Otrude Moyo – from mission school outcast to academic
AT A missionary boarding school near rural Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, 13-year-old Otrude Moyo was punished for speaking her mother tongue of Ndebele.
An example of such shaming was having to remove ubhima (a creeping thorn) from grounds on which missionary horses grazed – with her bare hands in the heat of the day, without water.
“I was programmed to be ashamed of my language,” Moyo writes in her book, Africanity and Ubuntu as Decolonising Discourse, published in February.
She recalls how, at the same boarding school, only one out of 15 teachers had the courage to defy the English-only rule.
A male science teacher allowed pupils to explain Newton’s law of gravity in their home languages.
“The word Bantu, referring to Africans, was a puzzle to me. I remember thinking that the white world had tried so hard to remove itself from shared humanity: U-lu-ntu. White supremacy expressed through colonisation, apartheid and related systems of oppression had designed separate races, by which whites had removed themselves from that shared U-luntu. Again, whites used language to mark Africans in Southern Africa as Bantu, a term denoting ‘the Other’.”
For Moyo, reflecting on ubuntu remains “enmeshed in the historical experience of whiteness and the definitional power it held over every aspect of my life”.
Today, Moyo is a professor and programme director at the School of Social Work at Indiana University, South Bend, in the US, where her work centres on “undoing oppressions against those who have been historically othered”.
She is particularly passionate about teaching courses in social justice and multiculturalism.
In a webinar, Ubuntu, Human Dignity, and a Decent Society, hosted by Stellenbosch University Museum, as part of the Ubuntu Dialogues Project, Moyo sums up the key question that propels her research: “We share this one planet; how are we going to live well together?”
In a Zoom interview from her South Bend office, she said: “The question about how do I live well with others continues to bug me. It continues to be the passion that makes me get up and go. How do we live well together? I have looked at the philosophical ideas about living well together, specifically at individualism. And have not been satisfied with our foundational philosophies or institutions hinging on individualism. Because it leaves out the treatment of ‘the other’ – someone or something that is not to be included in the family of the planet. So hierarchialising things or human beings, and then creating those that are better.”
For Moyo, “othering” or “hierarchialising” extends both to humans placing themselves at “the apex” of Earth’s species, thus exploiting animals and plants; and to humans assuming dominance over other humans.
Moyo explains that in living a life sculpted by white dominance, often driven by values of individualism, for her ubuntu became a primary counter discourse for expressing her own humanity, and a shared humanity. She points out the Zulu maxim, Izandla ziyagezana, which means one hand washes another, thus thriving in mutual reciprocity.
Moyo has close ties to South Africa. Before Covid she would spend up to three months a year in Healdtown and Fort Beaufort, in the Eastern Cape, where research informed large parts of her book.
Here, together with the community, she established the Ubuntu Arts and Dialogues in Diversity programme aimed at “unlearning apartheid through dialogue, play, song, dance, painting and poetry readings”.
“I came from a minority group, and ethnicity matters in Zimbabwe. Ethnicity and gender and whether you are from a politically ‘big’ family. So as a person who came from none of those things, it meant that you were always sidelined. This is why I left Zimbabwe.”
Now, for nearly two decades while carving her academic career, she has taught undergraduate and graduate students. “So now I am a teacher after all, and my mother laughs, telling me: ‘I knew you!’”
The Ubuntu Dialogues Project is a collaboration between Stellenbosch University and Michigan State University, where it is hosted by the African Studies Centre.