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Leaving Footprints - A conversation with Dudu Manhenga

It’s Monday morning. A lot is going on for jazz diva Dudu. She is just back from a month-long homecoming tour in her birth city, Bulawayo. On Saturday night she hosted a gig in Harare to mark the last day of the 16 days of activism against gender violence. Sunday she spent with her home congregation where she and her husband sit on the board of deacons. Today the family moves house and she meets me enroute to picking up her four kids from where they have stayed overnight with friends.

She is perfectly turned out as always – dressed in cool green, wearing her trademark turban, high heels and powerhouse smile. “This is the kind of day where if I was a drinker I’d have a beer. Give me one of those” she jokes, pointing to the left over Saturday night cocktail special chalked on the blackboard of the café where we meet.

Her name, ‘Duduzile’, means ‘comforter’ in her mother tongue sNdebele, a language which sounds like singing. Music is her essence and she moves conscious of life’s varied rhythms. Her walk carries the wide, slow streets and big, open sky of Zimbabwe’s second city – the City of Kings - into the faster, not so generous pace of the capital. “I needed that slower pulse of Bulawayo rhythm,” she says, “ I needed to connect on the ground again.”

Connecting is one of the things she does – with her audience, through her church, and with the wider world as an advocate and lobbyist for women’s issues and the arts. Inspired by jazz legends of Southern Africa, Dorothy Masuku and Miriam Makeba, she brings social conscience, elegance and grace to her stage act - plus a big sense of fun! She describes herself as a creative entrepreneur, a wife and mother. “I am passion, I am strength, I am love,” she says, “ I am a person who sees a situation that is wrong – who will not only talk about it, but I will make a change.”

That started when Dudu needed to make ‘big people’ decisions as a little girl. Her father was a violent guy and her mother stayed in the abusive marriage for the sake of the children. By the time she was ten she was determined not to get trapped in her mother’s situation and vowed not to marry until she had her own belongings. “When I turned 16 and got my I.D.,” says Dudu, “I said to my Mum, ‘I am taking the kids’ (my other siblings) so she didn’t need to stay with him any longer because of us.” That’s when her mother finally filed for divorce. As a result, she enjoys a close and unusual relationship with her mother. “Hey my mother, my father” calls Dudu. “Hey my sister, my daughter” answers her mother.

None of Dudu’s relationships are conventional, including her marriage. At age 19 she found a special kind of man in her husband, Blessing. Within three weeks of meeting - in a recording studio (he’s a drummer)- and after talking late through many nights about everything, they moved in together, much to the initial dismay of her mother who wanted Dudu to go to college first.

Ten years and four children later the couple live the change they believe in, sometimes flying in the face of deeply conventional Zimbabwean society.
“But the alienation was good for us – it made us closer,” states Dudu.

The year of their marriage was also the year she enrolled in Zimbabwe’s College of Music and marked the formation of their band Color Blu. A third album is due for release next year. This woman can achieve anything she sets her mind to. (

“If you don’t decide, someone else will,” is her mantra. “Sure in this country there are external forces – the powers that be have the authority, but we need to work with what is…. The country is like this, so take charge. What are you going to do about it?”

She believes passionately in women’s empowerment and in encouragement of the girl child. Recently she went back to her old schools and presented personal prizes to the students to inspire them with the idea that using their imaginations can help make small changes in their lives.

When her Mum couldn’t afford a new school uniform, Dudu found a tailor to turn the old one inside out so that the bright colour was displayed. “ It was good to have an opportunity to say to the kids that I grew up in a tough situation, but I can change my life.”

“I am change,” she says. Dudu produces three pink books out of her bag – a planner for 2011, a notebook which is her way of taking stock, her assessment of herself, and her achievements in different areas of her life, and a ‘Think Pink’ book – her reflections and musings on what it means to be a girl child. She is discovering pink – the realization that as much as pink is soft and sometimes limited, you can put it with anything, so it is a lesson in appreciating the soft femininity as well as the wilder side of woman.

She points to a quotation in the planner:

‘The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.’ William James

It is what she does – continually reinvents herself and her power. “I want a role in the arts not just as a performing artist. By the time I am in my 50s I expect to perform at special events just a few times a year. Right now my glass ceiling is because of policy issue. I want to change policy.”

Dudu wants to leave a legacy, something that will live longer than she will. “I live by the motto – live in such a way that stories of you will be told when you are gone,” she says with a giggle. “I love leaving footprints.”

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

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