Writers & Company

Tsitsi Dangarembga looks at the dreams and disappointments of post-colonial Zimbabwe in This Mournable Body 

The Zimbabwean novelist, filmmaker and 2020 Booker Prize finalist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about how her life and fiction have been shaped by racism and political turmoil.
Tsitsi Dangarembga is a Zimbabwean novelist, playwright and filmmaker. (Mateusz Zaboklicki)

On July 31, 2020, celebrated writer and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga made international headlines when she was arrested in Harare, Zimbabwe, during a peaceful anti-corruption protest. The incident occurred just days after her latest novel, This Mournable Body, was named to the 2020 Booker Prize longlist.

This Mournable Body — which went on to become a finalist for the Booker — is the third instalment in a trilogy that began 30 years ago with Dangarembga's widely acclaimed debut novel, Nervous Conditions. The story follows the life and dreams of Tambudzai Sigauke, an ambitious Zimbabwean woman who escapes an impoverished rural life for an education and a career — navigating sexism, racism and political turmoil along the way. 

Born in a small town in eastern Zimbabwe, Dangarembga studied film in Berlin and lived in Germany for more than a decade before returning to Zimbabwe in 2000. She spoke with Eleanor Wachtel from her home in Harare, where she is currently awaiting trial.

Writing to feel seen

"I wanted to tell Tambudzai Sigauke's story because there were so few stories about ordinary Black women, and even fewer stories about Black young girls and Black female teenagers from the continent of Africa.

"There were even fewer stories about people who found themselves in Tambudzai's situation, which was a situation of complete impoverishment as a child and yearning to get out of that and make a life for herself — and having to fight every inch of the way. 

"I just felt that it was a character who belonged in literature."

Character change 

"Tambudzai goes through quite a big character change in the three novels of the trilogy: Nervous Conditions, The Book of Not and This Mournable BodyA lot of the change begins to happen in the second book, when she is at secondary school. She's at a school that was said to be multiracial during the time of Rhodesia. But it was, in fact, not multiracial, in the sense that there were government limits on the percentage of Black young women who could be at schools like that. Tambudzai begins to understand that her skin colour is going to have some effect on her prospects in the world as well. This is a very devastating experience for her. 

"It is also the time of the war, of the liberation struggle in Zimbabwe, which took place in the 1970s. That was a harrowing and brutal war. There were atrocities on both sides. Tambudzai and her family were very exposed to the war. In fact, there were tragedies in her family because of it. This was something that was very stressful for her and changed her outlook on life.

I wanted to tell Tambudzai Sigauke's story because there were so few stories about ordinary Black women, and even fewer stories about Black young girls and Black female teenagers from the continent of Africa.

"These tensions that led to the war were also replicated in the microcosm of the school she was at, where there were also white young women whose families supported the war effort for the most part, and Black young women whose families did not support it. 

"So she was having to contend with a lot as a young woman."

Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not are the first two novels in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Tambudzai trilogy. (Lynne Rienner Publishers)

Engaging with the past

"I did give Tambudzai a lot to go through, and I did this consciously. I do believe that Zimbabweans have been through a lot —  and that we tend not to want to engage with those negative things that have impacted us in ways that are very stressful and destructive. 

"The national discourse after independence in 1980 was simply that the liberation war had been successful, independence had been won, everybody should be happy and should look at those returning from the war as the heroes who cannot do any wrong. 

I do believe that Zimbabweans have been through a lot —  and that we tend not to want to engage with those negative things that have impacted us in ways that are very stressful and destructive.

"And of course, there's always lots of wrong that is done on both sides during war. That is the nature of war. And so it was important for me to indicate that we had traumas that we were not dealing with." 

A personal history of racial injustice

"There was just so much racism in Rhodesia. It was really horrible. You couldn't go through the front door of the post office or takeout restaurants — you had to enter through the back. You couldn't sit down and have a cup of tea at the restaurant. You couldn't go to certain schools. It really was as bad as people say. But those are not things that I like to dwell on. 

"I went to two boarding schools. The first one was less emancipated, racially, than the other. That was in a more rural area. A lot of the white people who were there, the young women who were daughters of farmers, they would have had a particular attitude towards Black people. 

I had hobbies in music and dance and drama — all things arty. But my environment did not support those kinds of things. I was not in a position to take them seriously.

"Then the second school that I went to was in the city and I found that one to be much more emancipated., We were not treated any differently. Of course, there would be the odd staff member who might have had a bit of a problem, but in general, we were not treated any differently at all.

"I had all sorts of ambitions at the time. But it was drilled into me that one has to be useful, and so I thought I would do medicine. I had hobbies in music and dance and drama — all things arty. But my environment did not support those kinds of things. I was not in a position to take them seriously."

Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga and a colleague are arrested during an anti-corruption protest march on July 31, 2020 in Harare. (Zinyange Auntony/AFP via Getty Images)

Arrested in Harare

"In July of 2020, one of the leaders of a smaller opposition party called for a protest against corruption because the decline in the economy has been drastic. I supported it on social media. 

"A few days before the demonstration was to take place, the government warned us a couple of times that the demonstration was now illegal and we would not be allowed to demonstrate. We were also reminded about the Covid-19 regulations that restricted movement further than a five-kilometre radius from one's house.

"Now, because I had been very vociferous in supporting the demonstration — and because we had discussed ways of demonstrating but also respecting the Covid-19 regulations — I decided to go ahead with it. I was also concerned that constitutional freedoms were being eroded by that declaration, that the demonstration was illegal.

I was taken to prison and I spent a night in prison.

"My posters were about reforming the institutions in Zimbabwe, such as the judiciary and the police. So I met a friend and we began to walk down a road. We came to an intersection. Because there were not many people out on that day, which was a Friday, we decided to stand at the intersection and that is when a riot vehicle came to pick us up. I was taken to prison and I spent a night in prison. 

"I was charged with attending a gathering with intention to incite public violence and breach of the peace and acts of bigotry and also with unnecessary movement flouting the Covid-19 regulations. I am still going to court for those charges, and clearly I had not attended a gathering with intention to incite violence. The very fact that they had to use charges of that nature shows that a peaceful demonstration in itself is not illegal because they did not charge me with demonstrating peacefully."

Zimbabwean writer Tsitsi Dangarembga leaves the Harare Magistrate's court after being freed on bail August 1, 2020. Dangarembga faced charges of incitement to commit public violence after she was arrested while protesting over the arrest of journalist Hopewell Chin'ono and demanding reforms of state institutions. (Jekesai Njikizana /AFP via Getty Images)

Making room for hope

"There definitely is a gesture of hope at the end of This Mournable Body. It is a slim gesture, but I think we are here and we are all Zimbabweans together. 

We cannot expect that every Zimbabwean is going to have exactly the same view as one or two other Zimbabweans.

"There must be a way in which we can engage each other as Zimbabweans with respect — and respecting each other's dignity and the perspectives that we have from our different points of view.

"We cannot expect that every Zimbabwean is going to have exactly the same view as one or two other Zimbabweans. We have to learn to deal with differences of opinion —  and I think it's possible."

Tsitsi Dangarembga's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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