Tsitsi Dangarembga and the politics of identity

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By: Oleg Magni

When I was a PhD student at Cambridge in 2000, The Economist had a cover article titled Hopeless Continent. It was a humiliating article that cited the wars in Sierra Leone, floods in Mozambique and land invasions in Zimbabwe. As a proud African, I found it difficult to wake up that day and face anyone. As I meekly walked into the dining hall, my friend Dr Fabian Wagner, politely asked me, “What can we do to help your continent?” I replied that the only help we would require is to pressurise his government not to be a conduit of resource pillage in Africa.

Two decades later, Africa still loses a lot of money through illicit trade, exploitation and plain theft. Nonetheless, this episode made me very nervous about my condition. It was as if the whole of Cambridge was looking at me, and I was the poster child for the Hopeless Continent.

In 2018, I hosted Tsitsi Dangarembga, the author of The Mournable Body, for the MISTRA Annual Lecture, where she spoke about her much talked about debut novel, Nervous Conditions. The story is set in pre-independence Zimbabwe and centres around Tambudzai (Tambu) who was born in a poor village and lives with her parents Jeremiah and Mainini. Tambudzai means to make him/her suffer or trouble.

Tambu’s life represents the individual behind the postcolonial violence that ravaged Zimbabwe. In a way, her story represents the trauma that fundamentally becomes ingrained in a country’s people. Often Zimbabwe is dismissed – it represents the quintessential failure of African governance in the West. But what are the ramifications of this narrative for Zimbabwe’s people, for the individual? Zimbabwe’s history has certainly been fraught – the legacy of British colonial rule, a violent liberation struggle and dashed hopes of independence when the liberator Robert Mugabe turned out to be a despot.

Here, Dangarembga weaves an intricate tale around Tambu. The story begins with her brother, Nhamo, who went to a mission school and stayed with his uncle Babamukuru and his family. When Nhamo dies, Tambu effectively takes his place and becomes close to her cousin Nyasha. She excels at school and enjoys the relative wealth of her uncle but remains nervous about her surroundings. This book, like its sequels, explores gender relations, patriarchy and colonialism.

The sequel to The Nervous Conditions is The Book of Not.  In this sequel, which is set in the 1970s, Tambu’s sister joins the Chimurenga, or the uprising, and ends up in Mozambique where she loses her leg. In stark contrast, Tambu wins a scholarship to Sacred Heart College, where she tries to adopt western ways of life and attempts to distance herself as much as possible from her rural life. Dangarembga explores the other side of making it out of your context, which is not always the rosy picture it is painted as. Here, Tambu encounters discrimination based on race. She is put in the African Hostel, and when she graduates at the top of her class in the O-Levels, the school chooses to put Tracey, a white girl, on the honour roll instead of her.

In the third instalment, set in the 2000s, Tambu moves in with MaManyanga, the elderly widow of a man who made his fortune after independence. She is joined by the widow’s niece, Christine, who knew her family in the village. Tambu navigates the challenges of adulthood and trying to find her purpose. She eventually gets a job as a biology teacher even though she is trained in the social sciences. As a teacher, she becomes much disturbed by the sugar daddies that were exploiting the young girls at the school. While she records their number plates to report them to the police, she is contending with powerful men.

This leads to Tambu embodying the violence she has so vehemently objected to. In frustration, and as a prelude to a mental breakdown, she beats up one of these students, Elizabeth, to the point that she loses one of her ears. Tambu ends up in hospital where she interacts with other patients, many of them white. Once again, we visit race relations, an insurmountable patriarchy and gender disparity through Tambu.

When Tambu is released, she goes and stays with her cousin Nyasha, her German husband Leon and their two children. Here, Tambu experiences a clash of civilisations. On a family outing, Tambu runs into an ex-colleague, Tracey Stevenson, from an advertising agency where she used to work. They decided to work together to establish Green Jacaranda Gateway Safaris. Here, she competes with Pedzi who came up with Ghetto Gateway but was forced out of the farm by the military veterans. Tambu comes up with the Village Eco which is based in her village and here she works with the Women’s club. In establishing the Village Eco, she has to bribe people, including opening and closing people’s mouths (vura muromo and vhara muromo).

At the launch of Village Eco, while the women of the village were dancing half-naked for the tourists, a German tourist takes a picture of Tambu’s mother, prompting her to damage the camera and the tour becomes a disaster. Tambu resigns. The book ends with Tambu taking a job with Christine and her aunt in AK Security while her sister is still waiting for a prosthetic leg.

What lessons can we learn from this book? As Jacques Mallet du Pan said about the French revolution “like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children”. As Tsitsi puts it, revolutionaries are destroyers and not builders, and after they have won their independence, the first thing they do is to destroy other revolutionaries. We witnessed this during the reign of terror after the French Revolution when Maximillian Robespierre killed his comrades with the guillotine not long after he declared the inspiring chant “liberty, equality and fraternity.” We also witnessed this after the Russian Revolution when Joseph Stalin killed his comrades including Leon Trotsky and Sergei Kirov. Stalin was so effective at killing his comrades that he had them removed from pictures they appeared with him long before digital editing made editing people out easy. In China, during the Cultural Revolution, many were victims of purges, including leaders such as the maker of modern China, Deng Xiaoping.

We also learn that a revolution requires technical knowhow to achieve. Independent Zimbabwe has not been able to create a safe environment for its people. Consequently, Zimbabwe has the largest diaspora in Southern Africa, with estimations as high as 40% having left the country. Recently, a prominent Zimbabwean Professor Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni left the continent to settle in Germany. No country, least of all one experiencing economic hardship such as Zimbabwe, can afford to lose scholars of the calibre of Sabelo.

So the second principle of revolutionary success is to preserve skills and talent. Anything else, will compromise the economy and ultimately lead to its prolonged contraction. Another lesson I draw from this book is that as Africans, we are often required to have double identities. Some of us might live in fancy suburbs such as Sandton, yet we claim to still come from our villages such as Duthuni. Tambu was living a double life, one which is based on her missionary education and the other a village life. This double life often leads to alienation, where people such as Nhamo and Tambu are alienated from their cultures.

The final lesson I draw is that even though education seems to be a ticket to modernity, it often leads to the existence of nervousness. This manifests as an inferiority complex, and an urge to explain or rationalise the failures of modern Africa. Words like legacy, colonisation and apartheid are often evoked even to explain things that with a bit of effort can be overcome.

Though we are seemingly only navigating Tambu’s chaotic life, it is juxtaposed against a much broader debate. What is the dark underbelly of independence or even of subverting your narrative and becoming successful? Tambu’s intricate tale is a realisation that this often comes at a price and that the fragments of a country’s past linger. It is a tale of the anxiety that comes with colonial education, with a revolution and with a dream deferred of liberation. Memories of the war are like a void, the patriarchal violence remains unchallenged, and she is confronted with the overwhelming realisation of her own failures when she is not able to make something of herself. As Tambu puts it, “You are concerned you will start thinking of ending it all, having nothing to carry on for: no home, no job, no sustaining family bonds. Thinking this induces a morass of guilt.”

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg. He is the author of the book: Closing the Gap: The Fourth Industrial Revolution in Africa. Follow him on twitter at @txm1971.