I came into the Girl Mentorship Programme (GMP) as an excited mentor, who was expecting to see a group of timid, vulnerable young girls. I was not sure in this case, what vulnerable would look like or sound like. Perhaps I was even a tiny bit apprehensive but I was sure there would be spirit; I find there always is in young people.
On my first day at a Girl Mentorship session in 2019, I felt like I had joined a group of old friends, who had no problem adding a new face to their circle. This particular group of girls had been meeting for a while and they all seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. There had been the exchange of library books and one of the mentors had read aloud a short story about an inspiring woman. I think it was Marie Curie that day. It was all pretty relaxed and I was enjoying the atmosphere. The girls were having a ‘free session’, meaning that it was not a front-led session. They could chat about anything and the mentors would only step in here and there.
The first discussion that day had turned to physical punishment as a way of disciplining naughty children. Over snacks and with squares of crocheting in their hands, the girls spoke about their experiences in this area. They were crocheting like pros, it was hard to believe it was a recently learnt skill. Some spoke of their experiences so lightly. I could feel both pity and anger rise in me but I followed the lead of the regular mentors, who at nearly twenty years my junior were already teaching me something about listening and doing it well. I sat quietly with many questions forming in my head, but was bubbling to know whether the girls thought it was right to administer physical punishment, whether this is a method they would use if/when they had children.
Clothing became the follow-on topic. How should girls dress, especially when going to church? There was a general sense that there is a relationship between verbal and sexual abuse and the way a girl dressed. But does that make it okay? I was dying to ask.
As I walked away on that first day, I had a cocktail of emotions going through me. My heart was both broken and full. I had had the chance to throw my questions into the conversation but I had not been prepared for some of the answers. The girls had passion, they had spirit, they had some kind of fearlessness that shone through some of their walls. Also some kind of vulnerability – yes, but a kind that could be worked with. They were clearly at a stage, where they could all stand up for something.
So what was lacking? Education.
Someone to impart the knowledge that surrounds these topics, and others, so that the girls’ discussions and their way of living can be less about accepting all things as they are and more about opening their minds to how things should be . And the work that the GMP does goes a long way towards this. That is what comforted me and filled my heart with hope as I made my journey home that day.
Such heartbreaking views and a poor outlook on life are the very reason why the Girl Mentorship Programme does the work it does. I wondered how many girls in Zimbabwe, on that particular afternoon, had felt safe enough to discuss their issues, without the fear of being judged or punished. How many girls had been given a voice, a chance to ask for help even if they did not realise this is what they were doing? I was glad this group was giving them that, at the very least.
Since that day, I have had the privilege of attending all three of our GMP locations. As the months go by, spending time with the girls is like watching flowers blossom. I now understand that the educating process does not happen overnight and understand more about how much trust, vulnerability, patience and believing in each other, goes into the work the Girl Mentorship Programme does. It is pleasing how topics are addressed head on, how it makes the girls brave enough to own who they are with a hope for tomorrow.
My hope and prayer is that this work is understood, valued and supported. Our donors have been incredible and year in, year out, we continue to need their support. At present, we have the joy of changing the lives of 30 girls a year. Our dream is to increase this even more.
By Mercy Mutandwa
Mercy Mutandwa is the Operations Manager for Makomborero Zimbabwe.