Review of A Tragedy of Lives - Daily Mirror

A Tragedy of Lives

Review by: Ruby Magosvongwe

Reviewed in Entertainment News Wed, April 28, 2004

Issue date :2004-Apr-28

A Tragedy of lives: Women in prison in Zimbabwe (2003) edited by Chiedza Msengezi and Irene Staunton), is a collection of women‚s testimonies as they recount their experiences as prisoners.

The experiences are first hand, deeply personal and intimate and are therefore presented as factual. The thirty three stories encapsulated in this anthology tell what it is to be a woman and also show how complicated women‚s nature is, as opposed to the creative writer‚s stereotypes of women.

Sensitivity to women‚s biological experiences, social experiences, sexual love for example, show a novel approach to dealing with different kinds of reforms the Zimbabwean society needs.

Issues like, „What does it mean to be sexually abandoned by a husband?‰ „What does it mean to be labelled a witch by your own daughter?‰ „What did it mean to be widowed during the liberation struggle?‰ „What does it mean to raise a family single ˆ handedly as a woman?‰ „What does incarceration mean for the average marginalised indigenous woman and her family?‰ „What is justice when one gets imprisoned for alleged complicity with a husband who insists on taking in one‚s min! or cousin as a junior wife against one‚s will?‰ „What does it mean to give birth whilst in prison?‰

The list is endless, but at the end of the day, the experiences demystify the myths of socialisation that confine women and push women‚s experiences into the shadows of issues perceived more pressing.

One would imagine and believe there is no better window into pertinent issues that demand urgent attention than what these stories foreground.

They are a testimony and tangible record of what the unsophisticated Zimbabwean women see, note, value and care about. The simplicity and sincerity with which they are told humble both reader and listener.

Invariably, all the stories begin with „My name is... born in...‰ or „I am... I come from... I was born...‰ and end with, „Now that I have told it I feel better...‰ or „Telling the story is a painful experience for me and I don not think I will repeat it.‰ „I urge people, especially women, not to do anything that leads th! em to prison...‰ „This story used to weigh heavily on my heart.

Once jailed, you live in the shadow of prison all your life. Now that I have told it I feel better, the lump has lifted‰. In Amy Tsanga‚s words, A Tragedy of Lives allows women who are or have been in prison in Zimbabwe to tell their own stories‰ „(p 315).

Apart from the detailed personal accounts, the interviewee voluntarily offers ˆown name, family background/ history, present marital status and marital history, all for the researchers‚ verification if in doubt. The individuality of the experiences marks out the assertion of the independent identity of the incumbent interviewee.

Coupled with the assertiveness, is also the freshness of each account as each individual woman opens up and narrates her own story, mostly emanating from intimate domestic issues rather than the broad public themes.

The legal fraternity would be interested to note that themes broadly cover fraud, wrongful arrests,! commercial sex work, witchcraft, dangerous drugs, shop-lifting and a wide array of domestic issues.

The social scientist needs not ignore these pertinent themes either, neither should any Zimbabwean because the stories expose the causes of the moral depravity unlike the prisons that focus on the symptoms.

This collection of the Zimbabwean women‚s narratives offers the reader a unique freshness, simplicity and spontaneity that one may not have experienced and or obtained from the reading of an imaginative literary creative work that has obtained from Zimbabwe to date.

The compilation, stands in a class of its own in that it is an unassuming, yet critical commentary on the complexities that bedevil both Zimbabwe‚s criminal justice system as well as the general socialisation processes prevalent in Zimbabwe.

In addition to the foregoing, these recorded personal accounts afford every reader, unrivalled personal insights into Zimbabwe‚s societal crevices that have ! been usually overshadowed by wider social, political and economic issues claimed and perceived to be more pressing! Yet for the politician, political economist, economic historian and so on what could possibly be more pressing than expeditiously addressing and redressing the imbalances in the distribution of resources whose unavailability to the already marginalised masses has born criminals in a land of plenty?

The story of „Sabena,‰ initially married to a drunkard and loafer who spents his time gambling at the casino at Mont Claire Hotel Nyanga humbles the judgmental and self-righteous reader. Sabena‚s husband is driven into incest. He sexually abused their eldest daughter to boost a charm to win at the casino.

Sabena reported her husband and the latter was charged and imprisoned for incestuous rape. Sabena herself, tasked with raising the family single-handedly, and looking after a 70 year old blind mother, ends up involved in stock-theft at one of the nearby comm! ercial farms.

Sabena is incarcerated leaving behind the 70 year old blind grandmother and a two year old child to be looked after by the other minors. Such experiences as Sabena‚s are not isolated cases.

A lot of these stories provide a window into actual experiences and are the transcribed renditions of the traumatised psyches of the female offenders. The earnestness and honesty with which these stories are told leaves the reader of this collection with a myriad of questions.

For instance: „What is punishment? What is the purpose of a prison? When and where did the original concept of imprisonment first originate? Do the two concepts of punishment and imprisonment correlate and how have they been perceived in terms of criminal justice in Zimbabwe?

Could there be alternative measures that may be adopted to rectify the social ills people are incarcerated for? What is justice?‰ Answers to the above questions are explored in some of the stories encapsulated in th! is collection.

„Sofia‰ is an alleged‰ rape accomplice for failure to report the cohabiting of a husband with a young cousin of 17 years. She is given a custodial sentence for her silence on the crime. „Jane‰ was imprisoned for culpable homicide. She attacked her husband once with a pole after incessant domestic disputes. The husband died in hospital

„Ellen‰ is a story about suspected witchcraft and sorcery and subsequent culpable homicide when Ellen beats up her tormentors in self ˆdefence. She faces both the wrath of the community and that of the law.

„Tabeth‰ who beat her own daughter Kudzai to death for telling tales at school about their nocturnal bewitching escapades as mother and daughter, is traumatised by the experience even beyond the custodial sentence. She can‚t come to terms with the tragedy.

„Fortunate‰ is a story about fraud committed when bailing out school teaching staff who unfortunately did not make good the difference in time for the auditor! s‚ visit. „Sandra‰ and „Viola‰ are stories given by commercial sex workers on their unfortunate experiences of prostitution. „Nyaradzo‰ is on shoplifting. „Joyline‚s story is about wrongful arrest and the stigma that goes with it.

Ruby Magosvongwe is a lecturer in  the University of Zimbabwe‚s Department of English.