In the UK, there are only a few things you can do that are deemed ‘culturally unacceptable’, such as staring at a stranger, to push into a queue and to have more than one wife. 

Here in Zimbabwe, especially in Binga where we have been working, cultural beliefs and practices, namely Tonga culture affect so many more aspects of life. Often they are very different from our own customs and I have found them fascinating during our placement.

For example, you will see men walking holding hands (it’s explained as an extended handshake), children will wave excitedly at you and often shout English phrases for your approval and response, girls and women curtsy when shaking hands and both men and women traditionally clap 3 times when greeting someone.

However, because of these differences, we identified a problem:

Our programme involves delivering various workshops often on the topic of sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, child abuse and child rights and the inclusion of girls.

Being part of a group of 5 people from the UK with experience of a very different way of life, it was obvious that we needed a crash course in BaTonga culture.

For this, we arranged a cultural exchange in a rural village far from Binga Town that has no tarred access road. The village is called Tinde.

rural homestay

We swapped our lodge for a rural homestead (comprised of several round mud huts - pictured above), our toilet for long drops (or ‘Blair toilets’), a stove for fire wood. Our jobs centred around providing for ourselves, homemaking and goat herding.

Gender roles 

Within 10 minutes of arriving, the women began their daily tasks: a chicken was slaughtered, food was prepared, plates and cups set out and dinner devoured. 

Once every morsel of the bird was eaten, the girls started cleaning, washing plates and cups, sweeping the kitchen area and ensuring the men were content.

We went to bed that night feeling we deserved every second of sleep.

Fetching water from bore holes (pictured below) was also a task for the women and girls, luckily for us this was only about 1km away. Many women travel up to 13 kms and more for water to drink, clean and bath with. This is a task completed in the early hours before school and usually the walk would be done barefoot. We successfully carried the full buckets back to the homestead on our heads. This water was also used for the goats to drink so it went quickly, requiring a second run not long afterwards.

Already, we had a greater understanding and empathy for the role of the women in the community.

Volunteer pumping water

Community love

The next day we made the 25 minute walk to church with Mr and Mrs Siasweka, the head of the homestead we were staying in. They were immensely welcoming, something we’ve experienced without fail in the Binga district. We all joined in a circle at the end of the service to greet each member of the church, and for a moment we truly felt a part of their community.

Because of this experience, we will continue to push hard for equal rights and opportunities for girls and women. We know better where we need to push and where we may feel resistance. The difference in expectations of the girls and boys couldn’t be more evident and all of the additional work the girls have to carry out affects study time, making Zimbabwe one of the few places in the world where girls mark lower than boys in high school exams. It has been an eye opening experience and acutely necessary. I only wish we had more time here to continue learning and teaching together. 


Blog written by Progressio ICS volunteer Rachel Fearon in Zimbabwe