Valerie Tagwira

Archive for September, 2007|Monthly archive page

Book Review: Jesuit Journal For Zimbabwe

In Books, Literature, Reviews, The Uncertainty of Hope, Writing on September 22, 2007 at 6:09 pm

The Women of Mbare

Valerie Tagwira, The Uncertainty of Hope,
Weaver Press, Harare 2006, 368 pp.

Mukai — Vukani. ‘Jesuit Journal For Zimbabwe’, No 40 July 2007.
Reviewed by Oskar Wermter SJ.

This is the first novel by Valerie Tagwira, a medical doctor specializing in gynaecology. The women of Mbare are her subject, dependent on men and yet struggling on their own for survival during these recent years of economic and social decline. This an exciting book for any Mbare resident who will have to say on every page: this is exactly what it is like.

The central character is Onai Moyo, kind to all and loving, a loyal wife and deeply caring mother of three children, loyal to her husband even though love has long died and he, a drunkard and womanizer, abuses and assaults her so badly that she has to seek treatment in hospital, hiding the true cause of her injuries from the doctor. Katy, her best friend, urges her to leave her abusive husband, “Do you want us to take you out of this house in a coffin?”(6). And Katy’s daughter Faith, a law student, reflects angrily, “Why should a woman allow herself to bear so much at the hands of a man? Her own husband? Had his act of paying bride-price reduced her to nothing more than a possession?” (26).

One of her husband’s other women is Sheila, though Onai does not know it, who says, “You know what, Mai Moyo? When I was a prostitute, I didn’t care about catching HIV. I thought I would die from hunger, anyway. Kusiri kufa ndekupi? As a prostitute, I could at least die with a full stomach. Now that I know I will die of AIDS, I think dying of hunger is far much better. If I could have another chance….” (62). Women are vulnerable, not only Sheila and her colleagues, but also Onai, so anxious to preserve her status as a respectable married woman. Marital intercourse for her, though, is not a matter of love, but of self-defence. Female condoms “made her feel more in control of her sexuality and definitely less vulnerable to Gari’s demands. During his various degrees of drunkenness, he often failed to notice when she had a condom on. This meant that the fights about him wearing a condom were less frequent than before. What a relief it was that on most evenings he was drunk, almost to the point of paralysis!” (70).

Gari comes home only to eat and sleep, but does not provide for the family. Onai has to do that as a street vendor which takes up her whole life. She cannot even go to church any longer. “The need to make a living for her children had been much greater than the desire to spend her Sunday mornings in prayer and worship. Somewhere along the line, the core of her faith had disintegrated” (127).

As an informal trader Murambatsvina (Operation Clean-up) hits her especially hard. “On arrival, she was shocked to find shards and splinters of wood and asbestos where her three shacks had been standing only that morning. The bulldozer was just reversing slowly back onto the road. It had flattened a portion of her fence and the flower-bed in its wake” (137). Her lodgers have to take their belongings to Tsiga grounds and stay in the open. Her own informal trade is now a criminal activity.

Faith, a child of Mbare and now a budding lawyer, is outraged. But fear prevails. “You can say what you like to me, but not to other people, as I’m sure you know very well. And don’t worry about coming here…. There have been clashes with the police today, so it’s not safe…,” says her mother.

Her fiancée Tom, a ‘new farmer’ and businessman, plays it safe and adopts the official line. He is alarmed when she calls the assault on the Mbare people ‘a gross abuse of humanity’. “It wasn’t as if he didn’t care about people’s suffering. He did. It was just that he wanted to get on in life. He had done well so far, and he knew too well how the wrong word and at a wrong time or in the wrong place could set one back.” He has benefited from the land redistribution and cannot afford to turn against his benefactors. Faith feels deeply for her parents and mainini Onai, but she, too, is not going to risk either her future career or her prospective marriage. Success in life is getting out of Mbare. Even her parents who make their money by dealing in foreign currency hope to move eventually to a stand in Mabelreign.

Not Murambatsvina, but her husband’s death destroys Onai’s home. Her brother-in-law claims everything, house and money. “She had lost everything. Although Gari had paid a full bride-price, their marriage had never been registered. What rights did she have to anything?” (248). Customary law, at least as interpreted by greedy relatives, is not kind to widows.

The characters may be fictional, but in every other way the novel is a factual account of what happened and still happens in a place like Mbare. The author lets the facts speak for themselves. She does not discuss politics. She does not ask who is responsible for Murambatsvina, the decline of the hospitals, unemployment and homelessness. Readers know that anyway. But they may not know what it is like to be at the receiving end of this government’s policies. At least not in such graphic detail. That this book provides in abundance.

Assistant Commissioner Nzou is the closest there is to a representative of the ruling class. He has foreign currency dealers arrested during the day and buys US dollars and South African Rands from them at night.

At least for Onai the story has a happy ending. She escapes to Borrowdale to a job she had been looking for for a long time. But Mbare remains unredeemed.


Book Review: The Standard

In Books, Literature, Reviews, The Uncertainty of Hope, Writing on September 9, 2007 at 2:59 pm

Novel revisits Murambatsvina
Bertha Shoko, The Standard, March 25, 2007.

[The] Uncertainty of Hope is a tragic story that captures the lives of two women from Mbare — Harare’s oldest high-density suburb — who take us through some of the most difficult patches of Zimbabwe’s political and economic
problems in 2005.

The main character in the book is Onai Moyo, a vegetable vendor and mother of three.

Her best friend is Katy Nguni, an illegal foreign currency dealer who disguises herself as a market vendor. We are introduced to the harsh realities of Zimbabwe’s troubled economy and subsequent social problems as a result.

Onai is married to Gari: abusive, irresponsible and an alcoholic, employed as a section manager by a beverage company but fails to provide for his family, forcing his wife to irk out a living as a vegetable vendor. Yet, he is prepared to take good care of his numerous mistresses, better known as “small houses”, while ignoring the needs of his own family.

Through his extramarital affairs, two of them with self-confessed prostitutes, he exposes his wife to HIV and Aids.

In contrast, Onai’s friend Katy is married to John, a loving and caring husband who earns a living as a cross-border truck driver. So great is his need to provide for his wife and daughter and escape the poverty of Mbare that he is caught up in the illegal trafficking of young girls and women into South Africa and doesn’t tell his wife about this.

His daughter, Faith, a final year law student at the University of Zimbabwe is looking up to him for tuition fees and will miss the examinations if he does not get the money somehow. His crude forex deals with a senior police officer and his illegal trafficking land him in trouble one day and he is forced to flee the country to escape arrest.

Katy and John are concerned about Onai’s abusive relationship and fear that the worst can happen if she stays put but their friend is adamant. Even after almost a week’s stay in hospital after being seriously beaten by Gari, and attempted counselling by a female doctor who attended to her, Onai cannot gather the courage to leave Gari and uses her children as an excuse.

Like a battered wife, Onai defends her position and attacks her friend Katy during one such conversation: “And where do you think I will take my children? Huh? Have you gone that far with your plans to re-arrange my life?”

She even makes excuses for her husband’s abusive nature: “Please, let me be, Katy. Gari will change. He is going through a difficult time at work. I know he’ll change as soon as things get better for him.”

But she gets a rude awakening when Gari brings into their family home Gloria, his mistress, and introduces her as his second wife; she would be moving into the family home at the end of the week, he says.

This was the last straw for Onai. In a fit of rage she fights Gloria but her husband runs to his mistress’ defence and beats up his wife, before chucking her out of the family home for “being disobedient”. Feeling dejected and betrayed, Onai leaves home and hearth and is taken in by her friend Katy.

But these social problems are only part of the rot in the country. Through the lives of the two heroines, Valerie Tagwira boldly shows how Operation Murambatsvina affected Mbare, the home of the informal sector, and left hundreds homeless and without any sources of income.

Katy and Onai are some of the people who lose their vending spaces and find they have no source of income any more. Their backyard shacks and cottages are also destroyed during the operation and they watch helplessly, as they sleep in the open.

The state of the country’s hospitals, with no medicines and drugs and demotivated and burnt-out health workers are depicted graphically in the novel.

After admission in hospital with a deep cut on her forehead, Onai is stitched up by a grumpy doctor, with no local anaesthetic. The food shortages, the fuel queues and the runaway inflation, shortages of anti-retroviral drugs — Tagwira touches on them all.

This is a “must read” for anyone with a passion for good literature. Tagwira manages to make me angry, happy, hopeful, and hopeless, as she narrates this touching story about Zimbabwe through these two powerful female characters.

© The author/publisher.

Interview: The Standard

In Books, Interviews, Literature, The Uncertainty of Hope, Writing on September 9, 2007 at 2:41 pm

Interview with Valerie Tagwira
Bertha Shoko, The Standard, May 13, 2007.

1. Please give us a brief biography of yourself, occupation, level of education, current studies and family life and history.

I am a thirty-three year old married woman. I was born in Gweru, but I lived in Rutendo (Redcliff) for the greater part of my childhood. I was educated at Monte Cassino Secondary School (Macheke) and St James High School (Nyamandlovu). I graduated from the University of Zimbabwe’s Medical School in 1997 and I am currently working in London as a medical doctor, while doing some post-graduate training.

2. I know from the brief introduction to the book that you undertook studies related to public health nothing in the arts or literature, and I was left wondering what made you set aside the challenging world of medicine and inspired you to write this really compelling novel? Have you always wanted to write, perhaps?

O-level Literature is my only claim to ‘studies in the arts and literature’. No, I wouldn’t say I undertook studies in Public Health — I would love to, though. My post-graduate training is in Obstetrics and Gynaecology. I wrote the book while working and studying. Writing came out of a desire to do something different — something creative. But then I realised that in the process I could concurrently explore health-related and developmental issues that affect women — areas I have always been interested in. Part of my inspiration developed out of these interestes, as well as the fact that I am a woman.

3. Before this novel have you published anything else which is not prose?

Before this novel, I hadn’t published anything at all.

4. Your vivid description of Mbare township and Mbare Musika are very interesting and fascinating. For example, the “unwritten road regulations” — as a driver in Mbare one has to drive slowly and actually wait for people to get out of the road at their own pace, etc. Do you have a connection with the suburb or did you live there at some point in your life?

I’m quite familiar with Mbare, especially the market place and the bus terminus. During my secondary schooldays, it was the place where I used to catch the school bus to Macheke. The market was a great place to stock up on roasted nuts, maputi, etc (as boarders do), and at the end of each school term, it was the place where the school bus dropped us so that we could get transport on to our various destinations. Later, when I lived in Harare, I frequently drove to the market to buy fruit and vegetables. Besides this, I’m no stranger to high density life as I was raised in a township. Mbare was the perfect setting for my novel because of its complexity and vibrancy.

5. Some of the themes in your book are controversial: foreign currency dealing, Murambatsvina, corruption in the police force, the state of the economy, nobody can ignore the controversy in your book. Are you afraid of prosecution because of some of the things that you wrote in book and if so, why? ( Why I ask, I hear you were unhappy about the casting of the headline in the review we wrote. While it was really not my doing, I also didn’t see the problem with this.)

No, I’m not afraid of being prosecuted because anyone who has read the book and understood it will acknowledge that even as a work of fiction, it has a very balanced approach, and looks at life from various perspectives. I am also confident that the novel is not worthy of police attention as there is nothing illegal about it.

As to your headline, ‘Novel Revisits Murambatsvina’ well, I think Irene Staunton and I were both disappointed. The headline did seem both somewhat sensational and reductionist. The Uncertainty of Hope is about so much more — the many challenges that women have to contend with — than just Murambatsvina. In addition, my own family was quite concerned about the implications of such a headline. And as I am sure you understand, people in England worry when they see such headlines because of the news we hear about home, and various friends did feel that it was neither responsible nor sensitive and they communicated this to me.

While The Uncertainty of Hope is a work of fiction, with imaginary characters and situations, taking pains to avoid the controversies that are so much a part of our lives would have diminished the efforts of having written the novel in the first place, possibly making it too illusory. The novels that I admire, while also fictional, deal with truth in a manner that allows for its complexity, and its multi-faceted nature. Thus, while Faith may feel passionately that Murambatsvina was wrong, her boyfriend Tom feels equally strongly that it served its purpose: it cleaned up the streets and reduced crime. The reader is thus left to make up their own mind. Similarly, while Nzou is certainly corrupt, in the end, he is prosecuted for wrong-doing and a fellow policeman makes the point that not everyone in the police force is corrupt or want a force that is so tarnished. Good fiction is not didactic nor does it provide any one particular point of view.

6. When can we expect your next novel or was this novel just a once-off thing?

Because I enjoyed writing The Uncertainty of Hope so much, I look forward to putting pen to paper again, and hopefully getting published some time in the future.

7. Did you always want to be writer? Who is your inspiration?

I did dream of becoming a writer one day but it took me a long time to settle down and commit myself to writing. My inspiration came from my late parents. They were both teachers who loved reading, and they encouraged me to do the same. Thinking of becoming a writer was a natural next step.

8. What do you think of the Zimbabwean women writers. Is there a place for them in Zimbabwean literature?

I certainly believe that there is a place for women writers in Zimbabwean literature. The arts are a medium for looking at social issues, and a balanced approach involves both men and women. We have women writers who have done extremely well, women we can look up to, such as the late Yvonne Vera, and Tsitsi Dangarembga. Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to make a living out of writing. Until that changes, very few, if any, women will take up writing as a full-time career. Sadly, this is at the expense of skills development as one has to keep writing in order to get better at it.

9. What is your ultimate goal in relation to writing and literature?

My limitation is that as a doctor, I have a totally different career which is quite demanding in its own way. So for an ultimate goal in relation to writing, I will be very pleased if I manage to have a few more books published.

10. Are you coming back to Zimbabwe after your studies in the UK?

Of course. It’s not just a cliché that home is best place to be.

© The author/publisher.

Interview: BBC Africa Beyond

In Books, Interviews, Literature, The Uncertainty of Hope, Writing on September 9, 2007 at 2:12 pm

The Uncertainty of Hope
Felicity Heywood.

Felicity Heywood talks to Zimbabwean doctor and first time author Valerie Tagwira about her debut offering, The Uncertainty of Hope, and her country’s recent struggles.

Set in 2005 during the months of May to December, The Uncertainty of Hope , gives a view of life in contemporary Zimbabwe through the eyes of ordinary folk trying to get by.

Writer, Valerie Tagwira , says: “It’s a balanced picture of what Zimbabwe is like at the moment.” The novel focuses on poverty, homelessness, domestic violence and issues related to HIV. Her characters are mainly women who face dilemmas such as turning to the black market to make a living; or professional women who are torn between struggling in their homeland or migrating.

This is Tagwira’s first book and she is reserving excitement about it until a few more reviews come in. Tagwira, a medical doctor, left Zimbabwe in 2002 and has been working in family planning and reproductive health in London ever since. She has a strong interest in women’s health and development issues and always had a sense of wanting to improve the lives of women.

She wrote the book evenings and weekends and became compulsive about seeing the characters take shape. She did little research as it was life she had observed while in Zimbabwe and particularly Mbare where the book is set. Tagwira says she had difficulty in knowing when to stop editing herself. “I was coming close to self-censoring,” she says. It was her publisher who had a calming effect on her. She wants to write more to build her confidence.

Tagwira would like the book to raise awareness of issues related to women: domestic violence, childcare issues, sexual abuse. But she wonders, “Maybe I am too optimistic to think how much a book could do.”

Tagwira recently came back from the Zimbabwe launch party for the book and says the responses have been extremely positive so far. On arriving in Harare, she says she was concerned for her safety. “I don’t get the feeling that we [Zimbabweans] are free to write anything”. Writers in Zimbabwe, she says, have avoided depicting the current climate.

For good or bad, Valerie didn’t. The novel gives a fictional account of the well-publicised state demolition of ordinary people’s homes. Her friends were aghast that she included this in the book. “Fear is contagious,” Tagwira says.

Each time she returns to her country she says she can’t imagine the situation becoming any worse. But it does. “It seems like all are existing as criminals. It’s an aspect of poverty.”

Right now, Tagwira is concentrating on passing some obstetrics and gynaecology exams – to be sat later this year. But she hopes to write again in the near future — around women’s issues again, she says.

But before any readers out there might be thinking that The Uncertainty of Hope hangs men out to dry; think again. “There are lots of men in the book and they are not all bad,” she laughs.

The Uncertainty of Hope by Valerie Tagwira was released on 29th March, 2007 on Weaver Press.

© The author/publisher.


In Books, Interviews, Literature, The Uncertainty of Hope, Writing on September 9, 2007 at 2:00 pm

Zimbabwe: ‘The Uncertainty of Hope’. An Interview With Novelist Valerie Tagwira, Ambrose Musiyiwa, April 15, 2007.

Valerie Tagwira is a Zimbabwean medical doctor and an author. Currently she is working in London while preparing for her membership exam for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Her debut novel, The Uncertainty of Hope is set in the densely populated suburb of Mbare, Harare, and explores the complex lives of Onai Moyo — a market woman and mother of three children — and her best friend, Katy Nguni — a vendor and black-market currency dealer. The novel gives an insight into the challenges faced by a wide cross section of Zimbabwe, where life expectancy has dropped to 37, possibly the lowest in the world.

In 2005, Operation Murambatsvina, the government’s controversial urban slum clearance program, created over half a million internally displaced persons and destroyed the livelihoods of close to 10 percent of the population. Eighty percent of the country’s population is unemployed.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the rate of inflation, which currently stands at over 1,700 percent, could reach an unprecedented 4,000 percent this year.

In a recent interview, Tagwira spoke about the concerns that influenced the novel.

Musiyiwa: What would you say The Uncertainty of Hope is about?

Tagwira: It is a novel set in contemporary Zimbabwe. It looks at poverty, homelessness, H.I.V./AIDS, domestic violence, and a host of other socioeconomic challenges of the day. It is also a story about surviving against the odds and, hopefully, gives an insight into the intricacies of contemporary Zimbabwe with respect to how people are trying to survive.

When I initially started thinking about writing, I had a desire to do something different … something creative, and because I’m something of a ‘”mild feminist'” at heart, I always knew that I would write something featuring strong female characters. Writing about contemporary Zimbabwe was a natural choice because I am very much attached to ‘”home'” and I travel back quite frequently. At each visit, it strikes me how the living standards are deteriorating, and at each visit, I never imagine that things can get any worse, but they do, and people still survive. I was particularly concerned about how women deal with the challenges that are thrust upon them.

When I started writing the book, being a woman was my motivation, but I also had a strong interest in socioeconomic, developmental, and health-related issues that affect women. I wanted to highlight the plight of the disadvantaged in modern day Zimbabwe … the poor. This encompasses the homeless, be they adults or street children, the unemployed, and all the employed and ex-middle classes who are now living below the poverty datum line. It includes everyone who cannot afford basic necessities like food, clothing, education, and access to healthcare …

Among the disadvantaged in Zimbabwe, are there groups that are more vulnerable than others?

In each of the groups I’ve mentioned, I think women (and the girl-child) are worse off than their male counterparts.

What is life like for these women and children?

Extremely difficult.

They have been disempowered, and have very little or no means with which to make their lives better. The issues discussed in the novel have touched most people either directly or indirectly because there is now so much poverty in Zimbabwe.

To me, it feels as if most things are collapsing, be it industry, the health system, or the education system … you name it, it’s going … deteriorating. Even the judicial system is struggling. The current political situation and the country’s negative publicity certainly don’t help. All these have the combined effect of making life very difficult for the people.

Also, women are more likely to be unemployed, less educated, and less in control of their lives because of cultural and biological reasons, all of which makes them even more vulnerable. The collapsing health system in Zimbabwe has placed an even bigger burden on women, who are naturally expected to be caregivers. For example, childbearing necessitates the provision of obstetric services which, for the greater proportion of women, are now out of reach, even at a very basic level. I can see a situation where pregnancy and childbirth are soon going to be gratuitously risky. In addition to this, women’s role as caregivers now brings with it the extra burden of looking after family and friends with H.I.V./AIDS.

Is there a solution?

In my opinion, this is where the uncertainty about the future of Zimbabweans lies. If a solution is ever to come, I don’t know when it will be or how it will come. What I’m sure of is that drastic changes have to take place in order for the lives of ordinary people to improve.

What can/should be done to improve the lives of women and children in Zimbabwe?

Empowerment through education, employment creation, affirmative action where possible (as long as this does not lower standards), and generally making resources available to the population.

This can be effected by government leaders as they are the ones in charge of policymaking processes and allocating funds to various sectors.

I must also say it was heartening to see the Domestic Violence Act come into being in 2006. To me, this was a demonstration of an awareness of the significance of domestic violence and its negative effects. It will go a long way toward protecting the rights of women and children. They are affected to a greater extent than men, who are more likely to be perpetrators of violence and abuse. The women’s coalition which campaigned for the bill had representatives from women with different political and social affiliations. This provided a window of hope that if women can come together to pursue a common goal, they can bring about positive changes in a patriarchal society which tends to put men’s interests before those of women and children.

N.G.O.’s and the donor community also have the capacity to complement government efforts aimed at improving the lives of women and children. And at grassroots level, communities do have a duty of care toward the next disadvantaged person. As the core unit of society, the family setup has a very important role to play as well.

Which aspects of the work that you put into The Uncertainty of Hope did you find most difficult?

The novel is quite long, and for each of the characters, I had to maintain consistency throughout, taking into account various interpersonal relationships.

I did find that a challenge. I don’t know if I got it right. I suppose I will be able to tell from how the novel is received.

What did you enjoy most?

Working with my editor.

I was able to participate in the editing process, which was a great learning experience. Basically, this involved checking the manuscript for errors, consistency, language, etc. Being in medicine for so long and not reading as much as I did when I was younger made me feel that my English had gone rusty so this was a great opportunity to “revise” language skills as well.

How did you decide on a publisher?

I didn’t decide on a publisher as such. I heard about Weaver Press from my cousin and I rang them to ask about manuscript submission.

I was very fortunate to have my manuscript accepted, and to have Irene Staunton as my editor. She is very supportive and serious about the work she does.

In the writing that you are doing, who would you say has influenced you the most?

My parents. They were teachers, and I was always surrounded by books from a very early age. I developed a love for books because of their influence.

I read anything that I could get my hands on. This included the Benny and Betty series, the Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene, volumes of fairy tales, Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, [William] Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Catherine Cookson, [Charles] Mungoshi, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi [wa Thiong’o] (and many more). My favorite Shona novels were: Pafunge, Ziva Kwawakabva, Ndiko Kupindana Kwamazuva, Rurimi Inyoka, and Maidei. The list goes on and on…

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My biggest challenge is how to juggle family life, my medical career, and still find enough time to work on my writing. My career makes it impossible for me to have enough time to write as much as I would like to.

How do you deal with this?

When I have to write, I just make sure that I set aside time to do so, which might mean giving up some leisure time. I enjoy writing so much that I don’t mind terribly when I have to give up something else in order to write.

While I was working on the novel, I tried to make time for about three writing sessions per week. Each session was at least three hours during the week and much longer, with short breaks, during weekends, and involved expanding the manuscript, rewriting, checking for mistakes, inconsistencies, the usual … and later, working with the editor to shape the story into something worthy of being called a novel.

What will your next book be about?

I recently came across some disturbing U.N. statistics on child abuse in Zimbabwe. I would like to find out more about this sometime in the future and see if I can write a book which looks at that theme.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Several years ago … sometime in my late twenties. I can’t remember the exact age.

It was one of those vague ideas that kept crossing my mind time and again. However, because of work and study, I never seemed to have the time to settle down and commit myself to writing. I only started working on my novel earnestly toward the end of 2005, when I made a conscious decision to start working and get on with it, instead of daydreaming about being a writer one day.

I think I worked really hard once I started. It took me about ten months to complete the manuscript.

© The author/publisher.