INTERVIEW: Zimbabwe Leeds Community – establishing a home away from home

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By UK Bureau

ZLC executive committee member Chris Goshomi

Zimbabwe Leeds Community (ZLC) is one of the many organisations working to help unite Zimbabwean diasporas and assisting in the exiles’ integration into the respective communities they have settled across the world. Established in 2016 and now boasting of a membership of 300-plus, ZLC holds its second elective annual general meeting (AGM) later this month. One of the key questions for members at this crucial meeting is – having come this far, what next?’s Gilbert Nyambabvu talked to ZLC executive member Chris Goshomi for his reflections on this and other related subjects. Below are excepts of the discussion.

Gilbert Nyambabvu (GN): Let’s begin with a bit of background, shall we; when was ZLC formed and what was the thinking behind establishing this organisation?

Chris Goshomi (CG): Thank you, Mr Editor, for taking interest in the work of ZLC. ZLC stands for Zimbabwe Leeds Community and was established in 2016. The birth of ZLC was inspired by the hope and faith of the people of Zimbabwe living in Leeds as an attempt to recover a lost community which they once had in their country of origin. A major dilemma in migrant communities is the struggle to balance between integrating into the new country, embracing the new ways of life and culture whilst not losing your identity. The feeling of being Zimbabweans was never lost in the long journey to UK. The love of having an identity and embracing our own culture; to feel Zimbabwean and to live Zimbabwean although in foreign country. The main objectives of ZLC are to mobilise and bring people together, build a centralised community promoting and supporting each other in times of need and engaging local authorities in tailoring services to suit their needs.

The birth of ZLC has been such a long journey, with so many ups and downs. You may recall that there have been quite a few formations of Zimbabwe community groups in Leeds, some break ups, new formations and reunifications have been the order, until the dream was panel beaten to the new ZLC. If there is a challenge one can ever think of, it is inspiring communities to come together. This is made more challenging in the case of people whose social fibre has been snapped by such circumstances as migration, resettlement and adapting to a completely different environment and culture. Working on this project since its inception has made me understand the biblical story of the Israelites in their journey from the captive land of Egypt to Canaan – the proverbial “journey of the none believers”, the hope is there but the faith is very little.

However, the one thing that made this mammoth task achievable was the appetite to belong. The love to find one another. The hope to create a sustainable community, which caters for the old and the young, and even those who have left us – may their souls rest in peace.

GN: In terms of membership; what’s the eligibility criteria and where are you now, by way of numbers?

CG: Any Zimbabwean person living in Leeds can be a member. Yearly membership fees are £20. If anyone had said to you 4 years ago, “we would be able to create such a huge diverse group comprising all tenets of diversity categorisation, such as churches, mosques, sexual orientation, ethnicity and tribe”, would you have believed it? We now have nearly 300 people who are fully subscribed to the group. Each day sees additional members coming in. Our existence awareness is growing and growing.

GN: You are a member of the executive; two years on, what progress have you made in terms of achieving ZLC’s founding objectives?

CG: The one thing that is unbelievably amazing of the Zimbabwean community is the love and passion they have for their community project. We have managed to mobilise the people and the numbers are growing and growing each day. People have voted unanimously to increase memberships subs from £5 to £20. We are also complimenting subscriptions with other fund-raising activities. We held very successful carnival and independence events this year, which facilitated the 2 main functions of ZLC, bringing the community together and also fundraising.

In the previous year we had a very successful ZLC launch, which attracted the local authority and the police as a major step to engaging with key community stakeholders in Leeds. During this launch, we received substantial donations, which included both cash and material support. We are also unrelenting on a wider engagement with other 3rd sector groups as expected by the local authority to demonstrate that we are working in partnerships. Leeds City Council’s agenda is to create a seamless community. My colleagues and I have participated at some high-profile events coordinated by the local authority such as Migration Access Project (MAP), Leeds Equalities Assembly (a very highly subscribed event which one has to book 2 years in advance to find a space). We have also been part of the Black History month and have taken a very central role in organising the event. We have really increased our network.

GN: Where would you say you have come short; and what were the challenges?

CG: We concentrated mostly on mobilising the people, which is, fundamentally, great. We have struggled a bit in fully engaging with the council, which is a major ZLC agenda issue. We have been inward looking, partly influenced by our lack of experience and have not taken advantage of the funding opportunities for community groups this year. This is something, which we are working on and learning the ropes. First steps should have been taken towards acquisition of a community centre, which is the main expectation of the members.  We should have started laying some foundations and clear strategies towards that direction.

GN: As one fairly familiar with community activities, the work of ZLC has been – as you also admit above – largely insular. The organisation is inward looking – helping members with things like Chema and such. There isn’t much by way of outward engagement with other communities, other organisations. Is that a fair criticism?

CG: I completely agree. While this is a fundamental incidental energy focus requirement, we should also balance with the main goals. Looking more at how we can establish projects, which will support our future generations and our ageing community is of growing importance. We should also be looking at projects, which address contemporary issues like high rate of social breakdown resulting from challenges of integration, examples being increasing rate of suicides, divorce, children behavioural challenges and crime.

However, I am also mindful that – in our culture – funerals bring people together. We are a community influenced by our background of extreme hardships. We tend to find each other in times of crises. Our relationships are more solidified by our hardships and the one thing that has also influenced our growth is how we have dealt with funerals. So, in essence a different approach needs to be adopted with regards to funerals, so that it does not occupy the main business.

GN: Part of the idea behind establishing ZLC was not just bringing the Zimbabwean diaspora in Leeds and its surrounds together, but also to help with their integration into the local community. Do you see any progress in that respect?

CG: Yes, definitely. This is why we are frantically working with other community groups across Leeds. We have been central in organising the Black History event, which in essence cuts across all the other ethnic minority groups. We are at the centre of championing equality, diversity and inclusion across the city.

GN: It appears to me that remarkable work has been done in terms of bringing people together such that the organisation is now, possibly, at that ‘what next’ moment. In your view, where should ZLC go from here?

CG: My view is that now is that now is the time to demonstrate to the local authority that we have the numbers. Our people also need provisions which suit their cultural backgrounds. We need to concentrate on engaging the local authority now. That should be our focus. We have to now make sure our infrastructure to sell ourselves becomes fully functional such as our website, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of media. We should also plan to work with community groups from other countries and regions of the world including Asian communities. There is a lot we could learn from engaging and interacting in the wider community.

GN: There is always a lot of debate on ZLC platforms about the organisation’s engagement with Zimbabwe. Some feel that ZLC should be detached and focus on intra-ZLC matters; others want a broader engagement and involvement with the local UK socio-economic and political issues; also, the Zimbabwe’s economic and social issues as well as its politics – where do you stand?

CG: Zimbabweans are people who have experienced a lot of challenges in their political space and the word politics invokes some very unpalatable memories. Everything in my opinion is political. Working on a community group and lobbying for your people is political according to my definition. Councillors whom we are frantically trying to engage locally are in politics. However, the word politics in our community is crystallised from our experiences, where we suddenly visualise ZANU PF, MDC and other political parties engaging in brutal conflicts. It will take time and learning to detach from our negative history. We have to take each step at a time.

GN: The membership of ZLC is around 300 with just over 100 paid up, I believe. What ideas to you have about utilising this critical mass and the potential influence it comes with to empower individuals and grow the organisation even further?

CG: While subs are very critical at present where we have not utilised the other funding mechanisms available, this should not make us exclude our people who are passionate about our community project. We should still engage with non-subscribed members and maximise from their contributions. Some have very meaningful contributions which we should make use of. In my perception this subscription should be a short-term measure. We need to benefit from the expertise we have in our community to get more meaningful funding which will grow our projects. We can’t fund a generational project from subscriptions. There is plenty money available in the system waiting to be used. The local authority and other 3rd sector groups are calling out every day for takers of this money.

GN: The organisation will hold its second elective AGM later this month; having been a member of the outgoing executive, what advice do you have for those who will be chosen to continue from where you left?

CG: Firstly, I would like to thank the current executive for the work which they have done to keep the vision alive. The one important thing is that they have managed to sustain the life of the group. They have managed to inspire people to remain together. We are stronger together. The coming executive should take lessons from the outgoing executive; there should be a seamless continuity. Now that we have mobilised numbers, we now have to concentrate on the more fundamental objectives, such as engagement with the local authority and other 3rd sector groups. Networking with other migrant communities is also of fundamental value. The media sections such as the website have to be completed and become fully functional and purpose serving. A more structured and coordinated approach is required to define tangible projects, which benefit our community. Examples being language classes, which teach our children our language. We have to be more proactive in utilising the funding streams available. Above all, leadership should inspire the people to keep the vision.

GN: You have been nominated for chairmanship. Interested?

CG: A very interesting question. I have had a few people who have approached me about this idea. I would like to thank those who see me in that light and those who nominated me. It’s inspiring to realise that people see your passion in certain things. I can never hide my passion for ZLC. I have a collective dream with everyone who has faith on this project. I however, still think we have a lot of talent out there. We are a community endowed with amazing talent. Let’s explore and find someone who can truly deliver our dream and vision.  If, however, the community really feel I have to take the yoke, and are inspired that they can deliver with me, I will have to humbly take the responsibility. We are all community servants and none of us should say no when responsibility has been given.

GN: Mr Goshomi, thank you for talking to us.

CG: Thank you Mr Nyambabvu for taking an interest in the work of ZLC.