Travelling down a bumpy gravel road in Guruve district I wasn’t sure if I had heard that quite right. “MSG is #1?” Yes, I definitely did hear that. The confirmation coming loud and clear as it was belted out repeatedly at full harmonious volume by a joyous choir of ten mothers and grandmothers dressed in their brightly coloured finest clothes and all packed into the back of a twenty passenger combi van, encouraged by the energetic and inspiring powerhouse that is my new friend Sinikiwe; Kiva Coordinator and head of Women’s Empowerment at Camfed Zimbabwe.
However, this was no ode to the much maligned flavour enhancer. This MSG, as it turns out, stands for Mothers Support Group; a local and district level informal organization encouraged and fostered by Camfed Zimbabwe. And the Mothers definitely love to sing. We had just picked the group up as they waited for a ride at the side of the road and going to the same event as us. All were now happily bumping along this rough, dusty back road in rural Zimbabwe.
Started as a support network by mothers of Camfed clients, the Mothers Support Groups have grown to include other mothers and grandmothers and become a broadly based community organization of volunteers who support, in a multitude of ways, the needs and rights of local school age children. District MSGs run projects such as school lunch programs, operate a chicken coop on school grounds providing a supply of fresh eggs for meals, make donations of school supplies, and sometimes even function as a peer based child protection and advocacy group that can work to change attitudes and behaviours of individuals within their local community who may be neglecting the needs and rights of children.
Examples might include fathers who want to pull girls out of school, or abuse by parents or guardians of vulnerable children ( HIV/AIDS has left many orphans in Zimbabwe who are often sent to live with relatives. Sometimes they are viewed by those relatives as a burden and subject to mistreatment.)
During my field visits I witnessed a district education officer relying on the local MSG for just such an intervention, showing confidence in a more informal community based action as a first step rather than immediately calling in the heavy hand of the state. Made up of women who are community elders, the MSGs have gained the respect of their local citizens and are inspiring others to contribute to the creation of stronger communities. Inspired by the mothers there are now even fathers support groups that have sprung up in some districts.
Today was a special day and celebration for the Mothers Support Group of Guruve district. The occasion of an annual event at which close to 400 packages of school related supplies are handed out to both girls and boys from families that struggle to provide such basics. Notebooks, pencils, sharpeners, chalk, shoes ( so children do not have to walk barefoot to school or into toilets that are often lacking proper plumbing), sanitary pads for girls (lack of which can cause girls to stay home and miss several days of school every month). Guruve district received good rains this year and was not as affected by the severe drought that is causing crop failure and food shortages in much of the rest of Zimbabwe. Incredibly, the Mothers this year also collected two tons of maize to be donated to another MSG in a drought stricken district that will help them continue to provide nutritious school lunches for children.
As our bumpy ride came to an end and we pulled into the grounds of this rural school a couple hundred of the mothers walked our vehicle in, singing and chanting to welcome us. Hundreds of school children, teachers, and local dignitaries including the area Member of Parliament milled about waiting for the event to begin. Prior to handing out the packages to the school children, and between off and on cloud bursts, there were many speeches, acknowledgements of good works, traditional dancing, drumming, singing, and plays presented by students highlighting social and education issues.
I felt truly privileged to be able to participate in this celebration. What affected me most was how this group of women who themselves face so many challenges and live with food and economic insecurity in their own lives can not only find a way to help others in their community who are even less fortunate but do so with such pride and joy in their hearts. At times, listening to them sing, I had to look out the window of the vehicle at the landscape and focus on something else as I was almost overcome with emotion from the intensity of the experience. It remains the memory I most cherish out of my entire fellowship experience.
In a society where decisions have traditionally been dominated by men, the MSGs are another example of the positive knock on effects of Camfed’s transformational work supporting girl’s education and women’s empowerment.
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