Meeting Chiedza Musengezi

Sandhya Rao, Senior Editor, Tulika Publishers
in conversation with the well-known Zimbabwean writer at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair '99

The first time was at the Book Cafe, the pulsating centre of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare, '99. It was the launch by Heinemann and Baobab of Opening Spaces, an anthology of contemporary African women's writing. Three women read from their short stories: Ama Ata Aidoo, Lilia Momple and Chiedza Musengezi. In the company of Ama and Lilia, the one charismatic and the other effervescent, Chiedza was quiet, serene. And when she read from her story, Crocodile Tails, strong. I'd like to share her reading with you. The backdrop is a school in newly-independent Zimbabwe, an interaction between the protagonist, a black, and an expatriate white teacher:

A young white woman from a rich family, with a sound education; what was her problem?
'Why are you here if you're so unhappy?'
'To teach physics, but ... also to achieve something personal. I want to experience hardship.'
Her reply silenced me.

'My life has been too easy,' she said. 'A steadily flowing stream – no ripples. I want greater problems. Challenges. I want to be hardened by pain and experience, like you.'

Confusion spread over my face, a twitch on my lips soon spread into a giggle. Rejecting comfort? Here I was, struggling to provide my children with all that I had longed to have in my childhood: a bed, a pair of shoes, tea, bread.

Her writing has wry humour, simplicity, strength. Much like Chiedza herself. Reaching beyond boundaries.

The second time was at the Children's Reading Tent where someone suggested photocopying, if need be, children's books so they can be accessed by children in all schools. Immediately Chiedza responded, "Children hate ugly books." And that's when I, doing children's books in my own country, India, knew that we needed to carry on from the formal discussion.

Meeting Chiedza was a humbling experience. Because she is strong, smiling and simple. "The attitude to children and books is most undesirable," she said, taking off from where she had left off the day before. "People don't mind buying beautiful clothes but will not spare a thought to buy books. On the other hand they complain about the price of books. It's true, not many here have disposable incomes, but I am shocked by the attitude of those who do. It's time they worried about their children's intellect. Because reading puts words at the command of children. It makes for better citizens more difficult to manipulate (by others/government)."

In a matter of seconds the vast expanse of sea between Africa and India disappears. What she says sounds like an echo of my country, my culture. Chiedza is a writer and editor with Baobab Books. But she is more than that, she is a carer. And the more she talks, the more urgent it seems to be able to work together. In Zimbabwe too, big publishing houses do a few children's books, almost as an afterthought (discounting, of course, the textbook market). Even two or three titles a year is a major achievement. Why? Because, in their perception, "Children's books don't sell." This is where the MNCs step in to finance quality production. Baobab Books, with which Chiedza is associated, has done some 27 titles in the last six months, mostly in the home languages Shona and Ndebele.

There are interesting parallels concerning the question of language and identity as well. Today, there is a great sense of awareness of the need to know the home language, Shona or Ndebele. The language of instruction is English, but there is a conscious effort to push the home languages. "We have got over the euphoria of independence," Chiedza says. "And we are more aware of the need for identity. In fact it is a disadvantage not to know your home language. With English, it doubles your employment opportunities. Reading materials affirm a child's identity. You need to be comfortable with who you are, then you are in a better position to explore the wider world."

In India, on the other hand, only two per cent of the population uses English, and these constitute the elite, the buying market. The publishing for this small market, large in terms of numbers, is dominated by women, especially writing and publishing. Does this have something to do with the fact that writing doesn't fetch money, at least not writing for children. Or does it work the other way? Chiedza's response throws another light on Zimbabwean society and the position of women there. She seems almost sad as she points out that there are not too many women in the field because "in general, men are better educated, but many more are beginning to write". As for status, yes there is status, but no money. But there is respect, which is more than can be said for the Indian situation. She talks of Charles Mungoshi, a well-known writer, especially for children. He lives in a Harare suburb called Chitungwiza, small, with dirt roads. "The city council went out of its way to tar the little road leading to his house, acknowledging his status and contribution in its own way," she recalls.

"But who buys the books finally? The headmaster, the teacher, the mother... the child is nowhere in the picture," Chiedza reminds, bringing us back to the beginning.

What about interest in books from India, I am curious to know. Chiedza's reply is revealing: "At the moment, Zimbabwe is in the process of development. In the first stage, we had books imported from the west. We are fighting this now and are trying to develop our own home-grown literature. In the future there will be interest in books from India."

It somehow seemed poetic justice that my camera didn't register her picture; it had the Union Jack painted on its face. Zimbabwe, indeed much of Africa, is in the throes of battling its oppressive, burdensome, colonial past. Chiedza Musengezi's voice signals the hope that the spirit will soon be completely free.