Professor Micere Githae Mugo came to Zimbabwe in 1982 and taught at the University of Zimbabwe while in exile. Her being in Zimbabwe at that time was a welcome development as she added value to the education system as well as to the status of women in Zimbabwe. Her presence in Zimbabwe brought hope that activities for the emancipation of women would be resuscitated; they had stalled due to pressure from a patriarchal society that felt threatened by women who were rising to positions of power including in politics. These were women who had been educated in exile, mothers of the revolution during the struggle for independence, and women freedom fighters. The majority of women became afraid to be part of the women’s movement because of intimidation by their husbands, male relatives and even employers.
Some of the Zimbabwean women who had been educated in exile and who had returned home at independence and were already comfortable in their jobs as lawyers, professors, medical doctors and politicians had at one time or another interacted with Professor Mugo, either abroad or on the continent. They were the point of entry for those who had never met her and it was not long before women from all walks of life became aware of Professor Mugo as a champion of women’s emancipation, education, writing and curriculum development.
Women’s organisations that were already in existence, such as Zimbabwe Women’s Bureau (ZWB) and the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA), found new energy and geared themselves towards new developments in women’s rights policy lobbying through dialogue with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Legal Resources Foundation.
The radical Women Action Group (WAG) was born in 1983, with chapters in rural areas. On the evenings of 28, 29 and 30 October 1983, police had picked up every woman that they encountered in the streets regardless of who they were, where they were coming from or where they were going. Most of these women were minding their own business: some were coming from work, others from hospital, from visiting friends or were simply going out to buy something to eat. The police called the arrests “Operation Clean Up”, suggesting that every woman they had picked up was a sex worker. Incensed, Professor Mugo, local feminists and other powerful women mobilised women to take action. WAG became a powerful voice for lobbying for pro-women policies and its weight was felt by all. Followed the Zimbabwe Women Resources Centre Network (ZWRCN) which was created in 1990 to deal with gender and development issues and documentation, becoming a place where women went for appropriate and reliable information.
It had become apparent over time that Zimbabwean women had stories of their own to tell, either through fiction or non-fiction. Seasoned writers such as Barbara Nkala, Tawona Mtshiya, Collette Mutangadura, Chiedza Musengezi, Doris Ndlovu, Jane Chifamba and others came up with the idea of Zimbabwe Women Writers. A series of meetings took place at the University of Zimbabwe and in April 1990, Zimbabwe Women Writers (ZWW) was born. Women had so much to write about from the heart and every woman who wanted to write was given an opportunity to do so in the language that they felt comfortable in. The idea was to come up with anthologies of short stories in English and in the two main local languages, chiShona and isiNdebele.
Professor Mugo not only taught literature but was also a talented author and playwright and there was no question that she had become a role model and mentor for women who were already writing and those who intended to write and be published by Zimbabwe Women Writers. Mainstream publishers had no faith in women writers; their belief was that publishing women’s work was a financial risk. ZWW members came from all walks of life, but those who taught at the University of Zimbabwe had one advantage: These women were fortunate to have Professor Mugo right there with them, learning from her the art of writing stories and poetry. Some students who were ZWW members also benefited and those like me who were not at the University made sure to attend every occasion at which Professor Mugo was speaking or officiating. If it meant gate-crushing these events, we did. We loved hearing her speak, admired her African attires, the way she walked with grace. Professor Micere had style.
As it turned out, Zimbabwe Women Writers Anthologies were published in all three languages, and became popular both for leisure reading and for education. The success of the anthologies was such that in 1995 UNICEF commissioned some members of Zimbabwe Women Writers to write primary school readers, and biographies of women firsts in male-dominated careers so that girls could have role models to emulate and find careers of their choice. This was a welcome project that produced results that are still being appreciated to date.
In the heyday of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, from the mid-1980s to 1999, Harare was the place to find Professor Mugo; she attended the indabas, writers’ workshops, copyright symposiums and the many exciting events that were offered to participants, contributors, publishers, writers, diplomats and other dignitaries. Being on the Board of Zimbabwe International Book Fair, I had the privilege of attending all these events where I observed Professor Micere Githae Mugo mix, mingle, talk and laugh with people. It was an opportunity for me to see and to learn how things were done. I am glad I did that; here I am now speaking, officiating at events and even mentoring others. Professor Mugo’s wisdom contributed to the Virginia that I am today.