Zooming In is a podcast that tells stories of 2020, but it’s not a COVID podcast. It’s about how life keeps going, even through a global pandemic.
Moira Mudzimwa knows that community is at the core of empowerment. She started Black and CUTE to support girls from African backgrounds living in Kalgoorlie to embrace their identity and be proud of who they are.
This podcast collection was made possible with funding from Lotterywest.
Copyright © 2022 Moira Mudzimwa and Storytellers.
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Sisonke: Kalgoorlie, Western Australia – a six and a half hour drive inland from the state’s capital. It doesn’t automatically register in the collective psyche as a place African migrants are happy to call home. Famous as the place that sparked a ‘wild west’ style prospecting frenzy in the late 1890s, the twin towns of Kalgoorlie/Boulder have a long history of attracting stand out migrants. It started off with enterprising Afghans and their camel trains in the ‘gold rush’ years, and continues over a century later with its current crop of internationally qualified professional migrants. In this episode, producer Rita Saggar speaks to Kalgoorlie local, Moira Mudzimwa.
Moira: I’m Moira Mudzimwa I’m in migrant from Zimbabwe. I grew up in rural Zimbabwe in Manicaland Province, the Eastern side of the country. I moved to Australia in 2007, December, and I’ve been here for 15 years now. I had just finished uni, got married, worked for a year in Zimbabwe, and my husband got a job to come to Australia. As exciting as it was because of the economic situation in Zimbabwe, I had to then find myself in a completely new country, no relatives, no one. And also making sure that I maintain my career, I am able to register as a teacher, and be, you know, the professional woman who wanted to be always. So getting here, I was so busy trying to put all those things in order because I refused to come here and then just, not give up being a teacher, as many other teachers had done.
You feel like you have to explain yourself all the time. And my, as my friend would put it, you need a placard to put on your, you know, on your forehead to tell people that I’m a teacher. I was trained in Zimbabwe and I came here with all my qualifications in the Australian overseas qualifications. You need, actually took two weeks, to quickly say, “I have an equivalent of a teacher’s profession here.” I even worked at some place where for some reason, even though they had my transcript, which indicated that I had trained for four years, they still paid me as a three-year diploma trained teacher. That’s because in, in their mind, you know, you’re migrant, you should not be that educated. So it’s quite typical. It’s quite typical. You get people still asking me 15 years later if I trained in Australia.
Sisonke: But Moira’s story didn’t just begin in Kalgoorlie. She traces her resilience back to her childhood.
Moira: In retrospect, my upbringing shaped me for this country. I had my own social discrimination as a child because of the social standing, my Mum’s social standing. She was a single mother, had children with three different men. So socially that was, she was a misfit. She was not really someone who would be looked at as, you know, a functional person. So she also would drink alcohol in a pub, which is normal here. But back then in Zimbabwe, that was something that women were not supposed to do. So growing up, I was always socially isolated. You know, parents telling their kids, “don’t hang out with that woman’s children because you don’t know what they will end up getting you into.” So I, I sort of became resistant from that, from there, from a young age. Because of my Mum’s dysfunctional lifestyle, I lived with many of her siblings.
When I came here, I realised immediately that the education system was different. The expectations were very, very high to register as a teacher. So I didn’t want to be, you know, so comfortable with whatever my husband was earning. So we worked, both of us, worked hard to raise the fees, to get my qualifications assessed and then register to become a teacher going through the IELTS system. And then in 2008 and managed to register to become a teacher. So it was all so quickly straight from uni to come to Australia within two years. Yeah, and I didn’t have too much time to process that.
Sisonke: Often migrants in Australia, and to be honest, African migrants are stereotyped. They’re typically not thought of as people with qualifications, certainly not professionals. This is something that Moira came up against quite a lot, particularly in her earlier days in Australia.
Moira: It’s very true. You’ve got to stand up for yourself as well, which for a woman is not easy. I’ll tell you a short anecdote here, just before I came to Australia, I was in the very, you know, a very affluent suburb of Zimbabwe, where they have the Australian embassy. So I was in the process of getting my visa. So I went into the supermarket in that in that place, and there were about four people ahead of me in the supermarket. And the lady called out for people with a visa card because of cash shortages in Zimbabwe. So she called out people with a visa card and I was one of them. So I went to join that line, but there was a white man behind me, and she called that man to come in to serve him first. So I say to her, “Really? Seriously? You think that that man deserves to be served before me? Can you explain to me why?” And she said, “No, no, no, no, that’s not it. He was here first.” And then he was a gentleman enough to allow me to go first. So then she let it go and saved me. But that’s the kind of racism that we experienced in Zimbabwe, where although colonialism disappeared in 30, some 37 years ago, we were left with that white supremacy and inferiority complex where the white man is the superior, and you constantly have to deal with those kinds of behaviors.
So when I came to Australia, it was really shocking when I went to my first school, and it’s an Indigenous school. So I felt at home because I’m seeing kids who look like me, and the kids looked really, really happy. And it was quite shocking for me because prior to coming to Australia, I had not read too much about Indigenous Australians. I assumed that they were there and they were just living normal lives like everybody else. And then I came here and I saw the segregation and the hate, which really broke me because I could not understand how in, you know, so many years later after, you know, colonisation, people still had those kinds of attitudes. So it was different, although we are experiencing, or we have similar experiences of going through colonisation. And this is something I tell people that you must understand that every person’s struggle is different with racism. We went through our own racism that was terrible in Zimbabwe, and some people still experience it in Zimbabwe, but here it is, it is very different. And I don’t know when it will change, the attitudes are ingrained and for Indigenous Australians, it’s going to take a long time. It’s going to take a long time for them to heal because once you’re healing, you know, you need time for the wound to heal, but this constant poking on the wound for the Indigenous people that I see, and that’s what really makes me worry.
Sisonke: In spite of her own experiences of racism, Moira isn’t the type of person to dwell on things. She doesn’t let other people’s issues get in the way of doing what she needs to do. Moira is a changemaker. She is a teacher and a role model, and she uses her position to empower the people around her. She’s especially passionate about children and young people.
Moira: So I’ll start with my school that I worked in the Indigenous school. I used to write songs on the board, in my language, and then I’ll write the same song in English on the board, just translated for them. And they just loved the beat of the song. And we would sing that song and indirectly, we were learning word types, right? I would identify verbs, nouns, from that song, but what they were interested in initially was just their song. And that would really engage them, and they would always come with their own beats and we would talk about that song and then we would try and do a bit of learning by identifying the language that has been used in that song. And also you could see, there’s a guy called Lucky Dube from South Africa. A lot of my students would bring songs by Lucky Dube because he was a revolutionary, and we would look at how Lucky Dube is positioning us to sympathise with, you know, with people in victims of colonial rule and all that. So it worked for me being in that position to work with kids, to learn something, but they’re learning something from something that they love. And I feel it was so hard for me to leave that school because I had other reasons to leave. In the school where I work, I refuse to let my kids, my Australian students, to leave school and not understand enough about black people. And I know I don’t represent every black person out there, but I know what black people cannot tolerate anymore. So whenever they’re using lingo that’s not really appropriate, I stop that. Whenever I have an opportunity to teach, I take that opportunity and teach. We help them to be open-minded, you know.
It was quite common when I studied here for kids to question, because they would hear my accent and I would be very, very firm to say I’m not changing my accent. I grew up going to school, being taught by ex-pat teachers. It took me probably a month or three months to understand the teachers speaking, but because I wanted something, I listened and you guys are going to listen. You know, and within a short time, they get used to that accent. I’m not here to change and assimilate and sound like something I’m not. My accent is part of my identity. So being firm and strong about my identity, is making my students realise that there’s actually nothing wrong with people who come from different backgrounds. We can actually learn from those different backgrounds. I have my Year 10 class this year, is very stuck on post-colonialism because they think I see everything with the post-colonial lens. And I have every reason to see things from a post-colonial lens. And it’s just opening those doors for them, for them to see things from different lenses too.
Sisonke: Remaining proud of who you are and where you came from, in a new country where the rules of social engagement are often confusingly nuanced and seem to constantly to change is a challenge. But 15 years on from her first arrival in Australia, Moira is confident about calling Kalgoorlie home.
Moira: When we came to Australia, my husband picked me up from the airport in Perth and we drove straight to Kalgoorlie and the landscape was just like, we are back in Zimbabwe in my rural village. And I was like, okay. But I think that’s why I’ve lived here for 15 years, and my husband is like, I’m here, he doesn’t think of moving. I sometimes think of moving because of the kids, but we are very comfortable here. We don’t feel like we are too far away. Kalgoorlie, I think, compared to other parts of the country, you can see it’s like a village as well. We really know each other. We know everyone. When I go to the shop, I pretty much say hello to everyone. So for me, it’s the community and the landscape and the climate that keeps me here.
Sisonke: We asked Moira what it was like in Kalgoorlie, all those years ago. Her and family must have stood out.
Moira: Definitely we did. There were a few Zimbabweans around, but we were not out there. We were not visible, if you know what I mean. So I know a lot of people can say, “Oh, that’s not very true.” But it was very rare to find, you know, a group of Africans doing something in Kalgoorlie. It was just mostly everyone doing whatever they’re doing. So you could go into Kmart or into town and, you know, people will actually take a good look at you because there’s not many people like you.
Sisonke: The African community in Kalgoorlie has grown considerably since then.
Moira: Trying to count the number of families, we got up to 100 and we gave up. So there’s quite a fair bit of African families in Kalgoorlie. And in every school you go to, you see a fair bit of kids. I think there’s about, every school has about three to five per cent of African communities. Yeah. So it has changed quite a bit.
So when I came, it was a very different place, a place that would not feel like I can mingle and mix with people in the community. I was pretty much set for work and I would just do my work and go home because that’s what I’m here for, and that seemed like that’s what everybody else was doing. It took me 10 years to realise that I’m here to stay, and that I also need to be a part of this community, to be an active participant of this community. So there were many things that I didn’t like or things that I felt could change, and I had to be proactive about it and get out there and be a part of the change. So I can see the reason why I feel that Kalgoorlie has changed a bit is because now I’m out there as well committing myself to, to be part of the change that I want to see.
So 15 years down the line, I can definitely give that picture of Kalgoorlie as a multicultural, very inclusive place because I have taken that step to be a part of the community. Many, many years ago, when I came, it was not easy. It was not easy. We didn’t know many people. You could go to church and people in church would just look at you and continue with their business. I remember going to church for the first time, and there’s a child who is touching me. I think this was their first experience with a black person. The parents grabbed the child, went away and didn’t want to have anything to do with us. Second time we went to that church, I had dragged my husband to go to church. We got there and no one gave us seats. The ushers were giving seats. The pastor got from the front, and came to give, give us seats. So that’s the picture I can paint for you for that time when I came here. But right now, when I walk into a place it’s, “Hello Moira, what’s happening?” You know, everyone knows me. And I, I don’t even ask to be given a seat anymore because they know where the seat is. You see what I mean? So it is such a good place, but I would encourage other migrants who are coming through, because there’s more who are coming in, to say that whatever little change you want to see, or whatever your experience is, you are envisioning, you are part of that process and you’ve got to be proactive and get out there to get whatever it is that you need.
I think it’s becoming real for a lot of Australians in Kalgoorlie that, you know, we can’t actually do much without the African community as well. We are now a big part of what Kalgoorlie is. And I will tell you this, many of my African friends are professionals and they hold positions in their jobs, different variety of jobs that they work in, and they are playing an important role in the economy of this country. So to be honest with you, people are starting to realise that, you know what, whether we like it or not, these people are here and they’re here to stay and they are making a difference.
Sisonke: It’s clear that after so many years, Moira and her family have well and truly put roots down in Kalgoorlie. A big part of what ties her to the place is the work she’s doing to support the African community.
Moira: I think I can safely say Kalgoorlie is home for me. I don’t see myself anywhere else. I’m just comfortable here. Yeah. And I think it’s because of my experiences that I feel like if I go up away from Kalgoorlie, who’s going to take care of that and that? I have so many things that I want to achieve and to keep doing in my different areas of community service and my work.
So Black and CUTE started off as a girls group, an African girls group. I started having thoughts about this in 2013, when I had my daughter. It was such a reality check actually, because I had worked in schools and I noticed that African girls were isolated, African girls were a bit timid. They were not really living a wholesome life or experiencing childhood happily and showing off, you know, their talents or doing things that they seemed to like. They were hidden, they were invisible. So I thought in 2013, when I had my daughter, I realised that she is going to be a part of that. And I had to make a difference. So although it took me five years to come to fruition of this whole dream, in 2018, my friend and I decided to start that group. We wanted to give the girls a solid foundation of being a black woman, living in the diaspora.
We had our own struggles as children, like I said earlier on, that shaped us and helped prepare us for what we experience now, and our children do not have that. So when they go to schools and they experience different issues, they don’t know how to deal with these issues. And as parents, we feel sometimes we are not equipped because we don’t know what they’re going through. Our own scenarios were different. So as a group, we thought we could bring girls together and understand their stories, listen to their stories and help them, equip them with strategies of handling their issues. So one of the particular issues girls face in Kalgoorlie at least is, hey, we don’t have enough hair products that help African hair. We also don’t have facilities for our hair. So we thought Black and CUTE can be a space where we, probably in a smaller space, like here can try to practice what we practice home. Growing up, we could just go to your neighbour, get your hair done. You know, we could just, all gather as girls, under a tree on a sunny day, discuss what happened, your crushes and everything, giggling along, but someone is doing your hair and you’re doing someone’s hair too. So it was always that connection we had, it was a bonding time for us to do hair. But now when you look at the kids here, they don’t have that. If they want their hair done, the braids that they normally have, it’s $150 for that to happen. And that’s done by an auntie who’s way older and maybe they’re shy to even have a conversation with. So Black and CUTE was going to offer the girls that, a place and a space for them to start doing each other’s hair, look at ways to look cute.
And because that compliment “cute”, doesn’t always come easy for black girls, unfortunately. So we are embracing it, grabbing it by the horns and say, we are cute. We know our hairstyles are cute and we want the girls also. CUTE is an acronym for courageous, unstoppable, tenacious and earnest. So we want them to learn all those, and replace the stereotypical views of people and see us as a strong force that is going to be out there doing the right things. We don’t want the girls to participate in things that are not appropriate. We want them to be recognised for the strong African girls they are. So we’ve been successful as a group to see some change in the attitudes towards girls in their own attitudes as well towards community. So they’re starting to participate in community work. They’re nominating to be SRCs, so a student representative council, so they are participating in leadership roles as well. So that is something we are very proud of as an organisation. Now we have changed the group a little bit to bring in boys. Some of the issues we were dealing with, or we were listening to included boys, and we thought, why not bring the boys in to help them understanding the pressures that African girls have? And yeah, the girls, the boys are loving it. So it’s now an Afroteen hub.
Boys are typically treated in society, because as a black boy, there’s an expectation that you’re just rough. As a black boy, you’re expected to be sporty. You’re expected to be handsome and tall and all these fantasy views that people have of these boys. So I have noticed that a lot of them are now spending more time trying to fulfill those expectations instead of actually living a wholesome childhood. So the boys also feel, and the girls too, they feel that they don’t have positive representation in the media. So they try by all means to try to, to show the world that we are not that, and we want to be seen as, you know, the good people we are, but unfortunately some boys will fall into the trap of the stereotypes as well. So our group is helping them recognise that sometimes the media is not always positively representing us, and we are going to change that narrative.
Sisonke: Being part of a diaspora so often means walking a line between past and present – connecting to ancestry and origin, while also celebrating who you are, and where you are, now. Moira believes it’s important to encourage the young people she works with to embrace both their African and their Australian identities.
Moira: We want them to embrace their, you know, African Australianness. They can’t separate, we can’t separate that actually. They’re coming from African homes where I think, you know, each child should be empowered to love their identity in their African heritage, for them to be able to express themselves freely and happily as an adult out there. So if they don’t have much knowledge of what in African is, really their adulthood is not going to be as successful because they will have to go back and look, trace those, you know, trace back to see what they missed out as an African. I have a number of boys and girls who come and approach me to teach them Shona. And now they’re in their twenties, “Teach me proper Shona. I can’t even speak.” So they’re in uni and their friends, Australians included, are asking, “How come you’re African and you don’t speak an African language?” So we want to avoid that, in our African group, we are trying, we have some language lessons as well, where we try and equip them with their language, be proud of their heritage and connect them to their roots and embrace their Africanness and be a proud African Australian.
Sisonke: A large part of Moira’s motivation is her children. She wants them to be resilient, to grow up being proud of their African heritage and their Australian identity.
Moira: I want them to be, to never, ever feel ashamed of being black. So I make sure that they are proud of that. So I noticed that particularly with my daughter, she would sometimes act in a way that made me believe that she didn’t realise that she was black. So her comparison of hair, she would want to have Elsa hair, so I have to remind him that you are an African princess, or I have to remind her that, you know, no matter what you’ve got to remember, that your hair is a little bit different. You can’t go and, you know, have somersaults in sand because it will take us a blow dry and a hoover and everything to get rid of that sand. And a lot of tears too. So she has to remember that all the time. So I find that if we are not, as parents, we’re not educating our children to, to realise and embrace their differences, they find it harder to deal with this.
My son experienced his own share of racism to a point where he didn’t want to eat bananas, you know, and I had to teach and educate him again, you know? So it’s something that we have to constantly teach our children until a point where they feel that they can stand up for themselves and that they, it’s easier to stand up against racism if you feel whole. If you have your own questions and you have you know, those gaps in your own identity, it doesn’t work. So you’ve got to feel confident. You’ve got to feel that, you know, I’m proud of who I am. So no matter what you’re going to say or think about me, I’m happy with who I am. So that’s what I’m trying to teach my children, and hopefully they’ll teach their children the same thing too.
Sisonke: From what Moira tells me, the young people within the African community are not the only ones being supported to challenge stereotypes. She’s noticed the men changing too, leaning into their roles as fathers and husbands.
Moira: Here in Kalgoorlie, you see dads, it’s one town actually that you will see dads, hands on dads with kids in the park. It’s so common for a dad to be the hands-on dad or the stay at home dad in Kalgoorlie. And I have quite a few friends who are the working mums. They’re the working moms and the dads are at home, it’s such a family town. When you see parents coming to school to pick up the kids, it’s not typical that it is the mums, you know. It’s dads and mums.
And I can tell you this, my husband is African. And when we’re talking with other Africans, we all share the same issues of, “Oh my husband, you know how my husband is just African, he just likes to go to work and, you know, come home to a well cooked meal.” That is slowly changing because our husbands are working with men, you know, from here, who also go home after work and still continue to carry on with daddy duties. So we’re seeing a lot of changing in cultural perspectives too of, “Oh, I’m just the man and i’ll bring in the money.” Our African men are jumping in. When we go to athletics or different sporting activities, dads are there sharing their kids. So it, for me, that’s what makes it perfect.
Sisonke: Like many other migrants living in Australia in 2020, COVID was a challenging time for Moira.
Moira: COVID changed a lot of things for us. Obviously as migrants, like we discussed, people sometimes forget that we have family back home. Like I’m the family with my children, my husband here, but the rest of the family is back in Zimbabwe. So for us, luckily, I went to Zimbabwe in 2019 with the children. And we came back and COVID was starting to get into Australia. So I still think that I probably had COVID when I came, because I was very unwell. For a few days I was sleeping. I was really sick. And then we went back to school, schools opened. It was chaotic because then schools in Kalgoorlie started going online as well. We were not sure what was going to happen. So we prepared all schools, or most schools, if I’m not mistaken, were all going online. Now at our school, that was a rigorous process. We had to prepare lessons for every day. You had to call your students in, speak to them and ensure that they are okay. Not only were we worrying about our students’ welfare, we had to check on our own families whilst you’re doing that. Now, my son, he has an intellectual disability, so the packages that were coming home had all these instructions, and I don’t blame the teachers. They didn’t have time to differentiate or that content and try to cater for everyone. So the packages would just arrive and I would give Tino, my daughter, hers, and she would be on it and finish. My son was struggling. You know, he would need that to be broken down into chunks. And I should have done that for my son and I wanted to do that for my son.
So I was having sleepless nights because the whole day I’m taking care of my students from my job and way after that lesson, I get messages in my inbox of them asking questions, because they’re not comfortable asking those questions on an online class. So I would have to respond to every individual question. So if you’re having five classes that day, so it’s all those classes with probably 10 to 20 messages each of them, depending on the level of difficulty, you know, you spend more time with each of them. Now, I felt that I was neglecting my own son and it got to a point where I felt like maybe I should quit my job and focus on my son. And you know, when you know that your child has an intellectual disability, doesn’t ring that bell until you start working with them and you see how delayed they are, and how behind they are with so many things.
So whilst I was dealing with the pressure from work, I was dealing with that, had realisation that my son is going to need a lot of extra help. So COVID for me brought all that reality check. And whilst I was doing that, we also had to worry about my 88 year old father-in-law who’s alone because my mother-in-law passed away in 2019. So we had to constantly check on him and make sure no one is arriving at his house unnecessarily and make sure everyone is social distancing. It was hard. It was taking a toll on my husband, who’s also hypertensive. So I want to make sure that he’s okay. He’s not feeling overwhelmed. Being away from dad, my sister was working in a COVID peak place Johannesburg, so it’s a red zone. And I was worried about her every day. She was the health and safety officer for the school. So she had more chances in exposures to that. So, yeah, COVID changed a lot of things for me. And it helped me to start focusing on what is important. You know, you can, we complain about a lot of things in life sometimes, but I started focusing on what is important. That’s one thing, positive thing about it.
Sisonke: Moira is a compelling combination of empathetic and enterprising. It’s this mix of being someone who cares, and someone who gets stuff done, that has allowed Black and CUTE to make such an impact within the Kalgoorlie community. And the impact has had a ripple effect – it’s not just the young people benefitting, it’s the mums, and the dads too. First and second generation African Australians embracing and celebrating all parts of their identities. For Moira, this is what makes it all worth it.
This podcast was produced by the Centre for Stories with funding from Lotterywest Centre for Stories is an organisation based on Whadjuk Noongar Western Australia. It believes in storytelling as a way to build more inclusive communities. Head to centreforstories.com to listen to more stories or to make a tax-deductible donation. Special thanks to our storyteller for this episode, Moira, and to our production team, executive producer Kara Jensen McKinnon, audio engineer Mason Vellios, scripting interviewing and production by Rita Saggar.