Chronicling the corrosive effects of Empire in Zimbabwe

Mar 5, 2024

Shortlisted for The Booker Prize, Tsitsi Dangarembga is the voice of Zimbabwe

Four days after learning that her novel, This Mournable Body had been longlisted for the Booker Prize Tsitsi Dangarembga was arrested. In March 2020 she had been holding a placard inscribed with: “We want better. Reform our institutions.” 

 On that same day hundreds of police and soldiers had been deployed on the streets of Harare, ahead of planned demonstrations against President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government. Residents were ordered to remain indoors after officials described the protests as a “planned insurrection”.  According to Dangarangba there was nobody else on the street that day, as there had been abductions and citizens were terrified

 She was convicted of inciting violence and given a six-month suspended sentence, along with a fine of 70,000 Zimbabwean dollars ($350).  Dangarembga has been a fierce critic of president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government, which has been accused of nepotism, corruption and human rights violations.  She says he and his Zanu-PF party were operating an increasingly repressive regime.


Black and Female

Dangarembga’s experiences in post-colonial Zimbabwe have heavily influenced her writing. She witnessed firsthand the struggles faced by African women in a patriarchal society and the experience of economic disparity and poverty. 

 Her passion for storytelling was nurtured during her formative years. She lived in England from the ages of two to six, while her parents attended school there. Her initial education was in the British school system, and the young Dangarembga became fluent in English at the expense of Shona, her native tongue. Returning to Zimbabwe she later pursued a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and English Literature at the University of Zimbabwe.

 In 2021 Dangarembga was awarded the prestigious PEN Pinter Prize, given to an author who has “a significant body of plays, poetry, essays, or fiction of outstanding literary merit, written in English.” She has written for theatre, the screen and even directed a feature film Everyone’s Child, about the orphaned children of AIDS victims. 

 Recently she published a book of essays, Black and Female, that elucidates the corroding effects of Empire. It also weaves together the personal and political, in an illuminating exploration of her complex relationship with race and gender.


A trilogy of award winning novels

But it is her trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels for which she is most celebrated. Her debut novel, Nervous Conditions, shattered barriers and became a seminal work in African literature. It won her the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa section) in 1989.  It was the first book to be published in English by a Black woman from Zimbabwe and was named by the BBC in 2018 as one of the top 100 books that have shaped the world. 

 The second novel in the trilogy is The Book of Not (2006) and finally This Mournable Body (2018). All three books chart the life of a female protagonist Tambudzai, also known as Tambu. Their backdrop is the social and political history of Zimbabwe over five tumultuous decades, including the War of Independence, the hope of liberation and the disappointments of the new order. 

 Nervous Conditions begins as Tambu is a girl living with her Shona family in a Zimbabwean village, being treated as “less” because of the effects of Empire and patriarchy. But she is a girl with a powerful voice, in this extract she’s doing battle with her father. 

 My father’s idea of what was natural had begun to irritate me a long time ago, at the time that I had had to leave school. I used to try to avoid having it explained to me by maintaining a sullen silence, which according to my father was also unnatural: ‘Now that the mouth is shut, the heart is proud.? He would threaten to beat me but, preferring to be lazy, never bothered to catch me when I ran…Relieved, I set about pleasing myself, which antagonised him even further. 

 Nervous Conditions is set during the liberation struggle, which emerged in the 1960s after white Rhodesians led by Ian Smith declared independence to avoid Black majority rule. At that time, countries across Africa were ousting colonial powers, yet it took 15 years to remove Smith. He was replaced as Prime Minister by Robert Mugabe in 1980. However, the hope that Zimbabweans longed for with this win did not last long. Civil war broke out and more chaos ensued for the new nation. 


A novel of disappointments and dashed dreams

 The second of the trilogy is The Book of Not (2006), which primarily takes place in the ‘Sacred Heart’ an exclusive Catholic girls’ boarding school. Tambu  is sent there by a benevolent uncle after her brother dies and as a result she is expected to get an education and support her family.  It is set during the tense and frightening period of fighting against colonial oppression, and the emergence of a new Zimbabwe. News of the War of Independence occasionally filters into the school, causing the disappearance of some of the students, and fear for those like Tambu, who harbour confused, dual loyalties. 

 There were a lot of students who could not go home in the year of our A-Levels, because their homes had been taken over. Occupied the girls said. The ‘Voice of Zimbabwe on Babamukuru’s radio, broadcasting from Maputo said liberated. So there was more whispering and there were more tears than usual in the common room that end of term, when we left Sacred Heart not to return to it. Angela, who was head girl that year, and Tracey were returning to bungalows in Hatfeld and Mabelreign, far away from the smells they grew up with and knew, and their girlhood memories.

 It’s a thought-provoking, multi-layered novel that looks at the effects of colonialism through one girl’s education, her striving to succeed and the systemic prejudice that prevents her from being able to do so. It’s also about the development of her undu (personhood), something she strives for, that is undermined by the colonialist system within which she attempts to develop it. 

 It is a novel of disappointments and dashed dreams, both Tambu’s expectations and those of the independence movement overall. Dangarembga initially supported Mugabe’s Zanu-PF movement but later became extremely disillusioned and left the movement because of its violence and corruption. 

 She argues in her book of essays that Zimbabwe inherited a system of Empire that was already flawed. Perhaps it was inevitable that this flawed system was not going to work, even after Mugabe took over from Smith and the country was supposedly liberated.  

 An example of the devastating policies of Mugabe’s, which outraged human rights activists, including Dangarembga, was Operation Murambatsvina (Move the Rubbish), also officially known as Operation Restore Order. This was a large-scale Zimbabwean government campaign to forcibly clear slum areas across the country. More than 2 million people were indirectly affected. Many of those made homeless by this policy joined housing cooperatives to collectively purchase land, on which to rebuild their lives, only to have that land taken by Zanu-PF supporters, with backing from government ministers. 

 These events find their way into the novels, making understanding the history of Zimbabwe so real. For example in The Book of Not Tambu cannot find a home, she cannot fit into her country. She is not white and will always be invisible to the hegemony of Empire or colonialism, no matter how clever, how competent and how outstanding Tambu is as a student or an employee.


Shortlisted for the Booker Prize

 The third novel of the trilogy is This Mournable Body published in 2018. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and has won a host of commendations. One of the joys of Dangarembga’s writing is her descriptive language, which is always evocative, as well as being political. 

 You discover you are the pool. The shadows in the dayroom are ponds. Together you form the ocean. This ocean pours from your eyes without end.” 

 In the novel Tambudzai is now a woman living in Harare in the 1990s, when the economic implosion begins in Zimbabwe. At the time Zimbabweans were stunned, they were so sure that their education was going to stand them in good stead as a nation but that was not the case. Dangarembga especially wanted young Zimbabwean women to see themselves in this book, even though it’s set in the 90s.

 In This Mournable Body Tambudzai’s cousin Nyasha is raised in England, far from Rhodesia and suffers from anorexia nervosa. Dangarembga uses this illness as symbolic of empire’s traumatising effects on any black Rhodesian/Zimbabwean girl.  Nyasha is never accepted by white society in England and her anorexia reflects that imbibed self-hatred by shrinking her body to invisibility.  

 A powerful aspect of the book is that the narrator, Tambudzai, speaks in the second person – using the pronoun ‘you’ – giving her an even further sense of displacement or alienation from herself. Her decades of maturation have not given her the sense of fulfilment that she expected or was promised. Tambudzai was a nonperson to white society, even in her own country, despite her competence and her rigour. 

 As Dangarembga states “Empire is like a guillotine…Empire required my parents to leave their home in Southern Rhodesia to travel to London on scholarships for professional education. This…was to enable them to return . . . and be even more useful to empire.” 


Inspiring a powerful and rich literary landscape

 Tsitsi Dangarembga’s impact on African literature cannot be overstated. She has opened the door for other Zimbabwean women writers to tell us about modern Zimbabwe, a country where false narratives proliferate, and public speech is often controlled. 

 NoViolet Bulawayo, who uses the pen name Elizabeth Zandile Tshele was named one of the Top 100 most influential Africans by New African magazine in 2014.

 Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu wrote the award-winning The Theory of Flight about the Gukurahundi massacres, committed in the 1980s under the direction of Robert Mugabe, which killed an estimated 20,000 people, predominantly ethnic Ndebele from Matabeleland and Midland regions.

 Other emerging authors from Zimbabwe include: 

Valerie Tagwira, who is also a specialist Obstetrician- gynaecologist and her debut novel is The Uncertainty of Hope published in 2006.  

 Novuyo Rosa Tshuma who wrote a novella called Shadows and a novel called House of Stone

 Sue Nyathi wrote : A Family Affair then The Polygamist then The Golddiggers, An Angel’s Demise, When Secrets Become Stories: Women Speak Out.

 These are fearless women who write about violence, love, pain, and politics and try to tell the complicated story of the past and the present for Zimbabwe. They remind us that the power of literature is transformative.

Kathy Raheb 2023



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