Review of Elizabeth Musodzi and the Birth of African Feminism in Early Colonial Africa - Mukai

Elizabeth Musodzi and the Birth of African Feminism in Early Colonial Africa


Tsuneo Yoshikuni, with a foreword by Fr David Harold-Barry, SJ.
2008: (pp: 170) 210 x 145 mm
ISBN: 97817792207452

Mukai – the Jesuit Journal


It has been said that African women needed to be liberated twice, first, from colonial oppression and, second, from male domination. Prof. Tsuneo Yoshikuni tells the story of one such woman, posthumously published, the result of 'the single-minded dedication of this wise man from the east, who had come many years before to study the social history of early Harare' (vii, Foreword).

Musodzi Ayema was born in Chief Hwata’s country around 1885, Mbuya Nehanda was her aunt (father’s sister). In the war of 1896–97 Hwata’s people were driven to Chinamora and 'Musodzi , a young war victim, received care and assistance from the Dominicans and so came into regular contact with them. She went to the convent school (founded in 1898) as a day-scholar … She embraced the foreign faith and came to be known as Elizabeth. [Her] schooling hardly went beyond the most basic level as was usual in those days. Throughout her life, she lived in a non-literate African culture, though she was able to communicate in English' (3).

She married Frank Ayema, a policeman, from Barotseland (many urban Shona women had foreign husbands) and developed great skills as a market gardener. They had five children and lived near present-day Mabvuku. The children were all sent to Chishawasha for their education. Fr Burbridge, a Jesuit priest, described her agricultural success: 'She produced five bags mealies, five bags monkey nuts, five bags rice, 50 pumpkins, and 35 bags of rapoko' (6).

The family eventually moved to Harare, now Mbare. In 1917 Frank and Elizabeth 'changed their customary marriage into one according to Christian rites and had it registered with the government. … Musodzi was one of the oldest members of this parish [St Peter’s ]. … She soon became a key figure among the Catholic women, involved in charity and social welfare activities' (9). 'She had considerable say … in the management of the home. This stood out in the strong patriarchal tradition of the people among whom they lived' (6).

When the ‘Chita chaMaria Hosi yeDenga’ (the Union of Mary Queen of Heaven) was formed in St Peter’s , 'Musodzi became the first chairperson' (9).

She became a champion of women and defended them against false accusations. It is not the women who caused so many urban divorces. '"It is the men," she said, "who caused so many divorces. They ill-treated their wives and the poor women reported to the N.C. [native commissioner] and a divorce was granted’” (10-11). Mai Musodzi helped women evicted from their married accommodation after the dismissal from work or death of their husbands. 'The door of her cottage was always open to anyone in trouble and she did not fail those who came' (12). Eventually she founded women’s clubs to improve the way of life of women and their families. She campaigned for a maternity clinic for women in the location. The women’s club 'assisted the destitute and the needy. They helped those arrested by the police or evicted from the location and also the children of poor families, the sick and the handicapped' (21).

The recreation hall which stills exists today became known as ‘Mai Musodzi Hall’. Her husband died in 1951, and she followed him in 1952. 'That Musodzi was a big part of the Harare community was demonstrated at her funeral.' 2000 attended. 'The funeral procession composed mainly of women was about a quarter of a mile long. … Amai – the uncrowned Queen of Harare (in the words of the late Father Burbridge) was buried at the Pioneer Cemetery at the foot of the Kopje' (25).

St Peter’s Parish, the women of Mbare and women of Zimbabwe in general must be grateful to the publishers for bringing Mai Musodzi, an inspiration to women even today, back to life. Her work of liberating women, giving them dignity and a better standard of living is not yet finished.


© The author/publisher