First person: Caroline Pugeni
Overcoming traditional stereotypes, a young Zimbabwean woman helps start a grassroots organization empowering women and men.
I was scared when my oldest brother Vurayayi Pugeni asked me to help him carry out his vision to start Score Against Poverty (SCORE), an organization that would inspire and help our home community in Mwenezi District, Zimbabwe. I didn’t know how I, as a woman, would be accepted in this role.
I was 26 and had my university degree, but I grew up in Mwenezi District, and I knew the norms and values and the way girls and women were treated. As a girl child and the youngest in the family, I was powerless. I was not supposed to talk, and I was not considered or valued.
In our culture, it was very unusual for an older brother to ask his younger sister to help in this way. But I think he wanted to transform the community by impossible means so that people could see it can be done. And he wasn’t living here then. (At that point, Vurayayi Pugeni was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, working as MCC’s humanitarian relief and disaster recovery coordinator; he’s now MCC’s area director for Southern and Central Africa and Nigeria and based in Kigali, Rwanda.)
The work was difficult when we began in 2014. It was hard to express the idea and talk to leaders in the community to gain their support for SCORE. When I got to their offices, trying to convince them, they would be shaking their heads, saying, “Really? You want to do this? Are you serious?”
One of the leaders I spoke with in the beginning said recently that he had instructed his junior staff members to sign our memorandum of understanding when I came into the office. He told them, “If she comes here, please make sure you sign the papers and then she goes because she always comes and bothers us. We know nothing is going to happen; nothing is going to be yielded out of that organization or out of that vision.”
But my brother was helpful in getting one traditional leader, who became SCORE’s board chairperson, to agree to support the organization. Then that leader encouraged another, more powerful leader to support the idea.
They, along with MCC, were opening up lots of opportunities for me as we were moving forward. Through MCC, I engaged in different trainings and capacity building, and I’ve been able to connect to other partners of MCC, whom I can rely on whenever I’m doing my work.
A lot of people are surprised when they see what SCORE has accomplished. Besides conservation agriculture, now we are working with youth programs; disaster recovery; emergency food assistance; water, sanitation and hygiene efforts; savings and loan projects; clean energy; and gender programming. Most of the people who are leading, managing, implementing and supporting SCORE are from this community.
People say, “OK, so this was your vision.” They are seeing that the organization is growing. They are now coming in through those programs that we are implementing. There is a lot of change. They’re now appreciating what SCORE is doing. I’m very happy to be within the leadership circles of this organization and inspiring other women in my community. We can also be leaders. We can also develop our communities. We can also empower others.
My role model was my mother. I was 5 years old when my father died. According to our culture, my mother was expected to remarry into her husband’s family. She decided instead to raise us on her own.
Many people humiliated and stigmatized her for that decision. As a woman I now understand how painful it was for my mother.
I felt like an outcast, too, and I did not feel safe. Other children would harass me because they would pick up on their parents’ opinion of our family.
But my mother didn’t give up. She didn’t accept defeat. She kept moving. She worked in the fields. She sold some produce and roasted ground nuts. But sometimes we still didn’t know when we would eat again.
When things got really rough, my mother would wake us kids at 3 in the morning, saying we were going to the mountain to pray. We would climb the mountain to a cave where we would pray for our situation, praying that it would pass. She was teaching us how to pray.
I am trying to inspire my three daughters, too. I don’t want to raise them according to our culture that says a girl child is responsible for this and a boy child is responsible for that. I make sure that they can explore and see what they are able to do.
In our culture and my community, that boy child is respected more than a girl. If a woman keeps giving birth to a girl, the people will say, “Go back to labor because we need a boy child. You still have to give us more children.”
I really want to see these communities appreciating both genders when it comes to children. Because it is not one’s wish or decision to be a female or a girl child or to be a boy child or a male. A child, whether a boy or girl, is a gift from God. Children are just children. Let’s just treat them equally.
Caroline Pugeni serves as project coordinator for Score Against Poverty (SCORE), an MCC partner in Mwenezi District, Zimbabwe.