Zimbabwe: Tribute to my mother, teacher and activist in Women’s Month

Zimbabwe: Tribute to my mother, teacher and activist in Women’s Month

Date: August 28, 2012
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Harare, 28 August: It is no coincidence that my mother, Joy Lowe, lost her fight to cancer in August – Women’s Month – a few months after South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994. Few things could have made her happier than to witness the birth of democracy in Zimbabwe in 1980, and in South Africa in 1994, before succumbing to a higher calling. She stands out in my life, and that of so many others, as the most phenomenal woman I know.

Born in Pietermaritzburg to working class parents, Joy Lowe’s mothering instincts began when her mother Alice died when she was 10, and her younger sister Astrid, six. Her father remarried a widow with two daughters, and they had another two daughters. Of the six daughters, only Joy made it to university, becoming the first woman at the University of Natal to study Mathematics.

Joy combined a sharp mind with deep human compassion. Fighting the deeply engrained racism of her childhood, Joy made friends with everyone (as children she embarrassed my two sisters and I by walking up to everyone she met and saying: “Hello, my name is Joy Lowe!”). She always channelled her feelings into action. In 1956, she defied all norms by having a multi-racial wedding that led to banner headlines and to her being ostracised from her family for many years to come.

In 1958, in search of a home free of prejudice, John and Joy Lowe moved to Chikore Mission in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe. When she arrived at this United Church of Christ Mission, Joy started out as a Maths teacher, with some of the students nearly as old as herself. Never one to flinch from a challenge, Joy dived head first into this task. She produced several fine mathematicians including Gladman and (his wife) Margaret Chahweta who taught me maths in years to come.

The Mission decided to establish a primary school for pupils. Joy Lowe became the first headmistress, setting the tone for this unique multiracial school called Big Tree School. Having my mother as school headmistress posed its own challenges. I remember once being asked to draw a picture of my mother in class. I ran up to her at break and said: “Mrs Lowe, please look at this picture of my mother!”

As Headmistress, Joy taught Grade 5, 6 and 7 (upper primary) and undertook her duties as head. She loved her job. Far ahead of its time, this school showed that pupils of all races could learn under one roof. The school taught all their lessons in English, but every Thursday, all the children had to speak to each other in ChiNdau, a local Shona dialect.

Despite rudimentary facilities, the school boasted high academic standards. Joy Lowe insisted that each student did PT (Physical Training) and we had all manner of exercises we all had to do as part of our training. We even had parallel bars and rings like you see in the gymnastics section of the Olympics!

Around 1970, Joy handed over the headmistress job at Big Tree School to Emily Mahaka and she joined Chikore Secondary School as an English teacher. I suppose there was a desperate need for an English Teacher at the school, and so she decided to take on the job. All the time she taught at Big Tree, she had no salary, so the other consideration at this time would have been the government salary available to her.

By now, every Wednesday afternoon and every Saturday morning, Joy devoted her time to guiding 15 women’s clubs dotted in a 20 km radius from the mission. The women learned to sew and knit, and attended adult literacy classes. They also formed savings clubs.

With their reading, writing and money saving skills, the women bought day old chicks, hybrid seed and fertilizer, improving productivity and income generation. They embarked on pen fattening of their cows. At any given time, the Lowe household buzzed with activity, with everything from rabbits, chickens, cloth and wool being distributed to the women’s clubs. Meetings abounded – morning, noon and night. Each year the women’s clubs had a show, displaying what they had created through ingenuity.

Deeply religious, Joy also served as an Adviser of the local Ruwadzano group (the church women’s group). Every school holiday, Joy and our red Kombi criss-crossed the Eastern Highlands visiting church groups. These meetings covered both spiritual and practical matters, like “manyambiri” (twins) considered to be a bad omen in traditional Ndau custom.

The women’s groups faced their gravest crisis during Zimbabwe’s war of liberation, when the white minority government forced communities into so-called “protected villages” that more resembled concentration camps. Joy led an unsuccessful passive resistance movement. She and John paid the price by being declared “prohibited immigrants.” They had one week to leave the country, fleeing by train with their three children to neighbouring Botswana in 1976. They returned to Zimbabwe after independence in 1980, retiring in the quiet mountain village of Chimanimani, where Joy continued teaching right to the end, and rests in peace.

Whether in the classroom or sitting under a tree with a group of women, Joy never stopped teaching. “The sign of a good teacher,” she used to say, “is when her students go on to do better than her.” To site a few examples of Joy Lowe’s protégés: Tracy Musikavanhu became a seamstress of note, creating her own designs and patterns. Bonus Zimunya became an internationally acclaimed poet. Joy’s youngest daughter, Colleen Lowe Morna started Gender Links, an internationally acclaimed NGO. Bongai Gwasira is now head of the Southern Africa office of Voluntary Services Overseas.

Joy Lowe, your work will live on in the students and women you taught. Today, and always, I salute you.

David Lowe is an agricultural researcher based in Harare, Zimbabwe. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, special series on celebrating phenomenal women, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.


5 thoughts on “Zimbabwe: Tribute to my mother, teacher and activist in Women’s Month”

Tammi Peek says:

I stayed in Chimanimani with Joy and John (my fathers cousin) for the best part of a year in 1987. I was just an 18 yr old in search of adventure and the love,wisdom and inner strength I found in these two humble, and slightly exentric people has had a lasting effect on me. May she rest in peace and rise in glory.

Given Ziramba says:

Indeed Joy Lowe loved people & would sacrifice her life for others.A gift that manifests in all her remaining children.A thought evoking true story.Thank you Dave Lowe.

Partson says:

Kindly help me trace Lynette Lowe medical student in university Rhodesia in 1974 /75 I am classmate

Edson Siwella says:

Time has passed . . . .but so also want to know : about sister Lynnette Lowe? Varipi?

Mbuzana Siwella says:

The Lowe’s were a good example of missionary submergence. . . .going deep into peoples lives and showing Christ Jesus there by active example.

I had heard of them. But it was much much later that, at a bus stop somewhere in the eastern districts, I turned and looked and there was Sis Lynnette with her friends. She spoke to them in excellent Chindau. If one had only heard the voice and not seen the face one would have said “Perfect Chindau.,

Years roll on. One wishes one would have drawn nearer to the Lowe family and stood with them for what they stood for. Amunaa woye. Mwari vanyaradze veshe vakaona huchapupu hwe family Lowe vakat
enda kunaShe Jesu Kristu.

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