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Panashe Chigumadzi on the Power In Our Personal Histories and 'Reclaiming Southern Africanness'

We speak to the Zimbawean writer about the themes in her latest book 'These Bones Will Rise Again.'

Panashe Chigumadzi approaches through the hustle and bustle of Johannesburg, clad in fitted athleisure wear. As soon as she spots the photographer, she insists we go and find a more camera-worthy outfit.

"Once a picture is on the internet, it's there forever," she says.

Chigumadzi is warm and admirably self-assured. Given her success, the Zimbabwean-born, South African-raised writer has every reason to be. The 27 year-old founder of Vanguard Magazine is well known both at home and abroad and was even featured on our 2016 list of 8 most influential black women South African Writers.

She has written for several publications including the Sunday Times, The Guardian and The New York Times and is the author of the novel Sweet Medicine. After finding a beautiful red and black cape, we sit down for the interview.

Chigumadzi's new book These Bones Will Rise Again was inspired by Alice Walker's essay In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens and focuses on the figure of Mbuya Nehanda, a spirit medium who fought in Zimbabwe's liberation movement the Chimurenga. The book was a way for Chigumadzi to explore the complexity of black women, her country's historical past as well as a means to connect and honour her late grandmother.


During a chance meeting with renowned editor and publisher Ellah Wakatama Allfrey in June last year, Chigumadzi shared some of the academic research she'd been doing on Mbuya Nehanda and the ways in which she was used in the telling of different versions of Zimbabwe's history. The book was been extremely well received following its launch, even making it onto Thandie Newton's reading list!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

What was the journey like from publishing your first first novel Sweet Medicine to These Bones Will Rise Again, a work of creative non-fiction?

After the "coup-not-coup" happened, Ellah called me and asked if I, as a "bornfree," might want to respond to this moment called "Operation Restore Legacy" by the military, saying she thought there was something about that conversation we'd had.

At the same time I was thinking a lot about the life of my grandmother Mbuya Lilian Chigumadzi who had just passed on. So I decided that if "Operation Restore Legacy" sought to restore the legacy of the liberation struggle, that is, the place of "capital C" Chimurenga or the state-centric mode of liberation, These Bones Will Rise Again would be a "restoration" "small letter c" chimurenga, an intergenerational mode of liberation that belongs to Zimbabwe's people, through an exploration of personal and national history.

So, you've written for quite a number of platforms, in terms of non-fiction but nothing quite like an entire book. Was it a daunting task to undertake?

Yeah, having to write what is essentially a long form essay of about 27,000 words was quite daunting. It was difficult because you want to make a coherent argument while telling a compelling story.

And I mean, right from the get-go, the title is quite interesting. What does it mean to you and why that particular title?

These Bones Will Rise Again, takes its inspiration from Mbuya Nehanda's famous dying words, "Mapfupa angu achamuka," or "My bones will rise again." Mbuya Nehanda was a spirit medium and leader of one of the first major anti-colonial uprisings in Zimbabwe, what is known as the First Chimurenga of 1896 to 1897. For this role she was captured and executed by the British South Africa Company.

Do you think the stories of Mbuya Nehanda as well as the Chimurenga Wars, have become forgotten stories for a lot of Zimbabweans especially?

I don't know if Mbuya Nehanda and the first Chimurenga are forgotten so much as there's a distortion of them because Mbuya Nehanda herself has always been and continues to be invoked. Grace Mugabe, for example, said at that September 2017 rally where she also went on to humiliate then Vice President Mnangagwa seated behind her, that she sees herself as the "representing" Mbuya Nehanda, essentially saying that she's her medium.

So, I'm going to quote our fellow creative Tsitsi Dangarembga. Her comment with regards to your book, because I thought it encapsulated how I experienced your work as well. So she says, "Chigumadzi's exploration of personal, family, and national history reincarnates in stark, vivid images, many of those interred in the shadows of her country's 'Big Men'." Who, would you say, are these so-called 'Big Men'?

I think there's many across history—from Cecil John Rhodes, Ian Smith to Joshua Nkomo, Robert Mugabe, Morgan Tsvangirai, and now Emmerson Mnangagwa—those fathers or would-be fathers of the nation.

You spoke about going to Zimbabwe, being with your grandmother throughout the writing process. What are some of the works of other authors or writers within fiction and non-fiction that have influenced this work that you've now produced?

There's so many. Firstly, Audre Lorde's Zami and particularly her concept of the biomythography guided me in trying to craft an understanding of what my grandmother's life might have been. There's the late Yvonne Vera. Her explorations of our history throughout her entire body of work - Nehanda to Stone Virgins to Butterfly Burning - is brilliant. Another book that was really important for me was Mhoze Chikowero's book about African music, being, spirituality and music. Listening to Stella Chiweshe, Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, as well as younger musicians like Winky D and Jah Prayzah, was important too. Sungura, which I also really love, is also important to listen to in order to understand where people's heads and hearts have been.

"If anything, I would want this to provoke us into wanting to take the time to speak and be with your grandmother or grand aunt or mother while she's still alive."

One thing I struggle with as a fellow writer is wanting to pen every single life experience onto paper and sometimes it doesn't really add to the story I'm trying to tell at the time. Did you struggle with that at all?

I did. I think that sometimes what allows me to just get over it is remembering that I have a whole writing life ahead of me so I don't have to put everything down in one project. It could very well work better for something else, so I have learnt to just keep things in my archives.

In your book you say, and this is perhaps my favorite quote: "My Shona is proficient, but not literary." And I think we've had this conversation before. You were born in Zimbabwe but largely raised here in South Africa. Would you say there was a reconnecting or reconciling with where you're from? Do you think you've better connected with the country's history?

It's a really complicated thing, but I think, especially as a result of this book I also feel more able to claim my 'Southern Africanness'. An understanding not just of how arbitrary these borders are—for example if it weren't for a 1922 referendum where Rhodesian settlers decided against joining the Union of South Africa, and instead became a "self-governing colony" there may have been no Zimbabwe to speak of, as well as learning of my grandmother's Nguni root as part of a broader understanding of how interconnected our social, cultural and political histories in the region are, has made it easier for me to claim both 'Zimbabweaness' or 'South Africanness'.

So on a final note, a lot of your readers are going to be from all over the continent, if not the world over and not just from South Africa or Zimbabwe. What are some of the things you want to be a take-home message for them?

A lot of people, particularly African people, people of African descent across the world, resonate with the dislocation of memories and histories lost and having to deal with those silences in our families. And so, if anything, I would want this to provoke us into wanting to take the time to speak and be with your grandmother or grand aunt or mother while she's still alive. Find out and take an interest in who they are and where they come from.

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I Would Rather Breathe Than Think Outside the Box

South African artists were already working for little to no pay, but the pandemic has unleashed a flood of exploitative work requests right when we need money the most.

This essay is part of OkayAfrica's SA Reframed series, featuring personal writing from some of South Africa's best young writers edited by Verashni Pillay.

On the radio the other day, I heard a small business owner of a costume design company being interviewed and asked how they have managed to:

a. Reinvent themselves during this period, and

b. Think outside the box while doing so.

Their conversation made me think about how I have not managed to wrap my head around any sort of future, or reinvention outside any kind of box—beyond the one that wraps itself around my immediate reality. When the lockdown was announced, three friends and I withdrew to a remote area where internet access was dubious and, most times, simply not available. I would need to walk a bit of a distance to locate a spot under a tree or up a mountain to be connected for thirty minutes, or so.

Then I would do a basic comb through my emails and respond to work or requests that were already underway pre-lockdown. I only responded to new requests that either afforded me the opportunity to earn an income or those that allowed me to be productive on my own terms.

I was tired, lowkey grateful for the global pause, and no longer interested in the overly productive, overloaded nature of my previous normal. Something about the forced halt made me realise that I was on the edge of everything—myself included. I turned down anything that required me to join the endless online festivals, zoom panel discussions, Instagram takeovers and live readings. I refused all opportunities that needed me to grapple with any sort of forced normalcy. The ones that offered data or airtime or solidarity as compensation or assumed that I had gone pro bono. I needed a moment. I needed the space and time to re-bargain with the point of it all.

The pause was both useful and scary. It brought to the surface fears and revelations about the shortfalls of our industry and how creatives are positioned within the productivity machinery and economy of South Africa, or rather all the ways we fall outside of it.

As Minister of employment and labour Thulas Nxesi mentioned in a briefing two months ago, "On the issue of freelance workers—unfortunately with the current legislation they fall outside. Maybe what we are going to do is that after this we will have to re-look at it in terms of our legislative amendments and start a debate about that." Why are there laws that have gone unchallenged? Who should be challenging them? Why are artists hearing, out loud for the first time, of convenient loopholes that render us outside of an economy that taxes us like everyone else, and consumes us and our work. Yet, in times of crisis, this same economy engages with our art and our productivity and our products, but still deems us on the margin, outside, and non-essential. If we are not assisted financially, how can we be productive, how can we acquire the resources to produce? How can we apply our minds to anything else outside of survival and scrambling to stay afloat.

Pandemics do not mean that artists have gone pro bono

When you approach an artist with the assumption that they have gone pro bono during this time, when you draft an email to request a collaboration, a commission, a participation, a productivity of any kind, please bear in mind that artists are up against an unconcerned and corrupt government that has failed to provide aid and assistance to their sector during this time.

Theatre critic Sara Holdren says "Art is hard and most of it fails—either in small ways or catastrophic ones." In South Africa, the process of making art is hard, sure, but more than that, the conditions and the context in which we make work fails us in catastrophic ways that will require more than a debate and amended legislation. It will need, for starters, a minister who cares about the arts and understands its soul and mechanisms. This pause has brought about more questions and concerns for me than inspiration to reinvent or think outside the box. I have questions about the box itself and why I feel asphyxiated and trapped by its design.

I would rather breathe than think outside of the box

This pandemic has made me question what my career, livelihood and stability have been built on; what has been propping them up all this time, and what has been allowing me to appear valued and valuable in this economy? What does and will the spectrum of value look like in a normal that has been disrupted and now sits in a near distant future that may or may not be near?

Then I find myself vacillating between hope and concern. My hope is that when the pandemic is no longer with us, artists can have a come-to-jesus conversation about what has contributed and exacerbated this attitude and disrespect toward our practice and industry, I hope we can challenge the legislations that we have been dared to challenge, I hope we can be productive in ways that serve us and make sense for our well-being, that we will be paid our worth and that our society will realize that without the artist producing, there will be no art, or music, or films, or books and things that have kept people entertained and creatively nourished during this time.

My concern is that the "free"content artists are currently creating and the free access to art or performances, will not make this realisation possible, and that this kind of access, that was already undervalued and exploited, will be irreversible. The exploitation dialogue is tiring. Being treated as non-essential is tiring and terrifying too, and while most of the world can slowly start going back to work, most artists will probably have to hang tight until 2021, maybe even 2022.

While artists deal with a hoax of an arts and culture department that is dead to us and a minister who tweets more than he does his job, in an ideal world, I wish that artists could afford to indulge uncertainty, and fear, and pause, in ways that allow them to heed the call made by Nicholas Berger in his piece The Forgotten Art of Assembly [Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making] "We must lean into this pain. We must feel the grief. We must mourn. Mourn the loss of work, the loss of jobs, the loss of money, the loss of life. Mourn the temporary loss of an art form that demands assembly. Lean into the grief. Lean in. Lean in. Lean in. We must remind ourselves that mourning is a human act, not a digital one."

Koleka Putuma is an award-winning poet, playwright and theatre director. Her bestselling debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia is in its 10th print run and her play No Easter Sunday for Queers Sunday for Queers won several awards.

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