Women Rural Innovators: Evelyn Mazonde (16 March 1924 -23 January 2011)

Every so often, when recognition is given to people who have helped shape the narrative or whose innovations have impacted a community, a group of women’s contributions goes unnoticed. I am a product of one of these women, and in this piece, I pay homage to my grandmother and the army of women who like her, continue to make an impact within their communities. It would be a great disservice to overlook how their resourcefulness, creativity and tenacity have helped raise generations of equally resilient women.

Growing up, visiting and supporting my grandmother Evelyn Mazonde’s stalls at the Harare Gardens or at trade fairs where she sold her craftwork was normality. My cousin Natasha Dada would spend days on end with her, watching her sell her crotchets while traditional dancers pranced within the vicinity.

“I remember we would walk from Montagu to the Police Depot with gogo (grandma) and Tina to collect wool for knitting .. Personally, my love for Performing Arts started from the African Village at the Harare Show, I would spend the entire week with gogo watching her sell her crotchets, while being entertained by the traditional dancers (Jerusarema, Mbakumba, Dinhe, Muchongoyo etc…) How I miss gogo,” says Natasha, who went on to enroll for a Theatre Arts degree at the University of Zimbabwe, and a Master of Arts in Drama at Wits University in South Africa years later.

It was only after I probed my mother about my grandmother’s life story that I began to intimately understand her work and how it became her lifeline.

Evelyn with some of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

 

Evelyn with some of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. My grandmother’s first husband contracted malaria and passed away during a brief visit to Malawi, his home country. Thereafter, she married into a polygamous family, at which point she had not finished school due to economic difficulties. Her husband Francis Mazonde decided to enroll her into a vocational training programme at Sandringham High School; a Methodist School located 65 km from Harare where she learnt different skills including knitting. While she pursued her studies, she left her children – 3 at the time including my mother and her two sisters – in the care of her grandmother.

After completing her studies, she moved to Mabvuku in Harare where she began crocheting, knitting, and selling her products. This is how she took care of her family. A full circle moment occurred when my mother started working for the Harare City Council and enquired from her bosses about the possibility of utilizing the Harare Gardens, which was frequented by diplomats and tourists at the time, as a space for small scale traders to sell their wear. After being granted a permit to operate within a section of the Harare Gardens, my grandmother invited her peers to join her and this pioneered a movement for small-scale traders in the city centre. This proved a winning formula; on days when they were not selling from their Harare Gardens base, clientele from the diplomatic community would follow them to their homes to purchase their products.

One of Evelyn’s crotchet pieces on display in her grandchild’s homes today

Their success encouraged my mother to negotiate for my grandmother to have an exhibition stand at the popular Harare Show Grounds and other outlets that afforded her more markets for her products. Sadly, my grandmother passed away in 2011 at the age of 87, and what hurt the most was the fact that when she died, everything she created to support herself and her family died with her. I wanted to understand how we could make it better for traders like her who found themselves in a similar situation, and I channeled my energy and resources towards finding systemic and sustainable ways of helping small-scale traders within their informal trading business model. Lindiwe Pratt, Grandma Evelyn’s great granddaughter ponders on her legacy, “She empowered those around her, sharing her skills and connecting people.. [She] had this innate ability to make everyone who crossed her path feel important. When you were around her you mattered. Even strangers became family, she would find that familial link no matter how far-fetched.”

Evelyn with some of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Evelyn with some of her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

My grandmother is a celebrated hero and behind her is a wealth of women that we do not celebrate in our societies, women that have held families together and have taken their children to universities through the works of their hands, women who are artistic but are never spoken about when it comes to economic growth and contribution towards GDP. We have been socialized to only recognise formal jobs and we forget the informal realm that has raised doctors, artists, engineers and teachers. As far back as 1984, women in the informal sector constituted 64% compared to only 25% in the formal sector because of very limited job opportunities in the formal sector (Government of Zimbabwe, 1991). Once the stories and experiences of these women are told, we can understand how we can help them. I would like to take a bow and celebrate Grandma Evelyn Mazonde and all the women that came before her, after her and stood next to her, but in our celebration, we need to figure out systemic ways of improving their trade.

Evelyn’s debut in the Harare Showground magazine.

Hats off to you Evelyn, your sisters and your mothers. “The African woman of colour has always been a complex multi faceted being. For centuries, her survival has been bold, beautiful, and brilliant. Within her fabric, there has always been this profound ability to be the seed of nations balanced with re-inventing cultures, one generation at a time. Our vision at Chenesai is to remember, recover and reveal that which has sustained the African woman of color through the fashion lens….”