Warning! What I am about to narrate may be very unsettling.
I was seated together with a group of friends from college watching television when normal programming was disrupted by a very noisy jingle with the following words:
“Driven by the desire to see an equal and inclusive society,, we are pleased to make the following crucial announcement: With immediate effect, Musasa project, an organization
dealing with women who have been abused shall be headed by Mr Robert Martin Gumbura. The Zimbabwe National War Veterans Association shall be headed by
Wicknell Chivayo, a young entrepreneur born way after the war of liberation and the Zimbabwe Council of Churches together with the Catholic Bishops conference
shall be brought together under the able leadership of sheik Mohamed Ismael, a devout Muslim who has demonstrated an unwavering love for Allah by keeping
his precepts in the Koran. Long live our democracy. Normal programming can resume.”
There was thunderous silence in the room followed by complete dismay. I could hear soft sobs from some lady friends who were in the room. This announcement was so petrifying and befuddling. It was just unfathomable how our democracy had been turned into an unacceptable if not unethical experiment. One colleague who was able to speak simply said,
“this announcement is not only an affront to democracy but it is so outrageous in its defiance of logic that no sane person should fold his or her hands and fail to confront such nonsense in any possible way”. The whole room was filled with thoughts of resistance. A knock on my door caused me to wake up and I realized that I was dreaming. In fact, it couldn’t have been a dream but a nightmare. Nevertheless, it has really challenged my worldview.
Far from my disquieting dream, reality is that, Musasa project is headed by a woman, the Zimbabwe National War Veterans Association is headed by, and consists of war veterans and the Zimbabwe council of Churches is led by protestant Christians while the Catholic Bishop Conference is a preserve of Roman Catholic bishops. We consider this normal don’t we? In social sciences, there is what is called an ontological debate which is a debate of realism versus nominalism. Those inclined to realism view the world as being of hard facts thus, for a person of this inclination, it is normal and unquestionable that the war veterans association is led by a war veteran, that women’s organizations are led by women and that Christian organizations should be led by Christians. On the other hand, the norminalists believe that there is no hard reality but everything is simply socially constructed for purpose of utility. Thus, the society has simply accepted that women should head their organizations and Christians and war veterans theirs too but there is nothing of a hard and tangible quality that could make a man fail to lead a woman’s organization.
I am more inclined towards the nominalist viewpoint and to give life to my thinking, let me remind you dear reader that before the attainment of our independence in Zimbabwe, African women were considered as “perpetual minors”. Thus, they were legally unable to make certain decisions without the consent of adult men such as their fathers or husbands. So entrenched in the society was this that it appeared like a self evident truth. However, after attaining independence, the Legal Age of Majority Act was passed and it among other issues freed women from the bondage of that constructed reality. The new order was about dismantling the belief that there was anything constructive about treating a grown up woman as a young child. As in all cases where change is introduced, there was an outcry from some sections of our society about the “erosion of our culture”, and all the other sorts of objections but as we all can witness, the new reality is that women are equal citizens with equal rights and this is entrenched in our constitution. They have created viable organizations for the protection and promotion of their interests and they occupy their democratic space.
In this frame of analysis, I look at disability in Zimbabwe. Before colonial era, societies varied in how they treated persons with disabilities. In some societies, persons with disabilities were kept in hiding while in other extreme cases, they were killed. The common understanding was that persons
with disabilities were subhumans and a weak phenomenon of society which resulted from evil or curses and had to be either eliminated or hidden. Colonial era brought with it laws that banned killing on grounds of disability and this ushered in the work of charitable organizations and missionaries taking the role of “caring for the disabled people”.
One name that comes to mind is that of the great philanthropist, Jairos Jiri, (May he rest in eternal peace), who began the work of mobilizing resources for the construction of centres for the development of skills for persons with disabilities. Some of these centres included the Kadoma Jairos Jiri School for the Blind which shaped my life during early childhood. From numerous stories I have been told about Jairos Jiri, I consider this a propitious summary of his work. Jairos Jiri was really hurt by the suffering and begging of persons with disabilities. He therefore chose to look after them and share the suffering. He said to persons with disabilities,
“stop begging and come so that I take care of you as I beg on your behalf”. Indeed, Jairos Jiri became skilled in his program and perfected his begging skills such that at the time of his death, he could go abroad and be there for more than six months looking for money and resources for persons with disabilities in his centres and schools. In many developed countries, structures called “The friends of Jairos Jiri” which were used to mobilise financial and other resources were established.
That Jairos Jiri built many centres which are still useful and that a lot of activists in disability in Zimbabwe are products of the Jairos Jiri system are facts which no partiality can set aside. Yet there is a dangerous version of reality that was socially constructed in the process. Disability was made synonymous with Jairos Jiri. It was and still is common to hear someone referring to all persons with disabilities as “those from Jairos Jiri”. In some parts of Matabeleland where I worked for five years, a person with a disability was casually referred to as “uJiri”. The connotations of this constructed reality is that we have failed to develop as a nation, an understanding of disability beyond the charity model. Whenever issues of disability are dealt with, we continue looking for a Jairos Jiri. In this model, we fail to believe that persons with disabilities can be masters of their on destiny. Furthermore, we cannot fathom that persons with disabilities can be part of important governance and community development processes. We believe that a certain new Jairos Jiri should represent them. We fail to consider setting aside resources for the development of persons with disabilities leaving the task to a certain new Jairos Jiri who should even in such an adverse economic environment coupled with serious donor fatigue, sharpen his begging skills and enlarge his begging bowl to get resources for persons with disabilities. Oh, what a bad way to say “thank you” to the great philanthropist?
Oh Yes! The new Jairos Jiri has not stopped begging. he carries his begging bowl with unparalleled dexterity. He speaks and writes about persons with disabilities presenting them in the most piteous manner that when you read his writings or hear him speak, you would think that Zimbabwe has the worst and most miserable disabled person on planet earth. He gathers persons with disabilities and gives them a few drinks, requesting them to talk about their plight while he records and photographs them for more donor funding. In these gatherings, the new Jairos Jiri coins rhetoric slogans about persons with disabilities representing themselves and he chants those slogans like a mad man. More like what Achebe would call “an outsider mourning more than the bereaved”. The new Jairos Jiri does not miss an opportunity to be heard encouraging disabled people to represent and speak for themselves. Yet silently he says to himself, “I will speak for you! I will represent you! And indeed, I will eat on your behalf!” Unlike his predecessor, the new Jairos Jiri has nothing to show for the begging he does.
Eventually, persons with disabilities are between the rock and the hard place. On one hand is the government and other important players that have largely left disability in the hands of the new Jairos Jiri and on the other hand is the new Jairos Jiri who has perfected the art of fattening his pockets while misrepresenting disability like never before. Surely, this cannot go unchallenged. There are so many people with disabilities around who have become educated and skilled in various fields. If we admit that Christian organizations must be led by Christians, women organizations by women and war veterans association by war veterans, how can we allow the brutal new Jairos Jiri to continue usurping the disability space in government, private sector and even the civic society? There is nothing normal about this state of affairs. It is actually a discombobulating tragedy and the sooner we construct an improved reality, the better.