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‘I have always been one of the boys’: Hilda Ramushu and the railways in Zimbabwe, 1970s-1980s – Nicole Sithole

Railways and railway infrastructure are in many ways gendered. The way the train and other public and private spaces of the railways are ordered and used reflect not only cultural, societal, and even political norms, values, and practices, but are also sites in which different masculinities and femininities play out. For passengers of trains and employees of the railways and their families, particular ideologies around the railways influence how different people experience railway spaces. The Rhodesia Railways, which became the National Railways of Zimbabwe at the country’s independence in 1980, was one such gendered space. My PhD research looks at the history of this company between 1945 and 1980, but more specifically its policies, operation, and labour, and aims to put African women at the centre of this history where they have largely been excluded from.

One area of focus in my research that I am increasingly fascinated by is railway labour. When I first began working on the railways in colonial Zimbabwe during my master’s degree, I hoped to find some records of women, especially African women, who had been employed on the Rhodesia Railways. Yet what I found was the relative silencing of African female voices in these records. As I have continued this work as part of my PhD, it has become clear that railway labour in the territories in which the Rhodesia Railways operated was largely male, although there were women, especially European women, employed in the clerical departments as early as the mid-1930s. For women of colour and especially African women, attaining formal employment on the railways was rare, although opportunities for clerical work were opened closer to independence in 1980. One woman who started off as an office assistant but then broke the mould and became the first African female commercial instructor and the first female traffic officer was Hilda Ramushu.

Hilda Ramushu started working for the Railways in May 1979 at the Bulawayo Goods Office. After working as a teacher for a few years prior, Ramushu was inspired to apply for this position by her sense of adventure and a desire to experience new things. In an interview I conducted with her with her in September 2022 she said:

I am an adventurer.  I wanted to see new things. I thought, ahh fine. I keep on teaching, from teaching where else? You teach, maybe you become a headmistress, but you teach, teach, and die teaching [laughs]. And my father was a teacher before he became a minister, my mother was a teacher, my elder brother was a teacher, my sister was teacher. Ahh! I was tired of teaching. Everything we were talking about at home was just students, students, students.[1]

By applying for the clerical role at the Railways, Ramushu had afforded herself the opportunity to explore a new profession and as she progressed in her career, she was also able to see new places in and around the country. Both her physical and metaphorical horizons had been expanded.[2] Ramushu was therefore always physically on the move, as she travelled between cities to perform her work-related duties, but also on the job, where she excelled and regraded into roles that had been previously inaccessible to African women. In these roles, she was always ‘one of the boys’ and never expected any preferential treatment because she was a woman. When speaking of her male colleagues, she said, ‘they would not treat you differently because you are a woman. Since I was the first one, they were really trying to make sure, can she really do it? And you had to go that extra mile to ensure that you really did it.’[3]

There were, however, some railwaymen who were initially shocked at her resilience and ability to the weather the harshness of railway work. Some of these colleagues expressed concern in her having to share to bathroom facilities with them as they moved between stations. Despite this, Ramushu notes how they generally had no problem with her being the only woman in a male dominated workplace and she formed good rapport with many of the railwaymen she worked with. Many of these railwaymen have in fact, become lifelong friends. She commented that, ‘even now, even their wives would say, ‘this is our husband’s friend’[4], highlighting how her job at the railways allowed her to bypass cultural and societal norms that may not have usually been supportive of female-male relationships after marriage.

Hilda Ramushu is a trail blazer who inspired many women after her to apply for positions at the Railways beyond clerical work. Images of her in The Railroader[5] must have inspired other women that it was in fact possible for women to do what had historically been considered ‘mans’ work’. Her story also highlights how in the late 1970s and in the early years of independence the railways in Zimbabwe made a concerted effort to address gender disparities in the workplace. Based on my interactions with Ramushu, the Railways did this in a way that was celebrated and welcomed by both railwaymen and new railwaywomen. Nevertheless, the industry today remains dominated by men and much more needs to be done to have more stories like that of Ramushu’s.

Nicole Sithole is a PhD candidate in African history and a Cambridge Trust Scholar at Sidney Sussex College. She was previously a co-convener of the World History Workshop and one of the editors of the Doing History in Public blog, the official blog of the Cambridge History Faculty. She is also one of two tribunes for the Confraternitas Historica Society at Sidney Sussex College. Her research is a gendered, women’s and social history of the railways in Zimbabwe that challenges androcentric colonial railway archives. She does this to reinsert African women into histories that they have been excluded from but were actively a part of shaping. Nicole’s research interests include labour history and strike actions in twentieth century Africa, African urban history and the histories of cities and migration in southern Africa.

Image credit: An image of Hilda Ramushu performing her shunting duties at the National Railways of Zimbabwe, The Railroader. January 26, 1984. Reproduced with kind permission of National Archives of Zimbabwe (NAZ).

[1] From an interview conducted by Nicole Sithole with Hilda Ramushu on 9 September 2022 in Braeside, Harare, Zimbabwe.

[2] Marian Aguiar. ‘Making Modernity: Inside the technological space of the railway.’ Cultural Critique 68 (2008): 66-85.

[3] From an interview conducted by Nicole Sithole with Hilda Ramushu on 9 September 2022 in Braeside, Harare, Zimbabwe.

[4] From an interview conducted by Nicole Sithole with Hilda Ramushu on 9 September 2022 in Braeside, Harare, Zimbabwe.

[5] One of the official publications of the National Railways of Zimbabwe.