”The unknown can be very rewarding”

The exact number of Zimbabweans who live and work in South Africa is not known, some say 500,000 others say many times more. Ronika Mutema is one of them. She fled her country in 2005, barefooted and dressed in her night gown she walked to South Africa.

In 2018, she set up her own non-profit organization in Zimbabwe with the main goal to empower women and girls affected by HIV/AIDS.

”I was born in 1958 and grew up in the rural areas in Zimbabwe. I trained as a mid-wife and got married in 1979. My husband and I went to work in the mining industry. He was an accountant and I got a job as a nurse. We have two children, one boy and one girl. At that time, Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of southern Africa.

I later continued my studies and added a management course to my CV. In 1998, I got a job at Care International in Zimbabwe. But then my husband died in a tragic car accident and I became a widow. The economy of the country was very shaky and the ruling party Zanu-PF and president Robert Mugabe was challenged by the opposition party MDC.

In 2005, the country was going through a very bad drought and at Care we administered some of the emergency relief. Zanu-PF officials wanted to play a role in the food distribution, with the aim to gain more support. They demanded our registers, but I refused to give it to them as we were non-partisan. Now they saw me as the enemy and they threatened me. One night I decided I had to leave. It was the time when people disappeared to never be heard of again, so I left my house barefooted in my night gown. I only carried a satchel bag with two dresses, my certificates and my bank card.

I didn’t know where to go but I started to walk south through the night. I knew I would eventually reach the Limpopo river and the border to South Africa. I walked for three days and three nights. On the fourth day I came to a big river and I told myself it must be the Limpopo.

I walked up and down the river banks because I didn’t know where to cross, then I found a place that looked like a path leading into the water and I told myself that this must be a place where people like myself must have crossed before. I didn’t know the depth of the water but I walked slowly and when I was in the middle of the river the water reached almost to my armpits. After I had crossed, I knew I was safe. But there was a big fence so I couldn’t continue south, I had to walk parallel to the fence.

After a kilometre or so, I did reached the end of the fence and I started to walk on a rough road. When I heard a car, I tried to flag it down, and the white woman driving the car stopped. I don’t know why. But I told her my story and I think it touched her because she said I could get in. She drove me to the nearest town, bought me something warm to drink and then something to eat. When I had eaten, she asked if I wanted to come to her farm. I said yes. The family let me stay at their house to heal. They bought me some clothes as well.

The family had a daughter who had just got married and she was pregnant. They now asked me if I wanted to stay with the young couple and become their domestic worker once the baby was born. I agreed to do that.

I moved to Johannesburg with the young couple. Then the husband got a job in Cape Town and was transferred. The young lady helped me to write my first CV because she thought I could do more than just being a domestic worker. I stayed with the young couple in Cape Town and the lady helped me to apply for different jobs. One day she got a response from the Philani [Maternal, Child Health and Nutrition Trust]. They were interested in employing me, but I didn’t get the job as I don’t speak the the local language isiXhosa. And I needed to communicate with the mothers at the centre in their own language.

A few weeks later they called me again. Now they had another job offer for me. I was to run their gift shop at the centre in Khayelitsha. In 2010 I started to work here. Now, president Mugabe in Zimbabwe is gone and I have got my work permit for South Africa so I’m no longer a refugee. In 2013, I wanted to study some more so I started my community development degree. I have finished my degree and I have now started my own NPO [Non-profit organization] in Zimbabwe. It is run by my uncle and a distant cousin who still live there. My two children are here in South Africa. My NPO is called “mwenje” it means light in Shona, my mother tongue. I named it so because I felt there is lack of light in Zimbabwe.

Our main mission is to address HIV/AIDS through education. I want to educate those who live positively despite the odds, I want them to become peer educators so they can do home visits and spread the word. I want to break the silence around the virus. If funds permit, I’d like to have a centre where mothers are welcome to be tested, then we’ll make sure they get to a clinic and are put on antiretroviral. When they are strong enough we can train to give them a skill to generate their own income back in the community. I also want the centre to take care of orphans.

In my life, I have learnt that you can turn every challenge into an opportunity. If all had been well, I would not have ended up here. It was a challenge. But now I have started an NPO that will help others. Many women in Africa are afraid to go into the unknown, but the moment you do that it can be very rewarding.”

Görrel Espelund

Journalist, author and Africa guide. Read more about Görrel here.