Yesterday, I bumped into a man. Well, we didn’t really bump into each other… I was in the pharmacy looking for a quotation on a prescription. As I walked out, I heard a name – not entirely mine – but one that I had been called enough times in the past to regard as part of my identity.
“Hey, Her Zimbabwe!” the man shouted out. “You forgot your notebook.”
I don’t know what startled me more. That I had left the notebook; apparently I’d dropped it on the floor. Or that this man referred to me by a name I hardly heard anymore. Her Zimbabwe.
In case you don’t know, Her Zimbabwe is a web-based project for women’s digital storytelling that I founded in 2012. Due to a range of complications, heartache and burn out, I resigned from it early in 2016. It kept running until it officially closed in 2018.
As I got over my shock, the man and I introduced ourselves to each other. Both being creatives, there was a deep sense of respect for each other. Soon, I walked off, back to my car to visit yet another pharmacy to seek out a quotation.
But as I did so, I tweeted out about the encounter I’d just had with the man. It was surprising to me that even 3 years after leaving this project, some people still associated me with it. Someone even wrote back in response stating that she’s saved my number in her phone as ‘Fungai Her Zimbabwe’.
As the day wore on, I thought to myself about all the things that had transpired in the time I was affiliated with Her Zimbabwe. Well, ‘affiliated’ is probably the wrong word. Her Zimbabwe was an idea that arose from my mind and which I returned from a Masters in the UK to implement.
“How do you leave something you started?”
While there were many happy moments and achievements, the ending was marred by pain, trauma and legal battles. But as much as I could, I kept a lot of the details of what had happened to myself, telling only very close family and friends. I’d meet many people and they would say things like, “Fungai, it just doesn’t make sense. How do you leave something you started?”
I’d try to laugh it off sometimes and talk about moving on and doing new things. But inside, I was a broken person. The pain, though I tried to dull it, would always return. I felt shame and a deep sense of failure. As though people were laughing at me for thinking I could really pull this thing off.
To be honest, there was never an easy time within Her Zimbabwe. Because it was something that had never been done the way it was being done in Zimbabwe before, it threw up a lot of excitement and confusion at the same time. Was it a women’s rights NGO? Was it a digital platform for the ‘elites’ with internet access? Was it both these things? Or was it just an experiment; an anything goes sort of thing?
Working with people, this obviously brought with it a lot of tensions. Some people wanted it registered and to be instated as board trustees. Some wanted it to start seeking grants and become an income-generating project. If I am honest, I should have told everyone I worked with the truth. This was an idea that came to my mind and for whatever reason, gripped me so tightly it wouldn’t let me go. But I didn’t want it to become some big shiny organisation within the women’s movement. To me, the project had its greatest potency when it focused on what it did best; storytelling and initiating conversation on issues that some might consider taboo.
Long before there would be the hurt of lost friendships, overbearing funders and self-seeking board members, there was this moment that I will never forget. An older feminist who I held in high esteem came to me at a meeting one day. Curtly, she asked me why I had not sought the buy-in of the women’s movement before going about and setting up a platform. I was perplexed and embarrassed. Was there a procedure that one was supposed to follow prior to starting up an initiative? Had I flouted the rules? I felt myself begin to shrink in her presence and so walked away, crestfallen. One of the very things that had inspired my creating Her Zimbabwe was my Masters dissertation which focussed heavily on women’s organising that this same woman had been involved in. I simply thought that I was continuing the tradition by attempting to create a digital repository of women’s organising, past and present.
NGOisation: a real threat to young institutions
The road would get harder as time wore on. But there were good times too. With support from a small feminist funder, we raised money to host Friday meet ups with women in communications and media, to teach them the basics of social media and digital security. Afterwards, we’d hang out, have snacks and talk about our lives and problems. It was a wonderful nurturing space.
By this time, a funder I’d first met in 2012 was certain that Her Zimbabwe should register and scale up operations. To be fair, it was not only this funder who felt this way but also people who’d watched the project from its infancy, and people who worked with me. However, in this very same dissertation that had yielded Her Zimbabwe, I wrote a section about the professionalisation of women’s activist spaces. An excerpt reads as follows;
Jad (2007) notes that professionalisation of the women’s movement has created a new powerbase for NGO elites, often backed by big funding from donors, to determine which women’s issues are addressed… Various scholars have also engaged in discourse around the increasing power of NGOs, referred to as the ‘NGOisation’ of women’s organising, and note how this leads to poor accountability between gender ‘experts’ and their ‘grassroots’ constituencies (Baden and Goetz, 1998; Jad, 2007; Wilson, 2010).
A respondent to my dissertation questionnaire (as part of my research) noted;
Feminism is not in many organisations. People are struggling to survive. They are not getting into the women’s movement to support women. They are largely involved to support their families. It has become a profession and not a passion.
My research had made me wary of the experiences other women had had in the sector, and registration sounded to me like shackles around my feet. I enjoyed my freedom immensely and didn’t mind not getting a penny from Her Zimbabwe work. Other work kept me busy and this was a project that could be tended to in between such work.
On the point of not making this clearer to everyone around me, I take full blame. I did not enforce strong enough boundaries and I allowed other people’s wishes for the platform to override my own. In my mind, I kept thinking if this project is really bigger than me, then I can’t curtail its growth by making my own reservations the reasons why it doesn’t grow.
I’d managed to stave off this funder’s offers of money for 2013. I wrote a half-hearted proposal that she said needed tweaking. I didn’t tweak it. While at first I had shown interest in her funding, I didn’t want it anymore. From our few encounters, and having worked on a consultancy with her, I was already wary of the sort of character she might be and I didn’t think I wanted to work further with her. But now, she was moving around civil society telling anyone who would listen that I was refusing to take her money, probably in the hopes that they would convince me otherwise. One of these people came to me at an event and confided this information to me and said they’d told her that maybe I just wasn’t ready for money. This, this person said, seemed to perplex her. What young black African woman refuses a grant of over USD100 000 from a ‘nice’ white woman from overseas? With the struggles so many Zimbabweans NGOs are having to stay afloat, she thought me obdurate and rude.
So in 2014, I caved. We’d gotten another small grant (from the small feminist fund I previously mentioned) and decided to register Her Zimbabwe as a Trust. Because this funder was already ready to disburse her larger funds to us, we needed to get going quickly and set up a bank account. As such, she became involved in the process of our registration. While we had leeway to select our own board trustees, I think in many ways, the selections were made with the cognisance that some of the people selected had to at least be people she knew, or that she thought of in high regard. When she realised that there was a sitting MP on our list of proposed trustees, I remember her asking me, “Is this person ZANU-PF or MDC?”
Registration happened in a flurry and soon we had a bank account into which she could deposit the funds. And operations began in earnest.
Setting up an office is hard enough, but then also being expected, as per funding proposal, to produce a piece of high quality content on the website daily was a nightmare. There were just two of us in editorial and between trying to write enough, and/ or find competent writers to produce thought-provoking content daily, the task increasingly became challenging. Also, as Director, I had to attend all kinds of meetings, try to find more funding and check administrative paperwork.
Slowly, I felt myself disappear. This was not a life I wanted for myself. While I enjoyed it when we got together some really good content, this wasn’t often enough. Sometimes our content was mediocre to say the least. Yes, I have been called a perfectionist. And heck yes, if excellence is what people come to a platform for, keep up the standard! Our standard was erratic.
Whereas our funder saw Her Zimbabwe as a media entity that ought to just churn out stories on whatever, I saw it as a provocative space that was intended for consciousness-raising. Quickly, she figured out that my #2 and her were more on the same page and just as quickIy, I started noticing how she was side lining me from certain decisions. Emails would be written back and forth between her and my #2, and sometimes sent to me as an FYI or when it didn’t matter what I had to say because a decision had already been made. Soon it turned into a side lining that whenever she came for field visits to Zimbabwe from the Netherlands, she would only meet with my #2 and see no need to touch base with me. I won’t deny the fact that we deeply disliked each other, but I found it disrespectful that while she saw the promise of this initiative, she would cut me out of meetings when I was the Director of the organisation. My #2 assured me it was only because she wanted to discuss budgets and technical things with her. But I didn’t believe that.
Eventually, as the situation got worse and working at Her Zimbabwe began to feel like working for this funder and not for myself, I asked to meet with her on one of her visits. I explained to her how Her Zimbabwe had started as a passion project and that now, it felt more like a chore; my passion was gone and I was burning out fast.
Her response was condescending.
“Oh, you journalists and creative types and your thing about passion,” she said, making it seem as though having a passion was something trivial.
My #2 was there with us but said nothing. Over time, I began to realise that the more I spoke out, the less support I got from her quarters. She wasn’t seeing things the way I was, or perhaps she was preserving her favour with our funder. That was particularly difficult as I considered us to have been friends.
Increasingly, we couldn’t make any decisions between us. I remember once holding up a book to her and saying to her it’s like we are both seeing a book, but you are seeing the one side of it and I am seeing the other. She didn’t concur and so we continued to work together, resentment and hostility steadily building.
Eventually, however, we did come to some consensus that this funding we were getting wasn’t doing us any good. Our funder had started talking about giving us a grant for the year going into 2016. And by this time, I was adamant that this funding was toxic and we were being pulled further and further into whatever this funder wanted us to do. She was already suggesting – no, forcing – collaborations with other organisations that were unpalatable. She was even moving around telling other funders not to fund us because we were still too ‘young’. At this point we had two other funders and she did not seem to like the idea that we had other sources of income besides hers.
Already, she had forced us to move to a hub run by one of our trustees. I had disagreed with the decision, citing the fact that this constituted a conflict of interest. At the same time, we were to pay USD600 to this trustee when we had found another place that would have offered two rooms at USD450. But again, she had done what she did best, which is divide and conquer. Meeting my #2 first and coming to agreement about moving to the hub, my disagreement was merely a formality. And so we sold off assets – in the form of furniture – to squash ourselves into that overpriced room.
The move there was apparently so that we would get more ‘exposure’, which was ironic since she had been trying to keep other funders away from us. But one of my biggest surprises came when this hub – which runs an annual arts festival – failed to pay its local artists on time. The story was broken in the local news media and the local artists staged a sit-in at the hub, demanding their payment and stating that the organisers had favoured paying international artists over the locals who had also performed. I thought nothing of it until the trustee who runs the hub came to me stating that he needed a loan from us. If I am not mistaken the sum he requested was over USD5 000. I told him that I would have to speak to my finance assistant first.
My finance assistant and I agreed that the only money that we could legally transact that could be given as a loan was the money that we kept in our personal savings sub-account. This account was where we kept money that we received from other non-Her Zimbabwe related activities, eg. consultancies. But that account did not have sufficient funds and so I told him this and made him an offer of what we could manage.
Soon however, I received an email from our funder telling me to give him the money from her funding budget to us. Gobsmacked is not the word. This trustee’s hub was not being funded by this funder at that time, so there really was no plausible reason to transfer money across initiatives. Was this even legal? What justification does one give to an auditor for such?
Increasingly, I was realising I was wading through a sea of mud and I needed this to end.
And so to this 2016 proposed grant. I remember having to visit with the funder on a Sunday with my #2 at the lodge she was staying at. She had made us work with a Dutch funder on a project that I wasn’t particularly keen on and was working with us budget line by budget line. This was the level of micromanagement and interference. After we were done with this, she said she wanted to talk about the business of money and how she had set aside a similar amount of money for us in her budget for the coming year.
In response, I thanked her for her support thus far but explained that in consultation with the board, we had come to the agreement that we would not be taking on her money going further.
The woman became furious. Her stare, already icy, became like glass. She was disgusted by my lack of gratitude and enthusiasm for her benevolence.
“Do you hear what you are saying?!” she demanded.
“Have you talked to your board about this?!”
“Who do you think you are?!”
“What am I supposed to go back and tell the people at my office?”
I told her I was no longer happy and this situation was a large cause of it.
“If you’re not happy, then leave!”
Why was this woman, who so evidently despised me, hellbent on continuing to be a part of this initiative? And she despised me to the point that she thought it okay to suggest I leave so that she and everybody else be happy? After all the time I had put in to make this thing?
I began to quiver with disbelief. Tears were coming to my eyes.
With irritation, she asked me why I was shaking.
I couldn’t believe anyone could ask such a question at that moment. And so I told her that I simply could not finish this conversation with her and was going to go home. So I left her with my #2 and went to a friend’s.
Later that night, I visited with a trustee I found to generally be level headed and told her what had transpired. I told her I was writing a resignation letter, that I could no longer deal with such an aggressive funder anymore. (I also had a minor car accident that evening).
While the trustee tried to convince me not to go, I had made up my mind. I had had enough.
And so the next morning I sent off a resignation letter to all the board. This was obviously met with surprise and an emergency board meeting was convened. I was told that I’d no longer need to communicate directly with the funder and that I would be given a month of time off to think through my decision.
While I appreciated the gesture, I knew in my spirit that even with this funder gone, I was no longer living my life’s purpose. I was in chronic pain, fatigued and heavily medicated just to lead a semblance of a normal life. And all of this had started in 2014 when we’d set up our office. I was starting to learn about the ugly underbelly of Zimbabwean civil society; apparently some local grant managers only gave you funding if you promised them a cut of the money, people I thought were honest workers suggested tax evasion to me. I knew my #2 didn’t have my back and that we didn’t share politics. She preferred a gender tech platform and I preferred a feminist consciousness raising platform. We were pulling away from each other and there was little to do to mend the rift.
So I took my time off, and returned.
And then finally, I resigned early in 2016.
The pain that followed is indescribable. I felt as though something had been amputated from my body. As though I was in a revolving nightmare with darkness everywhere. Every time I thought I was better, something would come to remind me that I wasn’t. And I would be back where I had begun.
And then 2018 happened, with the ugliness of a legal battle with the same trustee whose hub we’d been forced to move to. The legal fees and the lies being told to me by this trustee took a massive strain on me and I wondered to myself how I had gotten myself into such a horrible mess.
But I know how. I was young. Naïve. Poor at expressing my needs and desires. Too afraid to go things along, if that’s what it meant needed to happen.
And for all that, I got all this heartache.
Today, I’m at least in a place where I can tell you all of this. For years, it caused me shame. Also, this funder told me that if I left Her Zimbabwe, nobody would ever want to work with me again. It’s funny how you can lose yourself so entirely that you start believe things like that. That you think one person has the power to control the entire destiny of your life.
I know some people see my leaving Her Zimbabwe as giving in to all the challenges I was facing. But to me, I see it as self-preservation. I needed to leave in order to survive and piece myself back together again.
It’s taken more years than I’d like it to have. But I have learnt more about resilience and love than I ever could have otherwise. Sometimes resilience looks like staring at a wall all day. Sometimes it looks like taking up a hobby you’d forgotten about. And love. The absolute love and support of my friends has been the only reason I can sit here and write again. My friends continually affirmed me, held my hand and walked me through the darkest paths of this journey.
So do I still believe in ideas?
Hell, yes! What are we without them?
I only tell you all of this so that you know how ideas can become tarnished and people broken. But passion for what you do is what living – really living – is to me. And no number of setbacks and amount of pushback will ever convince me otherwise.