Zim women writers explore gender prejudices, iniquities in society

Phillip Chidavaenzi

The feminist discourses in post-colonial Zimbabwean literature capture and poignantly illustrate the aspirations of women to whom the country's independence in 1980 brought little cause for joy. Haunted by despair and disillusionment, women have taken to another weapon -- the pen -- and set out to pour out their pain on paper. What emerged was a literary discourse that makes readers laugh and cry as they share in women's meagre successes -- and serious losses -- in a society that, more often than not, confines them to its fringes.

Feminist writers in Zimbabwe include Yvonne Vera and Tsitsi Dangarembga, both of whom are internationally acclaimed authors. Barbara Makhalisa, Lillian Masitera, Spiwe Mahachi-Harper, and Vivienne Ndlovu, also register their discontent at the way a deeply patriarchal society clips women's wings.

These authors all they testify to the extraordinary strength of women -- although some fail in the end -- as they fight for a gender-sensitive and more balanced society. A perusal of Vera's works -- Nehanda (1990), Why Don't You Carve Other Animals (1992), Without A Name (1994), Under The Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998) and Stone Virgins (2000) -- reveals a consistent theme: the ills that women experience as they struggle to break free. Men, in the author's view, are the source of women's problems, which include rape, incest and infanticide. Vera alsoemphasizes men's refusal to accede to women's call for emancipation in all walks of life -- social, economic, and political. In all her works, Vera -- a former director of the National Art Gallery in Bulawayo -- maintains a no-holds-barred confrontation with an African traditional system controlled by men and run along chauvinistic lines and a colonial system, which she argues was the root cause of women's domination.

Stone Virgins, the latest offering from Vera, has been dubbed Zimbabwe's unofficial truth commission of the Gukurahundi -- a massacre by the North Korean-trained five brigade of insurgent black dissidents in which many innocent people died -- in the mid-eighties. This work focuses mainly on the nightmare that women in Matabeleland endured during that epoch. It responds to the report produced by the Chihambakwe Commission, which unearthed the horrors of that chapter of Zimbabwe's post-independence history that had been concealed from the public. It exposed the brutality, which bordered on the satanic, in which innocent women were tortured, raped, and murdered.

Dangarembga's internationally acclaimed Nervous Conditions (1988) -- which was chosen in the top 12 of Africa's best hundred books of the last century -- is an eloquent portrayal of a society whose younger generation of women is battling to extricate itself from patriarchal domination. Just like Masitera's The Trail (2000), it notes how women's failure to work as a single front works against their own interests. Mai Tambu's words, informed by the philosophy of stoicism, capture a defeatist mentality: "This business of womanhood is a heavy burden. . . What will help you my child, is to learn to carry your burdens with strength" (p. 16). Dangarembga and Masitera show that the older generation of women's experience under colonial rule and a staunch, intact patriarchal system have nade them believe that nature intended them, unlike men, to have limited choices in life. Of Nervous Conditions, Dangarembga said: "I was trying to highlight a number of issues and various other struggles for instance, the oppression during the colonial struggle. While women have their own problems, these are not divorced from other problems in the world."

Eva's Song (1996), a collection of Makhalisa's short stories, explores the multiplicity of social ills women still have to battle despite having made their mark in virtually all facets of society, including those traditionally revered as male citadels. While in The Trail, Masitera advocates the empowerment of women by education, Dangarembga believes that it takes more than mere education for women to fully realise their potential -- a point that Maiguru in Nervous Conditions, whose life is controlled by her husband despite her high education.

In Now I Can Play (1999), Masitera explores a diverse range of themes, also centred on the problems that women have to contend with in their day-to-day life. Two women -- a wife who can't have sons and a mistress with sons -- contest for a man, and although one sympathises with the wife, Masitera shows that they are both "captives" of men. A girl child is easily robbed of her innocence as she risks being married off in her teens. The girl who escapes an attempted rape is told by her mother to keep silent about it or she'll "be ruined for life" and will be "accused of having asked for it . . . Besides, you'll be called a prostitute for the rest of your life" (p. 49). The perception by society of women as sexual objects is yet another thematic concern of these literary works. In a bid to gratify their obscene sexual whims, men use their physical and economic power to abuse women who're defenceless and often dependent on them. These themes are vividly captured in Eva's Song, For Want of a Totem (1997), Now I Can Play and virtually all of Vera's works.

Masitera, whose works seem to be informed by radical feminism, says to ensure that her ideas were put across to the reader intact, she had to be stubborn because the (women's) issues she set out to explore are non-negotiable.

Prominent sociologist and University of Zimbabwe lecturer, Professor Rudo Gaidzanwa, in Images of Women in Zimbabwean Literature (1985), believes that the negative portrayal of women in colonial and post colonial Zimbabwean literature, mostly by male authors, delegitimises their struggle for basic human rights like education and health.

Beacause in Zimbabwe, barren women are often derided for their inability to conceive, women writers in have attackes the perception that a barren woman is a failure. In Trials and Tribulations (2000), Mahachi-Harper tells how desperate women are forced to manipulate society's value systems to cover for their perceived failures as women. In a society that makes motherhood central to a woman's existence, women believe that only having children brings respect. To make her husband "a man" by giving him a child, she'd do anything, no matter how immoral. Mahachi-Harper points that although infertility is also a male problem, the patriarchal society of Zimbabwe makes barrenness a woman's problem.

Since Zimbabwean culture holds that women are obligated to give their parents grandchildren, it forces barren women to share their husbands with other women who can give them children. For Want of a Totem, which challenges traditional beliefs that work against women's interests, calls upon society to revise adoption laws and allow barren women to adopt children and in the process, curb the ever-escalating problem of street children.


Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1989.

Gaidzanwa Rudo. Images of Women in Zimbabwean Literature. Harare: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1985.

Mahachi-Harper, Spiwe. Trials and Tribulations. Gweru: Mambo Press, 2000.

Makhalisa, Barbara. Eva's Song Gweru: Mambo Press, 1996.

Ndlovu, Vivienne For Want of a Totem. Harare: Baobab Books, 1997.

Masitera, Lillian. Now I Can Play. Harare: Now I Can Play Publications, 1999.

Masitera, Lillian. The Trail. Harare: Now I Can Play Publications, 2001.

Vera, Yvonne. Why Don't You Carve Other Animals. Moscow: Tsar Publishers, 1992.

Vera, Yvonne. Nehanda. Harare: Baobab Books, 1993.

Vera, Yvonne. Without A Name. Harare: Baobab Books, 1994.

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Last modified 31 May 2004