Review: the rise of Africa’s superwomen

From foster care in England to colonialism’s legacy in Zimbabwe, this set of essays on race, feminism and identity is searingly honest, says Masiyaleti Mbewe.

The World Today
2 minute READ

Masiyaleti Mbewe

Zambian culture writer and literary critic

Black and Female
Tsitsi Dangarembga, Faber, £9.99

The 1988 novel Nervous Conditions by the Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga is considered one of Africa’s finest literary exports. It won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and alongside The Book of Not (2006) and This Mournable Body (2018), shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, forms a trilogy of semi-autobiographical novels that grapple with the gendered colonial oppression of young black girls and women from Southern Rhodesia through to Zimbabwe. 

In Black and Female, Dangarembga continues the interrogation of these intersections in an unflinchingly honest and personal, if occasionally dense, collection of essays. Along the way, she examines the sheer magnitude of colonialism’s effects on African people, and how they ripple through her early childhood in England and her formative years as a writer, filmmaker and feminist activist in post-independence Zimbabwe.

‘Writing While Black and Female’

In 1961 Dangarembga’s parents relocated from Southern Rhodesia to the UK. While they worked and studied in London, they put their two-year-old daughter, her older brother and, later, her younger sister into private foster care in Dover, Kent (as many Africans did – a fact that was new to me). The first essay, ‘Writing While Black and Female’, takes a painful look at the four years she spent with her foster parents, Mummy-Gran and Daddy Henry. 

Blackness, she learned in those years, was a consequence of her non-whiteness. So Dangarembga writes of the momentary elation she felt when a stranger addressed her as a ‘lovely little piccaninny’, giving her ‘a category I could wield against the void of no longer being’. To cope with this sort of racialization and her abandonment, the young Dangarembga turned to disassociation and self-harm. 

Blackness is a condition imposed on me, rather than being an experienced identity

Tsitsi Dangarembga

As she writes: ‘Blackness is a condition imposed on me, rather than being an experienced identity.’ Instead of ‘black’ people, therefore, Dangarembga prefers the term ‘highly melanated people’. It is a resonant phrase, highlighting the inherently ridiculous nature of racism.

Dangarembga’s ‘Africanness’ shifts into focus upon her return to Rhodesia in 1965. At first, other children refused to play with her and her siblings, calling them ‘varungu’ (white people). As she describes it: ‘The dance of my identities … became frenetic’. 

In ‘Black, Female and the Superwoman Black Feminist’, the second essay, Dangarembga is adamant about the urgent necessity of a black feminist practice that is centred on action to provide real, material change. Along the way, she makes a distinction – a slightly uneasy one to my mind – between the patriarchy that western colonization imposed, based on private ownership, and the patriarchy of pre-colonial African society with its foundations in kinship that devolved power to an extent.

Dangarembga’s discussion of a more accommodating, pre-colonial patriarchy is nuanced, but it jars a little


‘Hence women could and did become rulers and warriors, and royal spirit mediums called mhondoro,’ Dangarembga writes approvingly. She is making a nuanced point; but the idea of a more accommodating sort of patriarchy jars a little nonetheless.

While independence may have arrived for Zimbabwe more than 40 years ago, Dangarembga argues strongly that the subjugation of women and feminists at the hands of the ruling Zanu-PF government continues as an extension of colonial rule. Indeed, beyond Zimbabwe, black feminists remain ‘a small, often embattled group’ across Africa, believes Dangarembga. 

Pointedly, she criticizes global feminism’s greater focus on optics than on practical activism

 

As a young black feminist who is part of this ‘small, embattled group’, I should say we have been able to foster large communities digitally and otherwise to work around the hostility we are often faced with. Despite internet shutdowns and restrictions, we resist – an act Dangarembga encourages.  

Resistance, she says, starts with establishing community despite these difficulties. At the nucleus of Dangarembga’s argument is the ‘superwoman’ of the essay’s title, the African woman who doesn’t require external factors to be inspired to action but who continuously draws on what Dangarembga calls ‘internal agency’ that derives from ‘an unrelenting fight for survival and dignity’.

Pointedly, she criticizes global feminism’s greater focus on optics than activism in the practical sense. One only has to observe the performative allyship and ‘Instagram activism’ rampant on the internet today to see her point.
 

The complexities of decolonization

In the final essay, ‘Decolonization as Revolutionary Imagining’, Dangarembga turns her gaze upon the ‘highly stratified’ European societies that outsourced their violent inequality to their empires and ‘the work of decolonization’. However, decolonial discourse is complex, and it is here that the writing occasionally gets bogged down. Fewer recommendations with more elaboration perhaps would have helped.

She herself acknowledges the difficulties of decolonization. Centuries of the Enlightenment and its logic of ‘racism, slavery, genocide and colonization’ are hard to uproot ‘whatever one’s melanin concentration’, she writes.

Nevertheless, Dangarembga concludes with the radical determination to dismantle that is evident throughout this searing yet hopeful collection: ‘The trajectory of current and future generations depends on that uprooting.’