Tara and her art

Her room is immaculate, save for the papers and notebooks on the desk.  The chime of a dream catcher on the wall is interrupted as Tara closes the window and sits down, cross-legged, on her bed.  Some of her drawings are up on the cupboard, with a gemstone chart stuck on her door.  Looking at it, I can identify some of the stones on her windowsill. A tinge of citrus lingers in the air, and Tara moves to tidy her bed, which she thinks is less than presentable.

“Art is the only thing I focused on.”

 

Tara the Artist

Tara paintingTara Dena Jack is an artist.  She always has been.  From her days in nursery school, to high school at Hellenic, and now studying towards her Bachelor of Fine Art.  That she was meant to be an artist, Tara never doubted that.  “It (art) has always been a strong point, since I’m not really academic.” Tara points to the paintings stacked on top of her bookcase as proof.  Even when she’s meant to be studying, her fingers itch for pen and paper and Tara draws instead.  “Art is an outlet for me.”

As happy as she is with her degree and career path, art wasn’t always her  first choice.  For a time, music held sway.  “I started music when I was 4 or 5, and I started playing the clarinet when I was 14, so in Form Two,” Tara says as she adjusts her legs to get more comfortable.  “I also taught myself basic piano, so I can play a few tunes.”  When it came down to choose between art and music, the decision boiled down to what gave Tara more creative license.  Art it was.

 

“I can express myself more with art. Art is more liberating.”

2016-06-03 (2)What of her art itself?  Tara scrolls through her Instagram and flips through her book of doodles as she talks about her style and what she’s created.  I notice a lot of pencil work and inking, but not much in the form of paintings.  A slight frown on her mouth as she readjusts her seating again and ties up her hair.  “With painting, I don’t have a style that I’ve developed.  With my pencil work, it’s more detailed.  I like stuff like pencil work and pen work, stuff that you can control.”  Her pencil work is stunning. Images of skulls and candles flit across her phone screen.   Tara’s proud of her pieces, but she admits that her work is dark. “In O Level, I did kitsch, still-life, like ‘pretty pretty girly stuff’.  But I find skulls more interesting. You think about a painting of a skull more than just a painting of a flower.”

 

“I always try incorporate a hidden meaning in my art.”

 

Tara fiddles with her hairbands as she talks about her plans for the future.  She wants to get her art out there for people to see – something she hasn’t been doing.  She thinks back to her art teachers in high school and how they’ve shaped her life so far, and continue to play a role in deciding her future.  “Most of my role models are my art teachers.  They see what I’m capable of, they’re more confident in my abilities than I am.”  It was Greg Shaw, her high school art teacher and artist in Harare, who pushed Tara to develop her skills as an artist.  It was her O Level art teacher who convinced Tara to study Fine Art at Rhodes University.  Their influence has motivated Tara to pay it forward and become an art teacher and artist.

 

Tara the Zimbabwean

Would she work in Zimbabwe?  Tara pauses, and takes a breath before responding. “I’m drawn to political stuff.” She tilts her head in inference.  “Political stuff that I wouldn’t be able to do that. And I can’t do kitsch stuff either.”  I ask her the question again.  She looks up, frowns and responds, “I don’t know.”

To see more of Tara’s work, check out her Instagram.

All the art pieces in this story are property of Tara Dena Jack. 

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Michelle: the scientist, the DJ

Michelle Mukonyora a.k.a Ella, has put on quite a few caps in her life so far. Both scientist and music lover, she has had experience in different spheres of life. Her story is particularly fascinating for me, because it was the first time I’d heard of an aspiring bioinformatician.

Michelle the DJ

Her journey into her first role began in 2008, after finishing her honours degree.  She decided to take a break for a few years, and during this period she got into the DJ booth for the first time.  “I’ve always had a passion for music, but I was never musical. The one day I got one of my DJ friends to teach me how to do it for fun and I got hooked.”   Michelle was fortunate enough to get a residency soon after she started.  Although this career path was wholly unintended, DJ Elle M was spinning the turntables for a few years.

Michelle the Student

Michelle got involved with biotechnology from high school.  “At the time it was being described as the ‘new frontier’ of the life sciences,” she says, and she was more than ready to launch herself into this scientific unknown.  The initial plan had been to continue her higher education in Australia, where she could do a joint degree in business and biotechnology.  Unfortunately for Michelle, life had other plans: that was the year that the Zimbabwean dollar crashed.  Australia was off the table.  South Africa was the next best option, and that’s where she got her undergraduate degree from the University of the Western Cape in Applied Biotechnology.  She graduated and after she left DJ Elle M behind, Michelle went back to her first love.

“Science is my life. I always knew I’d be back it was just a question of when.” 

Currently a student researcher at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, Michelle’s main focus is drug and vaccine design in Africa, working on animal vaccines and predicting virus structures.  It’s in this team that Michelle can flex her brain muscles and push the boundaries of biotechnology. “I have been given the opportunity to drive my own research process with a wealth of resources at hand. Being exposed to the best equipment and computing power makes one better able to compete globally.”

“My biggest challenge has been not having an emotional support system as a postgraduate student.”

 Michelle has had to deal with a tough and often isolated environment: science is truly her life now. “Science is all consuming with very little reward when you are a student. Your work doesn’t stop when you leave the lab and I wasn’t prepared for that.”  It’s a break from the structures she was used to from her undergraduate studies.  To add to this list of problems, the field of science can be difficult for a young black African woman.  Michelle has been lucky enough not to have experienced any discrimination, but it’s a fact that she’s keenly aware of.  “When I look up to higher positions that I aspire to I don’t find many women, more specifically black women.  I know the ‘Black woman in science’ hurdle is coming up soon for me.”

Michelle the Biotechnologist

“Compared to the rest of Africa we have the potential to be leaders in the field.”

Despite the challenges in the past and the ones to face in the future, Michelle remains optimistic about her relationship with science.  Although studying in South Africa, she has every intention of coming back to Zimbabwe and tapping into the world of potential.  ” In terms of biotechnologists there are plenty of Zimbabweans across the world doing cutting edge research. The key would be to convince them to come back home to the right infrastructure in place.”  Invested in her work as a biotechnologist, Michelle created a website this year, Nyenyedzi Bio, whose aim is to provide a platform for all things science related in Africa.

What struck me the most about Michelle is her dedication to her craft. Although she has done other things with her life, she keeps coming back to her calling.  Zimbabwe is lucky to have people like Michelle: people always questioning the limits of our reality and pioneering the push into our country’s uncharted territory.

“The most exciting part about biology for me has always been how structure relates to function. I love the idea of predicting the structures of small molecules that we can’t see with the naked eye like proteins and DNA and predicting how they work.”

Keep pushing Michelle.

Michelle

You can follow Michelle on Twitter at @EllaBellaBleu

To find out more about Michelle’s interests and work, visit  http://nyenyedzibio.com/index.html. 

Thembiso and her road to the A-List

You can almost hear Thembiso’s voice, even over the static medium of text.  The smiley faces and exclamation points that dot her responses paint the image of  a young woman whose face that’s just as expressive as her voice.  You wouldn’t be wrong in thinking this: a recent graduate living in California, Thembiso’s planning on making full use of her social skills to propel her to an anchor spot on E! News.

“It’s (the constant moving) definitely made me really social and friendly because I was forced to put myself out there in order to make new friends with each move.”

Thembiso Mawema was used to travelling around.  “My dad was a diplomat so I travelled a  lot but moved to Malawi, Kenya and Zim.”  2007 spelled the big move across the ocean to the United States, but after moving  around so often it wasn’t anything new for her.  Schools were on winter break when Thembiso and her family arrived, but she started school almost immediately after settling into her new home.  “That was definitely the biggest change, from going to a Zimbabwean private school like Convent to an American public school! Major shock! I went from an all-girls school were discipline was a big deal to a co-ed school where kids would make out in front of their teachers like it’s  nothing.”

“I got the most ridiculous questions a lot of the time tho like ‘how did you learn how to speak English so fast’, ‘do you have cars in Africa or did you ride elephants to school’.” 

Apart from the usual comments on whether she lived in a hut or how could she speak such good English, she had no problems fitting in and finding friends.  Travelling and moving so often helped Thembiso hone her social skills and she’d learnt to adapt to new places and cultures.  She upgraded to university, where she graduated with a degree in communications this year.

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“My goal has always been to be a host on E! News, but I just love entertainment, & pop culture & fashion so as long as I’m doing that I’m golden.”

Thembiso had always been set in her career goals.  “My endgoal is to be a host/tv personality”, she says, and true to form for Zimbabweans the world over, she’s started laying the foundation for her dream.  It all started with one of the newer social media platforms, Snapchat.  “I just used it like anyone else & people always tell me how much they enjoy them & how I need my own show. I was just being myself too so it was nice to see that people enjoyed that I suppose.”  Thembiso laughs as she thinks back to where she started.   She’s continued with her Snapchat stories (hosting a #AskThembi every Sunday) and now has her own blog and Youtube lifestyle channel:

Whilst Thembiso has started the journey to create her own brand, she did meet some initial resistance from her parents, who didn’t see entertainment journalism as a legitimate profession.  They naturally had other plans. “My mum has dreams of be becoming a lawyer  which would definitely be my first choice if I didn’t want to be an entertainer.  So I would say they definitely prefer me to do something else, but they support me in what I want to do which is more than I can ask for. My mom gives anyone and everyone the link to my blog to boast.”

 

“I want young guys and girls, to live the life they want for themselves, to not be afraid to not want to be an engineer.”

Thembiso hasn’t been back to Zimbabwe since her family moved, and being away for so long has had an effect on her connection to her old home.   She arrived in California when she was 14 and Thembiso spent the all-important adolescent period in a new surrounding.  However, she never let go of who she was and what she’d learnt when she lived in Zimbabwe.  Her parents and friends (those who are still Zim based) are her touchstone.  “Being close with them and them keeping me grounded and reminding me where I came from is what keeps it (her Zimbabwean identity) going.”  Although she hesitates on whether she’d permanently move back to Zimbabwe, Thembiso’s firm in her resolve to maintain and represent her Zimbabwean roots whichever platform she’s on.AhrRisgu-Q5LU3fMBbH1YME-kOhE9tzBAGqrxhBPki0q

You can check out  Thembiso’s work at www.justthembi.com,  as well as her Youtube channel.

 

Sex Ed in Zimbabwe: does it do the job?

The recent Court ruling that banned child marriages and raised the minimum age of marriage to 18 years has been applauded and welcomed by Zimbabweans in the country and abroad.   For years many women  and men have fought tirelessly to protect children (specifically girls) from child marriages, and the ruling was a breath of fresh air in the long struggle.  The ruling coincides with increased discussion and talk on  introducing contraceptives into high schools.  This debate, unlike the court’s decision, has not gone as smoothly nor has it been well received by many.   Nevertheless, it’s important to look at the state of gender and sex education in  Zimbabwe, and  whether it is doing any  good.

Reviewing the Current System

There have been several papers written on gender and sex education.  They all reach the same conclusion: Zimbabwe’s education system doesn’t do enough to cover this important conversation.  In her 2012 dissertation, Miriam Banda examined the educational materials used in high schools, as well as the structure of gender and sex education curriculum.  Her findings highlight the problem areas.   Guidance and Counselling (G & C) lessons, or Life Orientation, or Life Skills, is where teachers are supposed to cover topics such as sexual health, contraception, and gendered roles.  However, the reality is different.  The content covered in these classes isn’t examinable, so it’s not given as much attention as other ‘more important’ subjects.  Furthermore, according to Banda’s research, if teachers feel uncomfortable with the subject matter, they can simply skip a topic or cancel the lesson.  The same mentality for History or Geography is unthinkable, so why is it so easy for them to opt out of G & C?

The inadequacies don’t stop there.  When teachers do engage with students, the main message they preach is abstinence.  Whilst teaching abstinence is not bad, it is bad when it’s the only message they convey to teenagers at the expense of other information.  It’s impractical to believe that teenagers will abstain from sex just because they are told to – they are teenagers after all.  The logic behind abstinence-only education is a fear that talking about sex will lead to teenagers wanting to have sex.  There is a major flaw in this reasoning: teenagers are already having sex.  Furthermore, as Crispen Bhukuvhani notes in his 2012 paper, the abstinence that teachers and parents advocate contradicts HIV/AIDS literature, which preaches safe sex.  Getting conflicting messages about sexual health leads to even more confusion.

It’s not just about sex

There is another fundamental flaw in the argument against comprehensive sex and gender education is that it will only be about sex itself, which is incorrect.  Sex and gender education is about teaching teenagers about contraceptives and reproductive health, but it’s so much more than that.  It’s  teaching them about consent.  It’s teaching them their legal and reproductive rights. It’s teaching them about rape and sexual assault.  It’s informing them about the avenues and options available to them if or when they are raped.  It’s teaching victims not to blame themselves and teaching perpetrators not to rape.  Ultimately it’s teaching teenagers that sex is not just a physical act: there are psychological, legal and societal aspects to it that are swept under the rug simply because people don’t want to compromise their comfort.

Insider Opinions

Former Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture David Coltart agrees that Zimbabwe’s education system can do better.  Although he is unsure what the current curriculum covers, he believes it’s time for a review:

 “The current curriculum needs a drastic overhaul generally.”  Zimbabwe’s curriculum hasn’t transformed alongside the socio-cultural changes in the country.  “Many children get involved in sexual relations because they have no hope that they can go on to get a qualification and a decent job. We have to give children more and better education on these issues, but we need to give children hope”, emphasizes Coltart.

Sian Maseko, a feminist and women’s rights activist, agrees that more needs to be done:

“The truth is  young people will get the information somewhere and somehow. So we need to ask ourselves the question – isn’t it better that they get comprehensive sexuality education that deals with sex, sexuality, identities, intimate relationships, violence, sexual health, consent, coercion, peer pressure etc. in a way that is mature, correct and creates a space for discussion and questions than for them to learn it from peers or magazines? The most important aspect of issues to do with sex and gender are how society and social spaces construct our understanding of them – so what does society say about women and sexuality? What does society think about married people using condoms? What does society say about sex work? We need to start addressing some of these harmful norms that prevent individuals from enjoying their sexuality and exploring in a safe, knowledgeable and consensual way.
In all societies in the world there are harmful norms about women and their sexuality. What do you call a man who has sex with a lot of women? What do you call a woman who has sex with lots of men? The answer is definitely not the same because we judge women and women’s sexuality more harshly than men.
 This is why it has to start at school. Young people need to explore these issues together in a way that says, ‘questions are good’, ‘violence is wrong’, ‘you can say ‘no’ whether you are a boy or a girl’, ‘you have the right to protect yourself so you can carry condoms whether you are a boy or a girl’. For as long as society believes that sex is for men then we will never shift our understanding of sex and sexuality”.

Conclusion

It takes teachers, parents and guardians, and religious leaders to give Zimbabwean teenagers a comprehensive sex and gender education.  Of course it can be argued that our country has bigger things to worry about at this point, but it’s easy to forget that teenagers won’t stay teenagers forever.  The older they get, the harder it is to correct the harmful thinking and mentalities that they could one day pass on to their children.   We’ve shown that our country is capable of The question now is, are Zimbabweans ready to bite the bullet and have an honest talk about sex?

Photo sourced from http://quib.ly/

Makabongwe and her dream to save the world

Makabongwe Ngulube is a firecracker.  The spark in her eyes and the joy in her smile bring her brand of energy to her surroundings and friends.  Her upbeat positivity is ingrained into her very DNA, that little piece of personality that makes her…her.   With an optimistic outlook and a genuine drive for helping out her countrymen, Maka’s story of life studying in the USA is a reflection of her open mind, a generous heart, and an invincible Zimbabwean spirit.

 Leaving Home

Maka celebrating her Ndebele heritage at a school event

Maka celebrating her Ndebele heritage at a school event

When Maka enrolled at St.Catherine’s University in Minnesota, she wasn’t really sure what to expect.  “Going to the US was the first long trip away from home”, she says, and for someone coming from a close-knit family, life without them was hard.  However, it wasn’t as hard as getting to know her new surroundings.  In Minnesota, a largely white community, Maka was for the first time acutely concsious of her skin colour.  “I’m very aware that I’m a minority.  You see white people in Zimbabwe, but they’re not in masses.  It was way too much in one go.”

Fortunately for her, she was not met with hostility in her new community.  Her host family showed her around, easing her into Minnesota life and getting her used to moving around the city.  She had to adjust to a foreign climate: temperatures during a Minnesota winter average -4 degrees celsius.  Compared to Harare’s average of 18 degrees, it felt like jumping from a hot tub into a pool of ice.  And she wasn’t ready for the food.  The potato-heavy diet, a staple in Minnesota, was something that Makabongwe couldn’t wrap her head around.    “When you’re out of your comfort zone, you have to completely adjust.”  So she held her breath, and dove head-first into the unknown.

Maka the Student                            

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Receiving an award at her university

Two and a half years on, and Maka has carved a piece of the American city for herself.  She’s made friends, has joined the local church, and is enjoying university life.  Going to an all-female university would be a nightmare for some , but Maka loves St. Catherine’s. “It’s not as bad as Convent (in terms of boys)!”  She has her books to keep her busy.  Studying International Relations and working at St. Catherine’s University’s Admissions Office takes up a lot of Maka’s time, and even during school breaks she stays active with internships and summer jobs.   She’s already mulling over life after university, with a career in diplomacy being a strong possibility.

 

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“It’ll Never Truly Be Home”

Maka loves her school, she’s made good friends, and thanks to a small Zimbabwean community in Minnesota, she isn’t completely isolated from her culture.  But for her, the convenience of American life will forever fall short of  Zimbabwe.  “It (Minnesota) will never truly be home.”  Maka hopes that the Zimbabwe she left is still waiting for her when she comes back, as sunny and welcoming as she remembers.  Only then will she truly feel at home, in a place full of hope, dreams, and love.

 

Chanelle and working the catwalk

Her eyes are the first thing you notice when you look at her pictures.  The deep brown pools switch from an intense stare to a warm inviting gaze in the flash of a camera.  It’s no surprise though – Chanelle has been posing for the camera for over 10 years.  Her career began in Zimbabwe, bagging campaigns with Shamaika, Bella Hair and Deep Beauty Products, and strutting down the runway at Zimbabwe’s first ever Fashion Week.  Everything screeched to a halt in 2008, when she had to pack her bags and move to England.

chanelle3       “THE PEOPLE WERE THE BIGGEST THING TO DEAL WITH”

With most of her family already in England (her father is English), she didn’t feel completely alone. However, not even the safety net of family could protect her from unavoidable culture shock.  “Having family made it easier to adjust as I had a heads-up on everything, which I’m thankful for.  However, your family isn’t there with you in the schoolgrounds or in the classroom.”  Like many young Zimbabweans, Chanelle had a tough time finding people she could really connect with – a problem she hadn’t faced in her home country.  “The people were the biggest thing to deal with.  I didn’t expect to be judged for being different, or excluded from social circles because I spoke differently.  Not saying that every person here thinks like that, I just found that the social prejudice of certain classmates shocked me.”

Some of Chanelle’s poetry 

Although adjustment was initially uneasy, Chanelle overcame the growing pains.  She’s made friends, with her best friend being Zimbabwean.  Living in London, affectionately known as “Harare North”, was an added bonus: Chanelle had a little home away from home, to get her through the times that homesickness hit hard.  Part-English she may be, but the model didn’t ditch her Zimbabwean identity.  For Chanelle, it’s clear that she can be just as comfortable walking the streets of Harare as Portsmouth.

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If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about Chanelle, it’s her determination.  The six years she’s been living in England haven’t always been rosy, but true to Zimbabwean nature, she hasn’t let bad experiences derail her plans.  Currently studying Fashion Marketing, Management Business and Entrepreneurship at university, Chanelle wants to make a bold splash on the fashion industry.  She’s continued her modelling career in Portsmouth, where she’s now based, working with photographers and make-up artists, building her network with each photoshoot.  She’s had to learn new skills to land jobs, both in and out of the fashion world.  Given how fickle the industry is, a career in fashion isn’t one that the average Zimbabwean parent would support.  Lucky for Chanelle, she’s always had her parents in her corner.  “My parents support my decision.  They believe in allowing a child to cultivate their gifts.”

 

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For Chanelle, the road to success is still long, but as long as her passion for fashion keeps burning, she knows she’ll make it big.  “I believe that everyone has gifts and it is one’s own responsibility to cultivate those God given gifts.”  So she keeps working, keeps learning, and keeps praying, never doubting herself and never giving up.

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Twitter: Chanelle Davies @CocoChanelle93

Instagram: chanelle_davies

Tanya: Poetry as her Medicine

“You caught me at the perfect time!”  The relentless ring of the incoming Skype call had woken her up, the sky still dark in Rome, where she’s celebrating the new year.  Rome, New York, Montreal, Switzerland: Tanya’s had a life that, on the surface, seems to have strutted off the pages of a magazine.  For her though, the glamour of the West was nothing more than a bitter illusion.  “I hate Europe and North America.  It’s like a prison.”

   “IT WAS A VERY TRAUMATIC TIME FOR ME”

Tanya is settled now, but life post-Zimbabwe initially was riddled with hurdles.  Uprooted in 2005, she left her friends, her school, and her home for Switzerland – a country radically different from what she was used to.  “There’s nothing cool about being in a place where you are the minority”, Tanya says.  ‘Minority’ in this case is putting it lightly: in 2007, African immigrants only made up 0.09% of Switzerland’s population, most of whom were from the Maghreb.  In Tanya’s graduation class, there were only 2 black girls in a class of 350 students.  There were no black boys.

“I WAS THIS LITTLE ZIMBABWEAN GIRL IN THE MIDST OF THESE CLOSED-OFF   COMMUNITIES”

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Another speedbump was integration into the Swiss education system, a system radically different from Zimbabwe’s.  Tanya had to learn French before she could start going to school, and even when she finally got into the classroom, she struggled to keep up, failing maths in her first year at high school.  Her frustration grew with each passing year because of the “structural violence” of Swiss education, which Tanya believes discourages immigrant children from going to high school.  “I had amazing teachers who always pushed me.  A lot of my friends didn’t have the same opportunity.”

“WHEN YOU’RE CONSCIOUS OF THE WORLD AT A YOUNG AGE, IT MAKES YOU AWARE”

Living in a world far removed from the home she knew, and alienated from Zimbabwean culture, there was pressure to shed her identity and adopt a Europe-friendly personality.  However, Tanya never felt inferior because of her heritage or the colour of her skin.  “The whole thing of being Zimbabwean, we have pro-black embedded in our culture. I didn’t come (to Switzerland) with racial insecurity.” She pushed herself through high school, and as soon as she graduated, Tanya swapped Switzerland for Canada, a place where she feels far more at home.  “Every black person in Montreal knows each other.” Tanya’s regained the sense of community that she lost during her time in Switzerland, and now she’s set to finish her degree in Sociology.

 “I DIDN’T COME TO SWITZERLAND WITH RACIAL INSECURITY”

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Tanya shares her experiences through poetry and music under the moniker Pusha T.  She intends to pursue a Masters degree in Community Development, coupled with a tour of the African continent.  She’s already started saving for the trip, with plans to link up with friends in Cameroon, Sierra Leone and South Africa.  “I need to be back in Africa.  I can’t even speak Shona!” She laughs, calling her parents ‘masalad’ because they don’t speak Shona around the house.  French and English are now the go-to languages at Tanya’s home, her native language another casualty of her alienation from Zimbabwe.

“You have to have a plan,” Tanya says, her drive for life and social change jumping through the shaky Internet connection.  It’s the mantra of every young Zimbabwean trying to get ahead, and for Tanya, she’s taking her country and her continent along for the ride.

   Praying
endlessly praying
for those who love me
thanking the heavens for your grace
for creating a space where I can be,
Freely
Unapologetically.
I am praying
for your peace
for your comfort
for your serenity
for your compassion
for your empathy.
Sincerely,
Pusha T

(Kween of Hearts @sucolorfavorito)

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