It took going through a whole day’s worth of a meeting to realise just how acutely I have missed myself.
The questions posed to me were more along the lines of, “What do you think, Fungai?” as opposed to the refrain that has become a normal part of my life this past year, “What does Her Zimbabwe think/ have to say/ want to do?”
I am attending a meeting this week that hasn’t much to do with new media and where no one knows what Her Zimbabwe really is. And it makes for a necessary change for me since the last year has been all about Fungai and Her Zimbabwe, and not just Fungai.
At first it was a really great feeling when Her Zimbabwe continually featured in my conversations with people. It meant people were taking notice. It meant Her Zimbabwe was having the impact that I had hoped it would have. But I want to be real here, just so that anyone out there who is the founder or instigator of a vision gets a sense of what kind of thoughts may brew in your mind as you find your way around implementing innovation.
The fact that I did not plan for Her Zimbabwe has made my path that much more of an interesting road. As I have said before, the idea of Her Zimbabwe came to me one evening after an intense session of information exchange with other young people using new media in their work. At the back of my mind was my dissertation (which was giving me hell to complete)! which looked at how Zimbabwean women’s organising was taking place within Zimbabwe and communities of Zimbabweans abroad.
The two topics – young people’s use of new media, and Zimbabwean women’s organising – made a logical link within my mind that evening, something I will call a bit of an “aha moment” to borrow from Oprah’s wisdom.
So compelling was the idea to me that I could not, would not let it go. I began to work incessantly, obsessively even, on turning the idea into something more. Four months later, Her Zimbabwe made her entry into the world; screaming and kicking for attention. To this day, I am still not quite sure how I managed to complete a Masters degree, return to Zimbabwe, set up connections and get the show running in those four months. This was dogged determination that I had never before known in my life.
You would think that the launch was the culmination of the joy of it all, the fruits of a long labour. And it many ways, it was. Enough people had believed in it to see it come to life, which was humbling and exciting.
But that was just the beginning.
In fact, I distinctly recall sitting at my desk on March 13, a few hours after the launch of Her Zimbabwe, and watching my inbox swell with new emails by the minute. By the next day, my inbox had over 100 new emails with people excitedly asking for more details about Her Zimbabwe, requesting interviews and yes, even proposing areas for collaboration.
Surges of panic went through my body. What had I just unleashed?! How was I going to deal with all of these expectations?!
Upon realising just how much time and effort went into editing articles, responding to emails, posting onto social media and preparing talks, the content strategy that I had neatly devised on a large piece of blue manila paper in the build up to Her Zimbabwe was soon thrown out the window. Post five articles every week? No, not possible!
Life became a lethal cycle of work around the clock. And as the platform grew, so too did the pressure and expectations.
I stopped taking care of myself. I ate Danish pastries and Chelsea buns for breakfast and lunch every day. I slept when I heard the first birds tweeting in the early morning. I stopped caring about my hair (a wild mangle it became). Writing and blogging stopped coming naturally to me, and one day, I realised that I hadn’t talked to one of my best friends in over a month. My whole personality was consumed by my work. And everywhere I went, talk – all well meant, was about Her Zimbabwe as though everything else I had done in the 28 years before this moment had ceased to be relevant.
In a few short months, I was built up as some sort of expert on women’s organising. I would know the right answer to why the Domestic Violence Act was not working so well, why Maneta on Big Brother Africa was either a saint or villain depending on how you saw things, how to bring women together across the digital divide, and how to fix any number of things plaguing the women’s movement.
This was the part I had not bargained for, or even planned for; the unchartered territory of being regarded as an expert on questions that I was struggling to answer for myself.
And there were moments when I felt like setting up Her Zimbabwe was the biggest mistake of my life. Was I really prepared to knuckle down and do this sort of work day in and out? Was I ready to share the vision with others who would hold me accountable to my words, especially since I had ever-changing ideas about what I was doing? Did I want to set permanent roots to the idea, or did I just want to dwell in ambivalence and uncertainty until I could make sense of it all?
On many occasions, I felt trapped. Surely being a visionary didn’t entail feeling like this. Once, just a few months in, I wrote an SOS email to a friend who also runs a startup. The email subject was “The tank is running empty.” I am sure you can guess what the email proceeded to sound like.
I wondered if things would have been more tolerable had I taken the time to think my life through a bit better before jumping into this work head first. Perhaps if I knew where I was going personally, I wouldn’t feel like everyone was demanding an action from me that I wasn’t quite ready to take
I recall meeting an acquaintance of mine in Cape Town in May, barely two months since the launch. I am sure he meant well, but over dinner that evening, he walked me through a very intricate strategy for Her Zimbabwe’s growth which entailed setting up a clothes line and all manner of activities that only served to make me shrink into my seat.
“I need headspace to clear my thoughts,” I could feel myself wanting to scream out as he rattled out suggestion upon suggestion the whole night through.
‘Setting up shop’ is not something I have taken lightly with Her Zimbabwe as the action has an impact on a lot of things. Was I deciding to stay put in Zimbabwe indefinitely? Being a free and roaming spirit, I felt like this would stifle me. Was I deciding to make money from this activity? Having worked jobs where I felt like I didn’t do enough to change people’s lives, I strangely felt the need to give back to people without demanding money for my work. It was my own way of absolving myself of my past, which earned me the label of a ‘ hopeless hippie’ with one of my friends.
Was I deciding to put a structure to this vision? I had a strong resistance to that for the reasons I have just stated and because I had seen enough people become entrapped by their work by making quick and fast decisions about things without fully understanding the consequences. Last month I met with one of my mentors – a woman who taught me how to blog – who has been running a start-up for almost five years. I was amazed when she told me that she wished she hadn’t rushed into long-term decisions in the first year of her work because some of it had backfired in a way that hindsight could only show.
Wow, I thought. I am not a weirdo after all!
The mid to late 20s are a strange enough period of life. As I was reading in a book recently, at this time of life many people are well-educated but poorly paid (or not paid as much as they think they are worth), they are either recently married or on the cusp – or wondering why they are not on the cusp, they are new parents, or worrying about their biological clocks, they are discovering that friendships which may have worked previously now no longer serve any real purpose, and a whole lot of other things. In short, this period of life is about massive change and upheaval.
Add to it a U-turn in career aspirations and you get even more of a maze of confusion. In a life that is all too often modelled around commitments, I simply wanted none for once.
Yet, no matter how much I procrastinated or cowered into my corner in fear, I grew deeper in love with the work, with the conversations, with the followers who so proudly stood up in support of Her Zimbabwe. I understood the responsibility to serve these people and felt myself grow through the conversations and exchanges taking place. When even the last muscle in my body ached, it was for this reason that I would wake up each day to meet the challenges and joys of this work. The work had to continue regardless of what I felt like.
In the last couple of weeks, I have finally allowed myself to slow down and take stock. There have been good things, bad things, good lessons and bad lessons. I am learning as I go along what works and what doesn’t. I am seeing my own character strengths and weaknesses in a starker light than I ever felt that I would be comfortable to experience.
In less than 2 weeks’ time, Her Zimbabwe will celebrate its first year of life.
And when I look back, I can understand why it happened. I needed it, and so did other people around me. Every person who has interacted with the project has taken away whatever lesson it is that we each had to learn along the continuum of progression.
My mentor took me to an exhibition happening in Washington DC when I visited with her. We both needed it after trading notes on start-up challenges. As we made our way through the hall, there was one exhibit that stood out for the both of us.
It read, “Belief + Doubt = Sanity”. We smiled at each other knowingly. Sanity, for many others like us, seems to be more a version of insanity than anything else. Hard to define and hard to grasp because it fails to follow the order of ‘normal’ life.
I am not ashamed to admit to my doubts, weaknesses and fears anymore. They make me who I am, the imperfect and sometimes reluctant leader. And as I interact, read and learn more about leadership and activism, I learn that I am not alone. Just this past week, I learnt of a condition referred to as ‘imposter phenomenon’ from a book written by feminist activist, Megan Seely, who reveals that though being heavily involved in high-level feminist organising for decades, she was secretly fighting an eating disorder.
As she describes it, imposter phenomenon is “the notion of hiding your true self from others while fearful that people will find out that you are not what you seem, that you’ve had them all fooled.”
I thank women like Seely for such honesty for it allows us fellow mortals to be truthful too. This terrain of work is not easy and one is constantly plagued with questions about whether they are the right person for such an important task.
And while I admit to my faults, I am not ashamed to admit to my strengths. I have the will, the determination and the passion to see a thing through even when it is the hardest thing to do. I have learnt just how much I can push myself, even suppressing my deepest doubts. I have abandoned my comfort zones and exposed myself to vagaries of life for once. For once in my life, I chose braveness.
To you, struggling in the dark, searching for the light, I am here to say this; you are not alone. To you, with your doubts, regrets and frustrations, I am here to tell you this; you can rise above them. Learn from each one, but rise again.
Take care of yourself. Love yourself enough to keep yourself healthy and passionate about all the other facets that make you you. And no matter what the final outcome of your work might be, you succeeded because you dared to try.
Aluta continua. We will get there one day.