Back in the days, lions and lionesses symbolised kings, queens, power in fables and were represented on sculptures. Mandivavarira, an inspirational Zimbabwean dancer in Sydney, does not ridicule these noble characters. She aims to restore the prestige and power of ‘modern queens’; women whose splendor is shadowed by abusive characters. More than an organisation, Radiant Lioness is a haven where the women’s wellbeing is paramount and they can be empowered. Here follows the story of a lioness-hearted woman who has had to overcome many obstacles to learn how to honour her mind, body and soul.
Born to a pan-Africanist man who campaigned to join the government after years in exile, she was given the name of Mandivavarira meaning “determination” in Shona language. She adds, “there is another meaning of my name in my Shona dialect that you’re not seeing my worth but I’m worth so much more which also means that I have to work hard to prove myself”.
Mandi’s name comes from a Shona group speaking Zezuru language, and she is also recognised and named ‘Mophu’. She further explains that Mophu represents the spirit animal of her family. ‘Mophu’ is the Shona female name for impala to pay respect to her and the family’s spirit. Mandi has great admiration for her family and where she comes from, “my grandmother belonged to the first families of queens of Great Zimbabwe dating back to thousand years ago”.
Spirituality and Shona traditions are tightly linked and rule many customs. At weddings, it is preferable to unite two people from the same animal spirit. Also, an aunty of the bride called ‘tete’ or the first female in the father’s family must arrange the terms of the wedding and negotiate the dowry. This cultural example raises questions about if Zimbabwean women have always been highly involved in family’s life.
Mandi tells that Zimbabwean women were traditionally very powerful until colonisation imposed its Christian patriarchal views. “For example, the Shona word ‘mwari’ is a feminine word for God. We won our war from the British because the army was led by a woman who had a spirit medium (lioness spirit) and she was able to navigate through the jungle like nobody could. She also predicted the arrival of white people”. Since history changed the religion of the country, Mandi witnesses today that abuses against women have been committed by creating a feeling of dependence on husbands – especially when the economy turned down – as a result women have become disempowered and some aren’t speaking out enough. However, she stresses that any disrespectful acts against a mother will lead the culprit to be thrown out of the family and cursed by the community. “My dad used to say to admire my mother because she is the most important person in the family. I remember that people used to be afraid of my grandmother, she was the matriarch of the family”.
The determined Mandi went through challenging times during her studies at Monash University in South Africa. Different from her group of friends, she found interests in other cultures, countries and naturopathy. When she managed to be on an exchange program with Monash University in Melbourne, she felt much freedom in style and identity. Although Melbourne appeared a place to offer the freedom that she needed, her depression deepened as Zimbabwe became the focus of a ferocious attack by the media in 2006. Mandi was even accused by the Australian Government of having links to weapons of mass destruction. “I felt pressured by the media and ashamed of my identity of Zimbabwean, I started to look less black. I couldn’t afford a lawyer so I started to advocate for myself”. She managed to obtain her permanent residency in 2012. “That same year I went back to Zimbabwe and I fell in love again with my roots and identity”.
Now she completely embraces and promotes her African identity. She uses African dancing as a form of healing to reconnect body, spirit and mind. She dances to traditional (drums) and more modern African music. Dancing has healed and reconnected her with her lioness heart. A heart that seeks to look after women and help them understand that next to a king always stands a queen who can stand up, speak out but still empower their men. Strong-willed, Mandi wants to be a pioneer in health reform and gender equality back in Zimbabwe.
After noticing that African women were emotionally abused and suffered from self-hatred, she envisioned a structure to improve their wellbeing. Her advice to women “is to love themselves, to honour what’s in their hearts and if someone is treating them in a disrespectful way, it is not okay. They shouldn’t tolerate it. They should speak up because the more they speak, it will become less tolerable in our culture. We need to support each other as women because we teach our children that it is okay by not doing anything. It starts with how we raise our children”.