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Meet Zimbabwe’s Trailblazing Female Tribal Chiefs

In many parts of rural Zimbabwe, the idea of a woman leading men is strictly taboo. But some women tribal chiefs are breaking free of traditional rules and encouraging others to take decision-making roles and become economically independent.

Written by Sally Nyakanyanga Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
When Nonhlahla Ndube’s father handed her the chieftancy of Insiza village in 2007, many people, including her own uncles, protested, saying a woman should never be allowed to lead men. Sally Nyakanyanga

INSIZA, Zimbabwe Nonhlahla Ndube has been chief of Insiza district, in Zimbabwe’s south, for more than a decade. But her rise to power was far from smooth.

“It was not easy to take up the position because some of my family members were not in support of my elevation,” Ndube says.

The role of chief is usually passed down from father to son, and if the chief has no male heir, the honor traditionally goes to another male member of his family. Ndube is the youngest of five daughters, but because she has no brothers and her older sisters live outside of the country, the family agreed to hand the chieftaincy to her after her father’s death.

But her uncles argued against the appointment, saying a woman could not rule over the village and claiming that, as men, one of them should be given the role.

In the face of her uncles’ protests and the general taboo around having a woman ruler, the clan leaders eventually approved her ascension, and in taking on the role of chief, Ndube has become part of a slow but significant revolution against perceptions of ingrained gender roles in rural Zimbabwe.

The change started in 1997, when the Ndebele tribe in Matabeleland South, Zimbabwe, got its first female chief. At the age of 23, Sinqobile Mabhena broke new ground when her father, who had no sons, chose her to succeed him just before his death in 1993. But it took another four years before the tribal elders finally agreed to install her as chief. Once they did, several other chiefs and leaders boycotted her inauguration ceremony.

Mabhena’s bucking of customary law showed that women were capable of stepping into their father’s roles as chiefs and leaders. It took 10 years before another woman, Ndube, had the chance to follow in her footsteps.

Since then, there has been more opportunity for women to attain the highest positions in their tribes, and when they rise up the ranks, women often use their power to make sure the voices of other women in their communities are heard.

In her time as chief of Insiza, Ndube has made it her mission to show women the benefits of making their own money, instead of relying on the men in their families.

“I usually encourage women to work with their own hands, start income-generating projects and join women’s clubs,” she says. “I want my community to have peace and to help transform the lives of women in my community – particularly their economic standing.

“Women must stand up and be on their feet because we are capable of leading and we can be anything we want.”

 “I strongly encourage women in my community to work as a group on projects like horticulture or poultry to make profits of their own and not be dependent on their husbands.”

Inspiring Others to Lead

The number of women tribal leaders in Zimbabwe is still low – the latest Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Gender Protocol Barometer says in the whole of the country there are six female chiefs and 13 “head women,” or vice chiefs. Women in rural areas are hardest hit by poor access to basic services such as food, health, transport, water and sanitation, but according to the SADC, women constitute less than 30 percent of the decision-makers in Zimbabwe, including those who decide how to improve access to services and how to allocate resources.

One of those women is Gladys Ncube, who has been village head in Plumtree village in Matebeleland South for the past 10 years, ever since her husband left for South Africa to find work. “Having overseen the running of the village for the past decade, I now aspire to become a head woman one day,” she says.

As village head, Ncube has been encouraging the women of the village to participate in community initiatives and development projects that help boost their economic power.

“I strongly encourage women in my community to work as a group on projects like horticulture or poultry to make profits of their own and not be dependent on their husbands,” she says.

Some of the women’s savings groups in Plumtree have been following Ncube’s lead and finding ways to become more independent. One group of 10 women, the Vusanani Cooperative, have pulled together their savings to buy carts to transport goods and people across long distances. Now the women make money by hiring out their carts for a dollar a trip.

This income supplements what they make from their marula fruit processing business. Supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the group grinds marula nuts to make oils that they sell for $26 per liter and butter which earns them $1 per bottle.

For some men in rural Zimbabwe, the idea of women gaining ruling power and economic independence is unacceptable. But others are championing the women in their community as they challenge the notion that only men can be decision-makers.

“In my community, I ensure half of my assessors [jury members] are women, I value their unbiased assessment of issues,” says chief Beperere of Zvimba, southeast of Harare, adding that he has full faith in women leaders and female chiefs.

“We urge communities to put women into positions of leadership and social influence.”

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