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Mission to empower women

Text: Marjan Brouwers; Photo’s: Reyer Boxem

Elizabeth Revai Mudzimu grew up in southern Zimbabwe, where, as an eight year old girl, she decided to become a nun. She never lost her drive: not only did she join a convent, she is also using her research to help other women to make their own choices. Just like she did.

When Elizabeth Revai Mudzimu first arrived in Groningen in 2017 at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies to embark on her PhD, she was shivering, even though it was a balmy day in May. Huddled in a woollen cardigan on top of her white habit in her room at the institute she speaks warmly about the people of Groningen. “My neighbours fix my bike, wave to me when I go to work and make sure if I am okay when I get home.”

Elizabeth Revai Mudzimu

Growing up in Zimbabwe

Mudzimu was born as the third child in a family of ten in Masvingo, the south of Zimbabwe, close to South Africa. She was around eight years old when she decided she wanted to be a nun. “We lived close to the mission and would see the nuns all the time. I was fascinated with the work they did for women and young people. I wanted to be just like them.” She joined the convent when she was seventeen and took her vows in 2010 when she became a nun of the Little Children of our Blessed Lady.”

After finishing high school, she moved to Harare to study Religious Studies at the university. She also graduated as a certified high school teacher and while teaching at a big public school for boys and girls she continued studying for her master’s degree. In the weekends she did pastoral work. As soon as she had her master’s degree, she decided she wanted to do more research. “That meant finding a place to do a PhD. Anywhere! By coincidence through NUFFIC I came to Groningen.” Here she works at the Department of Comparative Study of Religion, supervised by Dr. Joram Tarusarira and Prof Kocku von Stuckrad. “My colleagues are from all over the globe, which is very interesting.”

Sexual and reproductive health and rights

Her PhD research focuses on the strategies that the women in Zimbabwe use to navigate their sexual and reproductive health rights, which are argued to be violated by the teachings of the Catholic church and African cultural practices. “It is my mission to empower these women, so they can make their own choices regarding matters of sexuality and reproduction. Investing in women’s rights reduces poverty and enhances sustainable development. However, in a patriarchal and conservative society like Zimbabwe, culture and religion often impact on women to make their own choices. It is my desire that they become more confident and competent hence it is important to train them to come up with transformative strategies and to make responsible choices.”

During her field work in Zimbabwe she spends a lot of time speaking to women, organising vocal groups and informal and formal conservations. As a nun it is sometimes easier for her to gain their trust. “I know these women from my previous pastoral work, and I speak their language. Sometimes I am there for a spiritual talk and then they open up, offering me scientific points of view that I can use. Now, this also means I have to be aware of the fact that I am a researcher. I must be careful not to manipulate the data in any way.”

Looking at a single story

Two years into her research, Mudzimu had a powerful epiphany. She realised that scholars, including herself, had been looking at these women through the eyes of activists instead of researchers. They saw what they expected to see: women that were oppressed and had no agency. “But then, during my field work, I saw something else. I realised I had been looking, as the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls it, at a single story without doing any critical analysis and without taking into account factors like language and cultural context. When we hear a single story, we tend to forget that there are so many more untold stories.”

In her fieldwork she came across a clear example of how some women avoid doing as they are told by their husbands by using the strategy of false compliance. “Many women in Zimbabwe wish to have a lot of children, because having a large family empowers them. So, when their husbands tell them two children is enough, they go to the Family Planning Service providers to get contraceptive pills. They even show their husbands they are really taking them. But they also make sure the pills don’t work properly. When they are pregnant again, they pretend they don’t know how this is possible. During my training for transformation workshops I am going to address some of these issues, asking women if they think the strategies they use are really sustainable in the long run and allow them to come up with alternative strategies they can use.”

Elizabeth Revai Mudzimu

Sustainable PhD grant

This autumn she was one of ten young researchers to win a Sustainable Society PhD Grant of 2.500 euro. In addition, she won a bonus prize of 1.000 euro for the most convincing pitch. Mudzimu: “That was a wonderful surprise. The extra money will be used to visualise my research. This will help me greatly when I go back to do more fieldwork.” She still has two years to finish her research, write her thesis and defend it. But first she will go back to Zimbabwe for a second round of field work thanks to the grant she won, and the Sustainable Society chaired by Kees van Veen. “For me research is not only about adding knowledge to the scholarly world. I want to have a real impact on people’s lives. So, when I am done with my PhD, I am going to reflect on how to continue helping the less advantaged women of Zimbabwe. Perhaps I can do a postdoc, write a book or look for small grants to set up a platform to help empowering women.”

Research is just as much as a vocation for her as her work as a Catholic nun, she emphasizes. “There is time for church, there is time for prayer and there is time for research, reading and writing. When I go out on my run in the Noorderplantsoen, I pray, and I run at the same time. And when I am done with my rosary beads, I run on, pondering about my research.” She folds her hands: “All these activities are intertwined.”

The importance of Christmas

Shortly after this interview, Mudzimu returned to Zimbabwe for two months to give four workshops and to celebrate Christmas in her convent as well as with her family. “For me Christmas is a very special time, giving me the opportunity to really think about what Christianity means for me.” It also takes her back to her childhood, when everybody got a new dress and her mother baked cakes in the traditional way: “She would prepare the dough, put the cakes in a hole in the ground and top them up with fire. O, they were delicious. The whole family would spend Christmas together, going to church, eating cake and dancing. It was wonderful. Mind you, I am a very good dancer!”

Now Christmas has a different meaning for her: “Christmas means reaching out to other people to express the joy that the birth of Jesus brings. It means singing Christmas carols expressing joy and going an extra mile to share that joy with other people.”

Text: Marjan Brouwers, photos: Reyer Boxem
Source: Broerstraat 5

Last modified:19 March 2020 11.18 a.m.
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