Virginia Mupanduki is building up a broad national organization consisting exclusively of previously illiterate women and using the power of that organization to eradicate illiteracy, teach skills development, and create a political voice for them.
Virginia Mupanduki has used her previous union experience to read the political climate of Zimbabwe, where, through her powerful organizing elements, she is giving a political voice to women without money or literacy. By combining literacy training and women's empowerment, she encourages their emergence as a new political and economic base, and she is persuading the government that the women represent a constituency that has been ignored and needs to be recognized. Virginia's "bottom-up" approach empowers women to do for themselves, thereby destroying poverty via literacy, even when government has tried and failed. Her project is thus likely to have a higher rate of success than that of adult literacy programs sponsored by the government. Her work is sustainable not only because once obtained, literacy is permanent, but also because it is rooted in the targeted communities. Usually in such cases, learned people are asked to do things for people at the grassroots level, but in this case, someone from the grassroots is using her experience to teach others how to take charge of their lives.
The level of illiteracy in Zimbabwe is particularly high among adult women, in spite of a national campaign by the government launched in 1983 amidst great fanfare. This "top down" campaign fizzled out for a number of reasons, among them a lack of resources as defense expenditures took an increasingly larger share of the national budget.
Women in Zimbabwe are a relatively voiceless community. The added dimension of illiteracy further entrenches their lack of self-respect and dignity, which have already been eroded by negative sociocultural practices. Although women comprise the majority of farmers in a country highly dependent upon agriculture, they do not easily join unions and farmer organizations. The women who do decide to participate in such organizations are often manipulated because they cannot read or write.
Many literacy programs are developed only to address the issue of reading, without understanding the contextual impact that literacy can bring to the lives of women and other adult learners. Literacy enables these women to become empowered and reduce their dependency on others to do various tasks, even mundane ones like getting correct change after a purchase. Literacy is critical to national development by encouraging the development of useful, creative, and responsible citizens. Those women who can read and write will encourage their children to be literate. The children of literate women will know how to read the map of their minds and the country in which they live.
To combat adult illiteracy, Virginia began to form literacy groups of approximately twenty people each at the local level. Through an organization she founded, the Zimbabwe Adult Learners Association (ZALA), women pay a $2Z (US $.11) entry fee (which Virginia uses to organize more groups) and receive basic courses in literacy. Grades one to three are taught the first year, four and five the second year, and six and seven the third. Teachers are recruited from the government's section on Adult Education to train group members. It is here that a key innovative element of Virginia's strategy is seen–balanced interaction with the government. She has persuaded the hard-pressed government to restructure the national education budget and put resources into it. As part of this allocation of resources, the government pays the salaries of the teachers recruited for the Association. Virginia also recognizes the importance of being independent from the government to maintain credibility with the grassroots, because the government is perceived to be corrupt. In fact, the national government asked her to work for the Ministry of Education to implement this idea, but she declined, feeling that becoming involved in the bureaucracy would hinder her ability to deliver.
Virginia formed her first learners' groups in 1994, drawing from an underserved constituency–women members of the Zimbabwean Farmers Union. The Association now has approximately 20,000 members in 1,000 learners' groups spread across six provinces. The groups hold elections every three years where they elect members to a District Committee, and a Provincial Committee as well as vote for the Association's National Executive Council. At the Association's headquarters there are thirteen staff, all drawn from Association trainees. The Association's model is based on union organization.
Virginia's near term goals in Zimbabwe are three: first, to take the Association into Zimbabwe's three remaining provinces; second, to push much more deeply into the rural areas (the majority of the Association's learners groups are presently located in towns); and third, to make the Association independent of donor and government assistance by raising capital through Association businesses, including a T-shirt company and a number of enterprises to be formed and run by the organization's members. Virginia has been approached by outside donor agencies about training people in Kenya and Uganda in her approach. Virginia's own diagnosis is that the best and most logical fit for her work will be in Mozambique, which shares a common border with Zimbabwe and is closer to it culturally. She feels that spread should begin in an environment that is as close as possible from a cultural point of view to maximize the potential for the approach's cross-border success. From what she learns helping others launch this type of effort in a country like Mozambique, she believes it will be possible to expand further.
The eldest of six children and the mother of eight, Virginia is a peasant farmer. The product of mission school education, she learned and practices the value ethic. As a young woman she went to Harare to investigate problems that farmers in her area were having in getting supplies. She set up a depot in Harare that she ran; she purchased the fertilizer and other items her farmers needed and provided a central service for farmers from her area. The farmers were quite happy with this as they had previously been cheated and robbed as they moved around town purchasing supplies. This depot remains a successful operation, even though Virginia herself is no longer running it.
She joined the Farmers Union in 1981, the first woman to join the organization. But apart from bringing women into the union, she made little headway with gaining its support for issues like literacy, which were viewed as somehow "women's issues." This experience taught Virginia that if illiterate and semiliterate women were to mobilize, they would have to have their own organization that they controlled, completely independent of the Union or anyone else, including the government.
By 1984 she was the Provincial Chair of the union and negotiated with Swedish foreign aid for a program to train women farmers in management and leadership. Her experience with the union led her to focus beyond farming, on the broader issue of illiteracy, which she investigated in the early 1990s. By 1994 she was ready to launch the Zimbabwe Adult Learners Association.
Virginia is a woman of enormous determination who does not allow herself to become frustrated when other people try to dismiss her ideas. Though she is not trying to prove herself to anyone, people know that she has struggled to learn to read and write. As Virginia herself explains, "I don't like bullies. I don't like people making my life miserable." She uses her experience to inform and care for others so that they will not have to endure the same struggles as she did. There is no bitterness in her struggle.