Almost 2 years ago, I passed through a bookshop at an airport whilst waiting for my connection flight. I saw this beautiful book cover with a pair of feet wearing pumps. I love shoes, so it caught my eye. I realized it was authored by one of my favorite writers Tsitsi Dangarembga. I could not get it then, but the title stuck with me and I added it to my reading list.
Having read Nervous conditions and resonated with it when I was still at school, I was drawn to this new title. Tsitsi Dangarembga published This Mournable Body in 2018 as a sequel to Nervous Conditions and The Book of Not completing her Trilogy written over a 30 year period. The first book Nervous Conditions (1988), was based on Tambudzai ‘Tambu’ Sigauke’s childhood and early adolescence, as she moves to a mission school run by her uncle to access a better education. The second, The Book of Not (2006), is about Tambu’s experiences at a convent school and her job as an advertising copywriter. In the third book, Tambu has just left her copywriter job, middle aged and unmarried.
Dangarembga is an award winning Zimbabwean novelist, filmmaker, playwright, and the director of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa Trust.
When I finally got to read the book, what excited me the most was meeting Tambu from Nervous conditions. I have always wondered what then happened to her? Here she is a grown-up woman and is still fighting for recognition.
The Second-person narration in This Mournable body is a sharp turn from the first-person narrative in Nervous Conditions. The ‘you’ pronoun used throughout the book forces the reader to be Tambu, to wear Tambu’s shoes, to be empathetic and imagine all her pain on ‘you’. For me the ‘you’ is personal, every Zimbabwean relates with Tambu’s situation, being educated and jobless, in given this economic sphere, our hopes and aspirations have been mortgaged.
The book is divided into three sections Ebbing, Suspended and Arriving. In each of the sections Tambu is struggling to to make a decent living. In Ebbing she has to find accommodation and move out of the girls’ hostel, in Suspended she fights for her sanity and in Arriving she returns back home with a new hope but is crushed again.
At the beginning of the book I am inserted into Tambu’s shoes, living in a hostel in downtown Harare and anxious about my prospects after leaving my copywriting job. I move to a widow’s place. At every turn in my attempts to make a life for myself, I am faced with so much humiliation, until my reality eventually drives me to a breaking point. I get committed to a mental institution for a few months, then move in with my cousin as I recover. The reader’s hopes are lifted when myhigh school rival Tracey Stevenson offers me a job on her eco-tourism company. I (Tambu) am doing well until feelings of lack of achievement and innovation distract me.
This older Tambu, is a sharp contrast to the younger ambitious, version of Tambu who sold mealies to get money for school, she doubts herself, she even questions her existence,
“You are concerned you will start thinking of ending it all, having nothing to carry on for: no home, no job, no sustaining family bonds. Thinking this induces a morass of guilt. You have failed to make anything at all of yourself”
This made me wonder how the youthful and energetic Tambu got to this point. Education played a very big role in giving hope when she was young, now after acquiring an education she is still doubtful.
An interesting character in the book is Widow Manyanga’ – Tambu’s landlord. She is a very religious woman, who is warped and unpredictable. She and the rest of the tenants ignore the fact that her unscrupulous tenant raped, Mako.
“Mai Manyanga departs calmly as though nothing extraordinary has happened. The door clicks shut again”, the rape incident is not reported
“He didn’t threaten you? He didn’t say he will find you again? Mako, if you ask all women at your workplace, in fact all women, maybe just not Tambudzai over there, then you will know it’s what nearly every one of them puts up with”, says Bertha the other housemate in a bid to comfort Mako. The way all these women turn a blind eye to rape is quite disturbing.
This rape incident reminds me of Tambus’s reaction to Getrude’s incident at the taxi rank in the early chapters of the book. It reflects a society where other women will watch, do nothing and encourage the violation of another woman. Tambu stood there and did nothing as people humiliated and sexually harassed her hostel mate at the commuter omnibus.
The book is set in the 1990s Zimbabwe wherein a number of people have migrated to other countries in search of greener pastures, at the inception of the land reform program, growth of cultural tourism and above all the unstable social, political and economic situation in the country. Tambu yearns for change and stability. She yearns for success and relevance but, she does not find it. Through Tambu, Dangarembga brings out the desperation of the ordinary educated Zimbabwean woman to make a decent living.
In her words (In another article) Dangarembga argues that,
“Although people in Zimbabwe want change, we do not yet have the capacity, material or psychological, to create “
Tambu’s story takes me on a journey of introspection. It makes me wonder who will I be at 40? It is a story about a woman trying to imagine and work her way out of a narrative that has already been decided for her and the situation in Zimbabwe makes it worse. Hers is the story of many Zimbabweans who struggle to put food on the table, get jobs and make a decent living in the backdrop of an ailing economy and corrupt leaders.