Laughter is Good Medicine

Prayers Mushava

At age sixteen, Prayers Mushava ran away from home. She had learned that her father was planning to sell her to the richest man in her village in exchange for food to feed the rest of her family. “I had no option but to act, so I stole money from my grandmother’s purse and ran away to the city. I knew it was bad to steal but today I tell myself that escaping that oppressive situation even by dishonest means was my first feminist act.”

Born into a family of four, Prayers was raised primarily by her grandmother in the rural areas of Zimbabwe. As a child, she witnessed her mother being abused. When one of her siblings was struck with the measles and died, her mother was forced to leave the marriage with “her” children and find somewhere else to live. “In some Shona traditions,” Prayers explains, “if a child dies of measles it means that the mother must have committed adultery or was a witch.”

The spark

“I intended to never get married because I saw it all, right under my eyes, as my mother suffered moving from one marriage to the next,” Prayers begins. “It never worked. Until she decided to leave the village and find work as a domestic worker, my mother never really made progress in her life.”

For Prayers, the realities of most women’s lives are not of their own making but rather the result of the way power works. The world that treats women and men unequally, while harmful cultural practices and traditions stigmatize and alienate women. Add to that the struggle for survival in difficult economic circumstances, and as Prayers says, “it is not very easy to be a woman.” It is this lack of choice that sparked her activist spirit.

Like her mother before her, Prayers left village life for the city. But the city was no haven. It had its own set of dynamics and she often found herself caught between a rock and a hard place, forced by circumstances to make difficult choices.

“In the city I learnt different tactics for survival. I made what I thought were the best decisions at the time, and looked for quick solutions to my situation. I learned to date men for monetary benefits, and I even forced myself to stay in an abusive marriage where I got beaten for different reasons every day, including failing to find money to buy meat.”

The circle

In 2005 came one of Zimbabwe’s most painful and violent moments in recent times. Operation Murambatsvina would destabilise Prayers’ but also give her a fresh start. In Shona, “murambatsvina” means “get rid of trash”. A brutal campaign of forced evictions, it left hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwe’s working class city-dwellers homeless. Widely seen by analysts as punishment for the overwhelming support in urban areas across the country for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Murambatsvina classified thousands of homes, informal settlements and market places as “illegal structures” and they were demolished by soldiers and police on the orders of the Zanu-PF-led government. During this time, inflation in Zimbabwe rocketed to unheard-of levels and Prayers was desperate to find a way to sustain herself and her family. She found one in the market place.

As Prayers tells it, the market place in Epworth, on the outskirts of the capital, Harare, opened up new possibilities for her. Here, amidst stalls selling vegetables, fruit and second-hand clothes, she met other women traders and joined a market women’s activist group. They met twice a month to share stories and encourage each other in the midst of difficult times.

The group became an incubator for Prayers’ growing awareness. “I started questioning why I stayed in that abusive marriage,” she says. “I learnt to take charge of my life, and to report my abuser to the police each time he beat me up.” The circle of market activists, led by Dudziro Nhengu, a market woman and feminist writer, was where Prayers took charge of her rights as a woman.

“Redeeming shame”

In October 2013, Prayers attended the first national Feminist Movement Builders’ School in Harare, led by JASS and Katswe Sistahood. It was here that Prayers found language to name ‘patriarchy’ as a system that shapes the world in which she and other women live negatively and the need for women to come together in order to fight against this kind of oppression in its many forms. On the last day of the workshop, Prayers used her power within and support from the market women’s group to escape her violently abusive marriage in the face of stigma that many divorced women experience. “My relatives tried to persuade me to go back to my husband,” she describes with a wry smile, “accusing me of shaming the family name. But I choose redeeming ‘shame’ rather than oppressive ‘dignity’.”

What was the most empowering thing about her experience at JASS’ school? According to Prayers, it was the realization that she herself wields power within to transform her life and that of other women for the better. Dudziro and twenty other market women continue to meet as a support group and the circle strengthens Prayers’ activism as well as her business.

Today, sitting in her living room and sorting through T shirts and skirts to sell at the market, Prayers does not hesitate to crack a joke in her typically dry manner. Laughter is good medicine. The world might not see any reason for joy in her life but Prayers’ will to survive and even thrive is powerful to behold.

Credit: This interview was conducted by Dudziro Nhengu, story written by Dudziro Nhengu & Maggie Mapondera