Tsitsi Dangarembga (1959- ) is a Shona woman from Zimbabwe, where she has spent most of her life. This Mournable Body (2020) is her third novel, and the third of a series covering the life of Shona woman, Tambu.
These works are in part, fictionalised memoir. Both Tambu and the author boarded at a Catholic convent girls’ high school with mostly white students; both went on to be (for a while) advertising copywriters; and both lived through the illegal white government of Ian Smith, the civil war which brought Robert Mugabe to power, and that government’s slow and inevitable corruption.
The biggest difference between the author’s life and her protagonist’s is that Tambu’s parents are traditional people from a country village, while the author’s were both well educated school teachers; and probably that the author is more together than Tambu, better educated. and more westernized.
I chose to buy this because I like new African writing, and because I remembered a number of you reviewing it. But despite the reviews, I started out with very few preconceptions. Half way through I wasn’t having any problems, Dangarembga had filled in enough of Tambu’s back story to provide a solid base. However, by the end, I was wishing I had read the other two first. It was not as though there were facts missing, but rather there was a feeling I wasn’t properly understanding Tambu’s motivations.
The floor out in the hall is shiny, though it is made of cement and not of cow dung. You wrote tourist brochures at the advertising agency you walked out of many months ago. The tourist brochures you composed said your country’s village women rub their cow pat floors until they shine like the cement floor. The brochure lied. There is no shine in your memory. Your mother’s floors never shone with anything. Nothing ever glittered or sparkled.
Tambu, who is getting ‘old’, is in a hostel for young women, unemployed and seemingly unemployable. We are in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, in the years after the civil war. Dangarembga’s portrayal of middle class poverty is fascinating. She never mentions, let alone criticises the Mugabe government, though she was for a while an Opposition politician. The handover of white owned farms to civil war veterans, which is mentioned obliquely, puts the story in the late 1990s, early 2000s, though some of the references to the civil war (in the 1970s) make it feel earlier than that.
Tambu eventually finds a job, as a teacher; finds somewhere to room – a unit in a suburban backyard; attacks a student; has a breakdown and is admitted to a psychiatric unit; is rescued by rellos, war vets; goes to live with an overseas educated cousin she had once looked up to but who is now basically a hippy; and finally, finds employment, and success, sort of, with Tracey, a white woman with whom she was at school and who was her boss in the advertising agency.
It is possible that in Nyasha, the overseas educated cousin, with her degree in filmmaking from Hamburg, Dangarembga is having a little dig at herself “coming back to Zimbabwe where no one wants her” (p.215).
Tracey’s new business, Green Jacaranda Safaris, sends parties of European tourists to authentic stopovers. First, on the farm which Tracey and her brother have inherited (but which Tracey struggles to get possession of); then in ghetto stays suggested by Tambo’s rival, Pedzi; and finally, to Tambu’s home village up country.
All the time it is clear that Tambu is less competent than she thinks she is, and we share her sense of being constantly on the edge of yet another failure. But, despite our fears, she persuades her mother, persuades the woman of her village, that it is worth their while to welcome white tourists.
How restoring it is, even as you plod towards middle age, to reap a positive outcome from the convent that, while it educated you, rendered you “them”, “they”, “the Africans”. As tour supervisor at Green Jacaranda, you are still Zimbabwean enough, which is to say, African enough, to be interesting to the tourists, but not so strange as to be threatening.
There has been some discussion about whether Tambu’s story is a metaphor for Zimbabwe. Tambu is persuaded by her white boss to betray her mother, to put the village women in the position of having to dance “authentically” bare breasted for the first party of white tourists. This must reflect at least partly what Dangarembga thinks about the dangers of living “up” to white expectations.
Tsitsi Dangarembga, This Mournable Body, Faber, London, 2020 (first pub. 2018). 363pp