Last week at the launch of the voter registration exercise, chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), Rita Makarau, knelt before President Robert Mugabe.
BY Maggie Mzumara
Generally speaking, in other circumstances, the very act of kneeling is quite commendable. It is a very high degree of respect bestowed upon the one before whom one is bowing. Within the context of our African culture, one, usually a woman, kneeling denotes respect, submission, reverence and possibly allegiance too.
It means I give up my ground, my height and minimise myself to make you bigger. I dare not stand toe to toe, shoulder to shoulder or indeed eyeball to eyeball with you, therefore I make myself the shortest, lowest height possible so you, my lord, can loom higher, tower above me and possibly “reign supreme”.
As African women, we do it often, or are at least expected to do it often enough. We have been socialised to do so particularly before elderly and/or authoritative male figures in our families/communities.
Sometimes we do it before matriarchies of authority in our families as well. Traditionally, this gesture of respectfully minimising one’s self through kneeling has been ascribed to women (though of late we have seen a disturbing trend of even men kneeling before other men, be it for the president or the men of the cloth, vana Papa, but I digress.) I wish to interrogate the act of Makarau’s kneeling vis-a-vis the context.
From a socio-cultural perspective, Makarau — a relatively younger woman to the president, himself a father or grandfatherly figure — could be commended for finding it within herself to subordinate and humble herself in such a manner. Culturally speaking.
However, in the interest of professional independence, objectivity, disinterestedness, impartiality and standing one’s own ground without giving up any power whatsoever or without leaning in any manner of allegiance towards any one side at all, Makarau’s kneeling fills one with a sense of apprehension of things to come and casts some doubt as to whether or not her dispensation of her duty as the nation’s chief election administrator would not be influenced by her regard of the president. Her kneeling betrays her attitude towards the veteran statesman.
That she views him as worthy of giving one’s ground over; one to belittle one’s being before; one to humble yourself before. Within the context of election administration, one wonders whether any of the above sentiments would not seep through into her electoral duties.
Million dollar question being, given her submissive relationship with the president, can she be firm enough with him and his party by extension, enough to preside over the plebiscite without fear or favour? With the requisite independence or she is always going to hold him in reverence? The kneeling betrays a leaning towards the incumbent. And perhaps it’s nothing new. In the past, aspersions have been cast regarding Makarau’s alleged bias towards the ruling party.
But this article’s subject of interest is neither elections nor politics. This article seeks to shine the spotlight on cultural practices that women may or may not do or succumb to in line with our tradition and heritage (chivanhu chedu) and what bearing these practices have on women’s professional and indeed leadership capacities.
The discussion here also wishes to show the dual nature of our existence as a people who were formerly colonised by another and different culture.
I invite debate and introspection around these issues by pausing following questions.
Within a professional and leadership perspective which is hinged on the need for a woman leader to stand her ground; stand tall, hold her own, do actions like curtseying/doffing (kutyora muzura) or kneeling have a place?
Once you curtsey or kneel to a man at work, can you as a woman leader maintain or recover your ground in matters or circumstances needing your firm hand, iron fist or decisive demeanour? If we are to view curtseying and kneeling as giving up some of your power, how able are you to retrieve that power when you need to? Or do you give up or give in for always? For good?
In the professional world, should a woman be kneeling/ kutyora muzura to bosses or even male colleagues that are “culturally” older than her though may be on the same level as her? Who do you tyora muzura for and who not? Where do you draw the line? And when you are drawing this line, what are you basing on, cultural context or business/professional context?
Whether we like it or not, admit it or not, our business or professional etiquette are heavily influenced by the western world and its norms. As an African woman, this criss-crossing between cultures or orientations, is it not taxing? Does it or does it not take away from us? How much mental energies are expended on these shifts in orientation? Or are you always able to know which orientation to base on for a specific event, action or occasion? I imagine at any given point in time, a western female counterpart, does not have to criss-cross anything, she generally has one reality to abide by — does this stand her in better stead?
My take is for professional women, whether in leadership or not, being in the office and remembering and trying to safeguard our cultural beings as well, causes us to conflate our roles —our professional role and our cultural roles. I imagine that for Makarau, in that instance when she knelt before the president, she conflated her professional roles as chairperson of ZEC, judge of the Supreme Court, secretary of the Judicial Services Commission, with her socio-cultural role as a respectful African woman addressing a father/grandfather figure.
In the process, the independence of those three professional roles of hers was lost. Independence became a casualty. Yet, she is expected to, above all, exercise independence in her roles, at this point in time as per our country’s calendar, most especially as chairperson of ZEC.
I daresay, kneeling and curtseying are all very well in a home, family, community set up, but at the office, particularly in an office that demands its own independence, its own power, its own ground, I don’t think so. What do you think?
l Maggie Mzumara is a Media, Communication & Leadership Strategist. She is founder of the Success in Stilettos, a platform dedicated to the development of women leadership. She is also founder and publisher of the Harare South Western News — a community newspaper founded to empower and lend a voice to under-represented communities in high and medium density suburbs in Harare. She can be reached on email: email@example.com Twitter @magsmzumara