It’s time to admit that I’m terrified of [redacted] men, even through second-hand contact. Sometimes, I feel like if I have to encounter another woman’s story of suffering at the hands of a [redacted] man, I will scream my way into a cave and shatter the rocks with the sound of my voice. Because the stories are far, far too similar, and even worse, they seem to be everywhere I turn. It has become one of my deepest fears that I will end up in the same situation.(more…)
“The first time was experimental, you could say,” said The Plug. “The prototype formula was underdeveloped, yes, but you must understand it was an emergency… [8mins]
These Bones Will Rise Again: African women (re)writing ourselves into history
In my opinion, re-writing our history, especially as Africans, is at least as important as documenting our present. And yes, I am indeed advocating for re-writing, as opposed to just learning or passing down already-documented history. Because history is always getting re-written anyway, so we might as well be the ones re-assuming control of the narratives—especially as Africans, and especially as women.
“There are many questions and I am looking for answers. The kind of answers that slip past the facts of history books or analyses by pundits and experts. Answers that are not party politics. That are not Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), or Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) or the Movement for Democratic Change. Answers that are not Cecil John Rhodes, Ian Smith, Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai or Emerson Mnangagwa, or any other Big Men in the history of the nation.” –Panashe Chigumadzi
I had the privilege of meeting Panashe Chigumadzi at a lecture organized by UCT’s Institute of Creative Arts. The lecture, which was essentially a reading of most, if not all of Panashe’s most recent book, was marketed with a word I had never previously seen: “biomythography.” To try to define it, I would break it down into the three words I can identify in it: biography, mythology and historiography. It was just as well that I learned this new word on the very day I bought These Bones Will Rise Again, because I would otherwise have been hard pressed to describe the type of book this is. (My Microsoft Word keeps underlining the word biomythography, so I have now looked it up. Turns out the word was coined by Audre Lorde, to describe a book she published in 1982. I love lexivist legends!)
After Panashe’s lecture, which had already had me snapping multiple times in my head, and left my brain spinning by the end, the floor was opened for questions. Although intimidated by Panashe’s brilliance, I gathered up enough courage to ask one. My question originated in a discussion I’d had the previous semester with a Kenyan friend, between two halves of a long Africana Studies class. Right before the break, I had posited to my classmates my opinion that a large percentage of what Africans consider legitimate history gets disregarded by Caucasian society/colonial institutions like academia because these histories contain elements of the magical/spiritual/mythological. Thus, critics may say: Myths are just myths, this isn’t scientific, it couldn’t possibly have happened, so we shall not look twice at it.
Why was I thinking about this during the lecture? Because a significant portion of These Bones Will Rise Again revolves around the spirit of Mbuya Nehanda, that powerhouse who, whether for better or worse, has achieved some sort of Mother of the Nation status in Zimbabwe. The book’s title, in fact, is directly drawn from Nehanda’s own words: “‘Mapfupa angu achapfuka.’ My bones will rise again.” Mbuya Nehanda’s spirit is central to Zimbabwe’s history, and she has consistently returned after her first death, through the bones of different mediums—a classic example of what colonial academia calls implausible, illegitimate and in-credible. In other words, myth.
The question my Kenyan friend had asked during that one lesson break was whether my own use of the word “mythology” contributed to the delegitimization of African history’s spiritual elements. By invoking the very term “myth,” was I not already implying that these aspects of history were deliberately invented, whimsical fantasies? So, this was this very same question I posed to Panashe a few months ago. I had wrongly assumed that she was too spent and tired after speaking for more than an hour, to give an extensive answer. Thus, I was not prepared for the beauty of her response.
She said many things, but I will give you a summary: All history is myth-making. Myth-making is not exclusive to African history or to European history; neither confined to spiritual events nor military affairs. All of it is myth-making. The minute someone chooses to tell or document a story about the past—what they include or leave out, the pictures they paint of historical figures/characters, the embedded “morals” of the stories, even the person or people passing on the history—they are constructing a kind of official myth. People consistently and deliberately construct versions of stories, especially “national” narratives. It’s why we have real-life heroes and villains; and a tale about a hero whose weapon was supernatural element manipulation may turn out to be significantly less fabricated than one about a “hero” in uniform, whose weapon was an assault rifle. I suppose that might depend at least partially on the power and influence of the myth-maker.
When Panashe had finished answering my question, I sat back to reflect on it, in awe. It was more than satisfying, it was stimulating.
Early on in These Bones Will Rise Again, Panashe gives an apt example of how myth-making can work in our (Africans’) worst interests. She speaks of Wilbur Smith’s (a)historicization process in the writing of The Sunbird (which I’ve never read and don’t think I ever intend to read), saying, among many other things, that:
“Time and history were colonized so that they acquired a new racial dimension: the natives they ruled over were backward, ahistorical, primitive tribesmen who were, in effect, out of time.”
The history of Africa is already written, you see. In some cases, it’s inaccessible to some of the people for whom it would be most relevant. In other cases, the kind of history that deliberately de-contextualizes Africa is too accessible to the people whose minds are overly malleable in the hands of the colonizer, regardless of race. And this process, this myth-making process that has the potential to do so much work in the minds of the recipients/readers/consumers, is exactly why re-writing history is as important as telling it at all.
Now, with this new word “biomythography” available in my lexicon, let me try to describe the book itself. For starters, it’s nonfiction: kind of like a book-length essay. I don’t usually read nonfiction books unless it’s for school or research for my own fiction, and I might have overlooked it entirely if it hadn’t been Panashe Chigumadzi’s name on the cover. Secondly, the book is described, at least in the areas it’s being formally marketed, as a “reflection”—primarily of Zimbabwe’s late-2017 “coup that was not a coup,” as Panashe has called it. (And now that I have greater contextual understanding, I agree.) This “reflection” is also said to have been done through a quest for the spirits/memories of Zimbabwean national heroine, Mbuya Nehanda, and for Panashe’s own maternal grandmother, Mbuya Lillian Chigumadzi.
I must argue, however, that These Bones Will Rise Again is not nearly as clean as that description. Saying what it was about will limit the book itself. It includes accounts of Panashe’s own life, the journeys she went on, and people she visited—strangers and family members alike—as she attempted to uncover as much as she could of first-hand information on Mbuya Nehanda and her grandmother. It also includes personal accounts of her reactions to Zimbabwe’s political events. It includes retellings of Zimbabwe’s history, brief accounts of the Chimurengas, the country’s nation-building process, and the rise and rule of its former president. The chronology is at least as confusing as the content, jumping back and forth between 21st century present, 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a messy web of words (which is not to say at all that it doesn’t make sense), but so is the human thought process, isn’t it?
On the fourth page of the book, I believe, is the explanation for both why this book was written and the reason it was written in biomythographical format:
“As a people who believe that a person is both flesh and spirit and lives on after death, we often commune with our ancestors, but it is especially in times of crisis and need that we look to them for answers about ourselves.”
In the space of about a month, two very important things happened: Panashse’s paternal grandmother Lilian Chigumadzi, née Dzumbira, was buried (and Panashe was unable to attend the event). About a month later, Zimbabwe had a “coup that was not a coup,” during which Zimbabweans were “suddenly being liberated from Mugabe’s rule by the very military that supported him for almost four decades.” That latter event shocked even me, when, in November 2017, I sat in my dorm room in California, frantically scrolling through “breaking news” sections on news sites and texting Zimbabwean schoolmates, trying to figure out what in heaven’s name was happening. I can’t imagine how much more confusing it would have been for a born-Zimbabwean, a diasporan in the sense of having been raised in an African country other than the one of her birth, who is simultaneously going through the grief of having lost her grandmother long before she was ready. If I were Panashe, I would have been looking for answers too. I just don’t know if my approach, like hers, would have been to turn to my own departed ancestor. What, after all, would one Zimbabwean woman, not explicitly affiliated to national affairs in any way, have to offer me as a response to my country-sized questions?
But Panashe answers my question herself when she says,
“I must cast my eyes from the heights of the ‘Big Men’ who have created history that does not know little people, let alone little women, except as cannon fodder.”
This is exactly why Lilian Dzumbira Chigumadzi is so essential: she is a little woman in the face of the imposing structures of Zimbabwe’s history. As such, she is indispensable. (As paradoxical as this may seem, it makes sense to me.)
A few semesters ago, I read a paper for class by Patricia Hill Collins called “The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought”. While I consider(ed) it another one of those academic papers that could honestly have been four times shorter and still have adequately accomplished its task, there was at least one applause-worthy thing I was able to glean from it. This paper contained a critique about the “necessity” of researchers in academic culture having to be personally removed from the subjects of their study. Patricia Hill Collins argued that this approach just wouldn’t fly for the kind of work Black Feminism was trying to accomplish—particularly when such work was being done by Black feminists. Instead, the opposite approach was, in fact, the most sensible, even if traditionally unacceptable: to deliberately insert oneself, as a Black woman, into one’s research narrative, because our experiences and identities are as essential as the topics we are writing about. (If it can be broken down in a paragraph, why did I have to read five million pages that convey the same message? Like, bro, I can’t wait to leave school forever.) I feel like this Black Feminism principle of inserting yourself into your work is exactly what led to the mashup form of this essay-book as a biomythography. And I approve. In fact, I want to do some.
On the topic of Black Feminism, biomythography becomes even more important when we consider how history typically treats women and the positions to which it relegates them in important narratives:
“As we have done with Mbuya Nehanda, the Mother of our Nation, the lone heroine of our Chimurengas, our political history is one that makes wombs of women, empties us of all human complexity, impregnates us with all that is good or wrong in our society so that women are either Mothers of the Nation, birthing all that is good, or Evil Stepmothers, birthing all that is bad in our society.”
This seems like a lot of responsibility, and at once, I realize I’d rather be one of the little women as well, because at least it might give me the freedom to be written as fully human in history. I am neither pure heroine nor pure villain.
As much as These Bones Will Rise Again is significantly memoir, it’s also quite evidently a history textbook (in a loose definition of the word), and I’m actually very grateful for that. Not once have I ever read such a narrative by an African woman that tells me so much about a single African country from a personal lens, and which has successfully stimulated me and maintained my interest without my having been forced to read it. I hate classrooms with a passion, but if we’re going to keep using them on the African continent for the time being, we should probably distribute this book to African students everywhere, Zimbabwean and otherwise. Because, really, how many writers can successfully make non-fiction academic history not boring? My education would have meant a hell of a lot more to me if I had read a book like this before college. I imagine it would mean a lot to many young people who get the chance to read it.
I can’t emphasize enough how important I think this book is. I lost count of the number of times when, as I was reading, this thought occurred to me: This book has to explode, madly. It is way too important not to explode. But will it? I’ve come to believe that book popularity has at least as much to do with the funding and marketing behind the publishers as the actual quality of the work, so I don’t know. I do feel like by composing this post, I’m doing my little part in pushing this book to a potential audience. (I’m grateful to even have an audience!)
One thing I particularly admire about Panashe Chigumadzi is the boldness in her honesty. Whatever else this book is about, it’s also about Zimbabwean politics. Politics is dangerous everywhere, but I assume it’s much more so when the country in question had a genocide it dealt insufficiently with. Furthermore, a country whose historical characters are not only still alive, but still holding freaking positions in government. I don’t know if this book is being sold in Zimbabwe, but if it is, I’d consider it a miracle. (State censorship is hella real, you feel me?) I don’t know if Panashe ever plans to relocate to Zimbabwe, but if she ever successfully does, I’d consider it a miracle.
I will admit that as a Ghanaian girl who only learned last year that Zimbabwe even used to be called Rhodesia, and clearly had no knowledge of Zimbabwe’s history before very recently, this book had me thoroughly confused at times. Who are these people, where are these places, what are these words, what are you talking about, sis? But the more exposed you are to certain things, the better you begin to digest them. As I’m completing this write-up, I’ve only just finished reading Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone, which actually complements These Bones Will Rise Again very nicely, but in fiction form. At the time of Zimbabwe’s non-coup, I’d never heard of Emerson Mnangagwa in my life. Now, after following Zimbabwe’s political events nearly consistently and reading a lot more, I’m far less ignorant.
Still, assimilating the information contained in Panashe’s book is going to take several, several more reads. One could never have been enough. So, you know, it’s great that I own it now and can keep going back to it. (I should have asked Panashe to sign it when I met her. SMH. I really slack.)
My Thoughts: Nervous Conditions
Author: Tsitsi Dangarembga
I can describe this book in one word: legendary.
This is probably just my youth and lack of exposure talking, but I can hardly believe this book was published in the 1980s. It feels way ahead of its time – not in the subject matter itself, because feminism in general is probably as old as the first woman on the planet – but because of how explicitly issues are tackled. I’m talking about the language, the writing, the thoughts and speeches of the characters. This feels like a book that would put its author in serious trouble with her society. And I’m so glad it exists, and very much in awe of Tsitsi Dangarembga, legend herself.
It’s 2017 and I’m now reading Nervous Conditions. It’s even embarrassing. But small by small, I’m coming out from under my metaphorical rocks and trying to keep up with the present at the same time.
Because of the book’s title, Nervous Conditions, I had thought this book was going to be about mental illness. At the end of the day, it turns out it was, but not exactly the way I expected. I’d say the major theme was actually patriarchy. (Is it inappropriate to joke about patriarchy itself being an illness? Yes? Okay, sorry.)
All the female characters seemed to be asking through their actions in the novel, “What does it mean, that I am a woman?” of themselves, while all the male characters seemed to be asking, “What does it mean, that you are a woman?” of all the female characters. The female characters all seemed to be answering their question in different ways, while the male characters seemed to answer it the same way the historically predictable, patriarchal way. What was particularly interesting to me was how Dangarembga managed to achieve that, even though every single character – including the male ones – had a somewhat distinct personality.
The point of that feat, whether it was intentional or not, I believe, is best summarized in this quote from the narration of the main character, Tambu:
“The victimization, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. […] But what I didn’t like was the way all conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.”
The characters were so subtly yet impressively complex. As for Jeremiah, the main character Tambu’s father, he just seemed like a spineless money-chaser, albeit with admirable skill for getting whatever he wanted most times. He never seemed bothered by any kind of guilt or cognitive dissonance, which was scary to me because how do you deal with a human being that appears incorrigibly comfortable with being wrong and never feeling wrong?
More interesting to me, however, was Mainini, mother of Tambu and wife of Jeremiah. At surface level, she seemed ordinary, traditional, unquestioningly submissive to her husband. But she had a spine, and that spine showed up frequently whenever it was time to support Tambu. She didn’t use her spine “disrespectfully,” though; she used it with what seemed like experienced tact, getting her daughter what she’d always wanted through the psychological manipulation of her husband, through words, to make him think it was his idea all along, or making him believe that his ego would reap some benefit from whatever she was making him agree to. It was truly phenomenal.
My favorite character was Lucia, Mainini’s sister and Tambu’s aunt. She was that older, yet still single, sexually liberated badass who knew how to persevere until she got what she came for. With respect to her radicalness, I think it was as extreme as it could have gotten, given the traditional context she grew up in. She’d been through a lot of nonsense from society, from being old, husbandless and childless. She’s been called both a witch, suspected of cursing her own sister, and a “loose” woman because TBH, she got the sex she wanted when she wanted it. And while I admired this about her, I felt sorry for her at the same time – because she had nobody sensible to have sex with, since, in my humble opinion, all the male characters were idiots. (Except, perhaps, Chido, but I didn’t see too much of him.) Sadting. =(
The main character, Tambu, terrified me with her inconsistency. There was something very alarming about her hatred for her brother, Nhamo – or maybe not hatred, but icy distaste, or disregard, or indifference, or something of the sort. I mean, the book literally begins with how she didn’t particularly feel any negative emotions when her brother died. I was just like, “Whoa, okay sis, is everything okay with you though?” (Apparently, it wasn’t. I found out, from an interview of Dangarembga at the back of the book that Tambu was mentally unstable as she was narrating, and that made a lot of things make a lot of sense.) Tambu was so confusing (but realistically so, because humans are truly complex, often contradictory creatures) from her emotions and actions. When she lived in her home village with her nuclear family, she seemed so acutely aware of all the ways the world around her was using her femaleness against her. Then, when she moved to the mission for her foreign education, she seemed so eager and comfortable to bend to societally acceptable roles for womanhood. She seemed to “get” so many things about life and society, and then the rest was rather lost on her.
The foil that allowed me as a reader to see all the things that were lost on Tambu was her cousin, Nyasha, whom I would also describe as a main character, even though she was not a narrator. Nyasha was the most afflicted by “nervous conditions” out of all the characters in the book. It was very subtly depicted in the beginning, a mere confusion about gender roles thanks to culture shock: Though Nyasha too had been born in Rhodesia, unquestionably being raised as a traditional Shona, her parents got the chance to move to England for several years with her and her brother, Chido. They returned when Nyasha was about preteen and there were things Nyasha just couldn’t let go of. After all her exposure to “progressive” thought, all her reading, education and whatnot, her problem became that she was unable now to assimilate into her expected roles back in Rhodesia. She wasn’t stubborn without reason, wasn’t a rebel without a cause; she was simply very matter-of-fact, yet seemed to want to believe the best of everyone, even her father, one of the most egoistic, patriarchal characters I’ve ever read in my life – and for that reason, uncomfortably and unfortunately too familiar in reality.
Particularly the relationship between Nyasha and her father, known respectfully as Babamukuru, was what strained Nyasha mentally, causing so much dissonance that she just about inevitably lost it. This quote from her really struck me:
“I guess he’s right, right to dislike me. It’s not his fault, it’s me. But I can’t help it. Really, I can’t. He makes me so angry. I can’t just shut up when he puts on his God act. I’m just not made that way. Why not? Why can’t I just take it like everybody else does? I ought to take it, but really, I can’t.” -Nyasha
What a burden it must be, to have no one else around you thinking the way you do. It makes so much sense that one would start to wonder if she herself is in the wrong. If everyone around you is mad and you’re the only one who seems to recognize their madness, it’s like you’re the mad one.
A character who was unexpectedly interesting: Maiguru, Nyasha’s mother and Tambu’s aunt. On the surface, she seemed hardly different from Tambu’s mother: submissive and skilled in the art of male manipulation. But this woman lowkey got levels, bro. By far the most educated woman in the novel, Maiguru too had been exposed to whatever culture it was in England that got Nyasha as feminist as she was. The difference, I think, was that Maiguru’s age and upbringing had made it far easier to assimilate back into quietness and what was generally acceptable of a Rhodesian wife, upon her return. Only occasionally did the usually suppressed part of her come to light, through a few unexpected rants to Tambu, and a shockingly independent action she took with regards to her family – if only temporarily. It was the temporariness of it all that was problematic for me, and I did not blame Maiguru for it, but blamed her society.
This is what made me realize that it will never be enough for only individuals to develop sense, awareness and independence of the values and rights of women (or really, any social issue) when the stagnant states of their societies simply won’t allow them to do jack with it. In such societies, women are likely to either end up like Maiguru – takes a few independent actions, recognizes their futility, then melts harmlessly back into the patriarchal mould, or like Nyasha (or even Tambu) – straight-up deranged.
Maiguru said something I liked at some point, so I wrote it down:
“I don’t know what people mean by a loose woman – sometimes she is someone who walks the streets, sometimes she is an educated woman, sometimes she is a successful man’s daughter or she is simply beautiful.” – Maiguru.
LOL, true. The world will call any woman whatever it wants to call her without legitimate reason. Whatever meanings these words have had have expanded so much that it seems they no longer mean anything in particular.
Also from the interview at the back of my copy, which I think is a very legitimate reason why racism wasn’t a major theme in Nervous Conditions, why it is such a tricky theme to tackle when writing anything at all, was this quote:
“I think this is the catch with racism – looked at objectively, it sounds too absurd to be true.” – Tsitsi Dangarembga
And, unfitting anywhere else in this post, a quote by Tambu that I just like because of personal relatability:
“Exclusion held dreadful horrors for me at that time because it suggested superfluity. Exclusion whispered that existence was not necessary, making me no more than an unfortunate by-product of some inexorable natural process.”
I feel like this book is one that should have been able to set societies on fire. I’m a bit disappointed that it doesn’t seem like any fires broke out, though. But this may just be my lack of knowledge of the contexts and history of this book’s reception. Either way, I still think Nervous Conditions is legendary. I liked it a lot.