I grew up in Marange, Zimbabwe, not far away from the Marange diamonds area. As a young girl, I witnessed my mother suffering an abusive relationship as well as HIV and AIDS. By the time I was seven, my mother had succumbed to AIDS and my childhood became an overwhelming load of grown-up chores. At that early age, I became the head of my nuclear family: I took care of my grandmother who was nearly 100 years old and my brother who was two years younger than me. I had to work and earn our keep. Work involved fetching firewood and water, tending to children and tilling the land for people in my community in exchange for a bowl of maize meal, salt, sugar or soap. On lucky days, I would get a chance to work for a piece or two of second-hand clothing. Some days I spent more time looking for work than actually doing the work and, as a result, we often went hungry.
Because I couldn’t bear to watch my granny and brother going to bed without food, I decided to stop going to school at the age of nine so that I could focus on finding work to provide for my family and to be there for my grandmother who could barely walk around the house without help. Dropping out of school was a difficult choice. For days on end I cried and I hid away from my schoolmates whenever I saw them passing. My teachers were devastated but there was no other option. I was a good learner and I always used all the opportunities I had to learn something, even though I barely had any time or books to read. I always hoped that one day I would get a chance to go back to school. But at that time, I had to learn from life itself, and to make everything that was happening around me serve as my educational platform.
A childhood promise My desire to help other orphans came from my personal experiences growing up without parents. I had people who were supposed to be family to me, but instead of them protecting me they were actually the ones perpetrating the violence and abuse I experienced as a child. When I was eight years old, I promised myself that I would help other orphans so they wouldn’t have to experience what I was going through. I still believe that my experiences gave me the right understanding of the problems facing orphans and the best approaches to solving the problems and empowering them to avoid or recover from experiences of violence and abuse, and to take charge of their lives again. I was 11 years old, out of school and I had just escaped an arranged marriage to a 40-year-old.
There was an initiative in Zimbabwe by the ZERI foundation to train African scientists to farm mushrooms. After training the scientists, some funds were left and a decision was taken to train young orphans at Africa University in Mutare under the guidance of Mrs Tagwira. Being a United Methodist Church university, Africa University sent invitations to communities through the church. In my community was a group of churchwomen who kept records of all orphans – they would often distribute donations when they were available. A certain lady by the name of Loveness Zengeni thought of me when she learned about the opportunity, and I was able to join the training along with 14 other young orphans. We were given bags of waste mixed with spores and learned how to manage a mushroom house. In less than a week, mushrooms were growing. Following a week of training at the university, we went back to our communities and started growing and selling mushrooms.
For the first time, I didn’t just have food, I had good food, and a bit of money in my hands. Just by converting waste into mushrooms. It marked an important turn in my life and my relationship with food changed as I began to understand its power in reducing the violence and abuse I experienced from my uncles and other members of my society. From the mushroom sales, we were able to help send other orphans to school and then I realised this could be a means for me to help others avoid suffering like I did.
By the age of 12, I was fortunate to be taken back to the university to learn more about mushrooms and I set out to simplify the art of cultivating mushrooms so I could reach more people with it. As a result, I learned to grow mushrooms on anything and everything I could get my hands on, which led to mushroom production on coffee grounds, a method that has now inspired many entrepreneurs around the world.
Cycle of empowerment
When I was 28, I decided to launch The Future of Hope in order to create a platform for vulnerable members of society – especially young orphans, women and girls – to be active in their own empowerment to break from cycles of self-pity, victimisation, poverty and abuse and take charge of driving sustainable change in their communities. At The Future of Hope Centre in Zimbabwe, we are currently building a mushroom-based Integrated Food Production System that we are taking into communities. I now understand the power of a sustainable food system in giving people hope, a future and true liberation. My goal is to be able to establish a customised training centre here in Zimbabwe where I can train 20 communities and establish a model that can be replicated all over Africa and beyond; a model that will inspire not only the vulnerable, but any person who cares about sustainable development. Under The Future of Hope, I currently work directly with around 13 communities comprising about 50 women and 150 young girl orphans. We are organising a training session for 20 girls and 10 women to become trainers and together with them, I will train 20 communities and install 20 community projects between August 2016 and June 2017, directly impacting about 500 people in communities around Zimbabwe. The most rewarding part of my work is to be able to share my hopes and dreams and to learn from the people I meet along the way.
I see the next three years really focused on my work here in Zimbabwe, growing my foundation and stabilising the different community projects. I also happen to be a foster mother for seven teenage girls, so I do see myself spending the next couple of years focusing on guiding them to become strong, independent young women who can provide for themselves and, hopefully, also change the lives of others.