ZIMBABWE’S celebrated novelist and filmmaker Tsitsi Dangarembga (pictured) is among citizens who were arrested for protesting for a better Zimbabwe on 31 July. Her arrest hit the headlines as she is an internationally acclaimed author and was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize.
She is one of the women who are speaking out against state brutality, social injustice and bad governance. The
NewsHawk’s Bridget Mananavire (BM) had a chat with Dangarembga (TD) on her writings and activism.
BM: You are the first black woman to publish a book in English in Zimbabwe. How does it make you feel and what do you understand your role to be in the Zimbabwean context?
TD: I don’t like being identified as the first black Zimbabwean to do whatever. First of all, for me, I’m not aiming to be first, I’m aiming to do my work. And then this qualifier is divisive, I find. And it also implies subordination to whiteness, which was first. So, yeah, I really don’t like that at all. I know people love to do it. I really don’t know, that’s sensationalism I suppose.
But I don’t like it when I am described in that way. To be honest, I don’t think I have a role in the Zimbabwean context. One can have a context in a nation state where spaces are made for one?
In Zimbabwe, in our nation state, there is no space for the nation, there is only space for the state and its appendages and auxiliaries and I think people, simple people like me, I think we simply have to do our work, I have to do my work as well as I can.
And if that work speaks to people and enables something to happen, that is fine. But, you know, I cannot stand up and say I have a role, that role has to be seen to be manifesting and actually coming into being and, at this point in time, I don’t see that there is anything that’s metaphysical coming into being from what I do.
I do get a reaction from people, who say that I inspired them and I think that’s good. But I don’t know that that is a role; I wouldn’t say it’s my role to inspire people. What I need to do, as any certain person, is to do what you can to the best of your ability.
And then it will be operational, because when you put yourself into it, you know, as human beings, we are connected energetically. So, when you put yourself into it, it speaks to people, that’s why people love certain songs and cry in certain movies.
So my role would not be any different from any other Zimbabwean, who really has to put their whole self into whatever they do to do it as well as possible for themselves and for the other people around them.
That’s what inspires people, actually—when they see somebody committing and putting their everything into something and producing. And this is where you see that the state actually wants to stop the nation doing that.
That’s power. The power to do your best is one of the biggest powers in the world.
BM: What made you transition from just writing about these things, challenging the status quo and putting them across in a book, to actively being involved in street protest and challenging what you feel is bad governance?
TD: Yeah, yes you are right, my writing does have an element of challenging the status quo. Because I feel that if the status quo is not allowing people to be the best versions of themselves, then there’s something wrong with the status quo of somebody trying to be in those three books anyway, somebody’s trying to be the best version of herself in an environment where the status quo did not want to facilitate that. It obviously led to those kinds of challenges.
What made me transition and be on the streets? Because there was no platform for it. People can hardly get my books in Zimbabwe; even if the book is there, it’s so expensive, so what I’m actually writing about doesn’t reach
I wanted to make films because I thought that films are more accessible to people and I formed the Women’s Film Festival because I thought we can take films out to people that talk about people in their environments and the challenges.
And none of those initiatives are successful, I did get a bit of support from the EU and I managed to do some programmes for three years and otherwise I couldn’t get support to be able to do anything meaningful.
And so, that’s also my primary source of income and so I had no income and nothing to do except sit here and write, which you can’t do forever. And I thought, if I have not been able to use narrative, as my tool for engagement with the situation, and there are other people who are doing other things and what they’re saying makes sense as a citizen, I suppose I should support those other things. Just as I would have expected, others to say ‘oh, you know, there’s a film festival, let’s support it’.
If other people are saying let’s do this to improve our country, then I should support it. Also, you know, I made an agreement. So that’s what I did.
Basically, my writing, as we’ve discussed it, is about people developing the agency and since I was blocked from showing any agency in art and literature and film for the longest time, I had to show that agency in other ways, you know.
If I had been making my films and there was a vibrant community here that I belong to and I was active and doing things, then I would have been showing my agency that way, but all of that was unavailable to me. When somebody said come and show agency in this way, I said yes, as a good citizen that’s what I need to do.
BM: Some have been abducted, you yourself have been arrested, do you not fear? Zimbabwe is a nation engulfed in fear. Do you not have that fear?
TD: I do have the fear when I make a decision to show my agency. There’s no point in concentrating on the fear, because fear is what prevents agency. So, if I have made a commitment to show agency in this way, then I can’t concentrate on fear because it will stop me. The thing is, I’ve been afraid most of my life.
So, it’s nothing new, it’s just a question of managing it. And I think if one believes in things, then that gives one the courage of one’s convictions. So, that’s important.
Having said that, though, the situation has become so difficult that it was really an eye opener for me to be in prison for one day, because I understand now why people prefer not to go to demonstrate, even apart from the risk of actually being injured physically.
If you are taken in, there is no water, no food, so you need somebody who’s at your service running up and down the city 24 hours a day. Who can afford that?
BM: In your recent Oliver Tambo annual lecture, you talk about peace and trying to build peace in a nation that has been wrecked by violence and, at the same time, there are people who are calling for a revolution. And we know protests do not always end peacefully, people can get killed. Even so, what’s your take on a revolution as the only way to achieve change in Zimbabwe?
TD: I would say that a revolution does not have to be violent. If you look at a bicycle wheel, it can spin without doing any damage. And if you have a wheel with knives on intended spins, it will do damage, so it depends on the kind of revolution.
But the other thing is that a revolution is exactly that: it’s a circle, 360 degrees. So, you may have your revolution but it may not bring change of the nature that you want.
I think, in order to bring change of the nature that you want, you have to be very aware of the transformed state that you are going into. I think we know we have made the same mistake several times in our history.
So, we need to actually articulate the kind of rule that we want. And I think we are still lacking there. I have asked so many people this question I have engaged with on so many platforms from around 2006, to say, can we develop an ideology that will guide us to the Zimbabwe we actually want?
BM: What is your endgame? Would you want to go into politics full time? Some people believe you have the kind of depth
that is needed.
TD: I’m not a politician and I never will be a politician and I don’t want to be a politician and I thank God that I don’t have a political bone in my body. I don’t want to stand up there and be responsible for people. What I want to do is to create spaces where people can begin to evolve.