Meeting, sharing and deconstructing with Tsitsi Dangarembga

Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga.

Dear Farai

I hope Boston is not too cold. How a Zimbabwean survives winter in America is a wonder to me. This time last year, I remember us walking in Cambridge, me wearing the most clothes I have ever worn at once, slipping and falling over what you described to me as snow banks en route to catch the train. I miss your apartment and your enviable African library. Did you ever find the person who “borrowed’’ your fractals reader?

I won’t even ask you about work; I know you work like a donkey. I just hope you are eating properly and that you and Faith are well. When are you coming to Zim and if you do, will you visit Johannesburg? I miss our endless conversations and I would have loved to tell you about this in person, but I just couldn’t wait: I met and interviewed Tsitsi Dangarembga and she is all that I had imagined she would be.

It was my second day at the new job and I had not tested the command of my title out on anyone yet. Scrolling through Facebook while waiting for my morning coffee to cool, I saw that my friend Danielle was at a Ford Foundation dialogue, listening to Tsitsi Dangarembga speak. “Hey babe, what is this thing you are at? I need to meet Tsitsi. Can you get me in?’’ I ask her via Whats­App. “Sure, let me ask the organisers and I’ll let you know.’’

The next text she sent me was the address. Fifteen minutes later, I too was sitting in a room listening to Dangarembga, the writer who had introduced me to my colonial wounds, who had aroused the whiteness and patriarchy in me after reading Nervous Conditions. During a break in the dialogue, I walked over to her, introduced myself, told her which paper I’m from and asked her for an interview.

The following day, it was just the two of us in a Rosebank hotel lobby, talking as if this was not a transaction between a journalist and her subject. It wasn’t really. It felt more like an intergenerational connection between two Africans, two women, two black people and two writers.

But I am me, twentysomething years her junior, and she is Tsitsi Dangarembga – who, since 1988, with the publishing of the novel that Doris Lessing said would be a classic and that was praised by Alice Walker, paved a way for me, you and other creative black women in Africa to exist in a way that gave weight to being a BW [black woman] writer, that allowed for nuance of a different kind in the postcolonial African setting.

I don’t think there would be a Chimamanda [Ngozi Adichie, the Nigerian novelist] without Tsitsi. I couldn’t tell whether she knows she is a rock star down here. Working as a writer, filmmaker and an administrator for a number of organisations that she founded might have dimmed the light of literary stardom over the past 15 years. She gave the sense that her country does not find her useful any more and that she is considering her next move, possibly elsewhere.

She says artists are not taken seriously in Zimbabwe, something I sensed is quite devastating to her, as distressing as the misconception about what an artist is. “The question is: Who is an artist? Is anybody who sings in the shower an artist? Or is it somebody who has really specialised in the craft and brought that craft to a certain level where it can impact on people in a certain way? To be an artist, you have to do that sustainably. You know, you can’t just heal one person today and call yourself a doctor. So if we want to create sustainable economies, we have to look at those issues,” she told me.

She knows she is taken seriously as the person who has managed to make a success of something people don’t normally make a success of, but she thinks that if she were taken seriously as an artist, other artists would also be taken seriously.

People were surprised when her daughter took art for her O-levels. “Because she is so intelligent”, they didn’t expect her to take a subject that is taught like phys-ed at schools and isn’t examined because of the lackadaisical attitude towards it.

A piece by Zimbabwean artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti. 

“I feel like this is another colonial hangover that we don’t understand. We were taught that we must divorce ourselves from art, which is so much about reflection. So the processes of reflection have been discouraged in Zimbabwe,’’ she says with disappointment.

It can’t be easy being one of a few people of influence in a country where storytelling is not prioritised not only by the state, but also by the people because all they are concerned with is survival.

She does not have the luxury to do one thing only, so she says she hustles when I ask her to describe what she does. In addition to writing, she is an administrator for the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa (Icapa) under which the Women Filmmakers of Zimbabwe and her production company, Nyerai Films, are incorporated. “Organiser’’ is a neat word for a person who switches roles not as a charming skill but as a necessity.

She returned to Zimbabwe in late 2000 after going to study film in Germany in 1989, a year after Nervous Conditions was published. But as you know, she was coming home to an extreme political climate, a climate that her friends and peers were fleeing, a climate that withered the literary scene, a climate she felt she needed to weather for the sake of her children, to whom she wanted to give the Zimbabwean experience.

So she stayed in Zimbabwe and looked for things that needed to be started. She founded Icapa, the production company, with other partners and the International Images Film Festival for Women, now in its 15th year as a sometimes donor-funded, medium-sized festival whose focus is to facilitate training, make productions and exhibit films in which the narratives centre on African women. But she says those are hard to come by outside the documentary category, which is always retelling depressive narratives about us.

When I told her I had recently seen Happiness is a Four-Letter Word, I was surprised that she would be into cheesy romcoms. “I don’t say that film has to be highbrow. I want to speak to people. You’ve got to speak the language. I want people to be happy. I want people to be relaxed. I don’t want people to always be cracking their heads. I think this has been one of the issues on the continent that has largely been influenced by Francophone filmmaking. They tend to be more arthouse and then you now have Nollywood, which goes to the other extreme.

Its discourse on women is questionable, but it’s good that it exists. It tells us that we can have an economy based on African films, films that come from an African source of narrative with an unmistakably African visual content. So that’s a good starting point and it also gives us room to critique. I think it’s wonderful that Nollywood exists and it employs over one million people.

She insists that affirming narratives are necessary, that we mustn’t always be crying – which, to her, is why Happiness is an affirming disruption of the popular narrative about black women. (By the way, have you seen those hilarious videos featuring that nine-year-old Nigerian girl named Emmanuella? Search for Mark Angel Comedy on YouTube. You are going to ascend to the afterlife.)

In the 15 years that she’s been in Zimbabwe, she hasn’t been able to make a body of film work that she feels she can show. There have been a couple of shorts and documentaries but the conditions in Zim, the fear that people have of speaking out and the fact that she has to do so many things have made it difficult for her.

I told her what you told me, that there are so many potholes in Harare that if you drive in a straight line, people think you are drunk. She laughed a genuine laugh, but with an air of resignation behind it.

I don’t want to sugar-coat anything,’’ she says. “Service delivery is almost nonexistent. It is really very difficult. Living there is a labour of love or a necessity. For me it has been a labour of love, but it may not continue in that way. Everything requires energy. Getting water requires energy because often you might open the taps and there’s no water. Going from one place to another, because public transport is almost nonexistent, requires energy.’’

I know you told me these things, but hearing them from someone who stays in Zim in 2016 was unnerving.

It was an unwelcome reality check for me and my revolutionary proclivities. As you know, a lot of the young people here are trying to understand this word revolution, what it means, whether we want it and, if yes, how do we do it? I shared my own thoughts about the situation in Zimbabwe as a politicised black South African, which are that black Zimbabweans did what they absolutely had to do in 2000.

This brought our conversation to the inevitable ideological cul-de-sac that is colonisation and decolonisation, about which she had hard-hitting views: views that don’t just theorise, but know.

I think the narrative of the liberation struggle that we won our freedom has a very negative impact in Zimbabwe because people think that we are the victors – that we come from being the victims and we have liberated everybody, so we cannot do anything wrong. You know, again this absence of reflection. I think that’s a big problem in Zimbabwe. That discourse of the winner is the same as the colonial discourse: ‘We came and we won and we are telling you what to do.’ And so people don’t seem to understand that when you’re a winner in a situation like that, you have a much greater responsibility to reflect and see how you’re engaging.’’

So what’s happening in Zimbabwe is not decolonisation in the [Frantz] Fanon sense? I ask. “No, I don’t think it’s decolonisation,’’ she says.

I’m a little disappointed at how certain she is at this point because for many young people in South Africa, decolonisation is the compelling ideology behind the student movements and other areas of our society that need to be decolonised. But Tsitsi really likes the way the discourse is evolving here compared to in the early 1990s. She says she couldn’t understand how we transitioned into democracy without the level of “wokeness” [social awareness] young people are showing now. The fusion of race, gender and class politics as the foundation of the resistance is something she has not experienced with young people in Zimbabwe: “Privileged young people in Zimbabwe tend to enjoy their privilege and seem to want to entrench those systems of privilege.’’

I remember you telling me this while I was cooking in your kitchen. That meal took forever to prepare because of the number of times I stopped chopping or stirring when you told me that some of the farms have been taken over by the children of the ministers, who host parties at the farms rather than farm, who have fired the farm workers and who have resorted to farming potatoes because potatoes don’t need much tending to. This is why it makes sense when she says: “I think it’s important for us to define what colonisation is. Is it really a colour issue? Is it possible for a person to colonise one’s self?’’ I guess these are the questions we blacks need to ask ourselves when we are alone.

I haven’t really seen a discourse about what we want to replace the current system with here. It’s something we don’t criticise Fanon about: What kind of countries should we build after the decolonisation of everything?

Again, she offers experiences from the other side: “When you begin to disrupt, you have to be very clear about what you are going to replace it with. I think that many African countries, Zimbabwe included, did not think through well enough the question: What are we going to replace it with? Are we going to get another foreign ideology like socialism? Are we going to look to ourselves? If we look to our history and ourselves, what are we going to do with this historical discourse of the tribe and the chief who was paramount? How are we going to modify that to be meaningful and to bring prosperity in the 21st century?’’

I am not sure of the role that artists should be playing in a situation like ours where there’s clearly some kind of social and political rupture happening. She made it clear that artists should not focus all of their interventions within the political narrative, which can capture all other narratives, as it did in Zimbabwe. There are still weddings and births and love and the everyday experiences of those who Thuli Madonsela calls the Gogo Dlaminis.

But where do women even fit into that narrative, knowing the depth of patriarchy in both our countries and just how ridiculous it sometimes feels to fight for women’s rights inside a system where your opponents are so entrenched in their views, so ideologically impaired, that they simply are not wise enough to take you seriously?

And then there’s feminism, a subject, it turns out, we both find dissonance with from time to time, but one that is the root of the work that we do. “You know, I’ve been concerned with this word ‘feminist’, especially meeting up with feminists from other demographics. Are we really talking sisterhood, or are we talking sisterhood among the middle class of a certain racial demographic? I’ve been at meetings between black feminists and white feminists that have become so antagonistic. I find that problematic, so I really had to interrogate feminism and ask myself if that’s what I am.”

As soon as she said this, I felt that I too could share my insecurities about the movement in South Africa, about how important it is to define feminism to suit the conditions here in our own languages, because I love my Mfengu, Hlubi and Xhosa cultures but they are deeply patriarchal.

What I do casts me as feminist. I came to feminism because it reflected what was me. I didn’t come to feminism because I was looking for an ideology and didn’t have one,” she says. 

This was during the time she was writing Nervous Conditions, which, because it is an undeniably feminist text, was initially rejected by male publishers in Zimbabwe who rubbished its lack of structure – a problem she laughs at for its failure to mask the real issue, which is that it introduced the voices and thoughts of women who dared to confront the patriarchy in Zimbabwean society.

I claimed that feminist space for myself. And I don’t see that feminism is anti-tradition insofar as tradition is oppressive towards women.’’

Oppression is manipulative. So many of us are still being manipulated – by patriarchy, by white supremacy, by capitalism – and it takes a conscious effort to realise this and act. Have you read The Book of Not, the sequel to Nervous Conditions that was published in 2006? She says [protagonist] Tambudzai’s life becomes worse in that book and in the book she’s currently writing, the third instalment of the same story out in 2018, she is trying to save the women from the hardship of carrying all these burdens of oppression.

In it, Tambudzai is aspiring to be middle class, but the middle class has disintegrated in Zimbabwe so it’s difficult to have that discussion. “It was very difficult to work out a scenario where people would feel that they have been brought to a place of rest. The question was: How can we as African women create a space where we are positively functional in ways that bring fulfilment to ourselves and to others? And it was a difficult thing. But I think I managed it.”

And with those words, which I feel are the fundamental reason of our friendship, the binding principle of the work that we do, I think I should leave you. This has been a seamless drift but has barely touched the walls of the conversation that Tsitsi and I had. I’ll send you the audio recording for you to listen to while you wash the dishes. Or you could distract your students with it.

Be well my sister,

PS: I enclose a print that I know will go beautifully on your wall of African hairstyles. It’s the work of Zimbabwean artist Nontsikelelo Mutiti who lives on that side with you. She does some interesting work around African hair salons as a sociological site and a space for black woman narratives on beauty, self and their status as immigrants.’’

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela

Milisuthando Bongela is the Mail & Guardian's arts and culture editor. She is a multi award-winning writer, blogger and collaborator. She has experience in the arts having worked in fashion, music, art and film as well as a decade-long career in consulting, entrepreneurship, blogging and cultural activism. She is also directing a documentary about hair and black identity, a film she calls the report card on the rainbow nation project. Read more from Milisuthando Bongela

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