people who will be running the country and if we do not try to at least give them basic critical thinking skills business skills and a sense of self worth, then Zimbabwe will be in even deeper trouble than it is now.’
Duncan and Brian preparing the bee smoker
Musa, a child head
Vimbai’s take on development work is this: “If every African /Zimbabwean in the Diaspora, would take up just one social justice issue and DO something about it, then we would see positive social change.” She is of the firm belief that while we need assistance, Africans have to take responsibility for their continent and be at the forefront of articulating our issues, prescribing solutions, and then be the leaders who implement the action plans. This ensures that there is a real positive outcome and that it is permanent and self perpetuating. She often shakes her head as she comments on how for fifty years Africa has been the recipient of donor funding but the continent seems worse off now than it was fifty years ago. “We have allowed people to commercialize our problems and to commoditize our woes and the result is that these problems will never be allowed to disappear because then someone’s paycheck will have to vanish. Therefore the problems persist because the solutions offered are designed to fail. This is what the development industry is predicated upon”
Sipha, a child head
Vimbai exemplifies the term “walking the walk”. She is committed to Zimbabwe in a way that many speak of but very few have demonstrated in a tangible way. Despite the many bureaucratic obstacles and intimidation she has stood her ground and with sheer determination and courage established what has to be one of the most innovative organizations that I have ever seen. I am proud that she is my sister, but more importantly I am proud of the high standards she has set for her youth and her staff at Vanavevhu. Her insistence that things be executed properly and with due contentiousness has resulted in a group of youth and staff who are proud of themselves and what they have achieved thus far and instilled a deep sense of ownership of the program and the enterprise that ensures that it can only succeed. She does this by having high expectations of herself and this is the role model she is to the youth and all those who work with them. Her passion is infectious as is her humor and her mischief and her amazing belly-laugh! Thank you Vimbai for all you do and for the amazing human being that you are.