Oliver Nyambi considers The Uncertainty of Hope by Valerie Tagwira

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There is a subtle yet discernible connection between the post-2000 political power struggle and the gender struggle in Zimbabwe. In both cases, a patriarchal power hierarchy shaped by tradition and history is perpetuated and justified as the mark of the nation’s unique identity. In cultural, political, and economic spheres, the status of most urban Zimbabwean women is still reflected as inferior to that of most men. During this economic and political crisis period, the prevailing gender power-relations evolved into gendered appraisals of the impact of the crisis and this created the potential for rather universal and androcentric conclusions. The consequent eclipse of female-centric voices of the political and gender struggle tends to suppress women’s perspectives, consequently inhibiting a gender-inclusive imagining of the nation. This article argues that discourses about gender struggle in Zimbabwe’s post-2000 crisis have not sufficiently addressed the question of space; that is, the significance of the oppressed women’s physical and social space in shaping their grievances and imaginings of exit routes. Similarly, the article argues that representations of this historic period in literary fiction have accentuated the wider political and economic struggles at the expense of other (especially gender) struggles, thereby rendering them inconsequential. Using two short stories by Valerie Tagwira (“Mainini Grace’s Promise” and “The Journey”), the article explores the stories’ focalization of gender-entangled women in an urban space to understand the literary evocation of the condition of women caught up in a crisis in urban settings.

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Review of The Uncertainty of Hope - African Book Publishing Record

Valerie Tagwira
The Uncertainty of Hope.
Harare: Weaver Press, 2006.
368 pp. price not reported pap ISBN 9781779220639
[African Books Collective]

The novel, although a work of fiction, is probably based on a real socio-economic situation. The story is set in Zimbabwe, particularly Mbare, in 2005. The novel is a tribute to friendship, especially exemplified by the lives of Katy and Onai. Katy and John are a united couple; their daughter is a university student. Onai is a responsible mother of three who is a vegetable vendor at the market. Gari, her husband, is a drunkard, irresponsible father, and unfaithful husband, but Onai’s loyalty leads her to defend him always before her children and friends. In spite of their social background and economic status, Katy and Onai are true friends. Through the characters, the reader learns of Zimbabweans’ hardships; the disparity in wealth and power; the decadent moral life brought about on the one hand by poverty and on the other by greed; matrimonial infidelity and the lucrative black market inter alia.

One of the most attractive personalities is Mawaya, whose real name is Tapiwa. Following the death of his expectant wife in the course of running an errand for him, he voluntarily embraces kutanda botso “a ritual of begging and accepting public insults undertaken when a child wrongs his/her mother beyond verbal apology”. Onai’s kindness during this period helps him mature and realize that no one is ever too poor to give. The novel is well written in simple and attractive language, spiced with graphic descriptions. It is thought-provoking, inviting the reader to provide answers to a few questions posed, for example: Does the act of paying bride-price reduce the woman to a mere possession? (p. 26). Disregarding the country and the names that make reference to Zimbabwe, the novel could have been set in any African country. The reader appreciates the beauty and challenges of daily ordinary life, and in a way this is what renders the story so attractive. Despite the provision of a glossary of words, the discomfort involved in looking up unfamiliar words and the consequent distraction from the reading, the non-Shona speaker is marginalized. Nevertheless, social scientists will find The Uncertainty of Hope insightful.

Jane Nzisa Muasya
United States International University, Nairobi

Review of The Uncertainty of Hope - The Zimbabwean

The Zimbabwean
13th April, viagra canada 2007

Review: The Uncertainty of Hope – by Valerie Tagwira (Harare: Weaver Press, 2006) ISBN 978-1-77922-063-9 pp. 368

This satisfying and thought-provoking book from Weaver Press reminds me of award-winning Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo’s novel ChangesValerie Tagwira writes confident, inspirational prose about the predicament of women in modern Zimbabwe.  It's good to finally see a prolonged meditation on this subject and one told from a variety of perspectives, which achieves a certain nuance and balance in the portrayal of different male-female relationships particularly during a time of HIV and AIDS.  It was satisfying to see HIV and AIDS frequently mentioned and treated in a realistic and practical day to day way, but the lives of the two women: Onai Moyo and Katy Nguni, were also detailed and intriguingly related such that your sympathies are easily and clearly drawn to these courageous and indomitable women. 

Onai Moyo, a market woman and mother of three children is regularly beaten by her drunken husband who drinks and fritters his money away on prostitutes and beer, and yet Onai refuses to leave him, much to the annoyance of her best friend Katy.  While driving Onai to the hospital, Katy’s caring husband John grumbles that this will be the last time he will waste his precious fuel on such an errand.  In contrast John is shown to be loving and loyal, though his work regularly takes him away to South Africa, as he is a lorry driver.  Both women are aware that their husbands carry the threat of HIV infection home to their wives and this thread is carefully pulled throughout the novel. 

The devastating events of Murambatsvina are detailed with a clarity and detail not yet seen in Zimbabwean fiction and provide a backdrop to the hardship and political double standards experienced by Onai and Katy, who continue to sell their wares despite government warnings to the contrary.  Katy’s double-dealings with a policeman depict with great irony the hypocrisy of a system which tries to destroy the black-market, while relying on it to keep its own business interests afloat. 

Tagwira also weaves in the lives of the daughters of these two different families: Faith is training to become a lawyer and Ruva hopes to become a journalist.  It is through this inter-generational movement that the novel achieves its balance and complexity, taking the reader from the market place to the university, to school and the rural areas.  Faith must decide whether to marry her long-term boyfriend Tom Sibanda whose intentions are entirely honourable, or lead the independent single life suggested to her by her career and modern outlook.  Tom’s sister in turn shares Faith’s outlook; as a doctor Emily Sibanda meets Mai Ruva (Onai) when she is first brought in with a badly beaten head and goes on to treat her husband when he develops liver cirrhosis.  Both young women see the position of women in Zimbabwe from similar perspectives, but find it difficult to convince those around them that things must change if women are to survive.

Although certainly not as stylistically complex as Yvonne Vera, perhaps a young rival for Tsitsi Dangarembga is emerging, who shows us that modern Zimbabwe is a place where one can still hope for change.

Review of The Uncertainty of Hope - Mukai

The Women of Mbare Valerie Tagwira, The Uncertainty of Hope, Weaver Press, Harare 2006, 368 pp Mukai – Vukani. ‘Jesuit Journal For Zimbabwe’, No 40 July 2007

Reviewed by Oskar Wermter SJ.

This is the first novel by Valerie Tagwira, a medical doctor specializing in gynaecology. The women of Mbare are her subject, dependent on men and yet struggling on their own for survival during these recent years of economic and social decline. This an exciting book for any Mbare resident who will have to say on every page: this is exactly what it is like. The central character is Onai Moyo, kind to all and loving, a loyal wife and deeply caring mother of three children, loyal to her husband even though love has long died and he, a drunkard and womanizer, abuses and assaults her so badly that she has to seek treatment in hospital, hiding the true cause of her injuries from the doctor. Katy, her best friend, urges her to leave her abusive husband, “Do you want us to take you out of this house in a coffin?”(6). And Katy’s daughter Faith, a law student, reflects angrily, “Why should a woman allow herself to bear so much at the hands of a man? Her own husband? Had his act of paying bride-price reduced her to nothing more than a possession?” (26). One of her husband’s other women is Sheila, though Onai does not know it, who says, “You know what, Mai Moyo? When I was a prostitute, I didn’t care about catching HIV. I thought I would die from hunger, anyway. Kusiri kufa ndekupi? As a prostitute, I could at least die with a full stomach. Now that I know I will die of AIDS, I think dying of hunger is far much better. If I could have another chance….” (62).

Women are vulnerable, not only Sheila and her colleagues, but also Onai, so anxious to preserve her status as a respectable married woman. Marital intercourse for her, though, is not a matter of love, but of self-defence. Female condoms “made her feel more in control of her sexuality and definitely less vulnerable to Gari’s demands. During his various degrees of drunkenness, he often failed to notice when she had a condom on. This meant that the fights about him wearing a condom were less frequent than before. What a relief it was that on most evenings he was drunk, almost to the point of paralysis!” (70). Gari comes home only to eat and sleep, but does not provide for the family. Onai has to do that as a street vendor which takes up her whole life. She cannot even go to church any longer. “The need to make a living for her children had been much greater than the desire to spend her Sunday mornings in prayer and worship. Somewhere along the line, the core of her faith had disintegrated” (127). As an informal trader Murambatsvina (Operation Clean-up) hits her especially hard. “On arrival, she was shocked to find shards and splinters of wood and asbestos where her three shacks had been standing only that morning. The bulldozer was just reversing slowly back onto the road. It had flattened a portion of her fence and the flower-bed in its wake” (137). Her lodgers have to take their belongings to Tsiga grounds and stay in the open. Her own informal trade is now a criminal activity. Faith, a child of Mbare and now a budding lawyer, is outraged. But fear prevails. “You can say what you like to me, but not to other people, as I’m sure you know very well. And don’t worry about coming here…. There have been clashes with the police today, so it’s not safe…,” says her mother. Her fiancée Tom, a ‘new farmer’ and businessman, plays it safe and adopts the official line. He is alarmed when she calls the assault on the Mbare people ‘a gross abuse of humanity’. “It wasn’t as if he didn’t care about people’s suffering. He did. It was just that he wanted to get on in life. He had done well so far, and he knew too well how the wrong word and at a wrong time or in the wrong place could set one back.” He has benefited from the land redistribution and cannot afford to turn against his benefactors. Faith feels deeply for her parents and mainini Onai, but she, too, is not going to risk either her future career or her prospective marriage. Success in life is getting out of Mbare. Even her parents who make their money by dealing in foreign currency hope to move eventually to a stand in Mabelreign.

Not Murambatsvina, but her husband’s death destroys Onai’s home. Her brother-in-law claims everything, house and money. “She had lost everything. Although Gari had paid a full bride-price, their marriage had never been registered. What rights did she have to anything?” (248). Customary law, at least as interpreted by greedy relatives, is not kind to widows. The characters may be fictional, but in every other way the novel is a factual account of what happened and still happens in a place like Mbare. The author lets the facts speak for themselves. She does not discuss politics. She does not ask who is responsible for Murambatsvina , the decline of the hospitals, unemployment and homelessness. Readers know that anyway. But they may not know what it is like to be at the receiving end of this government’s policies. At least not in such graphic detail. That this book provides in abundance. Assistant Commissioner Nzou is the closest there is to a representative of the ruling class. He has foreign currency dealers arrested during the day and buys US dollars and South African Rands from them at night. At least for Onai the story has a happy ending. She escapes to Borrowdale to a job she had been looking for for a long time. But Mbare remains unredeemed.

Review of The Uncertainty of Hope - Litnet

‘The African Library’: Entry no.61
Valerie Tagwira: The Uncertainty of Hope (2006)

I thought it would make an interesting juxtaposition of ‘African Library’ entries to follow the previous piece, on Akare’s account of Kenyan slum life in the seventies, with this discussion of a very recent novel engaging with (particularly) the survival struggles of two women friends who both live in the ‘Jo’burg Lines’ area of Mbare township in Harare. Judging by Tagwira’s account, the Zimbabwean township circumstances bear many resemblances to the earlier Kenyan conditions evoked in Akare’s text, but the tone and tenor of her description are very different to the Kenyan author’s. Mainly this is so because of the strong focus on female experience, insights and coping strategies in Tagwira’s writing and because, in contrast with Eddy the loner as focaliser in Akare’s text, Tagwira’s account centralises the strong and profoundly loyal friendship between Onai Moyo and Katy Nguni (near neighbours and fellow market traders).
The two women’s circumstances differ in significant ways simply because Katy has a gem of a husband – utterly faithful, hard-working and with real pride in and a sense of responsibility towards his wife and their law student daughter – whereas Onai’s is the proverbial bastard. Gari believes that he has fulfilled his responsibility towards his wife, their two teenage daughters and young son by doing nothing but allowing them to share the poorly furnished township house which he inherited from his father. He has a good job as a ‘section manager’ in a large multinational firm, but spends all his income on booze and other women. So brutally selfish is he that he does not use condoms and has never signed on for his firm’s medical aid scheme. Onai struggles to maintain her trade as a vegetable and fruit vendor at her market stall; despite the illegality, Katy’s husband John (a long-distance truck driver between Zimbabwe and South Africa) buys foreign currency in the neighbouring country, which he and Katy trade in as the second, secret and highly risky (but much more lucrative) side of their business life in Zimbabwe. Their most important customer is in fact a crooked but very suave Assistant Police Commissioner, Mr Nzou.
Tagwira uses multiple first-person narration in this (her first) novel, but even when the account veers away from Onai it circles back to her at a later stage and eventually one sees that it is really mainly her story – a deeply poignant one, as the title indicates. This technique of shifting focalisers in the narrative allows the author to build up a convincingly densely textured account of contemporary Zimbabwean life, providing perspectives from many angles on what living there is like nowadays for its citizens. The novel opens with Onai being woken up in the early hours to discover that burglars have picked on their house to steal their main ‘theft-worthy’ possession, their treasured old black-and-white television set. Her husband still being out on his nightly wanderings, she can only gather her children in her bedroom where they cower together while the theft is being perpetrated. When Gari returns, later, he has clearly been fornicating as well as drinking. She informs him reproachfully of the theft that happened when he was not there to protect his family, but Gari (as is his inebriated, abusive habit) accuses Onai of having ‘set up’ the robbery with her (non-existent) “boyfriends”. When she looks back at him, unspeaking but calmly unafraid (assuming that he is too drunk to be dangerous), he attacks her and leaves her bleeding copiously from a head wound, on the floor, while he collapses into a drunken sleep on the bed. Ruva, her elder daughter, runs to Katy’s house for help; despite grumbling at the task, Katy’s husband John coaxes his old car on precious petrol along the potholed, dangerous road to the hospital, where Onai stays for a few days. Asked by the doctor, she gives the standard “I walked into a door” answer of the abused wife, for “the cocoon of pretence she had woven around herself had become her armour” (4). For all her misery, she is resigned and trapped in the marriage for her children’s sake. Even Katy’s husband reminds her as they return from the hospital, that there is no chance Onai could earn enough to obtain a house to which she and her children could go, for; “’This is Zimbabwe. A poor woman will always be a poor woman. Hazvichinje!’” (18).
In glaring contrast with Onai and Gari’s relationship, Tagwira depicts the growing love and deepening commitment between Katy’s only child, her student daughter Faith, and a wealthy young businessman, brother to a former fellow student of Faith’s. The two things that bother Faith about the glamorous bachelor Tom Sibanda is that he has no real understanding of the struggles of the poor, because he has always lived in wealth and ease (without being a callous man), and that he owns a farm whose former (white) owner was murdered. The novel deals with the circumstances preceding, during and following the now notorious Operation Murambatsvina (‘operation clear out the rubbish’), the police campaign ordered by the Zimbabwean government to close the informal markets of the city and to demolish all illegal township backyard shacks and home extensions. Tom, who has ‘connections’, warns Faith of what is coming, but the young woman is incredulous: “’Half of Mbare’s population lives in shacks. Where would they all go? And if the markets are closed, these people would starve!’” she exclaims (22). While the wealthy and the politically powerful easily flout the laws, restrictions and regulations of contemporary Zimbabwe (Tagwira shows), the poor cannot survive except by taking dangerous risks and incurring severe reprisals. As Faith’s father says; ‘’’the line between what’s legal and what is not, has never been as blurred as it is now’” (27). Faith herself notes that “their lives had become one big obsession with obtaining food” (27).
Tagwira uses a technique of providing the reader with ‘witness voices’ by weaving certain ‘summarising’ remarks into the characters’ very natural and convincingly presented conversations. A small sequence of such comments includes the following remarks: “[Onai] was only thirty-six years old, but she felt like a tired old woman” (44); she says wryly (with reference to the Zimbabwean inflation rate): “’I must be among the poorest millionaires in the world’” (56). At another point we are told that Faith (who adores her mother’s bosom friend, Onai) “thought of all the many Zimbabwean women flouting socially and lawfully accepted norms to fend for their children. … all the women who yearned for some kind of freedom” (82). Elsewhere, even the well-off Tom (Faith’s boyfriend, who obtained his farm in an entirely above-board way, it transpires) declares: “’In Zimbabwe, it’s not only death and taxes which are certainties. You can add queues and riot police to the list!’” (99). Ruva, Onai’s daughter, asks despairingly: “’Are we always going to be queuing for food and never getting enough?’” (113).
Pending the supposed slum clearance, when everyone has been warned of the coming police and riot police clampdown on the types of illegality by means of which the Zimbabwean urban poor survive, we are told that “the air was saturated with fear, anger and anxiety” (141). To Onai, the closing of the market leaves her (like so many others) without means to obtain a livelihood. We hear about her kind war veteran neighbour, who commits suicide when his heroic liberation war record cannot protect him from the punitive actions of the township raid; of little children accidentally killed when a township shack is bulldozed; of people losing their meagre but treasured possessions and of families with very young children having to huddle, homeless, in the winter air on a nearby open field. All this shock and deprivation is soberly described; such absence of sensationalism in the account of a social disaster and an administratively sanctioned injustice has an all the more chilling effect because of Tagwira’s authorial restraint. Even the hastily assembled emergency shelters on the field, we learn,  are subsequently demolished as constituting a “health hazard”! (155). As John, Katy’s husband, says: “’The suffering will overwhelm whatever benefits are supposed to come out of this’” (168). Tagwira cites a radio broadcast:
The exercise to demolish markets as a means of flushing out criminals, and getting
rid of trading places which had become a health hazard, was still continuing. As the
reporter intoned, this would pave way for more orderly, more hygienic trading in
crime-free zones. (222)
The middle section of the text depicts mainly the further harrowing development in Onai’s life of her discovery that Gari is having a fullblown affair with the township’s most notorious siren, Gloria; widely suspected to have AIDS. She cannot even manage to speak to him about this, so seldom is he home and when he is, so drunken is his state! Onai for the first time begins to wish to escape all this squalid suffering by killing herself; of course the awareness that she could not so abandon her children, holds her back. With trade in the market now impossible, the family is on the brink of starvation when Onai’s younger, less ambitious and more vulnerable daughter Rita (who is fifteen) approaches her with the plan to go hawking at the bus queues in town with her small brother Fari serving as police lookout. So desperate is their situation that Onai, despite her other daughter Ruva’s horrified objections, allows it; in the meantime Onai, too, does illegal hawking in the city, at the filling station queues, under constant threat of arrest. The two vending children get arrested before long (Rita having had to suffer fondling by a male adult in the process) and Onai immediately stops the children’s ‘job’; just then the next blow falls when Gari brings Gloria home and introduces her to the family as his next wife. Onai feels as if “she [is] in chains and her life [is] falling apart” (217). Utterly distraught, the mild Onai attacks the complacent, preening Gloria, only to be grievously assaulted in her turn by a nearly maniacally incensed Gari. This incident, at least and at last, extracts Onai from Gari’s home and she is taken to shelter at Katy’s home while the children are persuaded to stay home.
Later the same night, Gari’s health collapses completely; he is hospitalised (despite everything!) with Onai and Katy’s help; Gloria having fled. Gari dies soon after without regaining consciousness, but any thought that this death will bring Onai relief is soon quashed. At the funeral, where the extended family is present, Gari’s sister accuses Onai of having caused her brother’s death. I must mention at this point that the further twists of the knife in this later part of the narrative do not ever make one feel that they are piled on too thick; they are, unfortunately (one is made to feel) all too likely occurrences for a woman in Onai’s position. Briefly: after the lengthy funeral, Gari’s brother stays on in the house with his family on the grounds that it now belongs to him as the next heir; on the very occasion that he announces this, he orders Onai and her children out of the house, because she conveys her reluctance to share ‘her’ home with him and thus (in his view) has dared to defy his authority. There is nothing they can do except take their clothes and go to Katy’s place for the time being. Ruva, it is decided, will remain with Katy in order to write her O-levels; Onai and the other two children will go to the country to appeal to Gari’s sister. Here, they are given a rude and cruelly unwelcoming reception; Onai’s mother’s place is now the only available refuge. Onai takes her children there and after some days she returns, alone, to Harare, to Katy’s place. She finds that
Mbare was much the same as it had been when she left. Small heaps of broken
furniture, and bricks and mortar remained a constant symbol of the destruction of
people’s lives. Increasingly, rubble and dirt seemed a permanent fixture, as the
household rubbish collections had become few and far between, and the council
seemed to have no sense of responsibility. (282)
So much for ‘operation clear out the rubbish’! On her way out, Onai had noticed an iconic scene of a “gaunt woman sitting next to a dying fire, together with a toddler and a small child of school-going age … with her shoulders hunched forward, head drooping from a slender neck” (251), recognising that some people are still worse off than herself even though she was “almost overwhelmed with fear” and conscious of the apparently “unrelenting cycle of suffering” in her life (269). As she had (perforce) left her younger children with her mother, she had “forced herself to summon hope, because without it there was no point in even trying” (280) – a subtle allusion to the novel’s title.
Upon her return, the first possible glimmering sign of a possible turn in her prospects arrives when Faith (knowing Onai’s dressmaking skills) asks her mainini to make the dress that she (Faith) will be wearing to the luxurious engagement party that Tom is organising for Faith and himself and their families. There are other twists to the narrative that stem from Onai’s attempts to get a council house where she could stay with her children, but I will not go into overwhelming detail in this account of the novel. One particularly poignant detail occurs in a small scene where Onai, believing that she might at last be getting a house of ‘her own’, allows herself the unheard-of luxury of buying and eating an ice-cream from a street vendor. “Being in a position to earn money once again [upon getting a licence to trade] gave her … a sense of renewed optimism”; she even tells herself that being in a queue provided the opportunity “to pick up the latest information about anything” and “the greatest number of laughs” (317).
I omit also the details of the turn in the narrative caused by the arrest, first, of Faith’s husband John and subsequently of the crooked police officer Nzou, but now Onai, with all her own troubles, stands by Katy in her despair when John, whose release the women achieve by blackmailing officer Nzou, flees to South Africa to escape re-imprisonment. As Faith, now a Law graduate (and about to become engaged to Tom) in indignation asks him: “’But can’t you see that it’s the system, Tom? It’s the system that is turning good people into so-called criminals. My father is a good man’” (326). They all know the dangers of border-crossing and how “the men tended not to come back for their wives and children. A few had even drowned in the Limpopo while border-jumping. Others had fallen prey to crocodiles. [Onai] thought of John and felt sorry for her friend. What would happen to them?” (330). But Onai has to “[try] to offer strength [to Katy], while simultaneously trying to draw strength from her friend” (328) – which perfectly summarises the deep friendship of these two afflicted women. To these two, “humour and resilience were their only weapons in a situation that would have otherwise crushed them” (332).
There are important and serious discussions throughout the text about women’s position in society (e.g. 336), but a vivid passage such as the following letter to Onai from Rita (her younger daughter, still living in the country at this stage with Onai’s mother and an aunt, Wanai, as well as her young brother) eloquently conveys the main points.
Amai [as she respectfully addresses Onai, her mother:]
I stopped going to school last week. … The boys have been chasing me.
Last week a boy touched my breasts. …. I want to stay home and help Ambuya
[as she addresses her grandmother] and mainini Wambai in the fields. …. When
are you coming to get us?                                                                              (337)
A serious moment with a lighter conclusion occurs when, after Faith has reproached Tom (to whom she is about to become engaged) with thinking of the poor as “’a sort of indistinguishable mass, much like the socialists did when they talked of the ‘masses’ ‘” and he counters by insisting that Faith and his sister Emily (good friends and activist allies) “’are as alike as two peas in a pod’” in wanting “’to change the world for the better’” while he, Tom, is expected to make money so that they “’can live in comfort’” (349) while they pursue their activism. Of course Tagwira touches lightly here on one of the oldest dilemmas of the middle-class activist, in a world where even activism requires funding. But Faith and Tom bring Onai wonderful news: via another subplot I could not go into here, a recently widowed, wealthy friend of Tom’s wants a suitable woman to take over his deceased wife’s bridal shop, and they have persuaded him that Onai is the ideal candidate. Though at first Onai cannot believe this, since “hers was a life of guaranteed misfortune” (352), the novel ends with a glimpse of Onai, installed in the home that ‘goes with’ the job and reunited with all her children.
Not all the t’s are crossed or i’s dotted at the end of the novel, but it is a muted if unmistakably happy ending for Onai; perhaps just a little too pat, but forgivably so – and a relief after so much grief and suffering. Justice has come to the bent police officer, and John will be let off lightly for testifying against him. Nevertheless, the overwhelming, lingering and realistic impression left by this work is of lives lived under extreme difficulty, but faced with immense courage, dignity and the vital support of caring friendship among women. It is, indeed, a highly accomplished first novel and a valuable addition to the African literary archive, however painful to read its many harrowing moments may be.

Review of The Uncertainty of Hope - The Herald

30th April, 2007

Book a welcome addition to Zimbabwean literature

The Uncertainty of Hope by Valerie Tagwira
Reviewed by Charles Mungoshi

The Uncertainty of Hope is a welcome addition to the cannon of Zimbabwean literature not only because an unknown young woman wrote it but also for its fine artistry in the execution of themes that many writers would find rather daunting.

Tagwira pays tribute to a wider spectrum of the not-so-fortunate people of Zimbabwe in a particular place at a particular time thus, her story makes a deep gut-slash gash across today’s Zimbabwe, at different levels of our lives.
On the surface, the story reads like today’s news in the daily papers or on television, but further down, it is the life of ordinary people caught up in the everyday hassle.
It is the story of life lived in detail, of the lives of these people all put together in one place (and what this means) that gives one a not very comfortable feeling that what we call life could be something else askew.
There is the looming shadow of the scourge called HIV and Aids that menaces every other page of the story like vultures hovering over a dying animal or like a refrain from the devil’s own orchestra.
To the above is added the unprecedented unpredictable changing of things, as seen in prices of commodities, human behaviour and lifestyles — all of which have managed to beat the weather at its own game.
As if this is not enough, somewhere in the offices where lonely desperate women can (find solace?) easily fall victim: "We really don’t need your money. Money is not the problem. There are other ways of negotiating."
Sex. For services rendered, or, most of the times, not rendered or to be rendered.
And, of course, somewhere, someone has hit on a plan and eases his dollar blues.
He is a public transport operator, a businessman, who receives a kind of quota of fuel from Government to run his 10 (or so) kombis to ferry people. Now he has parked all of them — drained of juice, which is now packed in drums and, of course, the rest is our life.
This is simply to illustrate the kind of details of the situations dealt with in this book, situations which are as many-faceted as there are masks that each one of us has to put on to face the different times, moods and circumstances of each day.
The story: Onai is a vegetable vendor who is married to a not so good, hard-drinking womaniser named Gari Moyo.
Her story, therefore, the writer’s story, therefore, our story — opens right in the middle of things, in the middle of our problems.
The dogs have started this racket. Onai is between sleep and wakefulness. She is alone in a bed for two. She puts out her land. There is no one where her husband should be. The dogs are barking.
And she thinks of matsotsi who now roam freely on the streets of Jo’burg Lines, Mbare.
And, of course, this is the night the burglars have targeted her house. She is alone with her children. She does what she can do while the burglars work the dining room and the sitting room.
All she tells herself is not to scream. She is now with the children in their bedroom.
At last, the outside gate squeaks as the burglars leave.
They have taken only the family TV.
With this tense, uncertain atmosphere at the beginning of her story, with this helplessness of Onai at things as they seem to just happen to her, with this, the author sets the pace, the tone and theme of the rest of the book.
And, in the character of Onai, the details of the story are foretold. You can easily tell Gari is at one of his "small houses".
Right from here and throughout the book, the character of Onai is so graphically drawn that one almost viscerally shares her anguish (or joy) with her.
Onai is to be understood with that guillotine — AIDS— caressing her neck. It is a credit to the author’s skill that even in her nightmarish existence, Onai doesn’t succumb to her husband’s demands for sex.
But one does get angry — together with Onai’s best friend Katy and others — that Onai keeps on staying with Gari. Is this love? Gari is just a born two- or three-timer and that is all he is all about. And Onai is too much of a faithful wife (one thinks; stupidly so) and too much of a devoted mother to leave Gari and the children.
The story revolves round Onai. It is to her that things happen. Or don’t happen. It is she who has to make it or break.
Her marriage is no marriage. Despite that, they are "still living together" and so much is loaded against Onai that, once again, it is the author’s skill we admire in providing Onai with the wherewithal necessary to fight fate and determine her destination.
Onai has a very, very close friend, Katy, who has a very loving and caring husband, John. Both Kath and John are "dealers" in the new Zimbabwean sense. John brings in much-sought-after foreign currency from his cross-border long-distance truck driving trips.
Katy stays at home, minds the vegetable stall at Mbare Musika, and not profitable, sells foreign currency to the willing, the needy and the greedy.
John and Katy give Onai much needed help, hope, and emotional, mental and physical sustenance.
The most beautiful part of the story is the supportive group: composed of those who understand Onai. Students at the university, people in the business world — very close young people fighting for their lives, walking the tight rope between corruption-for-survival and good-works-for-other-people. These are Onai’s people. They open the door at whatever time she knocks. There is Tom and Faith (Katy’s son-in-law and daughter).
Emily and Ben, and there is a very mysterious man who is in a kind of self-exile and goes begging from door to door. They call him Mawaya and he is a constant visitor at Onai’s door. And she always has something to eat, to give him. There are other negative forces — Maya is one of them.
She is a colleague at the vegetable market tables. Maya is  blubbery, multi-chinned and a chatterbox who seems to revel and feed off the misfortunes of other people. A vividly drawn minor character.
This is their entire story. They all pitch in to help or harass Onai and through all their actions Onai changes a few corner stones in her life and proves the old saying to be exactly what it is: your destiny is in your own hands.
Mawaya later turns out to be not who he seems to be and provides us with and makes possible – the best part of the story: the neatly-tied up, but still intriguing and ambiguous, quite surprising and satisfying ending.

Review of The Uncertainty of Hope - Kubatana

The Uncertainty of Hope
Valerie Tagwira

Published by Weaver Press, Harare.
pp. 368; 210 x 130mm

Reviewed by Fungai Machirori
Kubatana.net, September 13, 2010

I don’t usually read a book and feel compelled to write about it.

But in the case of Valerie Tagwira’s splendid novel, ‘The Uncertainty of Hope’, I simply must.

The first time I heard about this novel was in 2006 when a visiting Danish friend doing her PhD research around Zimbabwean gendered discourse presented it to me during one of our lively discussions. This friend also had Tsitsi Dangarembga’s much-anticipated second book, ‘The Book of Not’ and in my excitement to lay hands on it, I chose the latter as my reading fodder instead.

And because I’d never really heard much about ‘The Uncertainty of Hope’ – or its author – I somehow never got round to reading it.

Over the last year however, I have managed to forge a good cyber friendship with Tagwira who always encourages me on to get my first novel completed – I’ve found her to be very gentle yet incisive in everything she says.

And it somehow gnawed away at me that I had never ventured into her own literary mind by reading her book. What, I wondered, did a practising medical doctor’s prose talk about?

And so last week I bought my copy of ‘The Uncertainty of Hope’ to find out.

What an amazing piece of literature!

If ‘Nervous Conditions’ was the narrative of womanhood and its myriad challenges for our newly independent Zimbabwe, then Tagiwra’s novel is the dominant gendered text for our nation’s 2000s – a time of social, political and economic crisis.

The novel’s protagonist, Onai, is a woman who suffers many dilemmas in her roles as wife, mother, breadwinner and ordinary Zimbabwean living through the harsh times of 2005 – where hyperinflation, queues for scarce commodities and the deathly effects of the misguided Murambatsvina operations colour the hopelessness of a once prosperous nation.

Onai, is also a victim of gross domestic violence and lives out an existence that is almost admirable in its absorption of so much pain and disappointment.

And what Tagwira does so well is to mirror her main character’s life against other women whose struggles are excruciating to various extents – Melody, the third year university student who is sleeping with a married man to raise her fees as well as get a taste of the life her family can’t afford; Emily, the compassionate doctor who’s torn, like many potential Diasporans, between obeying her conscience and staying home, and departing overseas to receive second-class treatment while earning enough to live comfortably; and Sheila, the sex worker who’s contracted HIV and worries about her young child’s future without a mother because long waiting lists bar her from getting access to life-prolonging ARVs.

This novel may be set during a particular era in our history – a time when we were all once meaningless millionaires – but it still speaks to the issues that affect Zimbabwe’s women five years later.

And Tagwira definitely understands the subject matter well. Many passages in this 363-page journey had my skin swelling up in goose bumps because yes, here is a woman who speaks about the things we are not often too ready to acknowledge, and therefore address.

Here is one such passage which takes place early in the novel as Onai encounters a wave of depression due to the fact that no one understands why she cannot leave her abusive husband:

She would not be able to bear the shame of being a divorced woman. How could she possibly face a world that despised divorcees; looked down on single mothers? Marital status was everything. It did not really matter how educated or otherwise skilled a woman was. A woman’s worth was relative to one man, her husband: westernised values about women surviving outside marriage held no authenticity mumusha (in the home). In her whole extended family, nobody had ever had a divorce. She would not let herself be the first.

This book is not a patchwork of fanciful writing. It is gritty, heart-wrenching, enlightening, warming – and all carefully controlled by a credible and clever storyline that allows for the forces of life to bring together, as well as separate, its various characters.

I wonder, sadly, why Tagwira has not received the same acclaim for this breathtaking tale as have the Dangarembgas, Gappahs and Veras of our women’s writing world.

What a massive pity.

I only hope though that by your reading this short account of my experience, which I sadly can’t provide all the finer details of (lest I begin to ramble!), you too will pick up if this amazing novel if you have not already.

So many discussion points, innumerable advocacy issues, a whiff of the pungency of a decadent and decaying Zimbabwe – and all in well-written and engaging prose.

You simply must read this book and crown a true Zimbabwean heroine.