One of the very first African Novels I enjoyed reading and actually took the time to walk into a bookshop and purchase was Nervous Conditions. Considering it was the first novel published in English by a black Zimbabwean woman, it was a special treat and a treasure indeed. I was 13 years old when I first read it. My appreciation of literature was quite limited then but then I re-read the novel at 18 and I have read it two more times and each time I am amazed at the beautiful style in which this novel was written. I am not surprised it won the African section of the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1989 because the way in which it depicts the dynamics of education, poverty, race, class, gender, and identity crisis is nothing short of intriguing. The author is none other than novelist, playwright, filmmaker and activist Tsitsi Dangaremba (pronounced da-nga-re-mbwa).
This woman who partially studied Medicine at Cambridge University, got a degree in Psychology from the University of Zimbabwe, studied Film direction from the University of Berlin and holds a PHD in African Film from the Department of African Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin is a woman of many talents and vast experience.Tsitsi’s uniqueness as an artist lies in how she uses art and culture, not just for entertainment but as a tool for progress and development.
One of the things for which I owe her great respect is the film Neria. She wrote the script. That film was and continues to be one of the strongest instruments for effective community education on the importance of writing a will. It is also pivotal in campaigning for the respect of laws governing succession and deceased estates to protect women and children. Neria is a story of a widowed woman who loses her material possessions and her child to her brother in law in a typical traditional fashion. The brother in law, Phineas, confiscates all of Neria’s wealth and abducts her daughter claiming that as ‘Sarapavana’ a Shona word referring to a guardian, he has the obligation to take care of her. All that Phineas wants is the property; he does not care about the child. Only through her friend does Neria regain all these things. I remember reading reports that the man who played Phineas, the evil brother in law, in the film was assaulted in real life in Harare by incensed citizens who had been moved by the widow’s suffering and angered by his ruthless greed and malevolence.
Another one of Tsitsi’s unforgettable works is the film Everyone’s Child which she directed. The film portrays the struggles of HIV orphans, illustrating the trials and tribulations that the poor children had to undergo without their parents to support them.
Tsitsi’s work has won her numerous awards. In 2006 she was the recipient of the Arts Personality of the Year Award and in 2007 the Arts Service Award, both from the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe.Her films have also received awards. Kare Kare Zvako (2005) won the Golden Dhow in Zanzibar, the Short Film Award Cinemaafricano in Milano, and Short Film Award at the Zimbabwe International Film Festival. Peretera Maneta (2006) received the UNESCO Children’s and Human Rights Award. She also won the Gender, Equality and Media Award for her film Growing Stronger in South Africa in 2006.
Her short story The Letter is rich in its illustration of the hardships that an African woman, entangled in the web of a patriarchal society with no voice, limited choices and an almost bleak future has to contend with.
In particular I love this extract from The Letter in which Tsitsi portrays the gentle, quiet strength and deep character of this (abandoned) married woman;
“This morning I received a letter from my husband, the first in twelve years. Can you imagine such a thing? As has been my custom during all this time that I have been waiting, I opened my eyes at four o’clock when the first cock crowed, and lay remembering the day that he left, without bitterness and without anger or sorrow, simply remembering what it was like to be with him one day and without him the next.”
Tsitsi has also delivered a lecture published as part of the Dakar, CODESRIA, Lectures Series entitled, ‘The Popular Arts and Culture in the Texture of the Public Sphere in Africa’ in which she explores the African culture and suggests how culture may be used to cultivate subjective consciousness.
As a founding member of many initiatives, Tsitsi promotes Zimbabwean arts and women’s rights. Her involvement with the Zimbabwe Association of Community Theatre, the Women’s Action Group and Zimbabwe Women Writers has promoted women in art as well as the use of art to advocate gender equality. She is currently the Director of the International Images Film Festival for Women, another one of her brilliant initiatives. She is also a trustee within the Envision Zimbabwe Trust, an organisation that explores developmental challenges and issues affecting Zimbabwean women and youth and devising solutions to these problems.
Tsitsi speaks out against women abuse, against domestic violence and more recently against political violence against women.
Not only England is blessed with talented writers such as William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Right here in Zimbabwe we have them too and I hope you agree with me that Tsitsi is definitely in their caliber. If you don’t I can understand why, it’s probably a generational thing, just like Jane Austen was misunderstood in her time, future generations will get what Tsitsi is all about too.