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Disruptive Single Women: The Practice of Gender and Sexuality among the Shona of Zimbabwe


By Tendai Mangena

Introduction: Methods

My foundational academic training was in literary studies and my research interests lie in the broad field of African cultural studies. In my research, I have been interested in the ways in which different kinds of narratives— such as novels, short stories, media stories, onomastic texts, real-life stories —how these provide discursive spaces in which to think through a range of issues that include gender, sexuality, identity, migration and politics in the specific context of postcolonial Zimbabwe. I have been able to straddle diverse disciplinary boundaries because literary studies, by its very nature, is interdisciplinary and draws on diverse fields.

There are diverse ways of reading literary narratives. Beyond the fundamental, literary language situated, conceptualization of the text and reading, literature from Africa has especially been characterised as functional. In the words of Adebanwi (2014, 405):

African writers offer the kinds of abstractions, comparisons, frameworks and critical reflections on the African lifeworld – and the place of the African in the global context –without which it will be impossible to fully account for the nature of being, existence and reality and the nature and scope of knowledge in the African context.

In the specific context of Zimbabwean writing, creative writers have been described as the pulse of the nation on account of the role they play in guarding against the slipping into oblivion of what Kizito Muchemwa terms the “unacknowledged, unspoken and unwritten traumas of Zimbabwe’s history” (Muchemwa, 2005, 197). This counterdiscursive feature of literature has informed my reading of Zimbabwean texts as alternative narratives of dominant stories.

In this lecture, I seek to do two things:

  1. Firstly, I wish to draw your attention to some of my major reflections on gender, gender boundaries and gender disruptions among the Shona peoples of Zimbabwe. The Shona constitute the majority ethnic group, approximately 80% of the Zimbabwean population. Aforementioned reflections are loosely drawn from my project entitled Champion men deserve champion beer: Gendered geographies in Zimbabwean cultural texts, which was funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and Fulbright between 2018 and 2020.
  2. The second thing that I seek to do is introduce you to my current project entitled Uncoupling heteropatriarchy in African Feminism: Unmarried women and indigenous knowledges of gender and sexuality among the Shona of Zimbabwe, which is the project that brought me to Leeds in February this year. In this project, I have shifted to combining ethnography and literary methods and to this end, I do at least two things. I analyze Shona indigenous knowledges of women’s singlehood. Through extensive fieldwork, I also gather the lived experiences of unmarried Shona women and analyse these using critical literary methods.

In pursuing both these objectives, I reflect on the everydayness of women’s lives as sites for critical discussion on gender and sexuality, especially as these relate to the subjectivities of Shona women. I work with the dominant framing of gender as social construction of maleness and femaleness. Drawing on Craig Calhoun’s work, I further conceive of sexuality as “the reproductive and erotic dimensions of human life, at once physical and culturally constructed” (Calhoun, 2002).

In my research, I focus specifically on the Shona culture of Zimbabwe in which I am culturally located, and not on Africa, or even Zimbabwe in general. Speaking within a specific Shona cultural context is a way of decolonising what Sylvia Tamale calls “the colonial reification of African as a homogenous entity” (Tamale 2011, 1).

In highlighting my personal experiences as a single Shona woman, and those of other single women, in my current project, I am guided, in particular, by Saidiya Hartman’s argument that the autobiographical example “is not a personal story that folds onto itself … it is about trying to look at historical and social processes and one’s own formation onto social and historical processes, as an example of them” (in an interview with Saunders, 2008, 7). For that reason, I consider the self-reflexive method as a form of what Boylorn termed ‘‘doubled storytelling that moves from self to culture and back again’’ (Boylorn, 2013, 174).

Evoking personal experiences in academic conversations is a method that is closely connected to feminism. The phrase “the personal is the political”, in particular, to quote Harris et al., resembles a feminist slogan that raises awareness of the significance of personal stories, particularly from women and other marginalized groups in society, whose voices are often silenced” (2017, 4).

In privileging the voices of single women in my current project, I think through African feminism but at the same time challenge some of its strands. I engage with African Feminism’s pro-heterosexual stance (Atanga 2013) and the silences and yawning crevices around unmarried women who live away from and against heteronormative coupling. The project is a critical and constructive response to Tamale’s (2020) argument that African feminism needs to disentangle itself from ‘old colonial ways of thinking and doing’, and it specifically problematizes the implicit or explicit preoccupation with marriage, which can arguably be seen as reflecting the strong and ongoing colonial, Euro-Christian influence on African societies. Although marriage is highly valued in African traditional cultures, colonialism and Christian missionaries introduced a much more rigid norm of monogamous marriage as a life-long commitment, and promoted an ideal of femininity in which women are domesticated as (house)wives and mothers who are economically dependent on the husband-breadwinner. African feminism, possibly because of its roots in Christian women’s movements, has not always adequately interrogated this norm of marriage and its impact on African women in general.

In the section titled ‘Men are not women and women are not men: Heteronormativity and gendering in Shona’, I draw on arguments from my recent articles on Gendering roles, masculinities and spaces: negotiating transgression in Charles Mungoshi’s and other writings, 2023, and Narratives of women in politics in Zimbabwe’s recent past: the case of Joice Mujuru and Grace Mugabe, 2022). As I reflect, my illustrations move from everyday life experiences in politics to literary texts and then to oral tradition and popular culture. These various forms of data are useful for engaging with the socio-cultural realities in postcolonial Zimbabwe. Then in the remaining sections, I speak about marriage and singlehood and draw from personal experiences and on the just ended first phase of my fieldwork in Zimbabwe.

Shona patriarchy (like other forms of patriarchy elsewhere) is heteronormative in that it works on the assumption that sexes can only be divided into male and female (Griffin, 2017) —and finds it problematic when women act in ways that are socio-culturally defined as manly and vice versa—as this is viewed as being unwomanly and unmanly respectively. This heteronormative stance in Zimbabwe is further perpetuated and naturalised by different types of Christianity. The statements ‘one is a man and not a woman’ and vice versa which are popular in Shona discourses, are not only intended to articulate presumed differences between men and women but through them, Shona patriarchy creates and sustains hierarchies between men and women. The reprimand given to men that they should not act like women (usaita semukadzi), unwittingly gives the false impression that men have certain excellences that women do not and cannot have. At the same, this implies that women have inadequacies that men should despise. Such social discourses constitute what Helman and Ratele (2016) call problematic constructions of gender that are reproduced in everyday contexts and sustain gender inequalities and injustices.

When faced with the ‘problem’ of women who encroach into the spaces socially reserved for males, Shona patriarchy tends to masculinise them, arguably as a coping strategy. This strategy is reflected well in the Shona saying, mukadzi uyu murume pachake (this woman is, in effect, a man), which is often used to describe women who trespass into what society perceives as men’s territory. Masculinising strong women and feminising men perceived as weak are ways that patriarchy uses to sustain the myth that the typical woman has no good qualities.

There are other ways besides masculinisation, that are put in place to deal with women who encroach into socially constructed male spaces in Zimbabwe. Women who encroach into the masculinized space of politics, for example, face subtle and sometimes not so subtle forms of marginalization.

The imposition of a ‘motherly’ or womanly role for women politicians in Zimbabwean politics, that Gibson Ncube (2020) speaks about in his article, is achieved in interesting ways, especially within the ruling party ZANU PF. I will demonstrate my argument by referring to what happened during the party’s Annual Conference held in December 2018. On the first evening of the congress, some women delegates participated in a fashion show, where other male and female delegates formed part of the audience, and where the first lady, was the guest of honour. The three winners of the fashion show were awarded a refrigerator, a four-plate stove and a microwave oven respectively. These appliances are, in Zimbabwe, thought of as female gadgets, which women are encouraged to take pride in owning, in keeping with established gender stereotypes and domestic roles.

The idea of a fashion show, a beauty contest for women politicians, during what was supposed to be an important political meeting, could be interpreted as a parallel performance that had little to do with the real business of the congress. If the National Congress brings together party leaders, men, women and youth to make important political decisions as equals, why would women be the only ones whose bodies are made a spectacle of and placed on display during such an event? I interpret the women’s fashion show, performed at a political meeting, as symbolic of the general political marginalisation of the women’s wing and its activities within the ruling party. This calls to mind the words of Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu, who observed that “at the beginning of 2000 Mugabe appointed what he termed a ‘war cabinet’ that was supposed to be made of ‘amadoda sibili’ (real men) dedicated to fighting the Third Chimurenga (liberation) to the end” (2009, 1153). This example clearly shows the political levels at which misogynist patriarchy is deeply entrenched in Zimbabwe.

I believe that there is a connection between this desire to keep women in domesticity, even in spaces outside the domestic space of the home, and the general undervaluing of ‘women’s’ labour. In a short story entitled ‘Who will stop the dark’ (1980), by Charles Mungoshi, a renowned Zimbabwean writer, the narrator is taught about mouse trapping and fishing by his grandfather. The lessons turn out to be about the qualities of ‘real men’ (varume chaivo in Shona).

In the lesson about fishing, the old man uses the idea of the knots anecdotally, saying:

In my day, . . . there were women knots and men knots. A woman knot is the kind that comes apart when you tug the line. A knot worth the name of whoever makes it shouldn’t fall apart . . . a real man’s knot, should stay’. (34)

I explain in an article entitled “Gendering roles, masculinities and spaces: Negotiating transgression in Charles Mungoshi’s and other writings, 2023”, that this lesson is as much about learning a trade as it is about gender. The old man uses the anecdote to teach the boy that ‘to be a man means not to be a woman’ and how (k)not to tie like a woman.  The ‘knot’, as an extended metaphor of work and labour, suggests that women’s labour is useless because their knots fall apart easily. The knots made by men are strong, suggesting that their labour is worthwhile, since it is understood to be important for the survival of families.

The hard labour reserved for men excludes domestic work (and some aspects of childcare). Men who do domestic work, especially when they are married or in the presence of their wives, are, within Shona communities, said to be dominated/controlled or have been given herbs intended to tame them by their wives (kutongwa nemukadzi or akadyiswa respectively). Calling the shifting of gender roles within heterosexual coupling the effects of husband taming herbs is thus a strategy used by patriarchy to reinforce or naturalise traditional gender stereotypes.  This apparent fixation with gender boundaries is evident in supposedly mundane daily interactions and conversations. My last example drawn from sports.

I will share an anecdote which is typical of the many jokes that circulate among Zimbabweans every time the European soccer season starts or when major football competitions like the World Cup or Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) begin: Tv remotes handover ceremony. This story, or joke, whichever way you want to interpret it, is about gender boundaries in leisure activities, especially in sport. What the joke is silent about is the fact that women’s television spectatorship is stereotypically restricted to movies. Football is considered to be a men’s sport, in which women’s fandom is grudgingly accommodated (Kuyel 1999), and where women who play the game are often masculinised. Indeed, one of my male friends recently warned me against loving football the way I do. His advice was ‘do not love football so much, people will misconstrue that’. I read this to mean that my friend felt that my loving football would be interpreted as me behaving like a man.

Before concluding this section, I would like to share an intriguing encounter from my recent fieldwork that aligns with the concept of gender boundaries. One of my participants recounted a story about her aunt, who was divorced for physically assaulting her husband. The husband's reasoning for seeking divorce was 'handigari nemurume mumba mangu' (I cannot stay with another man in my house) (Participant 17, married, born in Gutu). This anecdote implies that, within a conventional heterosexual relationship, it is acceptable for a husband to be physically aggressive toward his wife, but not the other way around. This is not to imply that domestic violence is tolerated within Shona communities, but rather to highlight the societal perception that being abused by one's wife (kurohwa nemukadzi) is considered a source of shame for many Shona men, despite instances of such occurrences, as evidenced in the aforementioned story.

The tendency to dissociate men from what is deemed to be women’s behaviour and vice versa does not, however, include what the Shona believe about the spirit realm. In Shona spirituality, for instance, women can serve as spirit mediums for their male ancestors just as males can be spirit mediums for their female ancestors. Spirit mediums in most cases, speak and behave like the ancestors whose spirit inhabits in them (Togarasei, 2017). Also in Shona culture, maternal uncles play a unique role that extends beyond just being husbands to girls or women who call them uncle. They also take on the role of maternal figures for both boys and girls in a similar relationship. In my reasoning, these cases of spirituality and social relations represent the few scenarios in which a man can be a woman. These examples demonstrate well that the marginalization of women is largely social and does not always extend to the Shona indigenous religious belief systems.

Drawing on my current project, in the next part of my lecture, I discuss how unmarried, economically independent Shona women are perceived and how they disrupt the gendered terrains of Shona families and heterosexual marriages.

Marriage as success and singlehood as failure for Shona women

To begin with “among the Shona, for a person to be respected as a munhu (person), he or she must be married and have children” (Chemhuru and Masaka, 2011, 136). In such a community, which places great value on heteronormativity, marriagenormativity and parentnormativity, the single and childless person is essentially a marginalized other. Being single at a particular age is thus ‘not a virtue’ among the Shona. Even in death, an unmarried person used to be treated differently. An adult, male or female, who dies childless, for example, used to be buried with a maize stake (guri), or a rat (gonzo) or a tree bark (gavi) tied to their body. These items were presented as the child that the deceased could not have in real life. The explanation given for this is that this is done so that the deceased does not haunt the living, since it is believed that a person who dies childless dies full of bitterness. The fact is, however, that this is more a mark of shame. For that reason, many individuals ensured that they would not die and be buried with these pseudo kids, even if not everyone succeeded.

In such efforts to valorise heterosexual coupling, there is an implicit, and at times explicit stigmatization of singlehood. Many women persevere in broken, often unhappy marriages as a result of these “chains of moral and social prejudice that bind and cramp singlehood” (Sheryl Yelland, 1985, 42). In other words, for fear of becoming returned soldiers (Zimbabwean slang for female divorcees, madzoka in Shona), “women suffer untold torments to stay married” (Ntakhazo, 2018, no page)[1]. For the same reasons, some single women are expected to welcome any male suitor that can take them out of the so-called shame of singlehood. This is aptly dramatized in @chiemasiziba TikTok prayer Dear God give me anyone who wears some trousers to marry me, and my soul will rest (dai mwari mangondipawo chero ane trousers mweya wangu wazorora). Of late, being over 40, childless and unmarried, I have personally been getting the advice: chingotsvaga chero chidhara chakafigwa uite nacho mwana (just find a widowed old man and have a child with him). Chero chidhara (just any widowed old man) and chero ane trousers (just any man) are therefore some of the types of men that single Shona women are expected to aim for in desperation to get married. In my recent fieldwork I conducted an interview with a 42-year-old woman who had never been married. While she held hope for marriage, she did not display desperation to tie the knot with just any man. She recounted an incident where she rejected a potential suitor from her church, perceiving him as immature and the type who would expect her to take care of him. Additionally, she expressed discomfort with the idea of dating divorcees, citing a lack of clarity regarding their past marital circumstances. Her final statement resonated with caution, as she said, "I am old, but I still need to be careful" (participant 18, born in Bikita). It became evident through conversations with this woman, and others not mentioned here, that they did not exhibit a desperate attitude of settling for just any man.

A very high premium is placed on marriage, and having kids within it as it is said to bring many good things into the life of a woman. I want to demonstrate this point through a TikTok video by one @chiemasiziba TikTok. From this we learn that marriage has the potential to take women out of a life of poverty, as signified through how it removes foot cracks (cracked feet, man’a, in Shona is an apt symbol of poverty); affording the woman the opportunity to sleep in a bed; taking her from the village to the city; and making her a homeowner. The woman’s family benefits as well, as seen in the example of the wife’s siblings being sent to school. This narrative is intended to convince women that marriage will grant them access to dignity, respect and financial stability. In return, they are expected to be ‘wifeable’. Key features of wifeability, in this sense, include being dependent, subordinate and submissive - in short, and to use the words of the Tiktoker @chiemasiziba, understanding that one’s husband is one’s king. This reference to the husband as a king calls to mind the traditional way in which Shona women used to address their husbands as ‘my king’ (ishe wangu). However, there is a way in which wives’ endorsement of their husbands’ power in heterosexual marriages paradoxically speaks to their agency. They praise their husbands as kings to guarantee their material support.

In social and cultural texts, folk wisdom, social media as well as the social interaction of everyday life, the dominant narrative is that heterosexual marriage among the Shona is compulsory and beneficial to the woman.

Why is one not married?

In this part of the lecture, I want to highlight how the singlehood of women of a certain age is understood among the Shona. To begin with, in Shona culture, there must be an explanation for being unmarried.

One of the seemingly acceptable reasons is religious. In the past, there used to be women called mbonga, among the Shona. These women were virgins and did not marry. Their lives were dedicated to safeguarding the clan’s government and provided protection during wars (Fortune and Hodza 1974: 70). Following the introduction of Christianity in Shona communities, when a Catholic girl decides to be a nun, she remains unmarried for religious reasons.

For what other reasons would an adult never marry? According to Pascah Mungwini (2008), in traditional Shona cosmology, being an unmarried woman is something unusual, to the extent that all sorts of accounts or stories are generated to explain this ‘unnatural’ state of being. Possible explanations include that the unmarried woman has a spirit that repels potential suitors, or simply has bad luck (ane chinzvi or chitsinha). Or it is speculated that there could be an intergenerational curse operating within the family. Sometimes it is also speculated that the unmarried woman’s paternal grandmother’s unsettled spirit prevents her from getting married— meaning ana mbuya. It is where something is said to be wrong in the spirit realm that unmarried women sometimes consult, are encouraged to consult or are taken to prophets or traditional healers by their relatives for healing. In some cases, some rituals are performed to fix such spiritual problems.

In the fieldwork that I carried out recently, I gathered narratives from some of the participants that corroborate these arguments. One of them is as follows:

  1. A 38-year-old female divorcee said this about her family One of our great grandfathers had a man from Mozambique who worked for his family. As payment, he promised to give the man a wife from amongst his daughters, but he never did. The man died before this issue was resolved. This is the reason why daughters in our family are often divorced (Participant 41).

Besides the spiritual speculations about or explanations of singlehood, there are certain behavioural tendencies or social statuses that, for Shona people, render some women unmarriageable or what I have termed in this lecture ‘unwifeable’. In the introduction to their recent book on Chihera in Zimbabwe: A Radical African Indigenous Feminist Principle, Chitando, Chirongoma and Nyakudya indicate that Chihera is a type of woman who is constantly labelled as ‘not marriage material’, especially in Zimbabwean social media. Chihera, is a female Mhofu (eland) totemite. Chihera is labelled unwifeable for speaking her mind and especially because she always challenges men.

Grace Musila, in a self-reflexive essay entitled ‘My two husbands’ (2021), meanwhile, considers the effects of education on women’s wifeability. Musila remembers her grandfather’s advice, when she started secondary school, that her books should be her husband. She understood this advice to mean that she was supposed to focus on her education and not be distracted by boys. But when she enrolled for a master’s degree, the same grandfather had different advice to give:

but who will marry you? … I have now come to understand my paternal grandmother’s question. …. He was telling me about men’s difficulties with women’s success. He was telling me I was narrowing my dating pool of men. He was telling me that while my education could husband me – in the traditional sense of husbands’ labour of provision and security – it would soon become a liability (Musila, 2021, 219-221).

Men in Shona patriarchy are socialized to become breadwinners and heads of their heterosexual families. So, to be wifeable, a woman needs to normally let the man be the main breadwinner. Accordingly, when women can look after themselves (for instance, when they can afford to buy soap to remove cracks from their feet; can afford living in the city on their own; can take their siblings through school; can build their own houses; are independent)— things that a husband should do for them in marriage— then they are dismissed as unwifeable. After all, it is believed, women do not need to be educated to perform domestic roles prescribed for them in their families. In fact, being able to do domestic chores—and not being educated—is one of the critical features of wifeability among the Shona. This is imagined explicitly in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s magnum opus Nervous Conditions (1988). When Tambudzai, the protagonist, expresses her desire to go to school, her father asks her “can you cook books and feed them to your husband? Stay at home with your mother. Learn to cook and clean. Grow vegetables” (Dangarembga, 1988, 15).

Cooking provides a fascinating space for reflections on gender and marriage in Shona families. The Shona slang term for getting married is kukanda or kukandwa mukitchen. Kukanda mukitchen means that a man, through marriage, literally throws a woman into the kitchen. On the other hand, kukandwa mukitchen means a woman is thrown into the kitchen through marriage. Cooking is also presented as a critical skill for women. Indeed, women who can cook and are ready to offer food are held in high esteem by their husbands’ relatives and friends. In some Shona communities, brides who lack culinary skills, and especially those that cannot cook sadza (staple food for the Shona) properly, used to be sent back to their parents to learn how to.

The unwifeability of ‘successful’ unmarried women

In the last part of my lecture, I nuance the unwifeability of successful, economically independent women within Shona communities.

Owning a property, driving a car and being financially stable can easily make a woman unwifeable, among the Shona. Conservative suitors, for instance, would find problematic the fact that financial independent women would not consider marriage as a form of social security, where the husband serves as the main breadwinner. The process of finding a suitor is gendered among the Shona. The idea of ‘courting’- kunyenga - naturalises the man's agency, where the woman becomes the ‘courted’.  The concept of kuwana / kuwanikwa - finding and being found - similarly reinforces the issue of gendered and even sexualised agency among the Shona. Kuwana/kuwanikwa (finding and being found) are Shona terms for marriage.

If a financially independent woman, especially a homeowner, finds a suitor regardless, further questions may be posed. Where will the couple live, for instance, if the man does not have a place of his own. Will they live at the house owned by the wife? That would, according to the Shona, disrupt the conception of heterosexual marriage that a woman leaves her family to join her husband’s family and build a home.  The expectation is the husband is the one who ‘marries’ and seals this marriage by paying bride price. It also follows that when the woman is divorced, the husband will give her gupuro (simplified in English as divorce token). A divorced woman takes this gupuro (divorce token) to her family as confirmation that her husband has indeed sent her away.  This value of gupuro/divorce token signposts how it is unimaginable, in Shona patriarchy, for a woman to leave her husband unless the husband divorces her. In a similar vein, it is often said that a married woman ari kumurume wake (is with her husband). When she is divorced, people say akadzoswa kumurume or akarambwa (she was returned by her husband/she was divorced/rejected (by her husband)).

This gender logic of heterosexual coupling and marriage is challenged if a man moves into a home owned by his wife. Such a situation is viewed with scorn as kuwanikwa kwemurume, as when a man has been found. In such a scenario the woman has wielded sexual agency. This arrangement is unthinkable, for most Shona men. In a ‘proper’ marriage, it is assumed that the woman has the responsibility to make her husband feel useful by becoming his dependant. This suggests that the role of such men in marriages is limited to the usual one of providing for their spouses.

The problem of a woman owning a property or properties while she is single goes beyond being a deterrence for potential suitors. First, there is always speculation that whatever a single woman has is acquired through the help of some random rich man. Also, the question of inheritance is also raised. Now that you have properties but are childless, who will inherit them when you die? Some might ask: why do you even have properties in the first place? As one of my own close relatives asked vanhu vari kuti unogoshandirei? People ask why you even go to work? What this basically means is that a single childless woman’s life is conceptualized as being without substance. In essence, she cannot live for herself. It is my argument that materially empowered women (with financial, cultural and social capital) often take the position of agency which places them beyond the brackets of patriarchy. Most women who raise their children outside marriages, for instance, assert that they play the dual role of mother and father to their children (ndini mai ndini baba, participant 32).


By rigidly enforcing a binary view of gender, Shona patriarchy seeks to maintain hierarchical distinctions between males and females and to sink into oblivion other genders. The symbolic reinforcement of gender stereotypes serves to further underline the subjugation of women in public and private spaces. As we navigate these gendered complex dynamics within Shona culture, it is essential to recognize that challenging and deconstructing these norms is a crucial step toward fostering greater equality and respect among all members of society. The intersections of culture, gender, and power are not fixed, and by questioning and reshaping these paradigms, we can create a more inclusive and just future.

The last note is on my reflections on singlehood. Although, in this lecture, I have spotlighted my personal experiences to reflect on the broader issues affecting women in singlehood in Shona communities, I am quite aware of the fact that I speak from a specific positionality of a privileged single woman. From that position of privilege, it is not my intention to essentialise singlehood among the Shona or to suggest that all single Shona women are the same. Talking about singlehood in the singular is, however, strategic. While I do not live the reality of single Shona women who are uneducated, are not formally employed, and do not own properties, I can at least relate to the broader challenges that relate to the stigmatization of singlehood among the Shona.



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[1] The Returning Soldier: Homeward Bound, the Quirks of African Culture – VioletWritesZw ( accessed on 21 July 2023.

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