by Francesca Uriri
When translated into English from Zimbabwe’s Shona language, ‘Fungai’ means ‘think,’ and that is primarily what Fungai Machirori; writer, blogger and Founder of www.herzimbabwe.co.zw does frequently. But beyond that she helps create spaces where women can have conversations, learn from their collective experiences, and live better lives. She is the Leading Lady Africa for the week. Be inspired!
Writer, poet, activist and feminist; do these terms fully describe Fungai?
I am not sure I ever fully conform to what identities require. I am constantly in a state of questioning and introspection about who I am, who I used to be and who I will be. As such, my ideals and world views are constantly in flux. My Twitter handle – @fungaijustbeing – is my own active decision to live and operate in the realm of just being, accepting that I am on a journey that warps, wends and bends as I travel it. I am all these identities you state, and none of them. It depends on who is perceiving me and what their understandings of these identities, and me, is. I am Fungai just being.
You are the Founder and Managing Editor of herzimbabwe.co.zw, what’s the idea behind the site?
It was something that came to my mind as I was working on my Masters’ dissertation which centred on women’s organising in Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe’s diaspora(s). One of the recommendations I put forward was to explore how online communication channels could stimulate conversation and debate between Zimbabwean women across various geographical territories.
But I felt putting out that recommendation wasn’t good enough. Because the thing with research is that it very often suffers the fate of not being actioned. So I took it upon myself to think through how to make that recommendation come to life. And those thoughts are what led to the birth of Her Zimbabwe.
Those were the formative stages, about three years ago. But the ideologies informing the project have since altered and adapted somewhat to cater to different needs and discoveries. You learn so much in implementation that ideas and focuses shift. So, while Her Zimbabwe is still a web-based platform for women’s voices, we are also branching into offline work (live conversations, and trainings) while also working to mature our content into the bracket of thought leadership. At a time in Zimbabwe when politics and sensationalism reign supreme, we want to stimulate a deeper interrogation of where things are for Zimbabwean women in various spheres and spaces.
Why are you interested in interrogating and discussing issues that affect women?
Well, chiefly because I am a woman. But also because I think the way ‘women’s issues’ are discussed in Zimbabwe has largely become formulaic and therefore, hackneyed. As such, people hardly pay attention anymore. Women are confined, and sometimes also confine themselves, to only having an opinion on issues deemed of a domestic or social nature. But please don’t misunderstand me. These are valid and necessary issues to discuss; I am just really also for women populating all other discourses and spaces.
Many people embrace feminism now; primarily because it seems cool to do so; not because they understand it. What does feminism mean to you, and do you agree with Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that we should all be feminists?
I recall once taking out a load of books on feminism from the library and sitting in my room at home searching through, trying to find a deft meaning for myself. Well, there is no book that will make feminism fully manifest before your eyes. If it’s real, it has to be lived and personal. Of course, reading up on the debates and discussions going on is essential too.
As such, feminism – to me – means living a life that is conscious of inequalities and systems that reinforce oppression, especially against women. But it’s also about owning the power of the feminine. We increasingly seem to be saying that being vulnerable, emotional and expressive are traits the modern woman has to curb in order to be ‘successful’ in a male dominant world. But I say, there is power in this too. Absolute power. And it’s about owning this power and going forth with it.
I agree that we should all be feminists. In Adichie’s TEDx talk, she gives the audience different scenarios wherein feminism can and should be practical, the lived experience I previously discussed. In this sense, we should all be feminists. Fighting for justice and equality.
But should we all self-identify as feminists? Should it be mandatory that we all call ourselves feminists? I don’t think so. I have seen women move struggles against patriarchy here in Zimbabwe without explicitly calling themselves feminists. Resistance to the identity is premised upon various tensions and fears, and sometimes disenchantment. This needs to be understood and sometimes, just respected as a woman’s contextual choice. For me, it’s really what you do, not what you’re called that matters. And besides, identities must always be chosen, not prescribed.
As a writer, you use your stories and poetry to tackle ‘taboo’ topics that aren’t usually discussed in Africa. Issues like sex, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, etc. Why do you think it’s important to talk about these things?
We can’t change things we don’t talk about. That’s probably the shortest answer you’ll get from me on this interview.
If you could change something about yourself, what would it be?
Oh, these are deep questions! I think at times there are many things I’d like to change about myself; parts of my body, the way I react to certain things. And sometimes, I just open my arms to myself and welcome and accept me. It’s an ongoing struggle.
But if I could change something about myself, I think it would be that I cared less what people think of me. It’s the usual human complex of over-accommodating other people’s opinions about you and therefore censoring your thoughts and actions. I am getting better, but I wish I could get completely rid of this complex in my life.
Are you like the typical writer? Moody, withdrawn, introverted? Or is that really just a stereotypical description?
On the surface, I think I appear to be very extroverted. And in many ways, I am. I like a good laugh and to liven up debates and conversations. But I am also very drawn to being by myself. I’m very capable of sharing intimate things about myself with people, and I often do as I find it easy to put words to feelings and express these publicly. But I’m aware of the reserves that I keep to myself, the inner parts of me. I was not a very confident teenager and it was in those years that I really learnt to understand my emotions, or at least let them be. It was then that I think I learnt to be alone in ways that nourish me.
I have only recently rediscovered my emotional state as pertains to creative writing. I can barely write a poem when I feel upbeat. It takes a certain kind of gnawing pain inside me to release verse. So I hadn’t been having the feeling for a long time, and therefore hadn’t been writing poetry I could stand by. But I am slowly rediscovering this state. Because, I think, I am letting go of the idea of vulnerability as a character flaw. I am learning that my fears, anxieties and unrequited feelings are every bit as valid as all the joy and laughter I experience. I have to be moody, or should I say ‘in the autumn season’, when it comes to poetry. But I think most of the other forms of writing I undertake take place within my rational self, which I can usually separate from the emotional.
What are the specific things that define you as a Zimbabwean woman? Something that you think sets you apart from other African countries?
Wow, that’s pretty tough to answer. I have never been any sort of typical anything. At times, I have even struggled with self-questioning about my Zimbabwean identity. Is it ‘authentic’, representative, acceptable? Sometimes I even get asked in Zimbabwe if I am Zimbabwean! So that adds to the internal interrogation. And the more I learn different cultures, the more I acculturate. So I become less and less of one thing.
But if I have to give an answer, I think it is the lived reality of being Zimbabwean in many different spaces. Travel has afforded me the ability to see myself in different ways. I have experiences on the broad spectrum of being detained at an airport (because I held a Zimbabwean passport) to being integrated into cultures that I had no clue could resonate with mine. So my Zimbabweaness, to me, is a very fluid state which is affected by the spaces which I am integrated into, and also the spaces in which I am othered.
Let’s go a little light-hearted now; what do you do for fun? How do you step out of the confines of your head and writing?
I am usually the fun. Ask my friends. I am the one who cracks jokes and goes all comical when the time is right. I’ve been encouraged at different points in time to take up stand up comedy. But I am not ready!
But other than that, fun is just me doing creative things. When the mood is right, baking cakes is a form of release. I also occasionally knit and crotchet. Love to watch sport with a preference for tennis, motor racing and cricket. I hardly party as my friends are either not into it or so far away that we can’t meet up to go out (by far, I mean different cities, countries, continents!). But I am just not really an outdoorsy type. Most fun happens in my mind. My name means ‘think’, so this is what I do. Even for fun!
What does love mean to you?
Love essentially means life to me. It is why I am who I am today. Many people have loved me and carried me along this journey of living. I remember once meeting an old man on a train in Italy. He must have been 70 at least. We were sitting in the same car on the train. I didn’t speak Italian. He didn’t speak English. My mental impression was that he must have been thinking I was an undocumented migrant or something. It was just something I imagined because of his age and my blackness.
It was a long trip and as the sun set, it began to get chilly. I was shivering and beginning to feel drowsy. He noticed and motioned his hands to say I should lie on the seat. He was sitting opposite me so I had the whole seat to myself. I initially declined the offer because it was an uncomfortable suggestion to me. But as time wore on, I was just so cold, I decided to huddle myself into a ball and lie on the seat.
Again, he made hand gestures which communicated that he wished to help. And then he got his newspaper and peeled it apart, sheet by sheet, and laid the pages over me like a blanket. He did this with such care and then asked, with his hand signals again, if I felt warmer. I said I did. Eventually I fell asleep. And when I woke up at our designated stop, he peeled the pages off me again, so meticulously, folded the newspaper back into its old shape, smiled, tapped his hat at me and said goodbye, hobbling off and shifting his weight on his cane.
I don’t know why that came to my mind as an example of love. But I think it’s because it was a tender and ephemeral occurrence which made me challenge my own stereotypes. And I think it was something that bridged many divides in a simple way. Love can be transient, but its effects are what make us who we are. And I think, it’s always available if we know how to look for it beyond what we classify it as in the parlance of convention.
Which is your favourite genre? Poetry, prose or drama?
I love to read books, and I love to write poetry. Sometimes I do it the other way around (write prose, not books!). But poetry definitely has a special place in my life. I simply revel in making meaning of feelings through verse.
Who are your favourite writers?
Arundhati Roy. Her prose is fragrant. Her political commentary is astute and non-conformist to the point of making one feel uncomfortable. We all need to be challenged to feel uncomfortable.
Steve Biko. A rousing and conscious voice.
Warsan Shire. Her poetry is like journeying into yourself. Absolute life and spirit.
What drives you?
Love. The people who love me in different ways in my life. The people who let me be sad when I need to be, who celebrate me when I do well, who let me into their lives, who I let in to mine. The love I have for the things I care about. My craft. My ideas. My voice. Life is a love project for me. And so I see love in so many different ways and things.
Name 3 women you admire and why?
My mother. She is the first black female editor of a newspaper in Zimbabwe. And also, one of the very few ever. She decided to become a journalist as a teenager in colonial Zimbabwe where the prescribed options for an educated black woman where to either become a nurse or teacher. It was also a time of serious censorship of the black nationalist media by the colonial government. I don’t know how she convinced her parents to let her be. I don’t know what compelled her to take up such a dangerous craft. But she is strong-willed and determined and I draw on that in my own life.
NoViolet Bulawayo. I first met her as she was finalising ‘We Need New Names’. She’d also just won the Caine Prize. We were in Cape Town and I was lingering about the city after a conference. She invited me to stay with her where she was working on finalising the book. She really relished the big sister role, buying me food, making sure I was comfortable, giving me money for cabs and such. At first, it was really hard to reconcile the public persona with this very private and down-to-earth person. I admire her because she’s kept a cool head, and effortless grace with all that’s changed in her life. And she is a genuine person who will call you to give you advice if you ask for it, or send you an email amid her many travels and busyness. She’s a model of using influence to the benefit of others.
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda. She is the General Secretary of the World Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). I first met her while at an event in New York. She asked that I accompany her to an event at the UN. We hadn’t made prior plans, having just met on that day. But then we went on together and I was particularly taken with the way she introduced me to the delegation she was meeting as her “colleague”. Her willingness to share her power and see me as her equal was something I must admit to not being very used to. And since then, I have seen her do this many more times. When she ran for the position of UN Women Executive Director, a position which was eventually filled by former South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, she showed a lot of tenacity in the campaign, and grace in defeat. She shows me how Zimbabwean women can work together across generations.
What do you see yourself being in the next 10 years?
I think I see myself living still in my own truths, nurturing my creativity, my dreams and visions for my life. I don’t want to say too much about the future. I don’t know what it tangibly holds. But I think I will be an increasingly evolved version of myself, with greater perspective and more experience in this thing called life.
Follow Fungai on twitter @fungaijustbeing
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa; an initiative that seeks to effectively mentor and inspire women, with particular emphasis on the African continent.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to [email protected] and we just might feature her.