Interview: Tagwira Valerie by Shungu Sabeta

Shungu Sabeta interviews Valerie Tagwira
DURBAN, May 20 2009 (IPS)
Valerie Tagwira, a Zimbabwean doctor living in London, chose Operation Murambatsvina as the backdrop for her first novel, a painful story of domestic abuse, poverty and the fragility of survival in Zimbabwe's high-density suburbs.

In 2005, Zimbabwe's government unleashed Operation Murambatsvina (‘clean out the filth’ in Shona) on cities across the country. In less than a month, an estimated 700,000 people lost their homes, their livelihoods or both as goods were seized and structured deemed illegal demolished.

The operation fell hardest on urban neighbourhoods like Mbare in the capital Harare – often perceived to be sympathetic to the Movement for Democratic Change party that was then in opposition – and where deepening economic crisis had left millions to daily reinvent their survival, earning a living as best they could in the informal sector.

This is the setting for The Uncertainty of Hope, Tagwira's first novel, which centres on two friends and market women, Onai Moyo and Katy Nguni, struggling to make a life for themselves.

Shungu Sabeta spoke to Tagwira at the ‘Time of the Writer’ festival in Durban, South Africa in March 2009. Excerpts of the interview.

IPS (SS): How was The Uncertainty of Hope born?

Valerie Tagwira: Initially when I started writing, it didn’t even have a title that I thought I would eventually use. It was called ‘Picking up the Pieces’. It was a story about domestic violence and about how a woman rebuilds her life and that of her children after undergoing family conflict and marital breakdown.

While I was working on this story, Operation Murambatsvina happened and I happened to be in Zimbabwe two weeks after it had started. So because my main character was from Mbare and Mbare was affected so much by this ‘clean-up operation’, it was a natural next step to include what had happened in Zimbabwe and put it in the story.

IPS (SS): Do you know people such as extended family friends, neighbours who have been through domestic violence?

VT: Domestic violence is very much part of every day life in Zimbabwe. What has always struck me about it is that it is unreported, it’s almost accepted that men should ‘discipline’ their wives, from observation around me within the family and from outside the family.

And then as a medical doctor when I worked in Casualty, I used to meet women who were acutely unwell with injuries sustained in fights with their spouses, which is basically domestic violence.

What also struck me about these women was that they didn’t want the police involved, you know? All they wanted was to get treatment and go back home and continue with their lives, because reporting it officially as domestic violence would probably lead to friction within the home and make their situation worse.

IPS (SS): Going back to your book, was it written out of a personal need to speak out on certain issues, was it an education piece to galvanise the minds of Zimbabweans to various struggles personal, societal and political or was it written to inform the international audience about these issues? Who was your primary audience?

VT: My primary target audience was Zimbabweans, actually (chuckles). I also had a desire to inform people outside Zimbabwe.

Having said that I do not want to stereotype Zimbabwe as the story is presented in the book. I have taken a particular type of woman, a woman who is poor, less formally educated, and homeless or (who) doesn’t have a secure home and (who) is facing problems related to HIV/AIDS.

I suppose the reason why this is being depicted as a Zimbabwean story is because a lot Zimbabweans are poor and the people who are suffering most are women and children. I definitely don’t want to generalise this as the story of Zimbabwe.

I also tried to put in different characters, I have a supporting character who is a doctor, another who is a law student, another who is a university student and you also have a young farmer, a new Zimbabwean black farmer, another person who is wealthy and a beggar who lives on the street who is sort of a significant character. I tried to look at life from different angles.

IPS (SS): How do you think we can stop the cycle of abuse of women in society, at work and in the homes? Too often we see the notion of the ideal woman, ideal mother holding women prisoner as Onai, one of your characters is held prisoner - by the idea of what kind of woman she is supposed to be. Men have their expectations and demands where women are concerned, yet you find at times other women are the ones that are most critical and who perpetuate sexist ideology.

VT: It starts with us women ourselves. Right from when we are raising our sons, we have to bring them up with that notion that men and women are equal. Because that’s what we are.
As we are raising our children in the homes assigning duties, the boy should not be sitting there and reading his books while the girl has to wake up early, clean the house, make the meals, feed her siblings before she can then have time to sit down and read. The boy should also be taught the same tasks the girls are learning.

This is not demeaning or taking away their future manhood, it is equipping them for life. My mother used to make a comment about how the boys should able to do what the girls do in the home so that when are grown up and they leave home they will not get married necessarily to find somebody to cook their meals, wash their plates and their clothes.

So, it is us, women, who should encourage and teach our sons as they grow up.

When it comes to promoting equality, there are a lot of women activist groups who are doing a lot of work. Seminars and workshops that they hold should not only be targeted at women but men as well.

While we are teaching women supposedly how to survive, how to continue with life when things are difficult, we should teach each other the power of negotiation. [Women] shouldn’t be taught that you have to fight with the man; they have to negotiate with the man even when it comes to roles in the home.

IPS (SS): Do you feel that the arts are a good way to reach the grandparents, the parents – particularly the mothers - and the children who are heading families in order to raise children in a positive way? Is it through books or radio shows, television shows or drama that the teachings be conveyed since some people are illiterate? Which medium should we focus on?

VT: We can use all forms. All forms of art are very useful. People might find it boring to sit and listen to lecture about domestic violence. Such things have been adopted in various ways and used usefully but I also think that if you use something that entertains as well as educate, it can have a lasting effect. And you can use all forms of art really, to create positive images to educate people.

IPS (SS): When you look at social activism through your writing would you like to challenge more issues that push the cause further in terms of the emancipation of women? In this book, The Uncertainty of Hope, you raise many issues but one huge issue is lack of ownership of property and land by women hence they are inherently financial dependent. Are these issues that you may want to tackle?

VT: Yes these issues that I would like to tackle. Anything that addresses equal opportunities, equality between men and women, I am very passionate about. If I get the opportunity, yes I will.

At the moment I am living out there [in London] and maybe some people might look and say, ‘Oh who is she sitting there thinking she can say this and say that?’, but I am very passionate about Zimbabwe and about the Zimbabwean woman and I have very strong sense of belonging. In England, I am an outsider, where I belong is Zimbabwe.

I would like to see the future generations, both boys and girls growing up to become people who are better and live and work together and interact in effective ways, because where there is conflict between men and women that brings us backwards. We don’t develop as a society as much as we should, were we to be united and work together.

IPS (SS): Are they other Zimbabwean voices in terms of literature, music that you feel are currently conscientising the minds of Zimbabweans and engaging them into critical analysis and discussion?

VT: Because I am out of the country at the moment, I don’t know what is happening in terms of music or art scene. As far as theatre is concerned I have read bits here and there about Amakhosi theatre and the work that they do. [Oliver] Mtukudzi’s music carries a lot of educational issues and touches on social problems and on how they can be solved. Same as Tongai Moyo. I am not very aware of the other singers and what they are doing at the moment.

IPS (SS): What about writers?

VT: There are loads of writers. Because of blogs and the internet you have a lot of short stories being posted by young and upcoming Zimbabwean writers. It always amazes me how much of talent there is in Zimbabwe and they are all writing pertinent day-to-day issues. They are found for example on sites like and Zimbablog …there quite a number is you simply google Zimbabwe short stories you get a whole lot of sites. I haven’t been able to participate on any of them because I have been doing other things.

IPS (SS):Maita Zvikuru (Thank you so much). Hopefully one day I will be able to conduct the entire interview in Shona.

VT: (Laughs) Hopefully we will be able to do it in Harare. (Laughs some more)

IPS (SS): I know, having had the instructional language being English, it’s so much easier to communicate and express yourself in that language.

VT: It’s so much easier, that’s why our Shona and our Ndebele are littered with English.

IPS (SS): I forgot to ask you one very important question, my grandmother asked me once, ‘Iwee unorota nechirungu kana nechiwanhu? (Do you dream in English or in our mother tongue?)’. Meaning, could you be so colonised that even your dreams are in a foreign tongue! I always carry that question with me every day, and I have to always remind myself to speak Shona to my two daughters. So, when you were writing were the words coming to you in English or in Shona?

VT: I must say they were coming in English.