This is the story of Chido Govera aka The Mushroom Woman. It is a story about her home, Zimbabwe. And it is also a story about mushrooms. It never should have happened.
Chido, an orphan, became the provider in her family aged seven. At 10 she was destined to marry a man 30 years older than her. But a chance encounter led her to discover the almost magical science of mushroom cultivation at a local university, and set her life on a very different course.
“ I grew up in a village in Marage near the Chatzwe diamond field, I was living with my grandmother, she had three round huts thatched and when my mother passed away when I was seven I became the head of the household. My mother passed away from AIDS, it was very early on and there was no access to medication yet.”
“I was responsible for doing everything that the adult of a household is supposed to do, putting food on the table, because my grandmother was much older, she was over a hundred years old and I was also responsible for raising my younger brother who was two years my junior, I would walk for a long distance to fetch water, I would go and fetch firewood, yeah I had I to tend the a small field which belonged to my grandmother and I was farming only what a young girl of seven years could farm.”
Today, she reflects on her story and she says it’s all so surreal.
“I have in my house a little boy of seven, when I look at him, when I look at the things that are continuously on his mind, it is play and making cars out of plastic water bottles and stuff, and fortunately perhaps in my case today we could say fortunately I didn’t have that as a child, I had sort of learn how to earn my kit as a kit as a young girl.
Even when I repeat the story to myself it still sounds like a story out of a novel because this is where I was and to see where I am today, it’s all a little unreal, you know.”
Chido Govera’s first experience with the family of mushrooms was with forage mushrooms. She would go with her aged grandmother. Chido says she will sit her down, run around to gather some mushrooms from the forest and bring them to her grandmother.
“She was so knowledgeable that without her sight working well anymore she could smell the mushrooms and she could tell which mushroom was edible, which mushroom was poisonous and she would teach me things like when you have these mushrooms in the forest, first of all, you have to cut and leave the stem in the ground and when you take the mushroom with the gills, you’ll have to cook it in a pot which is open, and then you keep the door of the house open, and if you asked why we have to do all those things, she says it so the gods of the forest will give you more mushrooms next year, if you close the pot you close the forest.”
“Hearing my grandmother say these and hearing the story of the gods, it sounded something indeed kind of spiritual magical thing,” Chido Govera adds.
As a little girl fascinated by a new world of earthly living creatures, Chido Govera dreamed of somehow finding a way to use her newfound knowledge to help young girls and women like her; stuck in a place itching to make something better of their lives.
But it remained a dream very shortly after.
“When I was 10 years old, a member of the extended family came to me and said, ‘look, we see that you are in a very difficult situation and would like to help you. The only way I can help you is that my husband you see here has got a friend and that friend is 40 years old, and he’s been struggling to find a wife.’
When you are getting married there is an exchange of a girl and some money, they get some money so they let you go.
But this was a proposal to marry a guy who was 30 years my senior and with the things I had experienced also as a child, to just think about getting married, you realise your world is just so different.”
“I was taking care of my grandmother; I was helping her. When old people have a walking stick and you have to help them see, if I am not here to do that, I thought, ‘am I really taking care of her?’ I’m not and so I stayed.
I refused to get married and so officially I had turned down the only help I could get to help my situation, so I was really on my own.”
Months went by and then an opportunity.
A lady from Chido’s community, Loveness Zegene had witnessed Chido’s entire life story unravel before her eyes. She was very close to Chido Govera.
One day she went to church and on her way back passed by Chido’s home. There, she told Chido about a training course for young orphans to learn about and to grow mushrooms. The programme was being held at Africa University in Mutare.
“For Loveness to be able to pick me up and go with me to the training, she had to first convince my uncle that I would go only to the training and I would come back and because she did I was able to go attend this training at the Africa University.”
Chido Govera only had five years of primary school under her belt. She had also only little experience with mushrooms, considering she had only been foraging them, compared to the unlimited unknown about mushrooms that still remains undiscovered in the world of science today.
But the thought of actually using this foundation, nevermind how little, to do something was captivating enough for her to pursue something concerning mushrooms.
After the training, she returned as promised and with a new skill.
“Immediately we had a little mushroom house built for us at Marage High School and I can clearly remember, the first batch of mushrooms we harvested, we cooked them and let the people taste them for free.”
It was a hit with the community.
“Before we knew it, we had very high demand for all the mushrooms that we were producing. At the end of the month, I’ll earn some money and buy my own food and I can still see the image of me standing in a little shop at Marage clinic buying my first checked skirt and some tops and thinking, ‘wow, so life can be like this!’.”
“We were able to use that money, part of it to pay for school fees for other orphans and that immediately helped me to connect with my 8 year old dream of helping other young orphans like me. My brother could go to school with ease and I was thinking definitely this is something I want to learn more about.”
Now cool and important in the community because of her work on mushrooms, Chido stood out and proved that there was a better achievement to reach for than marriage; because that was what was expected of young girls in her community back in the day.
Then, the 12-year-old green-fingered Chido caught the eye of her old course leader from Africa University, Mrs Tagura.
“She came to the village and I was in the fields with my uncle. We were cutting grass for 13 hours, cutting protection for the round hut where I stayed with my grandmother and he was cutting for his. So when she came, we had to go to sit with my uncle and start the same negotiations [for Chido Govera to the university].
Really sister Aguero had to plead with him to allow me to go and his final decision was I would pay him for taking care of my grandmother, his mother and my brother and that payment had to come on a monthly basis.” Laughing she adds, “he actually had a book, he had a book every month; I give him the money, we count, he sees it, says…‘bring me my book and the book would come and he would write down the amount I’m still owing.”
When she was 16 she decided she would return to school. She did the needful to do so; negotiated once again and made arrangements.
“Of course then I had to deal with people who look at me like I was a grandmother, you know, like they were the right age and I was the wrong age. I was a sickly child; the working and the carrying of all the books was not really easy for me. But I stuck it out and I did my O-Level. I kept thinking about what I really wanted to do and I knew at the time it was clear, I wanted to have my own training centre, I wanted to teach other people and I wanted to help orphans, it was very clear for me.”
So instead of going to A-Level, Chido Govera decided to work.
She started working to earn a living but then something still felt missing.
“One of my wishes was to have a father because you know, growing up on my mother’s side of the family, I always had to deal with the threat of being sent away from the homestead; I was so keen on knowing my own father.”
There was an exchange between Mrs Tagura and the founder of ZERI Foundation, Gunta Pauli. To Gunta, Mrs Tagura says, ‘I have two girls here and one of them has mushroom fingers but she needs a father.’
“I became an adopted child of Gunta Pauli. I was never interested in an adoption where I would change my name or become a citizen of another country. I just had somebody I could acknowledge as my father after he’s been hearing about when I went to school and hearing about how I was getting sick and everything.”
Upon hearing about her ailment, he flew her to Switzerland for medical attention.
“I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This Swiss doctor, he came and sat me down and said, ‘well, yes you are not well, but your organs are functioning well. Everything is fine but you are carrying around pain from all the hurt in your childhood and yes we can fix some of the physical pain you feel but the rest of it, you have to work it out on your own.’
It was a combination of being one of the most difficult things I have had to deal with but at the same time, one of the most liberating things for me to know, that yes, I’m going through something because of all the pains of my childhood; the only one who can fix it is me.”
And so she did. Seeking help from her father, Chido Govera found solace in a series of therapeutic writing sessions and reflections.
“I was a very shy kid. I didn’t talk as much as I do now and so I decided to write. I wrote my story, and the only person I could trust with it of course was with this my adopted father.”
He suggested she should write something that had the title, ‘The Future Of…’ in an email. “I just read it and I was thinking and of course!”
“I was clear then already that when I finish studying, I want to focus on my work with mushrooms and then travel the world and continue my learning through travelling. I went first to Columbia, then India, Congo, women training in South Africa.
The first group of people I trained to farm mushrooms and coffee were young entrepreneurs from the US, graduates from Berkeley University and I have even travelled to show mushroom farming in Mongolia, and many other places.”
Now, Chido Govera runs her foundation called, The Future of Hope Foundation where she teaches mushroom cultivation to hundreds of people in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, South Africa, the Congo and also women from India, orphans from Columbia.