Eating disorders seem to be a rarity in the issues raised by contemporary African writers. That’s most likely why Tsitsi Dangarembga’s 1988 classic “Nervous Conditions” became an immediate modern African classic. It was a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about the affects of patriarchy and colonialism on a female protagonist, Tambudzai. Nyasha, Tambudzai’s cousin, suffers from an acute case of bulimia. In many respects, she attempts to regurgitate centuries of societal repression of African women’s bodies, livelihoods, and intellectual capacities.
Like Nyasha, Dangarembga has been regurgitating historical tyranny with creative genius. She is a Zimbabwean playwright, novelist, and filmmaker who tackles head-on the oppression wrought by patriarchy and colonialism on African women. Her most recent novel, “The Book of Not,” is a sequel to “Nervous Conditions.”
Dangarembga could be called a feminist, but she shies away from the loaded term, opting for something more holistic, humanist. The Informer interviewed Dangarembga recently about writing, African women’s empowerment, and continental development.
Robtel Neajai Pailey (RP): Your large body of work shows that in the grand scheme of things, gender matters to you. How did you become so interested in the convergence of gender, oppression, and Africa?
Tsitsi Dangarembga (TD): Gender matters to me because I am a woman and experience firsthand the oppressive consequences of gender discrimination. I spend a lot of my considerable energy fighting that, and I think, why do I have to waste so much on this fight? I am sure most women all over the world ask themselves that question daily. Think how much energy is dissipated in this useless manner. It is energy that could be harnessed for the good of all people in a world free of gender oppression. I experience similar oppression as an African person. Naturally, I see similarities, but then again, also differences in these two systems of oppression. I spend a lot more time and energy trying to tease out which oppression fits so I can combat it appropriately, win and move on. I think that kind of intellectual work can be a legacy for others, hopefully shortening and easing their struggles.
RP: “The condition of the native is a nervous condition” seems to be the hallmark of your 1988 novel, “Nervous Conditions.” Was this one line in “Nervous Conditions” some type of tribute to Frantz Fanon and his book “Wretched of the Earth?”
TD: It was not a tribute in the sense that I wanted to draw attention to the greatness of “Wretched of the Earth.” It is, however, a tribute in the sense that that quotation affirms the truth that Fanon wrote, whose essence was captured so aptly and so succinctly by [Jean-Paul] Sartre in his introduction to Fanon’s work.*
RP: How are African women and girls today still victims of White supremacy and patriarchy?
TD: My new novel “The Book of Not” deals with this theme. The relationships are too complex to reduce to a few sentences, I think. When we do that, we miss essentials that need to be looked at. So I have taken many years to work this out to my satisfaction and also depict it to my satisfaction in “The Book of Not.” Personally, I feel both systems still work to victimize me. I think it is not an accident at all that most strong African women find they can only move forward in the company of other strong African women. Thank goodness for the sisterhood! Having said that, of course I do not want to portray the rest of the world as a homogenous monstrous lot! Neither could I as an African woman manage without the support from allies who have institutional access to institutionalized power and resources. Such people have kept me and my work—both my personal work and the work that I do as part of the African women’s movement—alive.
RP: I understand that you studied medicine and psychology at Cambridge University in England. Can you describe the psychological manifestations of patriarchy and neo-colonialism on African women and girls (besides eating disorders)?
TD: Low self-esteem; under performance; anti-social behavior; role modeling on anti-social hitherto traditionally masculine behaviors; negative energy; learned helplessness; rage; addiction; alienation; psychological disturbances from neuroses to psychoses; lethargy; dysfunctional attitudes; suicide; self immolation…to name a few.
RP: You’ve become increasingly aware of the difficult conditions and oppressive attitudes endured by Black women in Zimbabwe. I dare say you’ve been increasingly aware of the difficulty endured by African women all over the continent. What are some of the contemporary challenges African women face? What do you believe are some solutions to these challenges?
TD: Economic conditions in our global capitalist world are the main challenge. This translates practically into challenges of food security, health, shelter, education…again, the list goes on. There is also the challenge of how to make sure your voice is heard to voice these issues, both by those who want to hear you and by those who do not. This also at the end of the day translates into a challenge of financial resources. Few African women have the financial security to write the novels they want to write, make the films they want to in order to be heard, make the radio programs they see as crucial to their development and well being. We do not have the resources to ensure that these programs are aired even if we are able to make them. We often do not have the time to write the newspaper article we want to because they often will not be published in our newspapers and so we will not be paid, or if the articles are published often again a male chauvinist spin is put on them. Nor do we have our own newspapers. Again, it is not a monolithic African woman-hating world out there, but the opportunities are too few to sustain us at the level we have reached, let alone sustain our continued well-being and development in the face of our challenges.
RP: Please comment on how the tenuous political and economic conditions in Zimbabwe have affected women in the country.
TD: The political situation has affected most women badly in every sense. As in all crises situations there are some who exploit the suffering of others to benefit from it, and some of these exploiters who benefit are women. However, on the whole, women have seen the gains they made since independence in 1980 whittled away over the last few years. There is less food security. Girl children are less likely to be educated. Shortages of basic commodities make a mother’s life a nightmare. Biologically, women are challenged again. How are women to afford to buy the sanitary wear they need to soak up menstrual blood? As men are affected by the difficult conditions, they take out their frustrations on the often physically weaker sex. Sexual crimes and other violent crimes against women and children are accelerating at an unspeakable rate. The HIV pandemic multiplies the horrific implications of this situation a million times. Because of international sanctions, amongst other things, there are no medicines, little food, and what is there is hardly healthy. Only vestigial sanitation in most areas, almost no clean water in others. Even the cities go for days without water, to say nothing of fuel. I do not understand the logic that believes Zimbabweans will suffer these deprivations and become better, more democratic peoples. In my reading of history, a democratic nation has never been a hungry, suffering nation. Democracy seems to me to have been positively correlated with comfort. I do not think I am the only person who has read history, and so I wonder about the diverse agendas that are destroying my country in the name of democracy and human rights. There may as well be other factors at play which are destroying Zimbabwe, such as avarice, corruption and lack of accountability, but I do not think we must study all the factors and their impacts if we truly desire a solution, and not be selective about which truths we will face and which we will not.
RP: Over 15 African countries have ratified the Protocol on the Rights of the African Woman, which stipulates a series of recommendations for women’s rights on the continent to be adopted by the African Union. Are you familiar with this Protocol? If not, what recommendations would you include?
TD: Over the years there have been so many protocols and statements on human rights and women’s rights that I have lost track. I have not seen that these do a great deal to benefit the lives of women and the people close to women on the ground, beyond the NGOs and others involved in the drafting, funding, and implementation. Again, that is not to say that these actions have achieved zero impact, but I do not think that isolating women’s rights without addressing the larger picture of Africa and globalization will yield positive results. At the end of the day, African women and men have to live together in peace and harmony. This will not be achieved by looking only at the needs of one group.
RP: What would you say are some of the major contributions women in the developing world have contributed? What have African women contributed?
TD: I think African women who have made their mark in the world have shown what degrees of human strength are possible. They have shown us how to persevere, never give up, and simply never ever take NO for an answer, if the answer should be YES.
RP: Perhaps African American women writers such as bell hooks, Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston are your counterparts in terms of writing from a particular ethnic and gender lens. Have these women at all influenced your work?
TD: Absolutely! All of them have. I remember being so impressed by Angela Davis’ Afro and the fact that she had been in jail! I thought, how can a woman in America have to go to jail? Then I read and found out why. It was good to realize that what I was beginning to notice going on around me was not my own little secret shame because I was not good enough at a personal level. I love bell hooks for writing about the rage that makes you want to kill, but then having to not kill and do something else instead that is life affirming, and, I imagine, infinitely more rewarding even if it seems at first to be infinitely more difficult than murder! Zora Neale Hurston simply stunned me by saying out, just like that, what she had to say. As for Toni Morrison, she is my ultimate literary role model. I remember telling my publisher how at first I was perplexed that each of Morrison’s novels were in a different voice. As a reader who had enjoyed one of her works, I craved a continuation in the next one. But then as I continued to read, I found that that was one of the marks of genius.
RP: In tandem with African women writers such as Buchi Emecheta, Ama Atta Aidoo, and Mariama Ba, you’ve managed to reconstruct the experiences of African women through the literary medium. What do you see as the role of African women writers today?
TD: Well, I write to tell a story. I think people like stories because they serve such a variety of purposes ranging from entertainment to information, to role modeling to catharsis.
RP: What is your latest novel about? How has publishing abroad been a challenge and a boon simultaneously?
TD: “The Book of Not” continues the story of Tambudzai Siguake, the narrator of “Nervous Conditions,” and her quest towards becoming herself. This journey almost comes to a premature end at the Catholic Convent School she attends in Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe]. I like to think, however, that she survives. Publishing abroad is useful because you reach a wider audience. Books published first in Zimbabwe are not automatically picked up by international publishers. I am still looking for a Zimbabwean publisher, though. I love touching the people around me, and stirring them to something.
RP: What would you say are your greatest accomplishments?
TD: Staying alive, healthy and happy. Loving my family and finding compassion.
*The title of “Nervous Conditions” is borrowed from Jean-Paul Sartre’s introduction to Franz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth.” The ‘nervous condition’ of the native is, according to Sartre, a function of mutually reinforcing attitudes between colonizer and colonized that condemn the colonized to what amounts to a psychological disorder.
•This article first appeared in The Washington Informer and is reproduced here with permission. Robtel Neajai Pailey is the Washington Informer Assistant Editor.
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