Letwin Chakanetsa balances between two cultures while trying to avoid premature marriage
Letwin Chakanetsa was saved from a burning house and received an education. For the last five weeks, she has been touring student unions and schools to talk about what it means to be a girl in Zimbabwe, balancing between the modern and traditional cultures.
”The Shona culture does not affect me that much,” says Letwin Chakanetsa, a 19 year old high school student from Zimbabwe.
You can tell that Chakanetsa is starting to get weighed down. It is no wonder since she has been touring all over Finland for the last five weeks talking about the same themes. For example, what it is like to balance between the traditional Shona culture and the modern culture when you are poor, an orphan and a girl. The University of Tampere is Chakanetsa’s last stop.
Shona culture is defined by traditional gender roles, the clear power position of men and superstition. The reason why Chakanetsa is not restricted by these values is education. However, the path to the present has not been simple. Chakanetsa has faced obstacles that are almost unimaginable.
With a clear, distinct voice the high school student tells about how her father stole her mother’s savings, left the family and later died. Filled with grief, her mother set herself and the house on fire using kerosene. However, something miraculous happened: Chakanetsa, only a baby at the time, survived.
”Someone saved me from the house. I don’t know who, but here I am.”
The story of how Chakanetsa became an orphan is the story of so many others as there are 1.3 million orphans in Zimbabwe. Many lose their parents to AIDS. The guardianship of the young Chakanetsa transferred to her grandmother who was unable to pay for her grandchild’s education.
Chakanetsa got lucky: Her education along with her school uniforms and books are provided by her Finnish godparents. During her tour in Finland, Chakanetsa is accompanied by the very people who have helped her: Oili Wuolle and Seppo Ainamo from Zimbabwen Aids-orvot ry.
The relationship between Chakanetsa and the couple who help Zimbabwean orphans appear very warm. Ainamo and Wuolle constantly challenge Chakanetsa to think for herself: Why do you think I took this photo? Do you know why Tampere is called Manse?
Chakanetsa, who gets top grades, is at an age when, in Finland, she would graduate from upper secondary school and maybe continue to higher education. Chakanetsa’s study path in Zimbabwe resembles that of her Finnish counterparts surprisingly much.
”Yes, Zimbabwe has universities and yes, I’m planning to continue studying after I graduate high school. I will become an accountant,” she replies, perhaps slightly amused, when I ask about her future opportunities.
There is one obstacle threatening all orphan girls: the possibility of a future marriage prompted by family members hungry for a bride price.
Wuolle notes that out of the 400 orphans they assist, they lose one per year due to an early marriage. She uses the word ‘lose’ because marriage puts a stop to other aspects of the girl’s life, and makes her a part of her husband’s family. The girl’s education gets left behind when she is married, since running the household and taking care of children is a full-time job. Marriage does however make the girl esteemed, and family and motherhood are regarded self-evident.
In many cases the family of the girl about to be married has financial interests. Marriage is more like a transaction. Chakanetsa ponders that her current guardian, a male family member, might receive $4,000, 10 cows, clothes, food and beer as a bride price for her.
”Luckily he seems like a reasonably modern man,” Wuolle, sitting next to Chakanetsa, comments.
It seems likely that Chakanetsa will be able to continue her studies in peace. She has also learned negotiation skills in school that she can use to defend herself if, at some point, marriage does becomes a topic of conversation.
”And if someday I do get married, I will have to get a housekeeper. Then I will have time to also work. Traditionally men do not take part in housework.”
Chakanetsa will soon fly home to Zimbabwe. Before that the small yet respectfully silent audience at the University of Tampere will have a chance to ask her some questions. The audience wants to know what kind of change Chakanetsa would like to witness in Zimbabwe during her lifetime.
Chakanetsa would like to be treated with respect and not be discriminated against for being a woman.