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REVIEW | Dangarembga probes the wounds of empire in new essay collection

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By Karabo K Kgoleng I News24


Award-winning novelist and filmmaker, Tsitsi Dangarembga explores the wound of empire in this slim volume of an introduction and three essays.

She is most widely known for her debut novel Nervous Conditions, which shaped at least two generations of post-independence African readers of the English language.

As the first in a trilogy, the novel follows the life of Tambudzai, a girl who struggles to deal with the psychological impacts of racism and sexism as she pursues her educational ambitions. Tambudzai’s fate in the proceeding novels serves as an allegory of how the hopes of Zimbabwe rose and how they were dashed over the decades that followed independence.

In Black and Female, she reflects on the lasting impacts of colonialism and its heir, a violent, “big man” patriarchal postcolonial Zimbabwean (and more broadly Anglophone Africa) society that bears the hallmarks of a political elite that, using patronage, corruption and violence, rules heavy-handedly over an increasingly impoverished population.

Dangarembga begins by recalling her early years as a toddler in the then Southern Rhodesia, a time that she can only remember as being filled with light. Her earliest memory is of a parlour in England, where her parents arranged for her and her older brother to be taken into foster care as they respectively pursued the kind of British education that would stand them in good stead back home under the colonial administration.

This early trauma of being separated from her parents and experiencing life as the only black girl in her school – mostly loathed and sometimes treated as a mild curiosity – serves as the starting point to how she goes on to use the collection of essays as “a location in the invisible geography of my asylum”. Indeed, the narrative of the double-edged sword of hypervisibility and erasure and how it works to inhibit the formation of a sense of personal worth is familiar to people whom society places on the margins.

Dangarembga articulates how the “madness” of black women in Southern Africa is manufactured by patriarchy and (the British colonial) empire. She explains how her earliest experiences taught her that physical and psychological violence causes mental distress. Indeed, many who have read her novels, including this reviewer, express how her writing validates their experiences of the world.

A literary clinician, Dangarembga writes about how the empire created a gendered and racialised centre and placed black women at the margins while later using human rights discourse to “other” black women, particularly in the post-independence era.

At this juncture, she turns her focus to the post-independence traditional patriarchy as typified by the big-men leaders in Zimbabwe and across the continent, pointing out that it is based on a system of private ownership and, as such, it functions as a colonial continuity that places black women and children at the bottom of the social ladder – as barely human property.

This is unlike the pre-colonial social system of power that was built on a kinship system that distributed power in a less top-down hierarchical manner. She uses the example of the prevalent interpretation of the customary law of intestate succession that excludes women in Zimbabwe. It descends directly from the laws promulgated by British South African segregationist Theophilus Shepstone.

Women in Africa have incredibly few access to opportunities, and Tsitsi Dangaremba reflects on the “NGO-isation” of black feminism after the exodus of white expatriate feminist women allies after independence.

Although this category did not guarantee protection from misogynoir, the white women were able to facilitate access to funding and provide much-needed solidarity as black feminists began to experience a postcolonial backlash from their political elites. She acknowledges those allies while decrying how “our existence is not supported by our environments” and that even NGO spaces are precarious because they are frequently subjected to political interference.

“My age insulates me from the most atrocious forms of Zimbabwean misogyny,” she writes. Despite this, as black feminists in Africa, we prefer to grow old(er) despite some aspects of erasure and exclusion for opportunities that (rightfully) focus on the youth. As for women who are connected to the political elite, Dangarembga critiques how they are able to “enjoy the privileges of patriarchy, knowing that their elite status can be revoked at any moment”, using the example of Grace Mugabe.

In South Africa, a recent, high-profile case show how the ANC did not provide the same protection as it did to men when Bathabile Dlamini was on trial for perjury – one of many illegal and corrupt practices that are standard in the organisation. This is a case of how “caping” for the boys does not guarantee protection. Dangarembga has opted not to enjoy the privileges of patriarchy. She was handed a suspended sentence recently for inciting violence after protesting for political reform.

Black and Female is a beautiful, enraging work. The thrills of literature and visual storytelling provide a much-needed escape from life as a black woman in Africa. Dangarembga is the kind of artist whose truth-telling work is the kind that we wish we didn’t need.