Dr. Chipo Dendere: “If we want to transform Africa completely then Africa’s girls must be given the opportunity to learn”

Interviewed and edited by Edinah Masanga

Dr. (2)Chipo Dendere is one of the women putting Zimbabwe on the map; highly educated, strong and vocal. She is part of the huge number of diaspora based intellectuals working hard as an informal think tank on the future of Zimbabwe – writing eloquently about the politics of her motherland. She makes a strong argument for the education of girls and financial empowerment of women.

Dr. Dendere, what role do you think education plays in the empowerment of women?

I remember very clearly the first time a teacher told me that I am smart. Thanks to my parents and family, I had always known that I was smart but when teachers give children that affirmation it changes their world. I had just started at Waddilove primary school, a boarding school in Marondera and as a new student, having a teacher affirm me in that way changed my world. It gave me permission to explore everything. I joined every club; I sang, I was in drama, public speaking, junior government – everything. Waddilove was a wonderful place to learn because our school encouraged us to explore. One of my best friends started a table tennis club – at the time I didn’t think much of it until recently when a student in my class asked if people in Africa played table tennis. In an unlikely space, we were ahead of the curve. I have watched my friends who were given full scholarships to attend university in the United States and elsewhere transform not only their lives but the lives of their entire families. When we educate a girl child we educate a village.

Education is everything.

You said something critical there, ‘education is everything’. What do you mean by that?

Education equalizes us as human beings in a world that is unequal. At Waddilove we had students from all walks of life, the very rich and sometimes the very poor but our background didn’t matter in the classroom. We had the same access to books, teachers, and food. That equal access created opportunities for visually impaired students that I have not seen elsewhere. I didn’t know what a Ph.D. was until a blind Waddilove alum returned to campus for a day to share about his life. No one can take away anyone else’s education.

A young girl can’t unlearn the power of her mind once she has been given the opportunity to learn.

If we want to change the world and end poverty then we must make education free. If we want to transform Africa completely then Africa’s girls must be given the opportunity to learn. We must absolutely invest in more equal access schools like Waddilove.

I wanna know what you think women need to do for each other?

Employ each other. In feminist and empowerment forums we often emphasize the importance of financial freedom. My role, therefore, is to assist women in becoming financially empowered. In both of my businesses we always employ women. I can actually see the trail of the money. The young woman who works in our store in Harare is a single mom. Since she started working for us she has been able to employ a helper to care for her son, she is able to support her grandparents, and she moved into her own space. I mean talk about empowerment. So, we have to create jobs.

Financially empowered mothers are more likely to educate their daughters, and, financially empowered women are also more likely to leave an abusive relationship.

In my professional capacity, I teach my female students to speak up. I used to hand out a copy of Lean in. I must say I have a mental crush on Sheryl Sandburg. Now I just ask the girls to chant I am smart, I am amazing, I am going to do great things until I feel their fear melts. All my wonderful opportunities have been made possible by the amazing women mentors in my life who’ve been willing to teach me and employ me.

Dr. you make powerful points about education. Let me ask now, who is Chipo Dendere? 

I was born and raised in Hatfield, Harare, Zimbabwe. I was educated at Hatfield Junior before transferring to Waddilove Primary and High School in Marondera, Zimbabwe. I left home after high school to begin my college studies at Linfield College in Oregon, USA. At Linfield, I studied Political Science, Psychology and communication. While at Linfield I was very active as a student and I eventually served as student government president. After college, I spent time working in Washington DC before I relocated to Atlanta to begin my doctoral studies in Political Science. My primary research, writing, and teaching are on African politics. I also co-own two businesses; a small boutique in Harare and ZimTuckshop, an online store that sells African snacks in the US. I read a lot- usually aim to read 100 books in a year & I also love love watching TV and movies. I bike and do a lot of yoga to stay centered.

Where do you draw inspiration in your life?

My mother. I talk a lot about the powerhouse that is my mom. In our home, my mom worked. She was a businesswoman who ran a few stores and also traded in South Africa. She is the most creative and hardworking person I know. Like most women her generation in Zimbabwe and around the world, she shouldered the burden of her family and as a generation, they have carried our country as primary caregivers and breadwinners.

I get my entrepreneurial spirit from her. It was important to her that I learn from an early age not to be afraid of poverty

…but to understand my net worth and that everything about me, my physical and mental abilities if utilized wisely would provide financial security for me. I remember an incident when I was about eight years old. I was desperate to go on a girl guides (girl scouts) survival camping trip. My parents encouraged me to come up with an entrepreneurial project to raise the funds I needed. I loved consuming freezits (flavoured ice) and I was well aware that other children my age did too. After weeks of learning about profit margins, I opened my first business. The returns were very good, I was able to pay for my trip and my mom helped me open my first savings account with the local post office, unfortunately, my savings were wiped during inflation.

What role do you think strong women play in a girl’s life?

I am also incredibly lucky that I have always been surrounded by very strong women whose life stories continue to shape the way I think about the world and see opportunities. As I write about Zimbabwe, development and how we can rebuild our country, I am often taken back to the story of my mom’s friend Mai Beauty. Her husband was a local gardener in Hatfield and she sold vegetables at the market. What I always found inspiring about her was the pride with which she carried herself and managed her trade. All of our neighbors bought tomatoes from her not out of pity but because she always had the best produce. Her stall was always immaculate. From her, I learned that it’s not about the kind of work that we do but how we do it. Since my mother worked abroad a lot, I often spent time with her sisters.

From my mothers I learned that there is always room for someone else to succeed and not everything in life is a competition.

Their love for each other and each other’s children empowered me as a child. My family provided us with a sense of safety and mental security which is critical for child development. In the 1990s we lost a lot of loved ones to HIV leaving a lot of my cousins orphaned. In my family, I hope they agree that each child always felt that they belonged and they were loved. As an adult, I consciously try to create space in my life for other people and share opportunities. I strongly believe that when more people are doing well the world is a better place.

Can you tell me about your dad, if you may?

My late step-dad is my academic inspiration. He taught me to read a newspaper before I was 6 years old. My job as a child was to get up early every morning, ride my bicycle – a very pink BMX – to the Hatfield service station and pick up his paper. He expected me to read the top story and give him a summary. I read everything as a child. I was and still am a ferocious reader.

Tell me more about you, books and reading.

At one point, I am pretty certain that the entire Hatfield library children’s section was in my bedroom, a fact I am a little ashamed of. I traveled the world through the eyes of the authors I read. I had a subscription to this popular magazine back then – The Parade. Now that I am older I think it might not have been age appropriate but my parents realized that I had a hunger for words. It is very possible that I read every Readers Digest publication that came out between 1993 and 1995. When I have taught children in rural Zimbabwe, I have always tried to give them books and to encourage them to write their own stories. I never imagined that I would leave Zimbabwe but…

I knew about the outside world from reading

…and I knew about my country from reading Charles Mungoshi, Tsitsi Dangarembwa among other authors. They were my first friends and the friends I often turn back to when I need to feel centered.

Any experiences mentoring other women or girls?

I am very new to mentoring. I didn’t think I was ready so I have been selfishly seeking more mentors to learn from. However, I am finding myself more often in a mentoring role. I think it is the most precious and scariest thing I do. I love that my life story and experiences are empowering other women.

I want every woman to know that their physical and mental abilities are an asset.

I look forward to doing more. I recently took a brave step and signed up to volunteer for an organization that teaches women about finances. I am thrilled to see where that takes me.

Part of curating women’s stories is seeing the diamond and glittery intellectual part of us that gets lost (sometimes) in profit-driven media. Can you brag for us a bit?

You said I could brag. So here we go: I think that people will be hard-pressed to find an academic who understands African politics as intricately as I do. African politics is my DNA. I am lucky that I love what I do. I read a lot and now I am writing a lot too. So the Ph.D. in politics is very well earned. I am excited to be working on a book manuscript that shows the impact of migration and voter exit (violence, apathy) on politics. I did 300 interviews for this work and I cannot wait to get the stories out to a larger audience. I have also started writing about social media and politics- as a Zimbabwean I will never run out of material to analyze and write about. This is why my job is a lot of fun. I was recently offered a job at one of the most prestigious colleges in the United States. I am looking forward to the move.

I am also really proud of the business that we have built in Zimbabwe. I really love that our store it is a fun place for women to come in and feel special and spend their hard earned money (and goats) on themselves.

The business in the US is my baby. I love that we have been able to provide Zimbabweans, and soon more Africans, with a place of comfort. When people buy food from their home country I think it makes their world a little bit brighter. It is hard juggling everything but I really love it all. I am thankful for the gift of time, a really supportive life partner and family and a complex mind.