This is the conversation that feminism needs to have with Ubuntu
by Biénne Huisman
In 2011, Dr Precious Simba left her job in senior retail management to pursue her passion for inspiring young women from underprivileged backgrounds. She went on to establish the Girls Development Initiative in Bulawayo, an organisation aimed at empowering girls through education opportunities and life skills – changing the world “one girl at a time”.
At this juncture, her academic interests pivoted, too. Simba had completed a BCom in Marketing at Zimbabwe’s National University of Science and Technology in 2007.
But propelled by her new purpose, she enrolled at the University of Sussex as a Mandela Scholar, completing an MA in Gender and Development in 2014. Today a lecturer at Stellenbosch University, Simba completed a PhD in Education Policy Studies earlier this year.
Speaking over Zoom, she explains that educational policy changes in Zimbabwe sparked her doctoral thesis – entitled A feminist critique of Ubuntu: Implications for citizenship education in Zimbabwe – which effectively brings three scholarly fields into conversation with each other: Ubuntu, feminism and citizenship education.
During the interview, she relays memories of her own formative years in rural Zimbabwe: “At our primary school on Fridays, the teacher would tell the girls to bring brooms and mops to school so we could tidy the classrooms – while the boys were free to play outside.”
She explains how her pivot into feminism came about: “If you are young and black in Zimbabwe, you feel the pressure of the economy of the land in a different way. If you are young and black in Zimbabwe, and female… You know, there is a lot going on there. If you’re a girl, you had to be exceptionally gifted in school for anybody to take notice of you and invest in you. And it’s not because people are mean, or that they hate women, or are misogynists. It’s the economics of the land. They’re just trying to make the most of resources in a family.
“I think a lot of people take these issues, especially this unequal investment in young girls and boys’ education, as a form of misogyny. I think for people who come from poor backgrounds, it’s not misogyny. It’s putting resources in the place where you feel it will serve your family the best. And young boys often have a better chance at succeeding and getting work opportunities, especially at a younger age, than young girls do. Because young girls in those backgrounds often get married. And when you get married, you often attend to the family you are getting married into.
“So yes, this is where my journey into girls education started. I got to a point where I said: ‘You know what? I don’t want this career of counting inventory, starting new stores, and all of that. It’s exciting, but this is not who I am…”
In 2015, in a bid toward decolonising their British education legacy, the Zimbabwean government rolled out a new curriculum driven at its core by Ubuntu as a philosophy of education. This inspired Simba’s PhD research.
She says: “So I thought: ‘What is the conversation that feminism needs to have with Ubuntu?’ Especially in the context of education. A conversation needs to be had here, because if you’re going to have something that will so radically change education, and education has such a profound impact on issues of gender, surely, we should be asking certain questions here, right?”
She continues: “Because education is this reproductive site. It’s this site where ideas of what is maleness or femaleness, what is masculine, what is female; it’s where the binary that we have a problem with within feminism, is cemented. So, if you have a philosophy that’s going to overhaul education, then feminism must ask: ‘Is this going to benefit us?’”
The first part of Simba’s study was obtaining and painting a deep understanding of Ubuntu; the second, applying this to the new education curriculum. To this end, feedback from Professor Caiphas Nziramasanga, head of the Nziramasanga Commission of Inquiry, which was tasked with overhauling Zimbabwe’s education system, helped shape her thinking.
Simba’s core finding was that the new curriculum employed a “thin” or unnuanced interpretation of Ubuntu, which, in fact, further exacerbates binary thinking.
“This oversight re-enforces an already sexist, homo/trans/xenophobic, and male-centred society,” she writes in her doctoral thesis. “Ubuntu viewed in this way has limited transformative potential within educational practices to challenge a male-centred society, sexist tendencies, violent, exclusionary, or prejudicial actions.”
She explains: “If you go into how Zimbabwe has used Ubuntu in its curriculum. In theory, it’s amazing that they have a philosophy of education that is African. I think it’s one of the first countries on the continent to do that. But in practice, because they used this unnuanced understanding of Ubuntu, the richness is gone.
“I mean, Ubuntu is being translated into a list of actions that students and teachers need to observe. Like these little boxes they need to tick: ‘Students have to be respectful. Students have to be humble. Students have to respect their elders. Teachers need to dress properly. Dressing properly means this for male teachers and means this for female teachers.’ I’d almost call this cheap Ubuntu,” she says.
Simba adds that a rich or nuanced interpretation of Ubuntu is about a “framework of encounter, drawing from language and lived realities, a way of navigating complex human interaction.” As such, it is about the reasoning behind any of these observable actions or codified morals – thus motivating ethical human actions. “Ubuntu, as a philosophy of interrelatedness, offers fertile ground for feminist solidarity,” she says.
She concludes her research: “The contributions of the study shift scholarship in two ways: first by moving the focus from the performative aspect of Ubuntu to that which is below the surface…
“Second, the study uses language and stories as excavation sites and archives to inform the critical reading of the concepts, especially Ubuntu. This stands as an invitation to Ubuntu scholars to consider ‘South’-facing citation practices and engaging with lived artefacts of aBantu in our reading of Ubuntu.”
Simba is a 2019 student graduate fellow of the Ubuntu Dialogues Project, jointly hosted by Stellenbosch University Museum and Michigan State University’s African Studies Centre.
Read her thesis here: A feminist critique of ubuntu: Implications for citizenship education in Zimbabwe