AMwA is pleased to share with you a leadership journey of yet another of her passionate and powerful African Women’s Leadership Institute (AWLI) Alumni; Janah Ncube the Pan Africa Director of Oxfam. Transformed by the AWLI; Janah has influenced different leadership spaces and touched the lives of many women in Zimbabwe and across the African continent through her work and determination to change Africa. Her passion for Africa exudes through this exclusive narration of the AWLI experience and her work on women’s rights. I trust you will enjoy reading this very captivating and powerful story that challenges us to fight for the development of Africa, her people and the advancement of her women and girls.
Akina Mama wa Afrika; How best would you describe yourself in relation to your work on women’s rights and empowerment?
Janah Ncube I am a Pan Africanist, I am passionate about Africa, I am one of those people who dares to believe that I can change the world particularly Africa and see the scourge of poverty being wiped away during my lifetime. My work and focus on women rights is for me not an end in itself because I truly believe that if Africa just allowed its women to use their potential, giftings and skills without any inhibitions Africa would completely be transformed. We live in a continent that has inhibited more than half of its population and thus is operating at less than half its capacity - no wonder we experience the negative issues we face today. The ethos of my work is really about changing that. I would really say I am an African, a Christian, a feminist, a wife, a mother, a sister; I am a girl who believes she has some of the answers for Africa.
AMwA Working around women’s rights is not an easy road, its challenging, exhausting and sometimes frustrating. What inspires you to do this kind of work?
JN I think for me its 3 things that really inspire me.
Firstly, I am inspired by the Bible. Everything I read in the Bible tells me that God does not condone the poverty, injustice, the lack of freedoms that we see bestowed by a people upon others. When you read Isaiah 58 v6-12; Jeremiah 22v3 and Psalm 82v304 and many other scriptures, God admonishes us to actually take care of the vulnerable amongst us, fight injustice and defend people’s freedoms. When you contextualize that to our society today you can see this relates to women too. As women, we have not been allowed to exercise our freedoms, we have been treated unjustly and most of the poor and vulnerable in Africa are women. So I feel compelled to do this work and see it as my purpose.
Secondly it’s the NEED to eradicate poverty in Africa. I hate poverty! Poverty is ugly. Poor people will sell their souls for anything. The face of poverty in Africa is female. It is women who bear the pangs of poverty in our societies. So fighting poverty is fighting for the woman.
Lastly, the hindrances I experienced as I was growing up. Right from saying that a girl can’t do this or that; girls have to let others eat first. I remember the one I hated most was when a visitor came in our house and we had already cooked supper, you had to give up your plate of food for the visitor and if it was more than one then they would take from the other girls I HATED IT COMPLETELY.
AMWA AMwA is celebrating 30 years since her formation in 1985 .One of the questions we have been asking alumni is whether they identify with this milestone. Can you in anyway locate yourself within AMwA’s herstory?
JN In a way, I will say, AMwA will always be a part of me and by virtue of that I will always be a part of AMwA as one of the people whom AMwA invested in. One of the fascinating things about the AMwA approach is that of an investment into individual women through the trainings. I think that this is a powerful thing in itself because we come from an African context where we do not invest in women and girls. The type of investment AMwA makes forces you to confront yourself, your past, norms and beliefs, culture, tradition, society, religion etc. I know that I am one of the many women that AMwA has invested in and for AMwA it may have been a few dollars, just one week out of a year however it truly transformed my life in a real way.
AMWA What is your most memorable AWLI experience that you have still found to be relevant to this day in both your life and career path?
JN I was able to take a mirror and look at my vagina for the first time in my life after the AWLI. There was a session on sexuality led by Hon. Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga. She talked to us about our sexuality in a way that I had never heard before. She asked the group who had looked at their vagina before. There weren’t many of us. I resolved to do it, I did and it was empowering. The vagina is such a deep seated place of control. Many endure the horrors of Female Genital Mutilation, many are molested as children. We do not talk about vaginas. In my language we would call it “nunu” which means a monster. What kind of attitude does one have to their body part which is a monster? Not a good one for sure. So yah, this experience was shocking and also liberated me at the same time.
The other thing that changed my life forever is that out of that AWLI I started developing 5 year plans for my life and annual goals. I remember when I came from that training one of the things I said to myself was that I wanted to be a current affairs expert. I figured that if I follow current affairs from now 10 years from today, I would be one of the people who is most knowledgeable about our recent history. I remember at that time DStV was fairly expensive for me but I subscribed to it so that I could get 24 hours international news. I made a decision that I was going to be one of those who knows and understands the world that they live in so that I would be relevant in everything that I am doing. And as a result I am a very well read person and I am on top of my game because I know what is happening; I have been doing this since 2003. I invest up to two hours of following up on current affairs. The point is I have attained many of my goals and some of my dreams since I adopted the discipline of developing annual goals based on my 5 year plans.
AMWA Do you in any way find the AWLI still relevant to young African feminists today?
JN The AWLI is a powerful tool that can catalyze the process of self-discovery regardless of whatever stage of your life and your context. As said earlier, I found the experience forces you to confront yourself and all the things you have always known and believed. Questioning is good as it enables you to find different perspectives and may help you lose those you don’t agree with or be clear on why you believe in what you believe in. Self discovery is important for every woman because our lives have been defined for us by our family, society and if we marry early our spouses. Women need time to work out the “who am I” question. Today’s young woman lives in a world where more things are possible for women that weren’t possible 15 or 20 years ago. So they may feel they don’t need to identify with feminism however the invisible hold of patriarchy still controls a lot of aspects of our lives. So I would highly recommend it.
AMWA How best can African women collectively advance the rights of women on the continent amidst the dwindling financing for gender equality? And what can we do to revive the momentum of the Post Beijing era?
JN This is an issue that I have been working on for a long time. Actually one of the things that I believe in is working in coalition with others. It enables us do a lot more. The bible has a principle that one will kill a 1000 while two can kill 10, 000. Working through coalitions enables you to leverage on the strengths of each other. When I say working in coalition I do not mean just horizontally but also vertically i.e. linking it the different levels local, national, regional and global level. I think for me in everything that I have done I have ensured I work with others. Secondly partnering with the ‘mainstream’ actors is key. It’s not only (and should be only) women’s organization doing women’s rights work. Mainstream actors should do so too. This inspired my shifting from a women’s rights role to what may be seen as a mainstream role. At the moment I am Pan Africa Director at Oxfam. Oxfam is not a women’s organization nor is my role however Oxfam endeavors to put women at the heart of all we do and in my role everything my team does is informed by a gender analysis and aspires to address women’s issues. I really believe when women’s rights are realized we would attain others’ rights as well. Working through coalitions horizontally and vertically and in alliance with other organizations even if they are not women’s rights organizations would certainly advance the rights of women.
AMWA Many African women have engaged with the post2015 discourse since 2013; what is your opinion on the recent final outcome document? Does it fully capture the aspirations of African women and how can we fully engage in its implementation moving forward.
JN I want to first acknowledge the FANTASTIC role that Femnet played in organizing African women across the continent to engage with the process and the development of the African women’s positions and participating in the global negotiation processes from the African women perspective and also even engaging in the AU processes to ensure that the women’s positions were being pushed for. This illustrates my point of working in coalitions. Together we were able to channel our voices through that… so in terms of process I think that was great.
In terms of content, we must first celebrate what we were able to get, sometimes we forget that during negotiations you cannot win everything, you will win some and lose some. For Africa, we had to negotiate at the continental level to inform the Africa Position and also negotiate at the global levels. In the end we managed to get a specific goal that is focused on women‘s rights issues and it certainly is better and broader than the MDGs. I really also celebrate the leadership by African Union as some of our issues have been incorporated into the African Common Position.
Global documents and continental agreements or regional ones SADC, ECOWAS, EAC are powerful and useful but at the end of the day implementation only happens at the national level. So the REAL ownership needs to happen at the country level. I know that people and organizations feel that they need to engage in New York at the UN General Assembly and Addis in the African Union Summit that is important but the most important stakeholder all need to engage with is their government at the national level. Politicians just want to look good so when they go to the AU and UN meetings they adopt frameworks. At the AU level they have adopted 49 protocols and many more declarations but they are hardly implementing these protocols and if we as citizens and/or NGOs are not demanding implementation from our own government then nothing will be realized. So we are the ones who need to hold our governments accountable by asking them how are we implementing the SDGs? How are we mainstreaming the SDGs into our national visions, plans etc? The monitoring will always be done by CSOs because the government is the chief implementer. As CSOs it’s our role to monitor to see if our governments’ are implementing what they say.
In the case of the SDGs CSOs need to work with UN country offices, UNDP, UN Women and monitor the implementation and I am sure CSOs would get the necessary support.
AMWA I believe you are quite self -determined and a hard working person however is there any African woman who inspires you or has inspired you? If so how?
JN Oh my God Irene THEY ARE SO MANY, I would start with Thoko Matshe who used to be the Executive Director of AMwA at one time. I mean that woman to me was a package of passionate power. I truly remember the first time I saw Thoko was on national Television in Zimbabwe when we were doing work around our constitution at that time. We were working on constitutional reforms and she was being interviewed and I could not believe that a woman like her existed who had some much command, power and so much passion. One thing about Thoko is that she is really a hero. It was under her leadership Mugabe experienced his first loss. In the year 2000, Thoko was the chairperson of national constitutional assembly coalition for organizations pushing for a new constitution. Zimbabwe held a referendum on a draft constitution which civil society believed was not representing the views of the population. Thoko was our leader, championing the No campaign and Mugabe championing the Yes campaign. The No campaign won. People do not know this and what we women don’t know is that the first election Mugabe lost was to Thoko Matshe… for me she is inspiring.
I have been inspired by H.E Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma the first female Chairperson of the African Union Commission. It is incredible how I have seen her bring about changes and meander the politics of the states at the AU level. Through her determination and leadership she has inspired Africa to develop Agenda 2063 which gives Africans a common aspiration and targets. We have always been lacking in this. Through her leadership we have a vision that paints what Africa could look like in the next 50 years, food security, roads, electricity, dignity for women etc and that is incredible.
I can speak of Shiela Mataru my aunt, a woman who was in a domestic violence situation and who empowered herself and shifted the power dynamics between herself and her husband until he realized he could not continue to beat her any more.
I can speak of the Winnie Byanyima who is right now the Executive Director of Oxfam International how she has brought such power and passion and focus and change and transformation in Oxfam through her leadership.
There so many women I could go on and on…
Women who fend for their families, selling tomatoes on the roadside it is hard work. That woman is a symbol of someone who is determined to do something for her family. She could be sitting home and being miserable but would rather wait in the heat of the day for customers in the streets breathing dust and fumes from cars as they pass.
So many women inspire me and motivate me.
AMWA What would be your advice to a young feminist leader in Africa and how can they move past the challenges they encounter each day?
JN I would say read about feminism and get ideological grounding. I feel we right now live in a continent of young people who are not ideologically sound. Think about Africans who are continuing to flock to the North despite the fact that hundreds have died trying to run away from Africa. Africa was a continent that was enslaved and colonized and it’s was young Africans who fought for Africa to be freed from slavery and colonialism. What was it about those Africans in the past generations who fought for freedom and did not run. They fought for the freedoms of their peoples and for the good of the land they were born in. It is the same principle if Africa is going to develop it takes me and you working hard to make Africa develop not you running away to go and make a living in America, Europe, Australia and so on I think it’s because they lack ideological understanding and ideological basis in the things they do.
Some of the young women of today never had to experience the hardships women faced in this continent. They think feminists are too radical and yet if you read about this stuff and get to understand where feminists are coming from they would appreciate what they enjoy today. Sure, it’s not the same context but if you look around us, women are still bound up only that different ropes are used now. So I would say read and get your ideologies correct and understand feminism and where its coming from and its different strands then locate it within your own context so that you are truly grounded and you are not just floating but rather that you understand what you are fighting for and why you are fighting for it and understand where you are coming from to help you know where you want to go.
AMWA Finally, which one thing would you like the world to remember about Janah when you’re long gone from this other world?
Oh my God! I do not think I have achieved what I want to achieve but I would really want to be remembered if for anything my passion for Africa and my contributions to get the scourge of poverty wiped away from our continent.
AMWA Do you have any message for AMwA?
JN I would just say that AMwA’s work really does need to continue and all who are involved need to continue to work hard to make it remain. I think sometimes it looks like you have only trained a given number in the room but actually you have touched many others. Through AWLI you are able to build a multiplier effect. In as much as I talk of changing the world and Africa I also know that some of it is really one step at a time, one person at a time and so forth. These are things that ought to be celebrated and AMwA ought to be celebrated and you ought to continue that work.