Africa and the World: Writers at Home and Away
TSITSI DANGAREMBGA: When I think of myself, I don’t think of myself as an African writer. I think of myself as Tsitsi Dangarembga. The place I live that people call Africa is actually to me the place where children run in the garden, where the water starts ebbing away out of the taps at six in the morning only to come back at six at night, if we’re lucky. So this place that people call Africa probably means something quite different to me.
I thought that rather than talk about the role of the writer, I’d read an article I wrote. It was a commissioned article, and from that you may be able to deduce what, for me, my role as a writer from Africa is. The title of the piece is called “Electing Zimbabwe.”
My heart is in turmoil and I am in great pain. What is the world coming to? When will Zimbabweans not be afraid to say, “I am a Zimbabwean. And this is what I believe in”? There is a lot at stake, as I know only too well. As Zimbabweans, we live on a continent and in a country where people die of easily curable diseases, where people still die of hunger. In this situation, few of us are willing to give up what little political security we may have eked out for ourselves, for fear of losing what little we have. . . .
I am Zimbabwean and proud of it. I was born in this country. When I was very young, my parents relocated to England for several years in order to pursue further education. It was in England that I first learned to smile when sweet old ladies called me “pickaninny.” That is, until I went home one day after having smiled many times, after receiving sweets and pats on the head or pennies for my cuteness.
“I’m a little pickaninny,” I told my mother proudly. Mum wasn’t amused.
“No, you’re not,” she said tersely. And my mother was at that time a gentle, nonabrasive type, not often employing terseness. I knew something was wrong, but it was good to be found cute and sweet and to be given sweets.
“Why not?” I asked. “That’s what the lady called me.”
Mum made time to explain the derivation of the word from the Portuguese for “little child,” and its generic usage to denote any child of color.
I had another run-in with “pickaninnies” several years ago at a writer’s festival in Durban. The festival organized an essay competition for local Durban secondary schools. The prizewinning essays were read out at one of the ceremonies during the festival. The essay that won third prize was written by a young white girl, and it was the story of a maid on her Sunday off. This maid, too, ran past pickaninnies. I picked up on this, as well as on several other points, during the Q & A, when I asked the judges whether they had considered that they might offend young people from indigenous secondary schools, or that such offense might have easily been avoided by a change of language. Apparently, no one had considered these possibilities, which to me were very self-evident. In fact, I was censured for attacking and traumatizing the young writer. Actually, I was quite traumatized by the event, as I believe were all the young girls from indigenous schools sitting in rows at the front of the auditorium. Time has healed the trauma, but I remember the tears I didn’t shed.
Slowly, I and some of the people involved revisited this incident. I was told, for example, that pickanin was a Zulu word for little child and the Zulus used it themselves. At this information, a lot became clearer. First, it was a question of intention when an act is committed. If a person does not intend to commit an offense with words or action, can he or she be blamed for using that particular word or action? Second, it was a question of ignorance versus knowledge. We know what we have experienced. If no one has reacted against the use of a word or action, then how will another know the word is offensive? The way I see it, objections have to be raised as and when necessary. In the context of pickanin, or its more correct original, pickanina, the phrase is a term that was used by the early Portuguese in this part of Africa to denote a little black child. It soon became a generic term, much as the word boy did. It connoted people who are looked down upon by the users of the term and furthermore is not used to generically describe their own children. By raising the objection and hearing other people’s points of view, I began to realize how the young white girl had used the word without any awareness of its roots or racism or the relegation of African people to positions of inferiority. I did not condone her usage of the term, but at least, by challenging and listening, I was on my way to deeper understanding.
I’m feeling in a similar situation today after Zimbabwe’s sixth election, and I’m dealing with the entire crisis in my country the same way as I have dealt with the question of being a pickanin: trusting personal and collective experience to inform me. This was why I returned to Zimbabwe in December 2000, to live at home permanently: to continue shaping my perspective on the situation of my country through firsthand experience. I left Zimbabwe for Germany in 1989 to take up a course in film and television studies in Berlin. Although I completed my course in 1997—by that time I was married and had children—my husband and I had not saved enough to relocate to Zimbabwe and make a living there, so we stayed in Germany. I was perpetually homesick.
Then in 2000, the land invasion started in Zimbabwe. This is what finally compelled me to act. There was widespread coverage of the invasions on German television. In June 2000, ARD, which is the main German program, showed footage of some young men throwing a burning log into a farm outbuilding. The commentary deplored the violence taking place in Zimbabwe. A little later, the same footage was used, this time to decry the escalating violence in Zimbabwe. Finally, the same footage was used a third time to talk about the absence of all law and order in the country. One newspaper compared President Mugabe to Pinochet; one blamed him for the plight of the Tunga, who had been displaced when the Kariba dam was built in the 1950s.
Finally, a professor from the university I was enrolled in for my doctoral thesis on the reception of African film told me she had been approached by a journalist who was looking for a Zimbabwean who took a different view from the pervading doctrine in the German press. The journalist wanted the Zimbabwean to write her or his point of view as passionately as possible. She thought I would do a good job. With much misgiving, but as I was broke, I agreed to write the article. Imagine my surprise when it was published alongside one by Peter Godwin of Mukiwa fame and the headlines suggested Zimbabwe was in a black-white conflict. I was terribly angry that I had not been informed. It was then that it became clear to me that I could not stay away from home and retain my national integrity. Without preparation, without work, with practically nothing, my husband and I and two small children relocated. Luckily I had a one-semester teaching job at MIT, so I was able to keep the family afloat.
Many people in Cambridge were interested in my perspective on Zimbabwe. I told them what I knew, how my father had always pointed out a big tree when we took a trip to our rural home in the beautiful eastern highlands. He told me that he had been born under that tree, but he and his family vacated the land when it was taken for cheap sale to British World War II veterans. I told my audiences of the members of my family who had been killed during the liberation struggle, including an older cousin who had cerebral palsy and had not understood the village order to take cover. Instead he had been told never to let the cattle stray, so when the alarm sounded, he ran around to round up the cattle. The Rhodesian security forces shot him in the back. My aunt found him later with his intestines spilling out. She heaped them back in, but he died in the general hospital.
These are the stories I tell because they are what I know, and I believe they have not been adequately heard. My point is that there has been a lot of suffering all around. Suffering is not limited to one group of human beings, yet it seems to me that some suffering carries more human weight than other suffering. It is not so much a case of “Do we not bleed?” as everyone, I believe, agrees we do. It is rather now a question of “Is our blood worth as much as yours? And do the wounds pain us as badly?”