“Our country is not poor; it’s just poorly managed. We come here for opportunities.” — Interview with Patricia Munatsi
by Pratiksha Kamat
Being a girl in Zimbabwe is challenging, and Patricia Munatsi’s journey was far from easy. Born and raised on a small-scale farm, Patricia is one of eight children. She grew up in a patriarchal society where men abused women without any consequences.
“I was born into poverty, barefoot and bare behind but at least we had enough to eat from the farm. I was born during the Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP) which was characterized by rising inflation and the devaluation of local currency.”
In Zimbabwe, being a woman was considered a burden, she adds; “I grew about being told that your status, gender, political affiliation among others has a bearing on access to justice and opportunities. If you know an influential personality it could be a gateway to other opportunities in the country.”
When her father passed away in December of 2009, her brother Dewa, who recently passed away due to COVID-19, stepped in and made certain that all his siblings, including the girls, received an education. He truly believed in the transformational power of education. He saw it as the only way to break the generational cycle of poverty, so he wanted to ensure that all his siblings were educated and self-sufficient. His success was less important than that of his siblings. ‘No sibling left behind’ — that is what he believed in and lived by.
She explains that although they came from nothing, as a family they were determined to make it despite their circumstances. Patricia passionately talks about how education transformed her life and that her personal experiences growing up fed into her impetus to study law at the University of Zimbabwe. Empowering and building capacities of communities to challenge the status quo and to contribute solutions to challenges bedeviling our society is something she believes in.
“My success can’t be attributed unless I give thanks to my brother Dewa who made sure I got an education,” she says, her emotions welling up. Her brother was a formidable human rights lawyer working in Southern Africa as the Southern Africa Director at Human Rights Watch. He dedicated his life to championing the rights of the indigent people. During the pandemic he founded a community trust and was in the process of building a maternity ward at a local clinic in Hwirisha where they grew up. He had ambitious plans to go beyond that and transform the community that raised them. For him, it was always about the people, giving back.
She adds: “I lost him in December of 2021, but his legacy will go on in them, in the work they do in defending people’s rights. He set a good example for all his younger siblings to follow in his footsteps, instilled in them the value of education and that when you educate a girl child you have empowered humanity.”
In 2017, Munatsi finished her law degree from the University of Zimbabwe. She specialised in human rights, environmental issues, and women’s rights. However, with the country’s economic meltdown, she struggled to find work and took up unpaid or volunteer roles with human rights organisations.
“I volunteered with a local human rights organization, and after three months they offered me a job as an assistant project lawyer working on various human rights issues from organised violence and torture, gender, health, and reproductive rights. Becoming a human rights defender is not an easy decision to make because of the volatile nature of the political landscape. As a human rights defender, you are targeted, vilified, demonized, persecuted, and prosecuted for standing up for people’s rights. In Zimbabwe, you are labeled an agent of the West, so the decision to join the struggle for human rights was not one l made lightly. I was not only putting myself in danger but was also putting my family and all those l love in danger.”
In 2018, Munatsi attended the African Union Model Conference held in Addis Ababa Ethiopia, which altered her outlook on the world. She wanted to learn more and was seeking a chance to broaden her horizons.
“I was fighting against injustice in Zimbabwe, and now I could see injustice everywhere. I wanted to be part of the struggle for peace, justice, and equality not just for my people but for Africa and the world.” Munatsi instantly spoke to her brother, a medical doctor who was at the time working at one of the hospitals in Zimbabwe on how to apply for international study scholarships.”
Her brother forwarded the Irish Aid scholarship link and told her he thought she’d get accepted based on her work. So, she took a chance and applied to UCD for a Master’s degree in International Human Rights.
Munatsi was just becoming settled in Ireland when the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020. Most Irish and European students on campus immediately returned home, leaving behind international students who were unable to obtain or afford flights home. Despite the difficulties, she speaks about faculty and students who made her feel more comfortable in Ireland.
When asked why she picked Ireland over other scholarships, Patricia stated:
“Because we have a comparable history of colonisation, which resonates with my country’s history. I felt that because the Irish had migrated to other nations in quest of a better future, they would comprehend the misery of migration.”
She hoped that because of their own struggles, they would be respectful to immigrants coming from elsewhere looking for safety and better opportunities for their families. So, “I felt like this is a place l can call home, like this is the country where I’ll fit in and belong.”
After finishing her Master’s degree at UCD, Munatsi began searching for a job, and in the spring of 2021, she was employed as a Policy Lead with the Irish Network Against Racism (INAR). A year later, Munatsi is still working on racial issues and discrimination in Ireland, contributing to the State’s National Action Plan Against Racism (NAPAR).
When asked if she had encountered any racism in Ireland, she admitted that she had. She explains that before coming to Ireland she had only heard about racism and conceptualized it but had never experienced it.
“I was optimistic when I arrived, but my first encounter occurred in a shopping center where I was with my friend from Uganda. While walking around the shop, there was a young Irish boy who came running around and started shouting “mummy, mummy look monkeys.”
“It was hurtful and disappointing to see such a young boy who is barely 10 years old and neither he nor his parents apologized or even corrected that this is wrong. I realized at that moment that nobody is born hating people; it is something that is taught to them at a young age. It was terrible to see that children are being socialized to hate others based on the color of their skin, being taught that it is normal to call black people monkeys”
She also criticized how the media stereotypes black women, citing an example in which a cab driver played a song about a black woman who is a sex worker and assumed she was a sex worker. That minor disagreement and stereotype can really lead to increased crime towards a specific segment of society.
Finally, when asked what message she would like to send to immigrants attempting to build a name for themselves in Irish society, she said,
“As immigrants, there is a mentality that we should keep our heads down, not attract attention to ourselves, but we should participate and be part of different policy discussions on issues of racism and discriminations. We must talk about how minorities are shunned, we must be present in civic life, talking about the importance of creating a society free of racism and grounded in principles of justices, equality, and fairness. We need people to ask the right questions particularly from an ethnic minority background, to demand human rights accountability from the State. Ireland is a democratic country where the law promotes equal opportunities for all.”
“Diversity is our strength; any country’s wealth is in its people, so it is important to invest in communities including racialized and minoritized groups. We are more than just immigrants; we contribute a lot to the economy of this country. We are professionals in our own fields, imagine how great the country could be if it truly valued our contributions as immigrants. In 2022 if there is a company, organization that is not diverse enough, to me that is intentional and unacceptable. But just like all the struggles for recognition, there is always room to change things for the better. I’m optimistic that for Ireland it is possible to create a more just and equitable society for all.”