Women Poets of Zimbabwe

Issue 31, May 2013

Blessing Musariri
© Endy Makope.
Blessing Musariri.

If I was to name this collection from any one of the fourteen poems featured, I might call it: ‘A Bag of Beans’ (Jaji) or ‘Unknown Sojourners’ (Kabwato). A bag of beans has huge potential and hints at issues related to basic nourishment that most Africans immediately understand. What has this to do with poetry? This poetry. Everything. It is not only the body that needs sustenance, but the spirit. These poems though diverse in subject matter and style, all return to the basic desire for the nourishment of spirit. Spirit that endures loss, searches for and tries its best to hold onto memories, suffers, longs for connection, for relocation and marvels at nature and things beyond understanding.

‘Unknown Sojourners’, would be the six poets, all from different backgrounds, but on a journey that begins in the same place – Zimbabwe, unknown perhaps to each other and by the rest of the world. They are together on the same journey through words; women who are witty, wanderers, wordsmiths, women who write on ways of being and sometimes the quiet wars that are waged within. These women are Amanda Hammar, Batsirai Chigama, Ethel Kabwato, Fungisayi Sasa, Joyce Chigiya and Tsitsi Jaji.

Amanda Hammar searches for “fragments of familiarity” as she eavesdrops on conversations during her travels, referring to them as “beloved strangers” who might ease her sense of “dislocation.” While travelling is often a pleasurable pursuit, in Hammar’s, ‘Eavesdropping’, there is a strong sense that this travelling is not altogether voluntary and for purposes of leisure as there is an abiding sense of loss – “too many places I’ve been, left, lost – and a longing for a connection with others that remains unfulfilled, or is bitter sweet. She searches for “fragments of belonging” and at the same time, these fragments are like shrapnel, so a cold comfort. This sense of aloneness repeats itself in ‘Crossing Kungsgatan’, where an accident takes place and an old man is knocked down, losing his prosthetic leg. In the first stanza, the poet finds herself, “Marooned at the traffic island a no-man’s-land” and thus establishes the tone of the poem, which has the sense of a dream in which the sound is turned off and thus slightly surreal. An incident like this, in a place like Zimbabwe would immediately unite a group of people in common concern, or at the very least, the two people present at the scene, but not so the case here in this Nordic city.

We remain with wanderers in the North with Ethel Kabwato’s poem, ‘After the Terror’, written in memory of those whose lives were lost in the attacks that took place on 22 July 2011. Kabwato specifically refers to the youth camp at Utoya and seems to address a particular life lost, as she says in her opening line, “Light a candle for her . . . And you can no longer see her smiling face/In the hallway/And on the street where you live.” However, as one continues to read it appears that the “her” Kabwato is talking about, might be every young woman whose life was taken, every young woman who you might have encountered in a hallway or on your street. Kabwato addresses remembrance, solidarity, things that remain in spirit – scars, memories of people and opportunities lost, moments come and gone, but recorded, as in, ‘The Graffiti on Christina Street’. Her writings on travel, seem to indicate journeys taken and now remembered, “You and I still carry dreams of that day when time stood still”, “memories . . .  that would haunt us/Long after we left.” Kabwato like Hammar, reminds us that even in our travels we are always thinking of home. Their style is alike in sense that these are personal records of people and places. Their words are evocative in that they try to capture, not so much what remains, but more of what is lost.

In keeping with the themes of migrations, the “African blue-wing butterflies” of Fungisayi Sasa’s ‘Flights Paths’, lead her on flights of fancy that involve, concrete cows, eight chicks to change a lightbulb, with no one taking wind farms into accounts. ‘300 Roundabouts’ sounds a lot to me like socio-political commentary ̀a la George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that, as a Zimababwean, puts me in mind of power cuts and other actual migrations. In the brevity of these two pieces, lies the soul of Sasa’s wit. With these short poems I imagine Fungisayi to be a young woman with biting humour who cuts through the rhetoric to deliver opinions that leave no room for argument.

Joyce Chigiya’s ‘The Returnees’, keeps us on the path of nature and migrations, painting a vivid picture of one of the routes of diasporan scattering and patterns of migration: “Like swallows, they change location . . . for the mere reason of season.” I imagine these are all the Zimbabweans crossing to and from South Africa, home for Christmas and back after the holidays, flooding Beitbridge border post.  Chigiya likens the returnees to dung beetles, “taking home finds”, tumbling down, “the Danger . . . many are now late, dead on time.” The prima facie meaning of this picture in the last stanza is pretty clear but on deeper examination the question has to be asked: is there a double entendre? Many lives are lost in the crossing of the Limpopo, and this is not only literally but figuratively. People may think they are moving for the better but find themselves caught up in new and even more overwhelming circumstances. They remain caught up in the spiral, becoming like dung beetles, ever-labouring, pushing around loads that become heavier and bigger as they move on. Chigiya’s easy language, rolls of the page with a casual, nonchalant stride that is convinced of its fluency without delving into complications of construction.
Which brings me to Tsitsi Jaji, whose style is very sophisticated and whose language, so carefully crafted, speaks more strongly of influences that do not commonly refer to the Zimbabwean construct. And yet, through the use of traditional motifs, such as praying for rain, reference to cattle and ancestors, she manages, like Hammar and Kabwato to return home each time. However, Jaji’s voice is still that of one who is away from everyday contact with such things – the title of the first poem itself, ‘Preambule’, is a French word, simply meaning Prelude, an introduction. In this poem, Jaji’s urging to “Listen. Listen.” Appears to be a warning for people not to be deceived – perhaps by superstitions, into disregarding the true nature of something ominous that will cause destruction, in this case, a flood after praying for rain.
Jaji’s poems require a much deeper and more detailed analysis and I suspect would mean something different to each different reader as there is much room for interpretation. ‘Deep English’, for instance, appears to refer to a long and circuitous journey, with complex and seemingly impossible directions that ultimately implies a return from the loss of oneself, to “the ancestral home” where one can sit at the high table and “fast sumptuously”, comforted and at last able to speak clearly. However, it could also simply mean that a complete command of language at its most intrinsic level is the best way to be able to speak clearly and be understood.
Jaji’s, ‘O Tortoise’ is a light-hearted and humourous observation of a tortoise, in which she marvels at the “effortless snobbery” and “half-hearted welcome” of a creature that moves in time only to its own tune. She says, “let me consider what sort of home I would need/ to be always the hidden hostess/the unseen entertainer . . .” and immediately, I think, what a thing in life to be so self-assured and so unmoved by a need for the good opinion of others; to not crave that recognition to the point that you are a “hidden hostess”, an “unseen entertainer” – in this age of celebrities, whoever heard of such a thing.
In contrast and in keeping with a theme we never forget – women – ‘Dust to Dust’, has the strongest sense of locality and brings us down to earth. We know these women, we see them everyday. We know these men, we talk about them every day. Batsirai Chigama, writes about them in ‘Epitaph’ and ‘Rubbish Bin’: portraits of failed patriarchs. One drowns himself in “scuds of sorrow” until death and another’s story lies in the rubbish bin. Where are all the good men while the women are bearing the brunt, not only of their own lives, but those of their sons and husbands. These theme runs strongly through Chigama’s spoken word poetry – a form of poetry that is becoming increasingly popular in Zimbabwe due to the fact that it lends itself to co-creativity with music and allows for more visibility for poets, but as entertaining and catchy as it can be, Chigama’s strength lies in her shorter pieces as it is here, that she uses words most efficiently.
It was not a simple matter to gather together six women poets who would produce a quality of work that is being lost to, and in other forms of artistic expression, but with some determination and dedication to the task they were found. Where are the rest of the women poets in Zimbabwe? Are they too migrating from verse to prose, to performance, only to return for brief visits on special occasions? It is my hope that with new signs of growth and recovery in our country, there will be a new crop of voices to take up the mantle and the stylistic demands of written verse and that diversity in subject matter and form provide the world of poetry in Zimbabwe with an overabundance of choices.

© Blessing Musariri  

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