issue 181 - March 1988
Photo: Dexter Tiranti
Where there is no hoover
Mati has to grow and grind her family's food, and wash her
laundry in the river. She is poor but powerful. Elias buys her family's
food from the supermarket and washes their clothes in the kitchen sink.
She is rich and powerless. Yvonne St Clare shows how development
can bring degradation to Zimbabwe's women.
The other day I hitched a ride with a raunchy, likeable white Zimbabwean. She had recently visited England and vowed never to live there again. 'Every time I went to see a friend - for a chat or a drink - I'd find her up to her eyebrows in washing or something.' The disgust in her voice expressed the status of housework in the society in which she and I both live: menial, irksome, a round of drudgery. But she was implying, of course, that here in Zimbabwe there are servants to perform these chores.
As I write this I am suddenly startled by a black, male hand which comes wiping along the window-ledge, and I can hear a broom in the passageway. Later a woman will come to do the washing and cleaning and I will have to shut the door against the sounds of wet clothes being slapped against the side of the bath. I have already asked the gardener to keep his voice down and I will shortly have to move into another room so the maid can clean this one.
In every household there is housework to be done. But strict divisions of labour - between madam and maid, husband and housewife - hardly existed in precolonial times. When I visit Mati, one of my rural women friends, I sit with her by the river while she does her washing. But it does not take long because most of the family wash their own clothes when they wash their bodies. When we come back to the house, one of her daughters will fetch water, prepare tea and roast maize or groundnuts for us while we talk. If there is more work to do, we chat while she does it in the circular cooking hut which is the centre of every homestead. But usually she need only give the odd instruction, while her daughters busy themselves with their chores.
Girls work very hard in Zimbabwe, much harder than boys, but their household duties often clash with their schoolwork. This means that Mati is often left at home single-handedly looking after the cattle, goats and toddlers, as well as doing all the work in the maize fields. Her husband lives on a commercial farm to earn money for his children's school fees.
But the cost of fees and the loss of children's labour are not the only price rural families have to pay for their children's education. Because of school, activities like goat herding, fishing and trapping are seen as jobs only fit for failures. 'Do you want to end up as a worthless herder?' the teachers ask. Domestic work loses its dignity and pride of place too. After all, you don't need '0' levels to run a rural home. So housework joins the catalogue of unskilled, unrespected jobs in the modern economy that no-one who can do better (read 'earn more') will waste their time doing.
Elias, another friend, has suffered two years of boredom and frustration in a township on the outskirts of Harare. She can turn on a tap for water and wash her clothes in the sink, but this means she never meets her neighbours on the river-bank. Her family has far more clothes than Mati's, but they no longer wash their own so Elias' workload is a lot heavier. She can buy cooking oil, sugar and meat at the supermarket, but she has to wait until her husband takes her to town in the car.
In her home there are plenty of 'things': furniture and tableware to be dusted, polished and cleaned every day. She keeps chickens, grows vegetables and knits endless clothes for her children. Her husband drinks less than other men and gives her enough out of his wage packet to feed and clothe the family adequately. But her life is controlled by him in a way that Mati, in firm charge of her household, has never experienced. I can't help thinking that Mati would never put up with it. And if Elias' husband starts beating her, as many husbands in town seem to do, she will be at his mercy - her urban neighbours will not ostracize or attack him as they might in the village.
Elias has solved her problem of powerlessness by applying for teacher-training college. This will both rescue her from polishing the front doorstep every day - she will leave that to some less fortunate female relative - and provide her with some money and status, the levers she needs to counter her husband's new power over her.
At this point I have to admit that I am simplifying the picture. Rural life is certainly no matriarchal idyll. Mati may be more independent than Elias but, like most rural women in Zimbabwe, she has to balance that agricultural independence (with its inevitable insecurity and hardship) against her dependence on the earnings of her husband. And she is lucky: he hands over his wages without question. He could just as easily withhold that money.
However, rural life is characterized by mutual respect. And women here have a great deal of authority - as sisters, aunts and mothers-in-law. That they exercise their authority behind closed doors, rather than by contradicting their menfolk in public, misleads most outsiders into thinking that women are completely dominated.
What has happened to women in modern society? How have we lost our active, adult role and become so diminished?
'Housewifization' is a clumsy word, but it expresses well the way economic development has devalued and trivialized women and their work. From being central pivots of traditional (albeit patriarchal) culture - as farmers, healers and midwives as well as mothers - women in modern society have been reduced to servants and sex objects, at once sentimentalized and abused.
How does this occur? Perhaps it is because traditional rural societies revolve around - and therefore value most highly - the family and children, the growing and preparation of food, and social-spiritual ceremonies like healing and brewing beer for the ancestors. In all of these areas women's role is central, often surpassing men's (as in midwifery, beer-brewing, growing food and cooking), other times complementing them (in healing or contacting the spirit world). These are all activities which could loosely - and respectfully - be described as 'housework'.
Our modern society has different priorities. Our most highly valued activities revolve around the exercise of power: political, military, financial, scientific, intellectual. In all of these areas authority is reserved for men throughout the modern world. Meanwhile the 'traditional' areas of value - the family, food and emotional-spiritual matters - are downgraded and dismissed with a sneer as 'women's work'.
The Zimbabwean media imitate their Western counterparts and a similar trivialization of women's work occurs as image-makers turn women from muscular ('poor', 'illiterate') farmers into moronically fashionable ('modern', 'educated') consumers.
The irony is that the women most trapped by these images are the elite in Zimbabwean society. If you want to meet strong, articulate and independent-minded women in Zimbabwe (or in Canada, or Aotearoa), stay away from the corridors of power. Go instead to the villages, the townships, the slums.
Of course there are always exceptions. Education liberates some as surely as it captivates others: a secretary's duties do leave time for contemplation of the bosses' dictatorial methods. But on the whole, rural women stand to lose a great deal by being transformed into modern housewives.
Mati might not put it in so many words, but she and other rural women have taught me this - by their energy, confidence and enjoyment as well as by their resourcefulness. I have been shown the vast difference between the diminished women I have known in the West and the scope and strength of what women really are and can be. And I have learned new respect for housework - for the real, life-sustaining subsistence work of gardening, cooking, cleaning, raising children and running a home.
Yvonne St Clare lived in Zimbabwe for three years first as a teacher, then as an advisor to rural women's groups.