Unravelling the full history of the Shona subject: Who, how, if and, where to, after all that – STIAS webinar by Tsitsi Dangarembga

21 April 2021

“The work in revealing the history of the current situation in Zimbabwe tends to be done by political scientists. There has been no great desire to look further back than from when the first rebellion in Rhodesia took place in 1896, even thought the name Zimbabwe goes back to the 12th century state. Research tends to uphold the status quo – the disappearing point of the first rebellion in the 19th century is the origin of that status quo. I have pointed out the disconnect in naming the country after a 12th century state formation, while claiming Zimbabwe was founded in 1896.  People like me need to shift this disjunctive thinking. We need products of the imagination, of creative knowledge production – but of course, it has to be funded,” said Tsitsi Dangarembga, Zimbabwean writer, filmmaker, public intellectual and cultural activist, and currently artist-in-residence at STIAS.

STIAS Artist-in-residence Tsitsi Dangarembga during her webinar on 15 April 2021

“All knowledge I gain finds expression in my fiction.  It gives the explanation for why people behave the way they do, a vision for why it doesn’t have to be that way, and for how we see ourselves as part of something bigger. Whenever I am exhausted creatively I gather more knowledge.”

Educated in Zimbabwe, England and Germany, Dangarembga began writing plays while at the University of Zimbabwe, where The Lost of The Soil (1983) and She No Longer Weeps (1984) were first staged. The first volume in the Tambudzai Trilogy, Nervous Conditions, appeared to critical acclaim in 1988. Its sequel, The Book Of Not was published in 2006. Her third novel This Mournable Body was published in 2018 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020.

Dangarembga’s films have been screened in festivals across the world, including the Sundance Film Festival. She divides her time between Harare where she is director of the Institute of Creative Arts for Progress in Africa Trust, an institution focusing on the role of all arts disciplines in development which she founded in 2009, and speaking at events around the globe.

She is working on her fourth novel, Sai-Sai And The Great Ancestor Of Fire which she describes as young adult dystopian speculative fiction designed to sensitise African and global adults, to the need to engage politically and personally in order to take their destiny into their own hands. It challenges contemporary and traditional customs and norms and spiritual concepts that no longer serve a rapidly evolving world, while adopting a more African cosmology. It also challenges modern and post-modern traditions and norms that do not deliver societal goods. Set in a post-apocalypse southern Africa, the novel proposes a new paradigm for doing necessary for Africa’s progress”.

Her presentation at the second STIAS public webinar for 2021 focused on the massive groundwork and knowledge gathering underlying her creative outputs.

A complex history

“The people of the area South of the Zambezi River as far as the Limpopo River, bounded by the Kalahari Desert in the West and coastal lands of the Indian Ocean in the East, have a pre-history and history which shares common elements with many other African people. On the other hand, the history of the people of this part of Africa also has a unique dimension with respect to the way the state of Zimbabwe was formed. I examine some aspects of contemporary Zimbabwean society through the lens of this past in order to point tentatively to areas of potential positive intervention in what is generally accepted in Zimbabwe as a situation of national crisis.”

“My current motivation is the behaviour of the Zimbabwe government, the opposition and ordinary Zimbabweans,” she explained. “I’m asking myself how members of a nation can allow themselves to sink into a morass.”

She also admitted to “encroaching shamelessly on other disciplines because I like to tell a good story”.

She sketched a detailed history of the current inhabitants of Zimbabwe who began migrating southwards 4500 years ago (3000 to 2000 BC) mostly from Western and Central Africa – parts of what are now Nigeria and Cameroon. These groups brought their own cultural, religious, philosophical and kinship ideas but also became influenced by encounters with other groups along the way, and later Arabs from the early centuries after Christ, the Portuguese from the 15th to 19th centuries and the British in the 19th and 20th centuries.

They established settlements in unpopulated grasslands, merged with other populations and began to organise into states with the Zimbabwe state emerging from the 12th century.

They reached the Eastern Cape of South Africa where they eventually came into brutal conflict with the British in a series of frontier wars aimed at preventing further encroachment. The British established military rule facilitated by strongly masculinist policies including land dispossession (especially from women) and brutality resulting in many being killed and up to 20 000 driven out.

The Zulu nation fought back and established dominion over the other groups. King Mzilikazi broke away from the Zulu kingdom and founded the Ndebele Kingdom now known as Matebeleland, in what became British South Africa Company-ruled Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe.

The discovery of diamonds in 1867 led to the securing of mineral rights and the imposition of an administration system under Native Commissioners used to dominate and control the former migrants.

“The migrants began to be called Shona and from 1895 the area was called Rhodesia,” said Dangarembga. “The people didn’t call themselves Shona – they were the Wamaungwe, Wabudsha and Waeru, etc., depending on locality. As a macro group they said of themselves as Tiri Vanhu meaning We are People. The language spoken was designated as Chivanhu. But this was all ignored in favour of Shona.” (Described as of Indo-German linguistic origin and meaning Beautiful by the pro-government The Patriot newspaper in 2015.)

“The Rhodesian government was patriarchal. Male ideas were codified into customary law and became tradition. This was the model for British colonial policies in South Africa.”

Dangarembga also explained that when the Rhodesian government required consolidation and adoption of a standard language, a linguist from the University of the Witwatersrand, Clement Doke, was called in. The Doke report of 1931 recommended a 32-character alphabet and only six dialects.

“Language is important – subjectivity develops through language,” she said. “What happens to people who don’t speak the accepted dialects, to children who end up speaking a different dialect to their parents?  Six dialects was colonial expediency. They needed to do this to administer. It didn’t reflect what was spoken on the ground.”

Based on this work, Dangarembga proposed some ideas for the way forward for the ‘former migrant’ now Shona population.

“There should be an adoption of the calendar beginning from migration to give a complete sense of past and history.  A shared recognition of and identification of the migrants and their history needs to be developed – this requires knowledge production, scholarship, as well as cultural representation including in the arts. We need to identify the shared culture between sub-Saharan African peoples. We also need to progress research into the etymology of the words.”

For Zimbabwe she made some specific recommendations.

“There is a need to change colonial provincial and language names – names highlighting the sub status of groups have been maintained. We also need to research the loose federation-type arrangements that existed to see whether any of the elements can be used today. Decentralisation is provided for in the Zimbabwe Constitution but is not based on local practices. More knowledge of older political conventions would increase understanding of Zimbabwe today. The creation of regional ethnic identities is often antagonistic and open to political manipulation.”

She also proposed the introduction of the 32-character alphabet proposed by Doke. “The current alphabet is based on the Anglo-Saxon linguistic realm and not the linguistic realm of the migrants.”

In discussion, she unpacked the importance of the gender aspects which she has touched on in her fiction. “Seats of feminine power across the continent were eroded,” she said. “This richness was codified out and research needs to rehabilitate it. Toxic masculinity is not traditional and endemic to who we are.”

She also touched on the key issue of land ownership in Zimbabwe and the region. “The land was not owned but inhabited. It was therefore easy to welcome others on to the land you had inhabited. Now there is capitalist private ownership, which is not tribally bound.”

“We need to understand the idea of ownership also in terms of private ownership of power within political parties which is seen in Zimbabwe,” she continued. “We need more conversations and discourses to shift the way we engage with power. We can’t go back to communal but we need to conceive of power as more permeable and less absolute.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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