Part of FairFight’s mission statements is to create durable relationships with the communities with which we work. Our hope is that by engaging through the shared values of martial arts, respecting each other through the honour code of budo, we can build meaningful and supportive relationships that do not replicate colonial patterns of thought and behaviour that are sadly too common in development work. However, over the years, it has become apparent to all those involved that simply avoiding “voluntourism” and “white saviour complex” isn’t enough to create significant relationships with our local teams and with the girls that we are shepherding in their empowerment journey. Now that we know each other a bit better, all parties to the FairFight project feel the need to engage in relationships that go beyond (necessary but not sufficient) financial support – whether for karate or education. In this blog post, we reflect on what those relationships might look like, and introduce our new Ambassador of Change scholarship programme.
Rethinking FairFight’s role in Zimbabwe
When we started FairFight, we did not immediately start an individual mentorship programme, because we didn’t feel confident that we knew enough about the Zimbabwean context to pull off such a scheme. We had initially planned for Gerald to act as a mentor for the older girls who might in turn become mentors for the younger girls, down the line. FairFight would act primarily to provide guidance and support for the local teaching team, and material assistance where needed. However, the idea of Sensei Gerald as a mentor did not work out – mentorship is a one-on-one relationship, and that was time-wise not a feasible proposition, even while economic conditions were reasonably good. Sensei Gerald has dojos all over Mashonaland and several dozen of students to look after. It would have been too much to ask him to mentor 30-odd girls at Nagle House as well. And given the gender dynamics in Zimbabwe, we also realized that young, vulnerable women would not be comfortable opening up to an older male mentor. Even so, we were still wary of the idea that female volunteers from Europe could act as mentors for girls in Zimbabwe – we were unsure of how to build such long-distance relationships against a backdrop of disparities of wealth and issues of racial justice. That reticence was finally overcome when the request for direct volunteer-to-student mentorship came to us from the girls themselves. Regular readers of this blog and supporters of FairFight will have followed Tinashe Munemo’s journey from white belt at Nagle House to Tri-Nations tournament champion and final year university student. One aspect of Tinashe’s story that we didn’t reflect on, until now, is the mentoring relationship that she built up with FairFight’s founder Dr. Ginie Servant-Miklos. That relationship was the inspiration for the new FairFight Ambassador of Change scholarship programme.
Story of a mentorship: Tinashe and Ginie
Tinashe: When FairFight promised to watch me through my studies, I was very scared. I was scared that I would disappoint (because to me I thought they would expect me to be perfect in every way), I was scared because I was dealing with an entirely different race (I thought I would never fit in), I was afraid of letting them down.
Ginie: When Tinashe contacted us in December 2017, I was wary at first. We were not used to having direct contact with the girls outside of the impact visits, and though I knew that we would do everything we could to help her to finance her studies, I hid behind the sponsorship relationship to avoid personal, emotional commitment. Beyond my own beliefs about loyalty and keeping promises, I was still haunted by the people I (unwittingly) disappointed in Togo and Vietnam on previous failed development projects, and was very reluctant to engage on a person-to-person level. I didn’t want to make any promises I could not keep, and did not want to get entangled in a personal connection with so many unknowns.
Tinashe: I felt very angry and sad at the same time. I was angry because I knew I didn’t deserve to feel that way. I was angry because I thought if I had someone other than these murungus to watch me through my studies at least I wouldn’t feel like I’m working under so much pressure. The pressure to produce more than I can. It was very tiring and I was sad most of the time. We were trapped in what is called a donor-recipient relationship. <The term donor-recipient relationship is a concept from development studies that refers to the complications and power relations that come from receiving aid/support from a donor. One common characteristic of this relationship is the uncertainty of the recipient about what the expectations and conditions are for the donations, what kind of strings are attached to the money.>
Ginie: I was deeply aware of the economic imbalance of the relationship and the fraught issues of inter-racial mentoring. But Tinashe wouldn’t let it go, I think she saw me as a mentor before I saw myself as such. Ultimately, she forced me to confront my own misgivings and fears, and to engage beyond my comfort zone. I think the tipping point for us came when she started asking me really simple questions about puberty – things she hadn’t been told at convent school. It made me laugh because I recognize some of these issues from my own catholic upbringing, and then I realized that there’s far more that binds sisters across the world than that separates them.
Tinashe: Ginie started talking to me. Mentoring me, guiding me and caring for me not just like a big sister, but sometimes (and increasingly most of the times) like a mother! At first it was really weird and I was even more scared. I always thought I was too broken to be fixed, too poor to be loved, and too messed up to be given another chance. That made me feel even sadder. But she cared so much and when I was broken and she cared even more.
Every time she visited Zimbabwe she made sure we spent as much time together as possible, working or not working. We would go watch the sunset together. Every day before bed she would come sit on my bed with me and talk stories until I felt sleepy. Every morning she woke me up with a cup of black sugarless coffee (which is also very weird for black girls from Africa) but I knew it was made with love so I enjoyed every sip of it.
Ginie: I tried to educate myself about the experience of being a young African woman as best I could – I read the complete works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Tinashe and I worked on the translation of a feminist Shona novel together, and I asked questions, so many questions. At some point, I came across the book by Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists, in which he argues, data in hand, that the best way to manage a financial relationship in the context of economic injustice is simply to give the poorer person the money, no conditions attached. That relieved a lot of pressure for me, it simplified the financial aspect of our relationship. I simply promised to support Tinashe no matter what, to make sure she could go to school, have food on the table, pay her medical bills, or whatever else she told me she needed. I learned to trust her judgment and that she would not abuse my trust. Unconditional commitment – the very thing I feared, turned out to be liberating for both of us.
Tinashe: Slowly, because of these small things she did, we were able to build a more meaningful and personal relationship than the donor-recipient relationship we had at the beginning. I felt safe, free, loved and cared for. I felt less pressure and more accepted. I also started seeing her and all the other FairFight members as people who actually have feelings and not some bloody murungus who just want to be seen as great charity givers. And finally, I felt free!
Ginie: We were able to build up a strong emotional connection that endures even during my long absences from Zimbabwe. I worry about Tinashe on a daily basis – if I don’t hear from her for a few days, I frantically call up Gerald and other people in Harare or Marondera to see if anyone knows what’s happened to her. And sometimes it’s pretty bad – like the time she was robbed of her phone and laptop by armed thieves in the middle of the night. But I think it means a lot to her to know that I worry, and will be there to help her pick up the pieces no matter what happens. We still talk a lot about race, and we accept that we’ll always be trapped in a dialectic between our personal relationship and the structural (financial and racial) injustice of the situation we’re in. It will always be a work in progress, and ultimately, the goal of a mentorship is for the mentee to outgrow the mentor, which is a challenge for both. But I’m glad we chose to go on that journey.
Ambassador of Change Scholarship Programme
In 2019, Tinashe and Ginie discussed the possibility of creating opportunities for other FairFight girls to build mentoring relationships with European FairFight volunteers. The idea was floated at the FairFight General Assembly in August of that year, and broadly accepted, though no concrete plans were made. Action was once again catalyzed by events in Zimbabwe, when we realized that our team captain Patience Mukarati would quit school before her A-levels if she did not receive financial assistance and support with her learning. The FairFight board then set about putting their ideas on sponsorship and mentorship to paper, learning from the experience with Tinashe and Ginie. We called the programme the Ambassador of Change Scholarship Programme. These are the main features:
To kick-start this programme, Patience Mukarati will receive the first Ambassador of Change Scholarship from FairFight and the Kwok Meil Wah Foundation. Nivedita Sarveswaran, a FairFight veteran with a black belt and a PhD in neurosciences from Cambridge University, will be Patience’s mentor. The two already met when Niv visited Zimbabwe in 2017, and are both excited and a bit nervous to start the journey. Tinashe has provided Patience with advice from her own experiences, and Niv has been in long discussions with Myrthe, the coordinator of the Zimbabwe project and post-colonial student at SOAS, on what to expect from the relationship.
Mentorship, what to expect
Tinashe: In my experience from all this, I would advise all the murungus who would want to become a mentor for a black African girl to:
1.Keep in mind that this is a black girl from Africa and we have many cultural differences. In my perspective it is important to know what exactly you are dealing with because we are different in our own ways.
2.Leave room for mistakes, and talk them through. Be sure to mention what you don’t like and what you like but it’s also important to compromise.
3.Talk about your personal experiences. This helps the girl to open up to you too. This also help her to see that you are also as vulnerable as she is and that you also have feelings.
4.It is important not to be too soft, because the girl might and most likely will see you as a role model. And you do not want to create a fluffy teddy in a country full of hardship.
5.Spend time with the girl. Video calls, phone calls, texting, etc. This creates a bond between the two of you and the girl will feel safer.
6.Communication is crucial! Let them know when you are free and when you are not. Talk about what you expect and what you don’t, especially what seems most obvious or normal to you.
7.Don’t feel sorry for us all the time. This makes us not to want to tell you some things because we are afraid to worry you up to a level that you get fed up and leave (because truth be told there are a hell lot of problems in this country so it’s basically one thing after the other).
Ginie: I find it difficult to give “dos” and “don’ts”, the relationship I have with Tinashe is quite unique and hard to generalize. But I would definitely say that this mentoring experience has been as challenging as it has been rewarding. It will definitely be hard work, and mentors must expect to invest a lot, mentally, emotionally. I had to work hard on my communication skills. I know that the commitment aspect is difficult for a lot of Westerners – we’re all so damned busy all the time, with work, with training, with our social and family lives and with everything else life throws at us. But my hope for this programme is that people who volunteer as mentors will cherish the commitment as much as I learned to, and make time and space for this unusual, but incredible bond. I wish Patience and Niv all the best as they embark on their mentoring journey!
Are you a woman over 25 and interested in becoming a mentor for one of our girls? Please email us at email@example.com with a CV and motivation letter.