Several years ago, Alexander Chisango noticed that although his wife Analyn worked at public relations for the Zimbabwe Post and Telecommunications Corp., her passion was her ability to turn plain fabric into ornate bedspreads, tablecloths and curtains. Sensing that she had potential to capitalize on a very profitable talent, Chisango urged her to market her wares.
Soon she was operating out of a small showroom in town, employing nine workers at above-minimum-wage earnings. Within several years, her work improved, her business grew, and her income raised the quality of life for her entire family. Analyn had capitalized on a skill that not only tapped a passion, but also empowered her family.
The concept of empowering families to solve their own problems is very powerful in Zimbabwe where the economy is deteriorating; there is a devalued currency, foreign currency shortages, rising inflation and unemployment. Many families struggle to buy food, foot their medical bills and pay for transportation since fuel prices skyrocketed. Government assistance has virtually dried up, and help is not forthcoming from the private or business sectors.
While there are "ideal" families in Zimbabwe where a mother and father co-exist happily with their children, there are many other families that live under very adverse conditions. Deaths from AIDS have created single-parent families making some children to be raised by grandparents or left to fend for themselves. Some mothers are deserted by their mates, or choose not to marry. Families that emigrate from rural village to the city often lose connections with their extended kin.
The family, Chisango argues, must learn to pick up where the government has left off, taking leadership in difficult times, and crafting its own solutions – with men and women sustaining equal footing in the household. It is time to recognize the strengths of the family to manage a wide range of activities, from contributing to a family business to coping with single parenthood. Chisango urges that the entire country adopts this concept. It is at the heart of his Christian-based organization, the Pan-African Family Empowerment Foundation.
The foundation is a grassroot socio-economic movement that helps families in Zimbabwe move away from a culture of dependence. It trains family counselors, helps families start income-generating projects, conducts research and extensive networking, and lobbies the government for better family policies.
This movement toward reliance on the family has grown stronger in the wake of the IMF-World Bank's economic structural adjustment program which attempted to address the country's post-independence surge in consumption, leading to unemployment and devalued incomes, says Rekopantswe Mate, a University of Zimbabwe lecturer on the sociology of the family and development studies. The idea was to offer very little government assistance in social and economic development, while encouraging private donors to play a leading role, Mate says. Families were in need, and the government could not help. Housing, which city councils had been primarily responsible for providing in the past, became unaffordable to the people.
Chisango hopes to help families achieve financial independence by teaching the skills needed for income-generating projects, gardening, shoemaking, weaving and screen-printing. He also teaches hygiene and household sanitation to help keep medical expenses down.
After receiving a Bachelor's degree in Education, Chisango worked as Zimbabwe's Assistant National Literacy Coordinator. He also worked extensively in non-governmental organizations, training and educating people to work in agricultural, bakery, poultry and cattle cooperatives nationwide. It was during this time that he discovered a missing link in development work: development policies are implemented on a national level, but are never applied to family units.
"I noticed that while we talk about individual development, we also talk about community development, and then national development," he said. "From there, people talk about regional and international development. But I discovered that approach was different from the reality in people's minds.
The problem, he concluded, was that Western development ideas were being imposed on African families. Most donor organizations, such as the World Bank and United Nations, are Western entities with abstract policies. Their policies assumed that people were communities of individuals, not clusters of families. For example, they might try to jump start a Third World economy by pumping money into the production sector, such as multi-national business corporations, instead of funding family businesses. Chisango tries to compensate for this oversight by redirecting funds back to the family.
In African societies, the individual must answer to the family, a standard that contrasts with Western societies, where it is not unusual for people to live alone, or even stay a far distance from the family. Programs which ignore this principle are resisted because they are seen as trying to tear the family apart. For example, a female fighting for women's liberation must be able to explain to her husband and children how her personal emancipation will aide the family's need for food and sustenance. "As long as what is spoken out about in a workshop of women does not take the politics of the home into consideration, it just hits the wall and ends there," he noted.
People are "concerned about themselves, their families and their households, first and foremost – before you talk about the community, and before you talk about the nation," he says. "If you decide you want to take up a profession – to become a policewoman or a soldier – your family – father and mother, brothers and sisters – all have something to say about what you've decided to do."
With this in mind, Chisango set out to create a way for families to become self-sufficient. He began contacting churches, using religion to reach a country that is 85 percent Christian. He also reached out to urban resident associations, factory workers, and women's and youth groups, telling them about pertinent programs and professional help. He began mobilizing volunteers, and calling family counselors to guide families with child rearing, coping with single parenthood, and starting income-generating projects.
Beginning with six trained volunteers to cover social empowerment areas like financial, marital and gender issues, he began training volunteers as counselors. The training is an ongoing effort that expands independently of the foundation, so it is difficult to know the exact number of participants, but Chisango estimates some 4,000 people are direct participants, and the foundation has impacted as many as 12,000 people altogether.
During the counseling sessions, surveys are distributed to ascertain families' employment, skills, education, occupation and entrepreneurial history. Counselors help them reflect on their abilities and achievements, and discuss their mistakes and triumphs.
"This helps every participant discover the potential that is already within the family," he says. Chisango tracks the success of his participants by reviewing these surveys.
Chisango eases into situations carefully, knowing that he risks distancing a family member if he does not respond carefully to anger or denial. His counselors know, for example, that a child who has been molested by a relative may be very resistant to embracing the idea of any family at all.
The foundation began lobbying churches, lawmakers and organizations to adopt its policy at its 1998 Pan-African Family Empowerment Foundation Conference. It has asked the government to adopt United Nations family principles, a goal that has not yet been realized. It has unsuccessfully attempted to influence the government's land resettlement program.The foundation wants to ensure the interests of families are considered and that successful land transfers are documented to benefit new settlers.
While the foundation focuses on empowering existing families, it also tries to act as a family support network for those without families, such as refugees, orphans, homeless people and victims of natural disasters.
As the foundation expands its efforts to influence policy on a national level, Chisango continues to work at the community level. At a private, middle-class high school in Harare where the thrust of the discussion focused on the need to get more parents involved in their children's education, he urged parents to be open with their children.
"It's primarily your responsibility, before we even come to the teacher at the school. It's important to keep children involved in the affairs of the family, so that they can contribute to its survival, or even carry on if the parents die,” Chisango told them.
Chisango says that the impact of the project is beginning to spread. Some 15 churches nationwide, and several churches in South Africa, have set up their own family empowerment counsels, serving congregations ranging in size from 50 to 500 people.
"People are taking back power into their families, and beginning to do advocacy for themselves," Chisango says, "that's part of the joy."
Since AIDS has become widespread, hospitals have been overwhelmed with patients while experiencing shortages in medication. Families, who at first were reluctant to care for HIV-infected relatives, have since adopted a system of family-based care. They act as caretakers for their sick relative by encouraging them to eat a healthy diet.
Chisango believes his foundation contributed to this change in attitude, one which keeps health care costs down and provides a support system for the patient. "More and more people are beginning to realize that you can use the family as an empowerment resource center for gender issues, employment creation, rehabilitation and victims of abuse," he said. "There's no longer a public outcry of hopelessness."
In future, Chisango would like to begin research and services to improve disaster prevention and rehabilitation programs for victims of natural disasters and political violence. Most important, he would like to document the stories of people who have survived such situations.
"Nobody has systematically gone to those people to say, 'What do you suggest? You have struggled with these things and you have recovered. What lessons have you learned?'"
Chisango would like to document a wider range of successful case studies, compiling them in easy-to-read booklets in simple English or indigenous languages.
Chisango envisions a network of family empowerment branches spreading across the African continent. Each of those branches would have networks within a country, and would become powerful lobbying bodies to amend country constitutions.
The ideas of family empowerment were engrained in Chisango during his childhood. He grew up in a peasant family in southeastern Zimbabwe. His mother taught him how a family of very little means can empower itself to care for children. His father died when he was 16 years old, leaving his mother to eke out a living for the family. He watched her toil in the fields from sunrise to sunset. She would often give him words of encouragement, imparting her ideas of honesty and hard work.