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MUNATSI: I want to help build a more inclusive and intercultural Irish society

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By irishtimes.com

Irish companies talk about ‘diversity, inclusion. But there’s only one black person on staff’

New to the parish: Campaigner Patricia Munatsi arrived from Zimbabwe in 2019

In June 2019, Patricia Munatsi received an email that changed her life. The previous year, the Zimbabwean law graduate went to Ethiopia to take part in a conference in Addis Ababa. There, she met young people from across Africa who had travelled the world working on policies around gender equity and human rights protection.

After returning home to Zimbabwe, Munatsi immediately contacted her brother who worked as a doctor in the UK, seeking advice on how to apply for overseas study scholarships.

“He forwarded me the link to the Irish Aid scholarship and told me with the kind of work I’d done, he thought they’d accept me. So I took the chance and applied.”

After going through a series of interviews, Munatsi was selected for the programme.

“When I opened the email I just saw the first sentence which said ‘congratulations’. I couldn’t read the rest until hours later when I was calm enough to take it all in. You have no idea how much that email changed my life.”

The second youngest of eight children, Munatsi was born and brought up on a farm in the town of Chivu in Mashonaland in eastern Zimbabwe. Her father, a retired engineer who was in his 70s when she was born, invested his savings in purchasing the modest family farm and ensuring all of his children completed their education.

“I was born into a family that didn’t have much but at least we had enough to eat from the farm. But in terms of what was going on around the country, there was a lot of inflation, the land reform programmes were happening and the political upheaval had started.”

It was acceptable in my society that women were abused, that mothers were beaten

Being a girl in Zimbabwe also had its challenges, she adds. “I was told by the society that my gender had a bearing on access to opportunities and justice. Fortunately, my dad ensured all his girls were educated. He really believed in the transformative power of education and that in order to break the generational caste of poverty, he needed to make sure both his boys and girls were educated and self-sufficient on their own.”

Munatsi excelled at secondary school and was chosen to represent her community at the Zimbabwean junior parliament in Harare. After spending 10 days in the capital with the parliament, Munatsi decided she wanted to become a lawyer.

“I got to represent young people from my area and learned it doesn’t matter if you come from rural Zimbabwe or if you’re born into a poor family. Access to opportunities are still so important.”

She also wanted to learn the legal skills to represent women in her community. “It was acceptable in my society that women were abused, that mothers were beaten. Obviously I knew I wasn’t able to change the world but I wanted to change somebody’s life for the better. Even one person, that was the goal.”

In 2013, Munatsi moved to Harare to study law at the University of Zimbabwe. She specialised in human rights, environmental issues and women’s rights. However, with the country suffering economically, she struggled to find work when she graduated in 2017 and took on an unpaid volunteer role with a human rights NGO. After three months, she was offered a job with the charity as an assistant projects lawyer working on cases around gender, health and reproductive rights. Munatsi was still working in this role when she discovered she’d secured a scholarship to study for a master’s in international human rights at UCD.

She arrived in Dublin in August 2019. “I waited until everyone else had disembarked the plane, I wanted that moment to myself. As I walked down the stairs, I took in the beautiful sky before I stepped onto Irish soil. It felt like a new beginning; you only get these opportunities once in a lifetime.”

Munatsi was only starting to settle into life in Ireland when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. Most Irish and European students living on campus quickly returned to their families, leaving behind the international students who were unable to find or afford flights home.

“I remember feeling scared about what we were going to do, this was still a new place and I was finding my way around. But I set up a routine where every day at 4pm I’d walk the radius of UCD as a way of thinking clearly and taking care of my mental health.”

Munatsi particularly missed her mother who did not have access to a reliable internet connection on the family farm. However, she tried to stay positive through chatting online with her siblings and friends.

After completing her master’s in August 2020, Munatsi travelled to Britain to visit her brother while she figured out her next move. She wanted to stay in Ireland but struggled to find work because of pandemic lay-offs. She had hoped to find a position with a law firm but eventually settled on a job packing deliveries in a Dunnes Stores warehouse to make ends meet. She spent 12-hour days packing boxes alongside migrants from African, South American and eastern European countries.

I also want to help build a more inclusive and intercultural Irish society, because there’s beauty in that

Munatsi continued searching for other jobs and in the spring of 2021 she was offered the role of policy lead with the Irish Network Against Racism (Inar). A year on, Munatsi continues to work on racial issues and discrimination in Ireland and is contributing to the State’s national action plan on racism.

She believes two types of racism exist in Ireland – the overt racism that a Traveller woman may face when entering a shop “because people think she’s going to steal something” and the institutional racism which blocks people of colour from progressing professionally.

“Ireland is a very diverse community but that’s not reflected in our institutions. I look at different companies which employ thousands of people and say on their websites they’re grounded by diversity and inclusion. But then there’s only one black person on staff.

“Diversity is our strength, why not invest in these people and allow them to thrive and prosper? We’re more than just immigrants, we contribute. Don’t just ask us about our immigration status, ask us about what we are trained in as professionals. That’s what Ireland is missing at the moment, but it’s never too late to change, there’s room to correct things. I’m hopeful.”

Munatsi is sitting her first round of Law Society bar exams and hopes to sit the exams at King’s Inns next year. “I want to train as a barrister here, that’s the long-term plan. I want young girls to look at me and say ‘if she did it, then it’s possible’. And I also want to help build a more inclusive and intercultural Irish society, because there’s beauty in that.”