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Farai Gonzo: Dangers of a radio journalist in Zimbabwe

And how Scholars at Risk gave her newfound hope in Canada

By Sarah Jorstad 

November 9, 2015

Farai Gonzo is currently a PhD candidate in the Social Justice Education Department here at OISE, but many years ago such a future was unforeseeable. The Toronto Star recently reported on the Scholars at Risk Network, bringing to light the dangers she and others faced in their home countries. As a radio journalist, Farai reported on the ills of her society which led to her imprisonment and torture before coming to Canada.

“Right now I cannot travel to Zimbabwe. I came to Canada by fleeing from my government after exposing it of demolishing places where homeless people lived without offering an alternative,” says Farai. “This was during a very volatile political era when new opposition political parties were emerging.”

The University of Toronto’s Massey College has long been part of the international Scholars at Risk Network, headquartered at New York University. It promotes academic freedom and defends human rights where scholars worldwide “are attacked because of their words, their ideas and their place in society.” The Network brings distinguished academics and students out of oppressive and violent situations and provides humanitarian assistance.

“The Scholars at Risk Network became not only a light at the end of the tunnel, but a parachute as well. They found me when I was at my lowest ebb in life and had lost all hope, especially being alone in a new country. They helped me build my confidence assuring me that my future would be brightfirst attaching me to Centennial College and my subsequent junior fellowship at Massey College,” says Farai.

Looking back on her experiences, Farai says that despite it all she is grateful that she was able to work as a radio journalist in Zimbabwe. Her investigative reporting provided her the chance to work with NGOs and mobilize the government to respond to queries on-air for the community to hear. This work led to a six year commitment by a health company to supply sanitary towels for girls in four rural schools and condoms in rural beer halls. Her radio programs also led to sourcing boreholes in six villages instead of children travelling five kilometers to fetch water, as well as encouraging the government to release a mobile birth certificate registration van to rural areas for undocumented children. Without documentation, children could not go far in school. In 1995, Farai was awarded as a fellowship recipient by the Dag Hammarskjöld Fund for Journalists. She was then seconded to the United Nations headquarters in New York where she was a reporter for United Nations radio.

“Whenever I get the opportunity, I am happy to support girls in my own rural school area by buying materials for school uniforms and netballs.” says Farai. “Growing up in a village, we would make rug dolls and wire toy cars. For homework, we would level the ground and use our fingers to write. Still, life was full of joy. We would wave at airplanes in the sky but I never imagined flying in one. Looking back at where I come from, I remind myself that I did know I would be here in Canada and therefore I am hopeful in anticipating even better opportunities in my life.”

Through Farai’s PhD studies, she is investigating how radio may ease transition to life in Canada for new immigrants. In Zimbabwe and much of Southern Africa, the radio has a prominent role in people’s daily lives; it brings people together, preserves language, promotes culture and disseminates information.  Many feel lost, disconnected, and without community when immigrating to Canada which makes the transition more difficult. Farai is investigating: Would an Afro-centric radio station be an answer?’

“I truly love OISE – the professors and my fellow students. They make me feel accepted and at home. It is like learning while you are in your own house. People are supportive. The classes that I have taken so far will definitely inform my thesis in a big way.”

In September, the University of Toronto pledged a $1 million fundraising goal to support 100 new Scholars at Risk bursaries, matching all donations (1:1) up to $500,000. To be awarded over the next 10 years, it will first focus on Syrian students at risk and be broadened to help other refugees.

We are very proud of Farai’s accomplishments and that of her Scholars at Risk peers who have overcome incredible obstacles, but tread through life with ambitions of making the world a better place. One cannot help but be moved and ask themselves: ‘What can I do today to make a positive difference in the community?’