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The woman who raised a nation …The life and work of Inyathelo author Joanna Sibanda … First woman to get driver’s licence

By Bruce Ndlovu

Joanna Sibanda’s life has been one long series of firsts and she is not shy to tell anyone who cares to listen.When one visits her warm home, she speedily unearths a stash of certificates and accolades that she has won over the years as if to shut the mouth of any naysayer that might doubt her story.

Joanna Sibanda
Joanna Sibanda

She spreads them over a table, like precious possessions put on display at an auction. The certificates and awards are proof of a glittering career, one studded with awe inspiring achievements in education.

Sibanda is a woman of firsts. She was first the first teacher to introduce the “new approach”, a groundbreaking educational strategy that revolutionised Zimbabwe’s education system in 1962.

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She was the first woman to head Longman Zimbabwe’s sales division, commandeering the support of learned men all over the country who looked at her for guidance.

Sibanda, the author of Inyathelo textbooks that were once a staple in primary schools across the country, was also the first black woman to possess a driver’s licence.

“I got my licence in 1968 but it came after a struggle,” she says of the square card that still remains one of her most prized possessions. I had a car but I needed a licence and when I tried to get one they refused to allow me as they said they did not know any black woman who drove a car.

They simply refused. They said black women used scotch carts and sleighs so why couldn’t I also do the same?

I then realised that I was failing my driving tests because the people in charge did not want me to pass because I was a woman. But in the end, with the help of a few people, I managed to get my licence,” she recalls.

Time has not been kind on one of her most prized possessions — that historic licence grudgingly given to her 51 years go. Having suffered the wear and tear that was bound to come with five decades of existence, it has lost some of its colour. The country that issued that particular document, Rhodesia, no longer exists and so does the spectacled woman whose picture sits on the left side of the licence.

That young woman has been replaced by an 86-year-old woman with a photographic memory, a woman who still remembers even her earliest days growing up in a settlement secluded at the corner of a farm belonging to a man she still calls Mr Robinson.

“I grew up at a place called Ntabende. It was a farm owned by Mr Robinson. That’s where I grew up and I was raised by my mother because my father had passed away. My father passed away in 1938 but I was born in 1934 so you can see I was very young.

My father had wanted us to be people who can read and write and not be illiterate people. So my mother took me to a local school which went as far as Standard Three. From then on I went to a boarding school in Ngwenya Mission where I went as far as Standard Six. I then went to Hope Fountain,” Sibanda says.

At a time when the teaching profession was still at the peak of its glamour, it did not take long for Sibanda to find her calling in that profession. At Hope Fountain she caught the eye of her superiors and soon she was recognised as the cream of the crop.

“I then trained to be a teacher and then in 1952 I completed my studies. I thought I would go on and find a job as a teacher but the principal that was in charge of the teacher training school said she wanted me to be a teacher at the practising school.

There I was responsible for the entire school. I used to ask for books from him so I was reading up on a lot of things about education,” Sibanda recalls.

There are things that millions of schoolchildren that have come through the education system might take for granted. For example, many among those that got their education after 1962 might not know why they sit in groups when they are in school.

Grouping children together might seem a simple enough thing to do, but this was not always the case. In fact, it might not have happened were it not for Sibanda and her new approach to education.

“Basically the new approach said that children should not sit in a row on a bench. Rather they should sit in a circle of not more than five. In that environment students could interact and as a teacher you should just move around and check on them.

Those that came after 1962 don’t know what we used to call straight benches. On these students would sit in a row of as many as 10,” she says.

While they are now widely accepted as the norm, the principles of this new approach were not always welcomed at the time when they were introduced.

“I had trouble because it was introducing something new to teachers who felt it was a burden. Sometimes when I was on the way on the bus I would hear teachers, who didn’t know me, talking about me.

Some would say who is this Joanna who is giving us so much work, our work used to be simple. One time I had to rise and tell them that I was the Joanna they were talking about and they had to apologise,” Sibanda recalls in amusement.

After studying infant teaching at Bristol University, and a stint at Mzilikazi High School, Sibanda was to break new ground when she was hired by educational books publisher Longman Zimbabwe. It was at Longman that her writing blossomed.

“The Principal at the school at Hope Fountain said he was opening up a school in Bulawayo and wanted to know if I was interested in teaching there and I said yes, so I can to teach for a while at Mzilikazi High.

I was then offered another job by Longman Zimbabwe. That’s when I started writing seriously. That’s when I wrote my book, Beginning to Learn, a manual for teachers.

By then schools were using the New Approach which is what was used until the introduction of the new curriculum. It was during that time that I wrote many books including a book called The twins at the Matobo Hills, which was an imaginary story,” she says.

Sibanda prides herself for never having applied for a job until the end of her illustrious career in 1997.

“In my life I’ve never applied for a job. I don’t know how one applies for a job. All the jobs I had were offered by people that wanted to employ me. What I enjoyed and what I treasure is teaching young children.

I was managing the whole of Matabeleland and people that I was in charge of were men. In 1993 I got a chance to be the sales representative of Longman,” she reveals.

Despite an illustrious career, Sibanda’s work has diminished somewhat with the introduction of a new curriculum a few years ago. After her husband passed away in 1994 and her only child chose South Africa as his adopted country, Sibanda is familiar enough with loss. The decline of her work’s significance however, has other consequences.

“We used to get royalties but with the coming of the new curriculum things have changed. Royalties helped me a lot in my life but since last year things have been different,” she says ruefully. Sunday News.