Flying with Hope

Hope Chigudu
21 May 2009


This presentation is based on an imagined airplane conversation  between Hope Chigudu, other sisters and a man (fellow passenger) who introduced himself as Tino. 

Tino:  My name is Tino. Since we took off, I have been listening to the conversation between you and your friends. I could not help it. You are loud; everyone on this plane has been listening to you. You keep talking about the conflicts scourging the African continent and then your desire for democratic participation. Let me provoke you; if democracy were a woman, or feminist, what would she do?  

Hope: Don't ask what SHE would do. Ask what she is doing! As you know, we live in a context of escalating violence, conflict and uncertain political transitions, homophobia and discrimination embedded in patriarchy which all makes the realisation of democracy difficult. The situation in Western Sudan's Darfur region, the escalation of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the emergence of new and deadly hostilities in Guinea Bissau and  Madagascar - to name a few. The "War on Terror" has fuelled all manner of fundamentalisms that have in turn produced repressive cultural, economic and structural frameworks for women's existence and anti-terror legislation in a majority of the countries in which we work.

She is responding by redefining democracy from the way it's currently being defined. She is democratising the continent by fighting over the masculinisation of the political environment and rejecting military governments, coup d'états and scores of violent conflicts. Some of the initiatives include the promotion of women's perspectives in peace building and reconstruction efforts, freedom, and body integrity.

Tino: Be specific and use a language I can understand such as buying more guns and destroying forests to build shopping malls.

Hope: I‘ll be specific by sharing a few cases with you on how the women's movements in Africa are changing the face of governance on the outside. (governance - not government). I have a thousand and one stories but I will highlight a few for you since we are about to land. That will give you an idea of what SHE is changing.

First Case: Extreme leadership

Hope: I don't know if you are politically literate, but anyway, many people know about Somalia whether they are apolitical or not. These are the facts.

1.       Somalia of the late 1990s was a failed state in the throes of a protracted civil war perpetuated by countless factions of its five major clans composed of men.

2.      During the initial stages of the conflict, we women left home to make money to provide food, shelter, health care, and security for our children and traditional credit savings.

In northern Somalia, we raised funds through local NGOs to establish and manage local police forces in order to create a secure environment.

3.      We became protectors of human rights and educators for peace, first locally and then regionally. Ha! Yes, we built our movement from the grassroots upward to the national level and we gained the trust of our communities and became respected leaders within them. We maintained communications and relations with factional leaders from our communities. Who do you think eventually persuaded the leaders of the five main clans in Southern Somalia to attend peace negotiations in Arta, Djibouti, in 2000? Was it not us who challenged the delegates at Arta to think beyond clan boundaries in drafting a peace agreement?

4.      You know the clan is the most influential structure in Somali society. True or not,  membership in clans historically afforded Somalis a social and political safety net by providing physical protection, economic security, fixing and receiving bride prices for marriage, and means for resolving conflict (in a patriarchal manner) and seeking restitution for grievances within and between groups.

5.      By 1999, thirteen attempts to negotiate peace had frustrated the international community, which had difficulty gathering all essential stakeholders around the negotiating table.

6.      In 2000, we Somali women realised that the governance of the five clans was not getting anywhere. While continuing with our traditional roles as caregivers, we took on the extra role of peacemakers. We have always been unrecognised peacemakers anyway.

7.      And all the above was just a starter, our biggest main dish was served at Arta in 2000 when we mounted pressure for admission to the negotiating table through the formation of the "6th Clan" as an entry point!!! The men, who claimed that as women we had no clan, had refused us entry. Through this experience, we learnt a valuable lesson on the power of strategy. The 6th Clan concept enabled us to participate on an equal footing, i.e. with equal identity, as other parties to the negotiations. This resulted in the recognition of women's added value in the political arena; hence, we were accorded 25 seats in the Transitional Parliament formed at Arta. 

Tino: You are boasting about how you are changing the face of governance but at the end of the day, the litmus test of your feminist work is the extent to which the majority of the voters, the grassroots, believe in your work. If your democracy work remains in your pockets, un-politicised, you deceive yourselves, ordinary people will keep seeing you as a group of advanced patriarchy blamers, dissatisfied with your lot.

Hope: You asked, yet here you are judging as if you have empirical data.

Second Case: The power of regional networks

Woman 1(a sister traveller): Let me give you another example. I am sure you know that Sierra Leone and Liberia, both in West Africa, were countries in conflict for many years. A group of us, women activists, realised that a conflict in one country translates into a conflict in another. Issues of refugees, shortage of food, HIV and AIDS, militarisms, homophobia, diseases... become more common in the whole region during conflicts. Can you believe that in Liberia, the men in power promoted trade with the all the neighbouring countries? They traded in arms and they made everything tradable including other people's daughters. So you see, a conflict in Liberia means a conflict in Guinea. We realised that the conflicts in West Africa were interlinked and we needed to respond collectively as a region. We sabotaged the typical gender roles by establishing a women activists' network for the three West African countries that constitute the Mano River Union (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone). We came together in May 2000 and formed an important regional women's initiative, the Mano River Women's Peace Network (MARWOPNET).

Tino:  it seems you got entangled in the net, and forgot the work. That is the work of being pregnant and producing soldiers for the country. Pregnancy is great for your waistline. Ho! Ho! (Steward, more whisky).

Woman 1: I will ignore the tedious sexism; it is part of bad governance.

Among our many braggables are the following:

1.       Via this network, we have worked to influence regional conflict negotiations at the heart of real decision-making processes.

2.      For example, in 2001, members of MARWOPNET met with the presidents of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone and successfully convinced them to resume dialogue, when all other efforts had failed.

3.      ECOWAS called on MARWOPNET to chair the opening session of the negotiations between Liberians United for Democracy (LURD) and the Inter-Religious Council of Liberia.

4.      Linking with women activists from different countries, dialoguing on peace processes in different parts of the world and engaging in exchange for information (and sharing food recipes) has created new sources of inspirations, and left us oozing with renewed enthusiasm and energies. 

Tino: Your efforts will soon be forgotten! You have not documented your work. You are withering, and you don't have a succession plan for replenishing your ranks and like most networks, yours seems to be fragile without a strong power base for keeping it together.

Third Case: Replenishing our ranks

A young woman, also travelling to Guatemala

I am part of the ‘replenishing strategy', even if I don't live in Liberia. I am in the women's movement. I am the continuity you are looking for.

I am Zimbabwean; I belong to a network of girls called ‘Girl Child Network'.

We were tired of being nipped in the bud, harassed at school, raped, given in marriage at a tender age...the list is long. We joined one of our teachers to form the Girl Child Network. As a national and global network, we have achieved a lot including grooming young women leaders, recruiting the police to support our cause, reporting violence even between our parents to the police, working with our communities to raise awareness to the issues of girl children, promoting girl child clubs for leadership training in schools. Oh, yes, we have used the enthusiasm of our youth to do everything likely to make us full citizens.

Let me share one of our major and unique achievements.

We always blame our patriarchal and sexist culture for promoting the subordination of women. However, we sat one day and realised that there is confusion between women's subordination based on colonialism, religion, globalisation, power issues etc. and culture. We examined our culture and identified some really interesting pro-women aspects that support and respect women, aspects that we could build on. Women used to have a special physical and social space and we demanded the same.

As young women, we knew we needed a ‘room of our own', so we chose to ask our chief to give us a piece of land to build our ‘girls' empowerment village'. Chiefs are easily flattered so we praised his governance, and by the time we were done with the praise, he had donated land in a beautiful place on the slopes of a mountain.

What is the purpose of our village?

  • It is a meeting place for all the village activities related to our girl empowerment.

  • It is a place where the chiefs, elders, medical, local authorities, police, journalists, etc. meet to discuss issues that pertain to girls and where the girls engage and share their concerns. We have used the place to create the critical mass of people who support our cause. We have built a movement.

  • It is a place where girls from different parts of Zimbabwe gather every now and again, share hilarious and scandalous intergenerational stories from older women but also learn the art of leadership. This kind of engagement has strengthened emerging activists' leadership especially the leadership of young rural girls, who had no opportunity whatsoever for exposure unlike their urban counterparts.

  • The empowerment village is the place where abused girls find space to recover, and to be nurtured by loving ‘mothers'... where they exhale.  

  • On top of the mountain, the girls sit and share stories, gather pieces of themselves and try to be whole again. The last time I was there, the youngest person was three years old, a little girl who was raped when she was tiny, and her mother committed suicide on account of her child's pain. 

  • The activities that happen at the empowerment village have increased our visibility, and collective organisational power, they have amplified our voices, and contributed to the creation of an equitable society. We girls will continue fighting viciously to be a part of the governance of our country. For equality and peace: there is no good governance which excludes young people.

Tino: You are a firebrand lesbian. Interesting, but any movement requires an ideology as a mobilisation tool, what is yours?

Fourth Case: African Feminist Forum

Woman 3: I am also going to Guatemala, which I hear is stunningly beautiful. Before I share my story, I will have you know that in our movement, we don't shy away from engaging in the politics of sex and sexuality, if she is a lesbian that is great, she should be proud to be, democracy and diversity...Let me continue from where my young sister left off.

We are far ahead of you man!

1.       Three years ago, we realised that our movement on the African continent seemed to have lost its focus and direction.

2.      Growing religious, ethnic and cultural fundamentalisms had developed within the movement.

3.      New actors drawn from communities of marginalised women, emerged to demand greater autonomy, accountability and representation of their issues amongst the mainstream women's movement. This often resulted in reactionary and fundamentalist responses from many within the women's movement.

4.      With the onslaught of the AIDS pandemic, worsening impoverishment, increasing violence against women and girls, together with the fact that funding for women's rights issues was decreasing steadily over the years, the influence of the women's movement on the continent appeared to be in decline. Yet, it was widely recognised that women's empowerment is central to development.

Tino: I hope that with this realisation, you recognised that movement building requires men, and fell back on your womanly duties of relentless cleaning...

Woman 3:  Could you please concentrate on the conversation, and chew your food properly, you are just swallowing.

In response to the above challenges, we got a few feminists together and organised our first African Feminist Forum. From the first Forum, countries decided to have their own national feminist forums. For example, Uganda has had two feminist forums. When you have time, talk to the beautiful woman in seat 14A, her name is Solome and she is from Uganda. She will share her experience of organising national forums. Anyway, a key outcome of the first Feminist Forum was the production of our Charter of Feminist Principles for African Women. The Charter is being used for many things such as peer review of each other's organisations and we have also turned it into an organisational development tool to help us with systems and structures.

Tino:  I have a few questions

a)     Ha! How will you ensure adherence to the charter and how do you decide who a feminist is?

b)     Without money, how will you support the mountain you are trying to build? Won't you depend on patriarchal resources to sabotage patriarchy?

Fifth Case: Resources

Woman 4: First of all, there is nothing wrong with using patriarchal money to create governance that works for all including you. Secondly, we have our own autonomous funds. We know the problems of the internet and access to information on the African continent, but when you get a chance, check out www.urgentactionfund-africa.or.ke and www.awdf.org.

We have two women's funds on the continent. The African Women's Development Fund and the Urgent Action Fund (Africa). These are consciously human rights and feminist funds which invest in the transformation of the world in which women live, enabling them to have full and equal enjoyment of their human rights, to be full citizens and to enhance our leadership. 

Tino:  It seems I have fallen into the den of a secret society of activists who conspire to create a strategically matriarchal sabotage of patriarchy. We made a mistake; we left you for too long to talk to each other. We allowed you to be alone together to create the raw materials to destroying us

Guatemala Yipee! Here we come!

Hope: Actually, we still have challenges, and that is one of the reasons why we are going to Guatemala. The movers and shakers of the world will be there. We shall exchange knowledge, engage in deep listening; create bonds of trust, mutual understanding and commit to share workable solutions to improve governance in each country on the planet. 

Sometimes, the work grinds the soul and it appears as if we are spitting in the wind but it is all worth it, we shall prevail!

And man, eat your heart out...each one of us is going to shake hands with four of the six women Nobel Peace Laureates, one of whom is from Africa. After that, don't you even imagine that I shall ever, ever shake hands with you...or anyone who has ruined our continent through bad governance!



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