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Tsitsi Dangarembga (1959-)


Zimbabwean film-maker and writer, whose novel Nervous Conditions (1988) has become a modern African classic. It was awarded the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1989. Tsitsi Dangarembga has dealt in her works with the oppressive nature of a patriarchal family structure and a woman's coming-of-age. "My soul is African," she once said, "it is from there that springs the fountain of my creative being."

"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." (from 'The Letter', 1985)

Tsitsi Dangarembga was born in Mutoko in colonial Rhodesia, but at the age of two she moved with her parents to England, thereby citing English as her first language – it was used all through her education and she forgot most of the Shona that she had learnt. In 1965 she returned to Rhodesia, where she entered a mission school in Mutare and learned Shona again. She then completed her secondary education at an American convent school. In 1977 Dangarembga went to Cambridge to study medicine. After three years she abandoned her studies and returned to Zimbabwe, where amongst other things she worked for some time at an advertising agency, and started to study psychology at the University of Zimbabwe.

During these years she became involved with the Drama Club and wrote and staged three plays, She No Longer Weeps (pub. 1987), The Lost of the Soil, and The Third One. "The writers in Zimbabwe were basically men at the time," she said in an interview. "And so I really didn't see that the situation would be remedied unless some woman sat down and wrote something, so that's what I did!" Upon graduation she worked as a teacher, but finding it difficult to combine an academic career and literature, then devoted herself entirely to writing. Her short story, 'The Letter' won a price in a writing competition arranged by SIDA, the Swedish International Development Authority, and was published in the anthology Whispering Land (1985). In it Dangarembga drew a parallel between broken family ties under South African apartheid with national disintegration. The narrator, a woman, receives the first letter from her husband – after twelve years. He had been considered a security risk but manages to escape before being arrested. Her mother tells her to destroy the letter, but she wants to save it. Soldiers raid her house and she is taken to a police station. The story ends with a brutal conclusion: "As for myself, well, I have already told you that I became a political person twelve years ago in the Township. Therefore I have been ample time to get used to the aberrations of people in the grip of totalitarian fervour. I do not know what is going to happen to me. I may be charged with an act of treason plotted in Pretoria, or they may hold me here to abuse me physically and mentally for a while before conceding that my desire to be with my husband is not grounds for indictment."

As a novelist Dangarembga made her debut with Nervous Conditions, a partially autobiographical work. The novel was rejected by a number of Zimbabwean publishers on the grounds that it was unrepresetative of African women and their interest. Eventually it was published in Great Britain in 1988 by The Women's Press, and the next year in the United States. She had already began to write in her childhood, and read mostly the English classics, but the period following Zimbabwean independence inspired her to read contemporary African literature and the writings of Afro-American women. "I personally do not have a fund of our cultural tradition or oral history to draw from," she once confessed, "but I really did feel that if I am able to put down the little I know then it's a start."

"...if at the age of twenty-six somebody has a story to tell it's likely to be about growing up! Also I'm always conscious at the back of my mind that there is very little that a woman in Zimbabwe can pick up – in Zimbabwe today and say yes, I know, that's me….Because I know I felt that gap so dreadfully..." ('Tsitsi Dangarembga' by Jane Wilkinson, in Talking with African Writers, 1992)

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. Tambudzai Sigauke, the narrator, looks back on her childhood in colonial Rhodesia of the sixties and seventies, beginning her narration with the famous opening: "I was not sorry when my brother died." Tambu's brother is sent to a mission school, but the family don't have money for her education. She grows maize to earn her own school fees, only to have her brother steal her produce. Also her father attempts to claim the money because he doesn't believe that the education of women is important. When his brother dies Tambu enters the school – the family does not have any other sons. She becomes friends with her cousin Nyasha, who has spent five years in England and who refuses to conform to society's expectations for women. Gradually Tambu leaves behind those parts of her family, herself and her culture that she cannot accept – an analogue of the independence process of Zimbabwe. She also rejects her highly educated uncle, Babamukuru, who believes that Tambu's education will enable her to marry well. When Babamakuru's authority becomes increasingly irrational, Tambu sees that she must free herself from the dichotomy between tradition and modernity: the struggles women face are similar, regardless of their class. "Quietly, unobtrusively and extremely fitfully, something in my mind began to assert itself, to question things and refuse to be brainwashed, bringing me to this time when l can set down this story. It was a long and painful process for me, that process of expansion. It was a process whose events stretched over many years and would fill another volume, but the story I have told here, is my own story, the story of four women whom I loved, and our men, this is how it all began..."

The international recognition Nervous Conditions received did not only demonstrate the validity of Dangarembga's feminist approach in an African context but also encouraged other Zimbabwean writers to tackle issues of gender inequality as well. Following her success as a novelist, Dangarembga turned her attention to film. After receiving a Commonwealth Writers' Award, she left for Berlin to continue her education at the Deutsche Film und Fernseh Akademie, where she studied film direction and produced a documentary for German television. She returned eventually to Zimbabwe with her two children, born in Germany. "Life is difficult in Zimbabwe at the moment, but my soul breathes more freely here," she said. In 1990 Dangarembga was commissioned to write the story for Neria (1992), which became the highest-grossing film in Zimbabwean history. The protagonist is a widowed woman, whose brother-in-law uses her difficult situation for his own advantage. Neria loses her material possessions and her child, but gets then help from her female friend against her former husband's family.

In 1992 Dangarembga founded Nyeria Films, a film production company in Harare. Her films have received several awards. Kare Kare Zvako (2005) was the winner of the Golden Dhow in Zanzibar, and won also the Short Film Award Cinemaafricano in Milano, and Short Film Award ZIFF. Peretera Maneta (2006) received the UNESCO Children’s and Human Rights Award and won the Zanzibar International Filmfestival. With Everyone's Child (1996), shot on location in Harare and Domboshawa, Dangarembga made film history in her country. It was the first full lenght feature movie directed by a black Zimbabwean woman. The story follows the tragic fates of four siblings, Tamari and Itai, after their parents die of AIDS. The soundtrack featured songs by Zimbabwe's most popular musicians, including Thomas Mapfumo, Leonard Zhakata and Andy "Tomato Sauce" Brown. Dangarembga herself has also served on the board of the Zimbabwe College Of Music for five years, two of them as chair. Nyaminyami and the Evil Eggs (2011), based on the legendary river god of the Zambezi valley, was the second in a trilogy of folktale musicals after Kare Kare Zvako.

The Book of Not (2006), set against Zimbabwe's struggle for freedom from white rule, continued the semi-autobiographical story of Tambu at the Sacred Heart academy. Tambu is not a traditional likeable heroine of a Bildungsroman: now her faults and failures overshadow her virtues and accomplishments. She even volunteers to contribute to the Rhodesian war effort by knitting for the white soldiers. At the end Tambu seems to have learned little from her experiences of injustice, except that selfishness and suppressing of rage have not helped her to achieve the greatness that is inside of her. Again Tambu's opposite character is her cousin Nyasha, whose reading of Ngugi's A Grain of Wheat only prompts Tambu to respond with a sarcastic comment from her warped perspective.

Concerned about the state of the nation, Dangarembga joined the Movement For Democratic Change (MDC), led by Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, and was named in 2010 the secretary for education in a portfolio reshuffle. "I have not always been a vocal critic of President Mugabe’s government," she explained in an interview. "I have always been a vocal critic of injustice, backwardness, intolerance, brutality, selfishness, greed, you name it – all the things that are listed in the bible as deadly sins." (, 23rd Jun 2010) Dangarembga has completed her doctoral studies in the Department of African Studies at the Humboldt University Berlin. Her Ph.D. thesis will deal with the reception of African film.

For further reading: Talking with African Writers , ed. Jane Wilkinson (1990); Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions by Sally McWilliams (World Literature Today, 31.1.1991); An Interview with Tsitsi Dangarembga (in Novel, 26.3. 1993); Postcolonial African Writers, ed. Pushpa Naidu Parekh and Siga Fatima Jagne (1998); Emerging Perspectives on Tstsi Dangarembga: Negotiating the Postcolonial by Ann Elizabeth Willey and Jeanette Treiber (2001); Tracing Personal Expansion: Reading Selected Novels as Modern African Bildungsroman by Walter P. Collins (2006)

Selected works:

  • 'The Letter', 1985 (short story, in Whispering Land: An Anthology of Stories by African Women)
  • She No Longer Weeps, 1987 (play)
  • Nervous conditions, 1988 (novel)
    - Tambu (suom. Leila Ponkala, 1989)
  • Neria, 1992 (film; 103 min, based on a story by Dangarembga, screenplay by Louise Riber, dir. Godwin Mawaru, starring Jesese Mungoshi, Dominic J. Kanaventi and Oliver Mtukudzi)
  • Everyone's Child, 1966 (film; 90 minutes, prod. by Media for Development Trust Zimbabwe, story by Shimmer Chinodya, screenplay Tsitsi Dangarembga, John Riber, Andrew Whaley, dir. Tsitsi Dangarembga, starring Nomasa Mlambo, Thulani Sandhla)
  • The Puppeter, 1996 (film)
  • The Elephant People, 2000 (film)
  • On the Border, 2000 (film)
  • High Hopes, 2004 (film)
  • Kare Kare Zvako: Mother's Day, 2005 (short film, dir., sc., starring Belinda Mapfute, Nicolas Mazenda and Simbarashe Mombemushora)
  • Pamvura (At the Water), 2005 (short film, dir., sc., starring Kudzai Chimbaira and Daniel Maphosa)
  • Peretera Maneta (Spell My Name), 2006 (short film, prod., dir. by Tawanda Gunda Mupengo)
  • The Book of Not: A Sequel to Nervous Conditions, 2006 (novel)
  • Nyaminyami amaji abulozi (Nyami Nyami and the Evil Eggs), 2011 (short film, dir. sc., prod. Olaf Koschke)

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